Some Thoughts on Work
I crossed a picket line with my father one Sunday afternoon in 1968, when I was seven years old. He was the
maintenance foreman for DayBrite, a company that manufactured fluorescent light fixtures. The people on strike
carried signs with angry messages and blocked the gate, but they didn't seem mad, or even particularly interested
that we crossed their line. Men spoke to my father as they cleared a lane for us to drive through. I knew some
of them from the yearly Christmas party my father threw for his department.
My father had talked about the strike and I vaguely realized that something was wrong at DayBrite, but I didn't
care. The mechanics who worked under him used electric golf carts to carry their tools and equipment when they
serviced or repaired machinery. On Sundays, when my father went in to look over his paperwork and plan the week
ahead, I learned to drive in the aisles of the plant.
The cement floors were black from years of forklift tires and there was a constant low rumble like a furnace,
the hiss of compressed air, and the smell of hydraulic oil as soon as we entered the building. We'd walk past the
time cards and time clock, across a grate full of a yellow liquid that I pretended was acid, and on to the plant
floor--a five acre wilderness of tractor-sized hydraulic presses, piles of metal sheet, and rows of conveyor assembly
The maintenance department was set off from the rest of the plant by floor to ceiling chain link fence hung
with radiator hoses and belts, welder's hoods, racks of steel pipe, calendar girls in bikinis who demonstrated
the use of electric drills and pipe wrenches, and tools of all sorts--some that I knew how to use, and others more
interesting because I could only imagine. My father's office was a desk pushed against one wall. It usually lay
covered with reports, schedules, worn parts to be ordered, a distributor cap pencil holder, and was flanked by
two shelves of parts manuals. He'd pick out the cart with the best charge, tell me to be careful, and I'd make
my rounds. In the paint department bare metal fixtures hung from an overhead conveyor that ran all weekend. The
parts looked like the scattered bones of a skeleton, waiting to be sprayed with enamel paint and baked in the furnace.
I'd stop by the break room to check the vending machines for change. The tables were littered with coffee cups,
dirty napkins, dominoes and decks of cards. Feral cats skulked along the aisles of the warehouse, giving the place
a deserted feel.
In 1970, when I was nine years old, my parents bought a newly constructed house in a suburb with unfinished
streets. The back fence, shaded by a six deep row of pine trees, marked the city limits. Beyond the fence cattle
grazed. My mother worked as a secretary all day, and after cooking supper, she put in a full evening dusting and
vacuuming. My father came home from work dirty and tired. The upholstery of his little Peugeot sedan smelled pleasantly
of oil and grime. Because of his dirty clothes he napped on the floor rather than the couch before starting in
on projects around the house. I helped him cover our sand lot with squares of sod, and then we burned off the honeysuckle
under the pines, and built a shop in the back yard.
But two years later DayBrite fired my father. He came home one afternoon, earlier than usual, and told us all
about it. He'd been called into the front office and given a check with two weeks severance pay, been told to clean
out his desk and locker. "I'm not surprised," he said. "I've got a lot of sorry tails on my crew
who lay out and drink and I tried to cover up for them. I thought I was doing them a favor."
My mother was afraid we might lose the house, and I'm sure she thought about her childhood. She was the youngest
of seven children who my grandmother raised through the Depression, alone, after my grandfather died in a farming
accident; they lived in a house when my grandmother and the older children could find work, and in a canvas tent
the rest of the time
If anything, my father was happy about leaving DayBrite. He put together a handful of tools and threw them in
the trunk of the Peugeot, called people he knew who worked for electrical supply and plumbing houses, and found
enough work to get by on. The first few years with the new business were tough for my parents, but I was so caught
up in the excitement of buying a pickup from the Chevrolet dealership and riding out on service calls with my father,
that I didn't notice. I learned how to run copper tubing and cast iron plumbing, electrical wire, and air conditioning
duct. We poured concrete foundations and I knew the proper drainage grade for sewer lines. My father paid me well.
I bought my first rifle with a telescopic sight, books and records, and even worked out a short-lived savings plan
for a 1973 Chevy Nova that I spotted on the showroom floor when we were supposed to be looking at pickups. It was
yellow with a black interior, and I planned to pay cash when I received my driver's license in 1976.
