When I was twelve, my first regular job was working in Dad’s saw shop on Saturdays. Back then the shop was a tin building with no insulation. Summers baked its roof. Winters chilled its concrete floor. Neither heat nor cold stopped pulpwooders from bringing their dead and dying chainsaws to Dad’s shop where he and Bobby Cooper revived them. Before they could work miracles with vices, screwdrivers, and wrenches, it fell upon me to remove the gummy black pine resin from covers protecting the saw’s inner workings. They couldn’t work on the saws until I cleaned and dismantled them. So, I swirled a paintbrush in a can holding about three inches of gas, then on bended knees upon concrete, I sloshed gas all over the saws and scraped away the stubborn black gunk with screwdrivers. Best I could, I’d take the covers off, which meant skinned knuckles and fingernails caked with grease. It never failed that one bolt refused to budge, frustrating me and angering Dad. He would have to stop the important work to help me.
I did not like this work. I smelled like gasoline.
I should have seen this grimy work coming but I hadn’t learned to put two and two together. When I was old enough to climb a tree, come late summer Dad would send me shimmying up pines to gather green pinecones. I’d pick the prickly green cones, which felt like cheese graters and drop them to the ground. Dad put them in a burlap sack and the forestry service paid cash for them. In the early 1950s this harvest took place all over the South. People gathered green pinecones, from which foresters extracted and planted seeds. From those seeds sprung tender green pines, which planted into Southern fields matured relatively fast into towering pines, aka pulpwood, as in pulp for paper production. The South’s new cash crop had arrived. Hardwoods gave way to pines. Men needed saws to harvest this crop and my boyhood Saturdays thus fell victim to drudgery. Thanks to yellow pines my saw shop blues lasted years. The southern yellow pine was changing the South and me forever.
All Saturday long I cleaned saws and occasionally lawnmowers. On summer Saturdays I imagined other boys my age were playing baseball, and if they weren’t playing baseball, they were at the lake swimming. I envied their freedom. Or if it was winter, they were inside and warm and reading a good book. Or if, like me, they had to work, they worked in pleasant grocery stores bagging canned goods, bread, and milk and their hands were free of grease, grime, and gasoline. Wherever they were, I knew their lot was better than mine. At the end of a long Saturday, I felt defeated wondering just where I had gone wrong.
Still, moments of joy were mine in that barebones tin building. I loved the old red Coke machine, much like the one you see pictured. A Coke provided cold sips of joy. To this day, I can still see that machine. I marveled, too, at the racy calendars featuring scantily clad women … they never failed to elicit comments from the men. I was, however, still a boy but an opportunist. In repairing all manner of gasoline engines, Dad replaced worn parts. I turned discarded ball bearings and magnets into toys. The ball bearings made fabulous ammo for my slingshot. The magnets exerted mysterious power. I’d tie strings to magnets and pretend they were cranes lifting washers, bolts, and whatever scraps I scavenged from the shop. I stuffed firecrackers in small pipes and shot ball bearings past the moon. (Yes, I still have both eyes.)
Moments of danger, too. Acetylene torches and gas make a dangerous combination. It was at Dad’s shop where a man caught on fire. On another day, I watched as Dad welded a steel support on a log truck. He stood there wearing his black welder’s helmet, sparks flying in the blazing sun. Then without warning the bed of planks where he stood gave way and Dad fell through catching his left kneecap on a piece of angle iron. I could not bear to look at him. I thought he would faint. That agonizing injury, in time, led to surgery.
Moments of foolishness, too. Now and then men would bring in yellow McCullough chainsaws. For some reason these saws would lose their paint, tainting the gasoline. One summer day, a sharp-dressed salesman from Greenwood, South Carolina, called on Dad and Bobby. He sold parts, gaskets, seals, and the like. Wearing a beautiful gray suit he stood near me as I cleaned pine gunk from a McCullough saw. A yellowjacket flew into the shop, God knows why, and began harassing me. Without thinking, I slung gas at it. I splashed yellow paint all over the man’s suit. I thought the salesman and Dad would kill me. Nothing came of it. The salesman was gracious, kind even. Dad offered to pay for his suit, and as to how all this played out I haven’t a clue. I can tell you this, though. Dad’s shop and its dangerous but honest work fed us, clothed us, and in time helped educate me. Though my saw shop blues gave me a disdain for working with tools, grease, gas, and paint, I came to respect blue-collar workers far more than the learned fools fate cast me among as a man. Hard labor is honest work. Being a blowhard isn’t.
To this day, when I see a log truck, smell pine resin, or hear a chainsaw whine, I am transported to boyhood and that shop pictured here, which looked nothing like that when I was there. I shed years and years and return to being Tommy, the boy, who knew nothing.
One other thing happened. Like Dad, I grew up to become a fixer. For a long time, I repaired others’ mangled sentences. I grew tired of repairing others’ problems … quit four jobs. Never once gave notice. Just walked out. It was almost as good as a rousing night of illicit sex. Then a turn in the road took me in a new destination—creation from within. No assignments or tasks.
When I think about the murky path I’ve traveled, the mists clear and green pinecones, yellow chainsaws, a red Coke machine, and the saw shop blues coalesce. Somehow their unknowable alchemy turned me into an artist. If you knew all the twists, turns, secrets, and sacrifices, you’d say, “Damn-a-mighty, how in the Hell did that happen?” As the Deliverance-poet once told me, “It’s a strange way, but all ways to get into writing are strange, all ways, everyone’s got a different one.”
Find yours. Maybe enough sorry jobs will give you a good dose of the blues.