It is said that the hardest part of being a parent is that the test always comes before the lesson. The same can be said for that last year or so before you leave home – you’ve been taught personal boundaries in home, church and school but the strength of those lessons is not apparent until after something has pushed against them…hard.
It was midsummer of 1970 and I wasn’t having any luck shoe-horning a job into the time remaining until football practice was to begin. I was feeling very sorry for myself and contemplating a very penurious autumn when I heard my friend Greg was working for a roofer in Seward and more hands were needed for the crew. Two phone calls later I was on the payroll working for a leading member of our congregation in what had to be the perfect set-up:
- Regular hours
- Room and board at the company’s expense
- …and I was to start the very next day
My parents were much less enthusiastic with Mom gritting her teeth over the lack of control she’d wield 70 miles away and Dad skeptical that I’d be able to keep up with the work. In the bullet-proof manner only a seventeen-year-old can affect I blew off their concerns and motored off to my new job, passing the time on the trip by mentally spending all the money I’d be making. It seemed the greatest set-up a young man could fall into until I got to Seward and Greg whispered “You are in for the hardest work of your life” just before I got the orientation spiel along with two other new hires.
We’d be working for Eddie Maxwell removing and replacing the roof of the Seward High School. While Eddie had extensive experience working for others this was his first job as an independent roofing contractor and had substantially underbid on the job, and had to make some changes. We’d be working with a short crew, I’d be paid a much lower wage than promised, and our room and board would consist of sleeping on the floor of the library and eating baloney sandwiches for lunch and dinner. Breakfast was another matter: Eddie made a big production about buying us anything we wanted for breakfast at a local diner as “the only way to get you bastards started in the morning” but he made an equally over-the-top announcement that the day anyone ordered steak-and-eggs would be their last day on the job.
Along with Greg and myself, the crew included two local men and Dan, a middle-aged cowboy who had come up to Alaska to work for the summer. One of the two locals was a competent laborer, but the second man didn’t last the first day. Dan was a bit of a mystery; he didn’t talk much but a broken nose hinted at a rough & tumble youth and when he did talk about his younger days there were gaps in his narrative that had me wondering how those gaps lined up with train robberies made by the Hole-in-The-Wall gang. Misspent youth aside Dan was a definite asset to the crew with experience, an inclination to work hard and most important to me, time to help me learn the trade and how to carry my part of the load.
…and there was quite a load to be carried. It was punishing labor as rigorous as anything athletics or military would demand of me at other times. The existing tar & gravel covering had been removed with a wheeled power saw, then new paper tacked down and covered with hot tar spread with fiberglass mops. In support of that basic task, debris had to be moved to a dump truck, then periodically taken to the landfill, rolls of tar-paper had to be carried up 30’ ladders, and hot tar shuttled in five-gallon buckets from the feed pipe to the area of application.
The tar was pumped to the roof top by way of a pipe connected to a trailer-mounted heating pot which had to be monitored and routinely fed with large chunks of solid tar. That trailer was the single item of roofing-specific equipment we had – while equipped with tack hammers and crowbars in those pre-OSHA days we had none of the “ladder-vators” or specialized safety equipment that roofers now use.
The work was hard and conditions spartan but most of the stress I started to feel wasn’t directly related to the job. While Eddie was a member of our church, the seventy miles to the meetinghouse seemed to be enough to liberate him from maintaining expected behavior and standards. I’ve never met a man more imaginatively coarse, and as the youngest member of the crew I became his primary target. It truly was amazing how he was able to liken every aspect of my life and behavior to some sort of aberrant sexual practice to include the way I walked, talked, worked, and wrote a succession of unanswered letters to my Youth Conference crush Eileen. It was bothersome enough to prompt thoughts of quitting, but every time I came close to leaving I’d remember all that money and go back to work.
The only break I got were periodic runs to the landfill located several miles up a side valley; the trip through the forest along a rushing river providing a welcome sixty-minute respite from the intense labor, the smell of tar, and the blue language. I was teamed with Dan for those trips and our conversations became as much a break as the trip itself. He didn’t say much but what he did say was worth listening to – and it soon became obvious that he also was less than pleased about Eddie’s comments.
It all came to a head four days into the week when we were put straight to work without breakfast in order to make up for time when Eddie overslept. The late start came with the usual customary obscenities but as the day wore on his invective became even more harsh and unrelenting. I kept cool throughout the day but when Eddie’s comments branched into a new category of anatomically impossible acts something snapped.
I turned around with the mop full of hot tar and quietly told him “I’ve had enough”. Eddie laughed harshly and replied with an indistinct obscenity as he turned away to trim some tarpaper overhanging at the edge of the roof – and in the process his elevated attitude of jerk-osity tripped one of my mental circuit breakers. The rage boiled up inside me with the fervor only a seventeen-year-old can muster and I grabbed one of the mops, dipped it in the hot tar and turned towards Eddy.
…but as I moved Dan caught my eye and quietly said “It’s not worth it”. Eddie was working at the edge of the roof with his back to me – given the poor safety standards there’d have been no suspicions had he gone over the side of the roof. For a moment I stood still with the mop up like a solider at port arms…It was deathly quiet, the only noise a kind of “ssst/ssst/ssst” as intermittent raindrops began to hit the fresh tar…then Dan spoke again – this time a little louder. “Eddie – we need to take another run to the landfill” and the two of us climbed down to a mostly empty truck and left.
This time the trip to the dump involved more than getting rid of old tarpaper. On the trip out Dan hinted at a similar incident in his own youth and I quietly wondered if some of those gaps in his background had involved incarceration of some sort. As I stood at the edge of the landfill I took an inventory.
- While the money was less than expected I’d still make enough for my needs.
- I’d proved I could “tough it out” with a difficult job.
- I’d proved I didn’t need someone hovering over me to keep me on the straight and narrow.
…and I was also concerned about picking up some of Eddie’s “colorful metaphors” in my own internal dialog. I realized that Eddie was no different than any of the other bullies I’d encountered in life and wasn’t worth getting worked up over. It all felt liberating – I wasn’t sure exactly what I’d learned, but I knew I’d learned something and the rest of the day went surprising well. Eddie kept up his diatribe, but I just whistled and kept working – in fact I made a point of working harder than anyone else on the crew for the rest of that day. My indifference to his comments seemed to just make him madder and more obscene, and as afternoon eased into evening the obscenities were replaced with ominous comments about scaling back the crew to save money.
It didn’t bother me, and as hard as the library floor was I quickly went to sleep a smile on my face.
…and the next morning at the diner I ordered steak and eggs for breakfast.