I've always considered it lucky that I got to spend so much time with my father as I grew up. I knew more about
how he earned a living than most kids my age, and even more, I was a part of his work. My father attacked each
job with a tireless energy. He didn't even take smoke breaks. Instead he would consume a whole cigarette, blinking
away the tears that the smoke raised in his eyes, while he kept his hands busy. "Work" was not a place
he disappeared to for eight hours each day; it was something he shared with me and wrapped himself in most of his
waking hours. But I didn't understand exactly how important it was to him, and to my mother as well, until one
summer when I took my first job away from my father.
When I was thirteen a man I knew from church hired me for two weeks to help gut a church sanctuary that he had
contracted to remodel. My father's jobs were slow and he could spare me. When I took the job, the way my parents
treated me changed. My father bought a pair of lace up boots for me, where I had always worn tennis shoes to work
for him. My mother worried that I had enough sandwiches and coke money for my lunch. She told me to unzip my fly,
"like a man," when I went to the restroom, instead of unbuttoning my jeans, and she made my father talk
to me about how to conduct myself on a real job. He said something like "Just do what they tell you."
The best part of the job was being paid to destroy. The man who hired me didn't say ten complete sentences to
me the whole two weeks. He wasn't much bigger than me, and his silence and his close set eyes made me nervous.
I started on a row of tall, frosted glass windows that had to be torn out and replaced with stained glass. I used
a hammer and chisel, removing the brick around the sills one at a time. I liked the smell of the mortar dust drying
my throat, the straight lines of my work, the way the whole bricks stacked into a neat pile. When the man came
to check my work, I stepped to one side to show him the layer of brick I had chipped out, the unbroken window glass.
He picked up a sledge hammer from the floor, handed it to me and said, "That's real pretty, but let's see
how hard you can swing this thing." He pointed at the row of windows left in the sanctuary and I understood
that on some jobs fast was better than pretty.
Working for my father taught me about weather and toughness, and it fueled my imagination. I found that while
doing repetitive jobs like wiring electrical plugs and light switches, or digging, my mind was free to go other
places. I spent whole days creating stories that usually involved the Russians invading the United States. I would
sneak cross country in a Willys jeep, hiding from helicopters, blowing up bridges and trains, and picking off Russians
with my rifle and telescopic sight. There was always a girl in the fantasies, one borrowed from the movies, or
someone I knew from high school, who learned to love me even though I didn't play football. And while the stories
I created were juvenile, the settings I imagined--mountains and rivers and pine forests--were fully developed,
and my character's survival depended on skill and hard work. He had to do everything right, something I learned
from my father.
I began to notice weather, which I had always taken for granted. We worked in attics where the summertime temperatures
reached one-hundred and forty degrees, and in the cold and rain and mud, where I learned to layer my clothing to
stay warm and dry. The weather made each day, each job, unique. It intensified the feeling of tiredness and satisfaction
at the end of the day. Even now, when I drive through my home town and see houses or businesses where I helped
my father install a heating and cooling system, pour a foundation, or snake out a drain, I remember the weather
better than the work.
Over the years my father mashed fingers, crawled on his hands and knees under floors or across attics, burned
himself with acetylene torches and acid, and was electrified once as he stood on a ladder and gripped a piece of
conduit that wasn't grounded properly. The electricity held his grip until someone thought to shut off the breaker.
Another time, while trimming a section of air conditioning duct with tin snips, he ran a two inch sliver of jagged
metal completely through his thumb. He wrapped a handkerchief around the thumb to catch the blood and drove to
the doctor's office. The doctor dabbed at the chunk of metal with alcohol, jerked it out with a pair of pliers,
and wrapped his thumb in gauze. My father looked at his thumb as we were driving back to the job. "I should've
done that myself," he said. "It would have been free and it wouldn't hurt any less."
In 1977 my father was buried alive for twenty minutes. He was on his hands and knees at the bottom of a fourteen
foot pit, tapping into the city sewer line, when the sides of the pit caved in. He fell across the opening in the
pipe and was able to breathe until my older brother and some other men were able to dig him out. I still have the
clipping from the front page of the newspaper. The headline reads: "Tupelo Man Prays For Second Chance While
Buried Alive." The picture shows my father sitting on a pile of dirt beside the hole, staring down the street
with a faraway look, and Gary beside him, looking scared. When I came home from my own job that afternoon, my father
met me on the driveway and hugged me, hard. He was crying, and dirty in a way that could only come from being buried:
grit in his eyebrows and teeth and ears, pressed into his skin so that he still smelled of soil the next day. He
was sore for weeks afterward, but otherwise unhurt. He didn't say much about it, but once he told me how long twenty
minutes really is.
