The Grand Canyon/Colorado River Oar Trip: Day 5, Part II

 

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July 18, 2016

We put on the river that morning at Upper Tanner and enjoyed some nice rapids, though they were smaller. Julia Rose took the first turn at fish-eying, since Greg wanted my weight on the front of the boat for the bigger rapids that were coming up later. Before heading into a rapid, we made sure to stow our sunglasses in a secured dry bag and stuff our wide-brimmed hats into the front of our life preservers, so as not to have anything washed away by the waves. The morning was relatively cool, riding in the early morning shade of the canyon walls, and Julia Rose had a wet run filled with pure joy.

We had a quick run through Tanner rapid, a straight-forward class 2-4 with a 20 foot drop, then we stopped at a major archaeology site at Unkar Delta. According to the Grand Canyon River Guide, Ancestral Native Americans in the canyon date back over several millenia, with animal effigy figurines dating to 3000 BC. These early ancestors practices a hunting and gathering lifestyle that shifted to agriculture and a more settled life, with evidence dating to around 700 AD. Puebloan people moved into the canyon around 800 AD, at first living on or near the rim and farming close to the river. As the climate improved (increased and regular rainfall), they began to move into the canyon and develop small pit house dwellings with rock walls and roofs made out of  brush supported by cottonwood poles. By around 1100 AD they had developed well-designed, multi-room, above ground pueblos, as well as underground ceremonial kivas.

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The Unkar Delta, a wide flat terrace above the river, holds the ruins of over a thousand of these excavated dwellings, which can be seen along a trail maintained by the National Park Service. The Puebloan ancestors farmed corn, beans, and squash, laid out agricultural fields, built cliff granaries and rock lined roasting pits, and documented their lives with petroglyph and pictograph art. The trail is well marked with rock boundaries so visitors can’t disturb the sites. Greg reminded us of the importance of these artifacts to the contemporary American Indians, who see this site as sacred and holy. Numerous artifacts, mainly pottery shards, have been left along the rocks lining the trail for visitors to look at and photograph, but not touch or pocket. It’s an incredible view into lives lived over a thousand years ago.

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We got back on the boats and ran Unkar Rapid, class 4-7 with a  drop of 25 feet, with Julia Rose back in the fish-eye position. And then we stopped at Escalante Canyon and took a long hike, two miles round-trip, up Escalante canyon. The canyon opens onto the river in a wide graveled creek bed, and winds up through narrowing walls to a box canyon, where we practiced some rock climbing to get up to the next level of canyon. After a bit of exploring we sat in whatever shade we could find to listen to Greg tell us the story of his grandfather and how he got started on the Colorado, and sadly, how he died in a small plane crash (he was a pilot as well as a river-runner). It was a moving experience to hear Nevills’ story, told by a grandson who exhibited the love and pride of his generations, and a real connection to the history and physical dimensions of the land he walked on and the water he floated. Listening to Greg’s story in the canyon and later, pondering it while sitting in the boat his grandfather built and Greg tediously reconditioned, I felt a connection to the canyon and the river that I don’t think I would have gained from any other experience. It makes me happy that in this age of bottom line economic and business models, that Greg is able to tell his family’s history and share his grandfather’s boat and I admire his continuation and fulfillment of the tradition. Hearing Greg yell his grandfather’s name in the rapid named after him provided me with a true sense of historical connection. It made me feel like I had been invited into a sacred space.

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Julia Rose got to fish-eye Nevills, a class 4-7 with a 16 foot drop (accented by Greg’s yelling out his grandfather’s name in memorial), but then we stopped to scout Hance, one of the bigger rapids of the trip so far, a much more technical class 7-8 with a nasty hole at the top and some big waves and a drop of 30 feet. It was my turn to fish-eye, my turn to throw my body around “like a linebacker” to keep the boat upright in the wettest ride of my white-water experience. It’s a limited view–your neck can only crane back so far when you’re kissing the deck, as the boat climbs roller coaster waves to the top, where you get a split second view of the rapid and the wave-train ahead, before plunging back down into the next trough. There’s no chance to anticipate the run, only to throw your body from side to side, sometimes extending head and shoulders beyond the perimeter of the deck and out over and into the water.

