Back in the sixties, when I was 25, the all-wise, all knowing company management, in a poorly thought-out decision, offered me a third-shift supervisor’s job in the east Alabama cotton mill where I had been working since the age of 16. The fourth generation of my family to do so.
In a fit of even greater lunacy, I took the job.
My new boss was a hard-boiled character I will call Mr. Ely. Though I had never worked for Mr. Ely before, I knew his reputation. At the mere mention of Mr. Ely’s name, many hard, tough men would curse under their breath; sweet,motherly, sparkly-eyed old ladies would spit.
Mr. Ely was shaped like the Buddha, but had a personality more akin to Attila the Hun’s. He even had that extra fold of skin on his upper eyelids like a sinister Mongol warlord.
Mr. Ely was known to fire people in a blink of those cold, hooded eyes. After he had fired a long-time employee one frigid Christmas Eve, the fellow’s son, who also worked in the same department, stormed into Mr. Ely’s office, complaining loudly about his daddy’s being fired, especially during the joyous yuletide season.
While the irate young man ranted, Mr. Ely sat calmly rocking in his swivel chair, lips pursed, bald head gleaming, thick, pudgy fingers laced over the dune of his vast belly.
After the riled-up son finished his heated tirade, Mr. Ely, without raising his voice, fired him, too. Merry Christmas from Boss Ely. Of such personnel atrocities legends are born.
Luckily, working the third shift, I saw Mr. Ely just briefly in the mornings. Mostly, he communicated by terse notes he would leave on my desk. Notes that usually closed with the admonition, “I’m not telling you again!”
Mainly, though, things were going better than I had expected, except, due to a backlog of orders, the mill was running seven days a week. I did not get a day off for the first six months on my new job. I had developed a severe case of the lint lumbago. Calendars and such had lost all meaning for me.
During this time, there had been several magazine and newspaper articles about Dr. Thomas J.J. Altizer, an Emory University religion professor, who was involved in the “God is dead” theology controversy.
When I read that Dr. Altizer was scheduled to debate a high-church official in Atlanta, I thought it would be an interesting diversion to drive up to the Big City and see the fireworks. And maybe stop by Manuel’s Tavern for a grilled chicken sandwich and a few mugs of therupedic draft beer. What could it hurt?
Mr. Ely had started giving vacation days to other supervisors, but had not mentioned any time-off for me. Nevertheless, I decided to take a chance and ask for a day off, just one day. A single, solitary day.
I waited until I was about to leave at the end of shift that morning to broach the subject. Mr. Ely was sitting at his desk, squinting through the dingy office plexi-glass window as he put the evil eye on the workers milling about on the rumbling production floor.
Pausing halfway out the door, I asked if I could have a day off. (Technically, that would have been a ‘night’ off.)
“A day off for what?” he asked, without looking at me.
“I want to go to Atlanta to hear a debate,” I answered.
Perplexed by the arcane word, “debate,” Mr. Ely couldn’t have regarded me with any more confusion had I started crowing like a deranged rooster. So I hurriedly explained about the brewing spiritual contretemps and that the debate, hopefully, would answer the question of whether God was dead. Or not. Or maybe just on sick leave, (a feeble attempt at humor that twisted Mr. Ely’s features into a pudgy mask of disgust.)
That got Mr. Ely’s attention. Mouth gaping in astonishment, his head jerked around toward me. Incredulous, sputtering, he shouted though a spray of saliva, “I’m not about to let you off for something like that – you can forget it. no way!” He was literally bristling. Totally worked up.
His bullying answer really got my goat. Before I caught myself, I blurted out, “Why can’t you let me off for one day? You let the first shift supervisor off for a whole week to attend the Masters’ Golf Tournament! A whole week!”
Mr. Ely turned beet red from his double chin to the top of his shiny, slick head. Leaning forward, gripping the arms of his chair, he looked as if he might charge me like an enraged sumo wrestler.
He growled hoarsely, “That’s right! I let him off for the Masters’ Golf Tournament – that’s the Master’s Golf Tournament, big boy — not some silly, stupid, debate for morons!”
Well, he had me there. I still have no idea who won the debate. I don’t know who won the Masters’ that year, either.
I guess that’s two more questions that will be answered in the sweet bye and bye, when all questions are answered and all mysteries are revealed. One can dream…
Image: via Golf Digest’s Twitter feed (fair use).