Just after he bought the pickup, my father had a magnetic sign made for each door reading "Engel Repair
Service" in red, with our telephone number and the type of work spelled out beneath in blue letters. Sometimes
he talked about my brother and I going into business with him after we graduated from high school, but we both
went to college instead, which made him just as proud.
My first job out of college I was hired as a quality control supervisor in a particleboard mill in Georgia.
The mill was housed in a building fifty yards wide and a quarter mile long, with metal siding painted a dirty pale
green color specially mixed for the company: Temple green. The plant was laid out like a long assembly line, with
tall silos and fifty foot piles of yellow pine shavings at one end, the warehouse and loading dock at the other.
In between the shavings were ground to particle size, dried, treated with urea-formaldehyde resin, formed into
mats eight feet wide and twenty-four feet long, pressed and sawed. High pressure blowlines four feet in diameter
sprouted out of the roof of the building and moved the wood furnish from the silos to the dryers to the blenders.
Fine particles of wood floated through the air and coated the cars in the parking lot and formed windrows on the
ground that looked like a dusting of cream colored snow.
The company was based in Texas, but the particleboard division had mills in Alabama and New Hampshire as well.
In college I had studied forest products and had worked for another particleboard company through cooperative education.
The man I co-oped for had told me that I could expect to work sixty to seventy hours a week in management, and
that dedication to the company, good intentions, and hard work would ensure promotion. That sounded right and I
was willing to make any sacrifice for the company. But everything I thought about how big business operated turned
out to be wrong.
A week into the job I was called upstairs to the plant manager's office, where he stood by the window looking
down at the conveyor belt that shuttled the long mats into the press. The man's name was Larry, and I was struck
by the way his Southern accent sounded affected, the Hollywood version of the way people in the South talk. His
boss, the division manager, was a short man from Texas who wore Brooks Brothers shirts and spat tobacco juice into
a Styrofoam cup packed with tissue. They said I had problems in my department, two technicians: both were black,
union, troublemakers. The division manager told me that it was my job to run those two out of the company. I was
twenty-three years old and I thought that I could do it.
I left the office with every intention of running those two off, even though I had no idea what sort of employees
they were. In college I had learned something about making particleboard, but nothing about managing people. I
didn't think it would be so hard. I planned to be fair and I assumed that everyone cared about the quality of their
work. I put pressure on Lloyd and Waldo. Both men were in their thirties, which seemed very old to me at the time,
and they looked even older because the wood dust turned their black hair white. Every mistake they made I reacted
with the company's established disciplinary process: verbal warning, written warning, three days off without pay,
termination. But somewhere in that process I decided that I was doing a bad thing. It hit when Lloyd responded
to a written warning by filing a grievance against me.
Waldo represented Lloyd when the grievance was heard before the division manager. The man who ordered me to
fire Lloyd, who had promised to back me up all the way to arbitration, spat tobacco juice into his cup and said:
"Lloyd, Terry's just a young guy trying to make an impression, a little too gung ho. I think we can convince
him to back off on this warning, remove it from your record." I backed off Waldo and Lloyd, and the pressure
switched to me.
I met with the plant manager, Larry, once a week to discuss Lloyd and Waldo. One day he explained why the division
manager hadn't backed me up. The union contract was due to expire soon and the company couldn't afford to make
the men martyrs by going to arbitration. I remembered the first or second day I worked for Temple, when he'd given
me a copy of the union contract and said: "I hope we don't have to work with this long, but you'd better know
it pretty well." When the contract expired, the employees would have a chance to vote whether or not they
wished to be represented by the union, and I realized that the move to fire Lloyd and Waldo was a move to weaken
the union. Larry said that I should try to catch them in gross negligence, an offense not protected by the contract,
and he offered off the record suggestions on ways to trap the men. Other days he threatened to fire me if he didn't
see results before the union vote. It was sort of like good cop/bad cop. I never knew what to expect when I went
When my parents asked about Temple, I told them how bad the situation was in much the same way I'd told them
I would probably fail physics in college. I was afraid of disappointing them, and I didn't want them to be surprised.
I'd decided that there was something wrong with me, that I didn't understand personnel management any better than
I did calculus. My father talked to me about DayBrite, about what it felt like to work at a thankless job, and
how being fired was the best thing that ever happened to him. "There's plenty of work that you can do well,"
he said, "without having to work for assholes."
