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Learning to Work

September 3, 2012


Labor Day became a national holiday in 1894. When I was a boy it was never a holiday at the lumberyard. I remember it as the day the Southern 500 stock car race was run in Darlington, South Carolina.

Now Labor Day is a reminder of how I learned to work.

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 nineteen, 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 1923, 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.  Every person in the family had to work.

Following the Depression, Pappy opened another lumberyard, a family business that stayed in operation until 2009.

When I was a boy, I wanted to work at the lumberyard.  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.  I spent most Saturday mornings waxing and polishing the white oak floors in our home. Mama always had plenty of chores to parcel out to her children. As the oldest of eight, I was expected to set the example.

I can still hear the reverberating echo of my mother’s warning, “Idleness is the devil’s workshop.”

Finally!  I got the promotion! I went to work at the lumberyard the summer after I finished the seventh grade.  I was thirteen years old and 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 filled with bags 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.  My dad knew that I needed a good teacher to show me how to work. He 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.  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 stack no more than three bags onto the hand trucks. I had to jump up and use 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 ten o’clock 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 the noon meal, not nearly enough time for me. I walked into the office and stood in front of a large exhaust fan for a few minutes.  Pappy saw me dripping wet, trying to cool down. He said, “Kirk, if you get enough education you can work in the shade.” It was a lesson I have never forgotten.

Charlie and I worked together all afternoon until quitting time. Charlie got his second wind.  He started whistling in a low whisper of a whistle.  By four o’clock, he was singing.  We had worked all day long.  I was bone tired.  Charlie was lifting a low song under his breath, “We’ll work till Jesus comes.”

Dad and I got home a little after six-o’clock.  I took a shower.  Mama had fixed a special meal, fried chicken, rice, and gravy.  I fell asleep at the supper table.  Dad guided me to bed and had a prayer with me. At five o’clock the next morning he woke me up for my second day at the lumberyard.

I worked all summer long, earning the grand sum of two dollars a day.

 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.”

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.

As much as I enjoyed working with men I admired, as much as I enjoyed talking with customers, that summer was important because I learned the nobility of work.

And you know what? 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
© September 2012


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