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Hard Work

September 2, 2013

After working in my flower beds for several hours, I pulled off my garden gloves, stretched my creaky knees, and sat in the shade, sipping a tall glass of ice water with lemon. I had spent much of the morning fighting the never-ending battle with encroaching weeds. My adversaries were mostly grasses – menacing crab grass, insidious nut grass, and sinister Bermuda grass.

My weapon of choice in my ongoing war against these invasive enemies is a Korean trowel I found at a home and garden show in Charlotte years ago. It is well-suited to the task. Welded like a short mattock, the sharp point digs deep to extract the roots of these stubborn foes. At the same time the handy implement loosens and cultivates the soil around desirable plants.  My dad used to say, “About ninety percent of any job is having the right tool.”  The Korean trowel is the perfect example of that adage.

Because it is so effective the simple instrument slings dirt in all directions. Resting beneath towering oak trees, I moistened a red bandana with the condensation from the sides of the glass of cold water. I wiped my face and neck with the cool damp cloth, leaving the rag covered with grime.

My thoughts turned to my dad and the lessons he taught about work. I can still hear him saying, “Hard work never hurt anybody.”

The last time I talked with him at the lumberyard, he was eighty-seven and doing well. He had worked hard all of his life. He had to.

“Raising eight children takes a lot of groceries,” he said, stating the obvious.

Dad worked at the lumberyard since he was big enough to load a truck and unload a boxcar. At eighty-seven, he still went to the lumberyard every day for a few hours.

He learned the value of hard work from his mother and father, my grandparents.

My grandfather, I called him Pappy, was born in Tennessee in 1889.  Following the death of his father in a railroad accident, he dropped out of school in the eighth grade to support his mother and three siblings.   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.  During 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, wanting to work at the lumberyard was a natural choice.  The men I admired most – Dad and Pappy – worked there.

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

Working for my mother was harder than working anywhere else.  She 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 her warning, “Idleness is the devil’s workshop.”

Finally!  I got the promotion and started working at the lumberyard the summer following the seventh grade.  I was thirteen years old and weighed no more than a hundred and twenty pounds soaking wet. I will never forget that first day on the job.

My dad put me to the task of unloading an old boxcar filled with bags of cement. In the sweltering heat, the single-door boxcar became more stifling as the morning progressed.  In those days nothing was palletized, and forklifts were not yet available.  All the cement had to be removed by hand – one bag at the time – stacked 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. Charlie Norman became my instructor.  I don’t know how old he was at the time I started working with him.  When I asked one day, he said he was as old as dirt.  I didn’t ask again, but I knew he was very old.  He had been working for my grandfather since before the Depression, delivering lumber in a one-horse wagon.

Charlie loaded those bags of cement, which were nearly a hundred pounds of dead weight, eight or nine high on hand trucks and rolled them up a ramp.  I could pile no more than three bags onto the hand trucks at one time, and it was all I could do to pull the load up the ramp.

By about ten o’clock that morning, I was drenched with sweat and covered with sticky cement.  Charlie peeled off his shirt, exposing his glistening ebony skin. Though he was an old man, his muscles were toned by hard work. He looked like a bodybuilder.

We took a half-hour break for the noon meal, not nearly enough time for me. I walked into the office, bone-tired, and stood in front of a large exhaust fan for a few minutes.

Pappy, who saw me dripping wet and trying to cool down, said, “Kirk, if you get enough education you can work in the shade.” It was a lesson I have never forgotten.

That afternoon Charlie got his second wind.  At first he whistled in a low whisper, but then began singing low under his breath, “We’ll work till Jesus comes.”

Dad and I got home that night a little after six o’clock.  I took a shower while Mama finished preparing a special meal of fried chicken, rice, and gravy.  When 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 Dad years later why he started me with such a difficult job.

“I wanted you to learn that this business is hard work.  Money doesn’t grow on trees.”

I also asked why he paid me so little.

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

The idea of a forty-hour work week never caught on at the lumberyard.

“It ain’t in the Bible,” Pappy said. “God said, ‘Six days shalt thou labor, and do all thy work.’ And the Lord said, ‘There are twelve hours in a day.’ Anybody who can figure knows that’s seventy-two hours given to work.”

As much as I appreciated working with the men I admired, as much as I enjoyed talking with customers, and as much as I delighted in driving a three-ton lumber truck, that summer was important because I learned the nobility of work.

Though Labor Day became a national holiday in 1894, it was never a holiday at the lumberyard when I was a boy. 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 so many years before.

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 2013
 
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