Eventually I was moved from my department to production foreman on the swing shift. The plant manager said it
was a lateral promotion, but lateral only meant a demotion where I didn't lose any pay. Two weeks before the union
contract vote, the company flew a lawyer who specialized in labor relations in from Atlanta for a meeting. I sat
in the conference room with the other supervisors and foremen. We smoked and talked, but were unsure what to do
with our hard hats. Management meetings were always awkward because being called upstairs was worse than being
called to the principal's office. The lawyer stood in front of the company logo fixed to the wall, six T's joined
at the base so they formed sort of a wheel with spokes--cut out of the first load of particleboard that came off
The lawyer told us what we could legally promise to our employees about the way the company would deal with
them after the union was voted out--nothing. We listened politely, asked one or two questions, and then the lawyer
was driven back to the airport. With the lawyer gone the plant manager told us to talk to each member of our crews
privately, to promise them a year-end bonus if they elected to deal directly with the company, and to find out
how each person planned to vote. I didn't say anything to my crew.
The employees voted out the union and suddenly Temple was a harmonious company. Except there was a black man
on my crew named Keith, who openly admitted that he was one of the few employees who had voted to keep the union.
Larry put pressure on me to run off Keith.
There was something about that mill. At night, with the machinery running and the lights and sounds, it was
a living thing. It had a power of its own. In order to make good particleboard, the whole mill has to be in sync,
from the person loading shavings into the silos with a front end loader, through the milling and drying and blending,
all the way to the press, the saws, and the forklift driver who stacks the bundles of board. There were over three
hundred electric motors, timing switches, sensors, and twelve operators and technicians. Sometimes the mill got
into a groove, and the machinery would run for hours and sometimes days at a time without the operators making
a single adjustment. Other times it ran like hell and we spent whole shifts rigging, bypassing, and patching together
equipment. I watched other supervisors to learn the management techniques I missed in college. I decided that a
good supervisor should stand behind his crew, discipline them if necessary, but defend them as well, because finally
you were defending yourself.
I lost that job one morning after a graveyard shift that I'd spent fighting one equipment failure after another.
At seven in the morning Larry walked into my office, something he never did. He took off his hard-hat and smoothed
his hair into place, sat down on the bench beside my desk. His face was framed on one side by the production schedule
tacked to the wall, and on the other by a Xeroxed cartoon, the kind that circulate through company offices. He
said, "We need to discuss the Keith problem and what you plan to do about him." The cartoon seemed appropriate
for the situation--a frog was being swallowed headfirst by a snake, but it was choking the snake, holding its throat
closed with both hands.
Keith had had some run-ins with another shift foreman before he came to my crew. But I liked Keith. I liked
his work because he tried hard. One night he and I were talking and he called me "Boat." It sort of slipped
out, and he was worried that he'd said something wrong. When I pressed him about the name, he told me that the
hourly employees began to call me Boat after I'd taken a canoe to the company picnic the year before. I liked the
nickname--it made me feel accepted, and I told Keith to spread the word that it was okay to call me that.
I explained to the plant manager that Keith was a good worker, loyal. I refused to fire him. We were at an impasse.
I gave my notice and my boss let me go.
A week later I saw Waldo at K-Mart, looking at fishing rods in the sporting goods department. He had heard that
I was quitting and I told him it was true. Waldo looked at me and flexed the rod he was holding, trying it out.
He said, "You're a goddamn fool. You had a good job and lost it because you weren't tough enough on your men."
I agreed with him, but I was angered, and surprised. Two years ago I had tried to fire Waldo, and now I wanted
some appreciation from him, some acknowledgment that I had finally developed principles. But Waldo understood better
than I how that company worked. As I turned to leave he said, "If it had been me. If I'd had that good job?
I'd have wasted anybody who got in my way."
I found another job in the forest products industry, with Kerr-McGee as a yard supervisor in a railroad cross-tie
treating plant. I was in charge of a crew that graded the ties that came in from sawmills on trucks and rail cars,
and stacked the ties to air dry. A city had grown up around the plant, but the yard--twenty acres of ties stacked
in ricks forty feet high, half a dozen rail sidings--was as insulated from the rest of town as any wilderness.
