I entered college at UNC a year later than my high school classmates. I left UNC at the end of my first semester to attend St Andrews in Laurinburg. I switched from a major in Marine Biology to, a couple months later, English. A year later, while in Italy studying poetry and Ezra Pound at his daughter’s castle, Brunnenburg, near the Alps, I decided not to return to St Andrews but to matriculate at SUNY Buffalo where I could study with one of my favorite Black Mountain College poets, Robert Creeley, he of one eye. Unfortunately, my acceptance letter arrived the day fall classes began. Having made no plans for housing or selected any courses for the semester, I abandoned SUNY for a job on the Outer Banks. A government employment program for the under-employed provided the state with the funds to pay me to work at the Roanoke Island Aquarium in Manteo.
At the end of autumn, when the Banks enter its winter hibernation, I took the opportunity to leave the island and house sit in the mountains south of Boone near Valle Crucis for a couple who had St Andrews connections. They made their living growing several acres of tomatoes that the large grocery store chains would not buy because the stores purchased in bulk from food brokers who sold California produce harvested weeks before the produce was ripe. [Those were the days before the farm to table movement.] To cover the shortfall in their household expenses, “Bob” (not his real name) sold marijuana. [Those were also the days before even medical marijuana was legal.]
I lived alone in their old, cold early 20th century farmhouse heated with a tall coal stove and a wood-burning kitchen stove where frost etched the bedroom windows each night after the fires expired. I fed the dogs and ducks and chickens, wrote some poetry at a desk in front of a window at the southern end of the living room, read endless novels stretched out across the sofa, and occasionally visited Bob’s “Nixon Archives” upstairs where a dessicated piranha hung from a window frame. Bob was far left wing in his politics, so I never grasped his fascination with Nixon, an already disgraced ex-President. I suppose there was an element of irony. Cutting wood for the fires occupied any time that was not devoted to reading, writing, cooking or traveling to Blowing Rock for beer and food. [Those were the days when the county where I resided was “dry”. No alcohol sold.] The dirt road out of the valley stayed frozen and slick in the shade of an embankment at a switchback so severe that visitors were forever getting trapped sideways on the ice, so chains remained on my tires all winter.
The end of winter arrived too soon, well before true spring, but it was time for me to leave so Bob, his wife and their child could return from a pleasantly warm winter sojourn in Arizona. Returning to my parents’ home, I enrolled in the local community college to study art and also to learn welding. In the depths of a recession in a small town in eastern North Carolina, opportunities were ephemeral, so I felt lucky to find a part time job as a maintenance man for a cheap downtown motel, the kind that even a drunk would avoid. Unfortunately for my employer, I am a mechanical idiot, and my skills were limited to tossing broken bed frames and replacing light bulbs and fuses. When management insisted that I prep the pool for painting with muriatic acid and no protective gear, neither goggles nor respirator, I quit. The college semester ended, and I found a job working road construction.
My initial assignment was driving the Pilot Car, leading traffic around sections of rural highway where we were repaving one lane at a time. I qualified for the job because I was the only crew member who had not lost his license for drunk driving. The Pilot Car was a yellow pick-up truck with a big sign with flashing yellow lights in the bed that directed waiting cars to “Follow Me”. The truck was straight shift, so I clutched about ten thousand times that day, aggravating my left knee that I had injured playing high school football. Sometimes, when I tired of driving the Pilot Car, and when we did not have a full lane of traffic blocked for paving, I was permitted to throw 20 pound shovels of asphalt. My final day of work was 105 in the shade. I stood in the back of a dump truck shoveling 175 degree asphalt over the side to fill holes along the shoulder. My crew mates, all more than twenty years older than I, handed me bottles filled with water as fast as I could drink them. Good men. It was a perfect day to bid my paving career farewell.
My step-grandfather was clearing some land on his farm and offered the timber to me to cut for sale as firewood. I bought a small chainsaw, oil, fuel, ax and splitting wedge, then moved to my grandparents’ home across the highway from the farm. A bulldozer toppled the trees, so cutting them to firewood length was convenient. Working shirtless in the open was a welcome respite from the constant scorching heat of hot asphalt in the midday sun. Within several weeks, I had cut what could be cut, split what could be split, and loaded my step-grandfather’s pickup truck to haul the wood back to my hometown for sale. I had not made as much money as when I worked road construction, but I enjoyed being with my grandparents, helping on the farm, riding my bicycle along the winding and empty country roads, stopping at old country stores for cold drinks, and site seeing the old barns and pig wallows. Like all good times, summer ended. I needed to find another paying job.
An out-of-town construction crew was building a warehouse on the western edge of my hometown, and I landed a position as a Nothing on the crew. With no real skills, I was a go-fer, hand-it-man and general fists-in-my-pockets kind of guy until someone told me what to do. I received a hair over minimum wage and deserved every penny; the experienced laborers received a few dollars per hour more, still not much for a man with a family, rent and a truck payment. A crane lifted the concrete wall panels into place, and a skilled welder connected the panel tabs. Another crane swung roofing sheets into place, and a roofing crew screwed down the sheets. When the building was fully enclosed, our crew began to frame and pour the concrete floors, something I had done once before at a friend’s garage. Finishing the concrete was performed by experienced cement finishers in tall rubber boots and long poles attached to wide skimmers that “floated” the concrete. The floors had to be SMOOTH according to the owner. Although the warehouse would be used only for storage of materials and some inventory (half-full spindles of thread), the owner seemed concerned that the forklifts would stumble and crash over any imperfection in the concrete. [This was many years before superflat floors and thirty foot high capacity racking systems.] I liked the job for a couple of months because I made decent money for unskilled labor, and we only worked four 10 hour days per week which left me with a three day weekend, a comfortable amount of time to drive up to the mountains to see my girlfriend. Once the warehouse was complete, I realized my job would also soon be end, and it was unlikely that I would travel out of town to where the crew would next work since it was almost an hour of unpaid time away. We were nearly finished, so I wasted mindless hours sweeping the concrete floors, picking up construction debris (coffee and water cups, candy wrappers, and cigarette butts) and generally killing time.
At the last minute, the owner developed a brain cramp. He spotted some splashes of cement on the galvanized guardrails (just like those along the highway) that protected the pre-formed concrete walls in a corridor connecting the new warehouse to the main factory building. He wanted the guardrails cleaned and polished. I soon found myself sitting on the concrete floor hammering at the splattered specks of cement to break them free of the galvanized coating, then trying to rub the galvanized coating until all traces of the cement spots (cement is acidic and leaves a shadow) vanished and the silver shone with a mirror finish like hand-polished chrome. NOT POSSIBLE. A senseless waste of my time even if I was being paid to do the work. I sat on that section of floor in the corridor for three days hammering, scraping and wiping before I resolved NEVER to work such a stupid, mindless job again. Still in the midst of a recession with a dearth of jobs available to someone with my absence of skilled training or experience, I realized I needed a different plan. Time to return to college. This time I would finish my degree in English, as nearly useless as what I had learned working as a common laborer. By the time I earned my degree, perhaps the economy would have recovered from its malaise and opportunities would emerge. In any case, I would not be working for idiots with idiotic notions of what my time was worth.
I had a lot to learn.