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July 28, 2008

My grandfather was born in Tennessee in 1889.  I called him Pappy. He dropped out of school in the eighth grade to support his mother and three siblings following the death of his father in a railroad accident.   Enlisting in the United States Navy at age 19, Pappy served four years in Cuba.  Upon his discharge, he worked for a telegraph company as a lineman.  His company sent him to the Lowcountry of South Carolina to do the electrical wiring for a sawmill.  At a Cakewalk at the Methodist church in Estill, he met the woman who would become his wife and my grandmother, Mammy.

In 1925, Pappy and Mammy, moved to Spartanburg where he opened his own lumberyard. 

During The Great Depression, they lost everything.  With grit and faith, they raised nine children, sweet potatoes, and turkeys on a rented red clay farm in Cedar Springs.  Following The Depression, Pappy opened another lumberyard, a family business still in operation today.

When I was a boy, I wanted to work at the lumberyard when I grew up.  It was a natural thing.  The men that I admired most worked at the lumberyard:  Dad and Pappy. 

My dad told me I could have a job, but he said, “Before you work at the lumberyard, you have to learn to work for your mama.” 

Working for my mother was harder than working anywhere else.  Finally, I got the promotion! I went to work at the lumberyard the summer after I finished the seventh grade.  I weighed no more than a hundred and twenty pounds soaking wet.

The very first day on the job, my dad put me to the task of unloading a boxcar of cement.  The old boxcar had just one door.  In those days, nothing was palletized. Forklifts were not yet available.  All the cement had to be taken out by hand, one ninety-six pound bag at the time, put on hand trucks, rolled up a ramp, and loaded into a warehouse.  Fortunately, my dad knew that I did not need to work by myself.  The man who worked with me was Charlie Norman. 

I don’t know how old Charlie was when I started working with him.  I asked him one time.  He said he was as old as dirt.  I didn’t ask again, but I knew Charlie was very old.  He had been working for my grandfather since before The Depression, delivering lumber in a one-horse wagon.

I will never forget that first day on the job working with Charlie.  Those bags of cement were nearly a hundred pounds of dead weight.  Charlie would stack them eight and nine high on the hand trucks, break the hand trucks down, and roll them up the ramp.  I could put no more than three bags on the hand trucks. I had to jump up and put all my weight on the handles to break it down.  It was all I could do to roll the hand trucks up the ramp.  Most of the time, I had to turn around backwards and pull the load up the ramp.

By about 10:00 in the morning, I was drenched with sweat and covered with sticky cement.  Charlie peeled off his shirt.  His ebony skin glistened.  He looked like a bodybuilder.  He was an old man whose muscles were toned by hard work.

We took a half-hour break for lunch, not nearly enough time for me.  I was determined to work as hard as Charlie did. About 3:00 in the afternoon, Charlie got his second wind.  He started whistling in a low whisper of a whistle.  By 4:00 in the afternoon, he was singing.  We had worked all day long.  I was bone tired.  Charlie was singing a low song under his breath.  “We’ll work till Jesus comes.  We’ll work till Jesus comes, and we’ll be carried home.” 

Toward the end of the day, that song became a part of his work.  It became almost a chant, a mantra.  He sang, and he sang, and he sang.

When Dad and I got home, I took a shower.  Mama had fixed a special meal, fried chicken, rice and gravy.  I went to sleep at the supper table.  Dad took me to my bed, tucked me in, had a prayer with me, and woke me at 5:00 the next morning for my second day of work. 

Charlie was already there when Dad and I arrived.  I worked all summer long, earning the grand sum of two dollars a day.

 I learned a lot that summer.  I asked my Dad years later why he started me with such a difficult job. 

“I wanted you to learn that this is hard work.  Money doesn’t grow on trees even after they’ve been sawed into lumber.” 

I asked why he paid me so little. 

He grinned, “Be glad I didn’t pay you what you were worth.” 

I learned to drive that summer – a three-ton lumber truck. Of course, I didn’t drive on the highway, just around the stacks of lumber. 

I learned that work is a noble endeavor. 

As much as I enjoyed working with men I admired, as much as I enjoyed talking with customers, I didn’t have to work at a lumberyard very long before I heard the Lord calling me to do something else.


-Kirk H. Neely

© H-J Weekly, July 2008   

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