Pigeons roosted in the stacks, and the plant manager--this one a soft spoken man who jogged ten miles a day to
relieve stress and encouraged me to take vitamins--worried about pigeon shit on his cross-ties. We worked six days
a week, ten to twelve hours a day. On Saturdays he asked the supervisors to bring shotguns to work and shoot the
The work wasn't hard. Mainly I had to maintain an accurate tie inventory, bug the maintenance supervisor to
keep my machinery running, and stop other supervisors from stealing my fork lift and driver. The plant manager
never complained about production or down time. In fact, he never seemed interested in the supervisor's problems.
I worried that eventually there would be a price to pay.
Hunting pigeons made the work more interesting. I would slip through stacks of cross-ties towering overhead
like canyon walls. But the pigeons were wary. I rarely got a clean shot. Usually, they flew away unscathed. After
a few weeks the employees began to complain about the guns. It made them nervous, so we had to stop.
After I had been with Kerr-McGee about three months, several corporate vice-presidents scheduled an inspection
of our plant. The evening that they were to arrive--the plant manager had already left to meet them at the airport--a
man was killed in an accident. Another crew was loading treated ties into open rail cars for shipment. After they
filled a car they would push it out of the way with a forklift and push an empty car into place. Charlie was riding
the loaded car. His job was to secure the hand brake when the car rolled clear. Perhaps the brake didn't work,
or maybe Charlie lost his nerve and didn't set it properly. The rail car rolled down a slight incline and picked
up speed, and Charlie saw that his car was going to bump a string of cars at the bottom of the hill. Instead of
jumping off the car, he climbed inside. When the cars bumped six tons of cross-ties, slippery with creosote oil,
shifted into Charlie, pinning him against the end of the car. His foreman called over the radio that he thought
Charlie was hurt--he couldn't find him. Everyone who heard the call ran for that end of the yard
When we found Charlie it didn't look so bad, Charlie didn't. Another car had slammed into his car and shifted
the load off him by the principle of equal but opposite reaction, like those desk sets where steel balls clack
against each other--swing two balls into the line and two are bumped away on the other end. Charlie was unmarked
except for a bloody lip. He wore sunglasses and a smile that reminded me of Stevie Wonder. He was unconscious,
but we didn't know that everything inside was crushed.
We put him on the ambulance when it finally arrived. Charlie didn't have a phone, but one guy thought he knew
where Charlie lived. We sent him to bring the family to the hospital. I knocked my crew off and went to the hospital
with another supervisor, where we learned Charlie was dead. The worst I ever felt was standing outside the emergency
room, waiting for someone I didn't know, to tell them their son or husband was dead. Charlie was a black man, so
we asked every black person who came to the entrance who they were there for. Finally I saw a man who was the exact
image of Charlie, his father I learned, and I told him that Charlie didn't make it.
The next few hours I cannot describe adequately. At least twenty members of the family filled the emergency
room lobby, screaming, wailing, and calling on Jesus to bring Charlie back. The hospital employees tried to direct
them to a small chapel down the hall, but they couldn't stay put. His grandmother, a heavy woman, collapsed outside
the room where his body lay. I tried to catch her but I barely softened the fall as we both went down. Later in
the evening the vice-presidents arrived, fat men in suits. They comforted the family for a while, then one came
over to the corner where I was smoking. He put his arm around me. I felt tiny pushed up against his weight. He
told me, "Son, I think you've handled yourself real well today. But don't tell the family any details about
the accident. At least not until we get our lawyers down here." I went home after that and drank most of a
bottle of bourbon.
The mill was subdued the next morning. Everyone moved about their business quietly. I stood under the shed that
covered the grading station and watched my crew work. I was hung over and had not slept. The vice-presidents followed
the plant manager across the gravel yard. They made their way to my station, pointed, nodded their heads, moved
along. One vice-president called me over and pointed at my knuckle boom
A knuckle boom is a crane that works like the claws of a crab. It can pinch four cross ties together at once
and stack them as neatly as a child playing Lincoln logs. This one leaked hydraulic oil. Every time the operator
picked up a set of ties, oil squirted from half a dozen hose couplings, so that the ground underneath was saturated.
The smell of oil overpowered the sour smell of oak timbers. The man said: "Your equipment is leaking pretty
badly. You should get the maintenance department to do something about that.
I had been after the maintenance supervisor for two weeks, complained to the plant manager, tried to fix the
leaks myself one day and only made them worse. Maintenance finally placed a fifty-five gallon drum of oil on the
operator's platform, fitted with a hand pump, so that every morning we lost thirty minutes adding oil to the reservoir.
I told the man about all of this and he said, "Don't worry. I'll chew some ass and get this taken care of."
And then he walked off, feeling good about himself, I suppose.
I sat there for half an hour, thinking that it shouldn't be like that. It shouldn't take a corporate vice-president
to repair a hydraulic hose any more than a plant manager should make personnel decisions based on union politics.
There was too much wrong and the days were too short. I walked across the yard to the office. The plant manager
was busy; he looked harried. He asked if I could wait until later. The vice-presidents waited in the next room,
hungry to point out what was wrong with our plant. I dropped my hard hat, radio, and keys to the front gate on
his desk and walked out the door. The guy looked like he wanted to cry, and for a moment I thought about picking
my things up. But that passed quickly enough.
My uncle told me that he could get me into the electrical workers' union, and that they would send me out on
construction building high voltage power lines. He sent me to talk to Joe Franks, the local IBEW business agent.
I assumed it would be like any other job interview, so I dressed in a sport coat, tie and slacks, carried a copy
of my resume. The union hall was a prefabricated metal building on a street lined with huge oak trees. I parked
my Toyota next to the door, underneath the sign that read: THIS PARKING LOT RESERVED FOR AMERICAN MADE CARS ONLY.
ALL OTHERS WILL BE TOWED. I went inside and told the receptionist my business. She pointed to a chair and told
me it would be a few minutes. There were two other men waiting, dressed in work boots, jeans, flannel shirts. When
they went in to see Franks I put my tie in my pocket.
Franks sat behind a desk backed by an American flag and the union creed tacked to the wall behind him. The ashtray
on his desk overflowed with cigarette butts. He wasn't interested in my experience. He knew my uncle and I assume
my job was in payment of a favor, or in return for a favor, whatever. He told me how to fix my application so it
would show more construction experience than I really had. I paid eighty dollars for the privilege of joining the
union, placed my hand over my heart and read the creed aloud--a lot of stuff about brotherhood, pride, and dedication
to craft. Franks told me to report to work the next day to a Tennessee Valley Authority crew building a line in
The TVA is a federal agency that provides flood control and cheap electricity along a seven-state corridor bounding
the Tennessee River valley. The first week my crew was assigned to tear down a power line that had never been used,
working East, away from the cooling tower of a nuclear reactor that never went on line. I never understood exactly
why, something to do with the recession, or poor planning, but the ghost of a power line stretching across the
Cumberland Plateau left an incredible scar.
There was a wiry man on the crew named Willis Gunter, who was waiting out the two years to retirement by doing
just enough to stay employed. He drove the crew truck from headquarters to the job site, and back, and not much
else. The job was thirty miles down the interstate. The first morning Willis turned to me and said, "I'm going
to run this truck at thirty-five miles an hour and there's not a damn thing they can do about it, because I'm practicing
safe driving techniques." Once at the job site, he only moved enough to stay in the shade.
After a week a man I'd never seen before asked me if I would like to enter the apprentice lineman program. "You're
tall," he said. "I bet you'd make a good lineman. You can reach things." I said it sounded fine
to me, as much to get off the ground and away from Willis as anything else.
The next day I was "set up"--sent to work two-hundred feet up a tower. It scared me to death. At night,
in the motel room, I couldn't sleep for dreams about falling. During the day I didn't have any appetite because
I dreaded my next climb. I didn't trust my equipment--my safety or my padded leather belt--or my grip. It was like
that for a few weeks
One day I went up a tower with a more experienced apprentice, Ernest Boan, who we called "Bones."
The tower was set in a field of green winter wheat, in a valley surrounded by mountains. The day was gray, promising
snow or rain. We climbed a hundred and eighty feet to the top of a T-shaped tower, and out on an arm, without even
the lattice work of the tower between us and the ground. The tower was an angle on the line, which meant the wire
was under a lot of tension, making the work that much more difficult.
We were stringing fiber optic cable for MCI, something new the valley had begun to work with, and having a bad
time of it. A storm came up as fast as I've ever seen it happen. The sky grew black and the wind felt like it might
blow us off if we let go of the steel. It started snowing, but we tried to finish the job. I could barely see the
ground, and when I looked back at the tower legs, the step bolts had begun to ice. Our foreman yelled up that the
crew was going to wait out the storm in the trucks, but Bones decided it would be safer not to move. I'd never
wanted to be on the ground so much as right then. We stood there with our backs to the wind and our collars turned
up, smoking Marlboros and talking to pass the time.
There is something very comforting about a cigarette when you're iced into a tower and can't see the ground.
That tiny glow of heat makes you think about warmth, reminds you that it exists somewhere. I don't know what it
was, but something about waiting out that storm with Bones made it all right to climb. I was still scared after
that, but I began to grow out of it, and started to develop confidence in myself, something I'd never truly experienced
on any other job before that. The ideas I'd laughed at when I read the union creed, about pride and brotherhood,
began to make sense to me.
During this period, I began to work at writing stories. I had always read--mostly thrillers about Viet Nam vets
and cowboys--but somehow I stumbled onto Hemingway, and from there to Fitzgerald, Thomas McGuane, Jim Harrison,
Barry Hannah. In those writers I began to recognize a power, an ability to touch someone with words, and I wanted
that for myself. I bought an old Olivetti manual typewriter and dragged it from job to job. In the evenings after
work, or on rain days, I would sit at a table in the room and type for an hour or so, until I was too tired or
something else came up. There were enough excuses that I didn't work at writing very hard.
My friends on the line were curious about what I was doing, and whenever a fight, or accident, or close call
occurred on the job they would always ask, "Is that going in the book?" My pole buddy, or climbing partner,
a kid named Ben who climbed two years before he was old enough to buy beer, wanted to die a spectacular death in
the story. He always said, "I have to fall at least two-hundred feet so I can scream my little lungs out."
There was a certain romance to dangerous work, but it was consuming--to my body and my mind. The constant weather
wore at my face and hands, the climbing and wading through right of way mud aged my knees and ankles. And it was
lonely--motel rooms five nights a week, long drives from the job to my home that burned up the weekends, relationships
that suffered from distance. But worse, no one understood about wanting to write. Even though I pictured myself--sitting
at my typewriter at night--as a young Salinger writing on weekend leave from the army, or as Hemingway writing
between hunting trips to Africa, I began to realize that I could spend my life writing in those rooms and never
learn what a good writing program could teach me in two years. I thought that making myself into a writer would
require undivided attention, and guidance, and I knew that I would never be able to accomplish that as a lineman
I didn't know what to expect out of a graduate writing program, or the people in the program. On the power lines
I talked about hunting, fishing, women, sports, building power lines, and living away from home--the things I knew.
I thought that if I had any advantage it was that I had lived a lifestyle that few people were familiar with. I
knew that I wanted to write about the people and places I had lived with and worked at. I thought the confidence
that I had developed on the power lines would carry me through.
The last day I worked for TVA we clipped in new conductor wire to a power line outside of Montery, Tennessee.
I climbed five towers, but after lunch my foreman called me down and took my hard-hat. Everyone on the crew signed
the hat, most by nickname, the last guys I climbed with. Just before I left for the University of Southern Mississippi,
Ben said, "Kill me good in the book."
I kept the hard-hat on a bookshelf where I could see it, and my tools--a padded leather belt, a safety strap,
and a set of wood pole climbing hooks--in my closet. I liked having those things around to remind me of where I
came from. I didn't want to get too far away from that.
Two years ago, after a Master's degree and a year into a Ph.D. in writing, a friend from the power lines called.
He asked how school was going. We talked about the line we built at Dyersburg, Tennessee, the year we were crew-mates.
Lance is five or six years older than me, in his late thirties. For the last four years he'd been building houses,
keeping to jobs within fifty miles of home. He had half a dozen horses, forty cows, a wife, a daughter in second
grade. He told me that housing was slow and he was thinking he might go back to the lines. He'd sold his tools
though, after he quit the job at Dyersburg. He wondered if I still had mine, and if I would sell them.
My tools had been collecting dust for three years, unused except for one late night climb to pirate cable TV
service. I'd known at least ten linemen who dragged--lineman's slang for quitting--because they were pissed off
at the foreman or the company, another lineman or their girlfriend, or just tired. Most of them found their way
back to the lines after a week, a month, or a year. People who climb towers and work with one-hundred and sixty-one
thousand volts of electricity don't always make good career decisions. But a lineman selling his tools is like
Hemingway selling his fly rod. There's a finality to it.
I liked having the tools around, idle or not. I liked the smell of oiled leather and the feel of strapping on
the hooks the night after the cable company turned off my service. There was a sense of security in knowing that
if other things failed I could always go back to the lines. But Lance had a family to support and livestock to
I boxed the tools and mailed them UPS, resisting the urge to try them on one last time, sad to let them go.
It's not that I planned to use them again. Recently, I'd noticed that my knees didn't ache every morning before
a hot shower. I liked rolling out of bed early, making coffee, and sitting down at the typewriter. When I came
to graduate school, I thought I might take a few writing workshops, learn what I could, and then go back to work
again. But when I sold my tools, I had to admit what I had known for a long time, that I was through with the power
lines. The action seemed as irrevocable as tearing up my union ticket.
I work as hard now as I've ever worked in my life--writing, studying literature, teaching college English--but
it's different. It's not work in the same sense as physical labor, which bothered me. For years, work meant diesel
fumes, heavy equipment, bad weather, scars, good pay, and yelling a lot. Sometimes I feel guilty, sitting at a
desk, because I call what I do work and never get dirty.
When they ask, I tell my family I'm working hard, putting in hours at the computer or in the library, and they
believe me. My father quit school after the eighth grade to farm. My mother finished high school and has worked
as a secretary ever since. They were proud that my brother and I had the chance to go to college, proud of his
work as an engineer, and proud that I will be the first person in our family to earn a doctorate. Oddly enough,
I think that my parents may realize better than I do that abstract work is honorable, or at least as honorable
as physical work. They never had that choice. My mother is relieved that I don't climb anymore. She says that she
sleeps better now, knowing that.
For years though, academia--studying literature--felt false to me, perhaps because it was dirty in a way that
I wasn't used to. It bothered me that academics created symbols out of minor details, derived meaning through Freudian
psychoanalysis. Once, as a joke, I wrote a paper for a graduate seminar where I described the missing, frostbitten
toes of a female character involved in a homoerotic relationship as phallic symbols. My professor told me that
it was a good idea, original thought, and I made an A. I didn't believe a word of it. The author who imagined that
character grew up on the Midwestern plains in the 1800's. Frostbite was something to know about, as much a part
of her world as induced voltage was a part of mine. I couldn't deny the existence of symbolism in literature, the
power of an author to extend meaning through imagery, but I questioned the value of the work.
I know that I romanticize the dirt too much, the idea of being working class. It's easy to forget slogging through
knee deep mud, wishing I could be somewhere clean and dry, or the day lightning struck a pole two spans away and
green fire sizzled through the wires three feet above my head. I missed the camaraderie of the crew, the satisfaction
of seeing my work strung up in the air.
What made me stay in graduate school though, was the desire to write. I realized that a college English department
was not the pure world that I once imagined. There are slackers and hangers-on, professors riding tenure to retirement,
and backbiters struggling for a modicum of power; but there are just as many men and women who find value in--and
who others place value on--their work. They enjoy a satisfaction at the end of a day that no one can take away
Over the past five years some of my stories have touched the people around me, and a couple have earned recognition,
money, publication. What started as a collection of stapled together stories has grown into a novel that I keep
in the box which once held the blank typing paper. And while there are holes in the story yet to be repaired, the
satisfaction that I feel when I hold the book in my hands and read is as warm as what I felt the night I drove
down a mountain and could see the lights of a valley burning, and knew that the electricity flowed through wires
that I had strung in the air.
My father retired on disability a few years ago. He has been diagnosed with Raynaud's disease, which causes
reduced circulation to his hands and feet. His hands are swollen to twice the size of mine, and in cold weather
the skin turns black. The bones of his fingertips are deteriorating so that his fingernails curl over the ends
of his blunt fingers and look more like claws than anything else. He can no longer button his shirt easily, tie
knots, or do any other fine work. Last Christmas he told me that he was going to divide his tools between my brother
and me, because he can't use them anymore.
I look at my hands every day for signs of change, wondering if the disease that disabled my father is running
in my veins. After he retired he took a part-time job as the janitor at his church, work that he attacked with
all the energy and pride that he exhibited in running duct or digging a sewer line. I'm not sure that he understands
why I write, but I know that he supports it. He likes to tell people that I teach college English, a job that he
sees a real value in, because he never had the chance to become an educated man in that respect.
But my father is happy about his life. He considers himself lucky to have worked as long as he did, to love
my mother, my brother and his family, and my wife and me. His house is paid for. He's got a camper trailer and
a fishing boat, and a fireplace in the winter. While it wasn't always easy, and he made plenty of mistakes, in
general he did everything right.
Terry Engel is a recent graduate of the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi. His fiction
has appeared in numerous literary magazines. He is now living in Colorado.