After Hance there are a couple of short ripples, and then “Sockdolager,” a well named class 5-7 with a 19 foot drop. Sockdolager is a word that can be dated back to use in the 1830s, which means “something unusually large or heavy,” or “a forceful, finishing blow,” as in finishing a fight. Below Sockdolager I switched back to the rear of the boat and let Julia Rose finish the day fish-eyeing. The last section of the day featured a good mix of rapids in a section of the canyon with close walls and some wild-looking fins protruding from the rock walls. Julia Rose ran Grapevine (class 6-7 and a 17 foot drop) in the fish-eye, and in the smaller rapids that followed, I was able to shoot video with my compact fuji camera. Greg, knowing I was filming, took us into the wave train of one of the rapids without warning Julia Rose (he tended to cheat the bigger holes in his small boat) and Julia Rose got a great ride on film. We finished out the day with some good fun rapids, including 83 Mile rapid, Zoraster, and Clear Creek, along with some good ripples.

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We finished the afternoon camping at Upper Cremation campsite. Julia Rose and I pitched a tent in a small sandy patch between boulders, up on a hill overlooking the landing site. The guides grilled steaks and made garlic mashed potatoes, and Terry and Amy told us about how they met years ago (the next day was their anniversary and they would be on the Sandra). They met back in the late 70s, when Terry spotted Amy driving on the highway and fell in love and followed her to a rest stop, where they chatted away the afternoon and made plans to meet on a later trip–she was returning to college dorm after a weekend trip). The guides made a deal out of saying goodbye to those of us who were hiking out the next morning (Julia Rose and I, and Ed Zifkin and his wife Sue, and their children Elena and Ben, who had both just graduated from college that spring); 5 new boaters were hiking into the canyon to continue the rest of the trip. It was sad to be be leaving the group without being able to see the rest of the canyon and share it with these people who we had become friends with very shortly. The guides pointed out (truthfully, I belive) how much they had enjoyed rafting with us all. It was a good group with good grace and small egos–everyone was friendly and unselfish and no one thought they were more special than anyone else on the trip. The monsoon season was coming on and it sprinkled and showered off and on all night. It was really too hot to be in the tent, but too wet not to be in the tent. A private group camped at Lower Cremation campsite, about 50 yards downstream from us, and they spread tents all over the hillside above their beach, yelled at one another, and played loud music for much of the evening before finally settling down for the night, proving that even in the Grand Canyon you can’t completely get away from assholes.  

The Grand Canyon/Colorado River Oar Trip: Day 5, Part I

 

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July 18, 2017

On day five Julia Rose and I awake eager to begin our day on the Sandra. We have an easy job of packing up for the morning, since we don’t have a tent to break down, and after breakfast and helping load the rafts, we go wait for Greg to give us our special instructions for passengering on the Sandra.

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Lee’s Ferry, AZ, August 2016–The story of the Sandra goes back over a year before this day. A few years ago my wife and I made the decision that for their 16th birthdays, our daughters could choose a trip anywhere in the continental United States. Last summer, just after Julia Rose turned 15, our family was heading home following a vacation to Colorado, Utah, and Arizona. We stopped off at Lee’s Ferry so I could finally see the legendary put-in I’d read about for so many years. There were several groups getting ready to go down the river. A couple of private boaters had oar rafts rigged and ready to float, and there were some commercial trips getting ready. I watched a woman swamper rolling out a massive raft and inflate the air chambers, and I talked to one of the guides getting ready to take a group of scientists and elected officials, along with members of an American Indian tribe with cultural connections to the canyon gear up. Since it was late in the day the guides were rigging out the boats in preparation for a morning launch.

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Rigging a large motorized passenger raft at Lee’s Ferry, 2015

As I was Geeking out over the rafts, talking to guides and crew outfitting their boats, and explaining to Julia Rose what I knew about the river and the trips that went down it, she made the decision that she wanted to raft the Grand Canyon for her sixteenth birthday. The decision made me happy, since it meant that I would get to accompany her and finally get to live one of  my dreams.

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Norm Nevills at Bright Angel Beach, 1947 (courtesy Wikipedia)

As we headed toward home across Arizona, my wife scrolled through her phone, reading descriptions of the trip options for the following summer. As a boater, and as someone who knew that this might be my one chance to see the canyon from river level, I rejected trip after trip. Most of the trips were motorized, giant passenger rafts. I didn’t want the silence of the canyon to be marred by the sound of motors, and I didn’t want to sit on a giant raft like a passenger on a tour bus.  I wanted Julia Rose to experience the river on a smaller boat, where she could feel the size of the waves and get wet, where she could come to appreciate the artistry of a guide angling the boat into the waves and holes, where she could bail and pump water after a rapid, where she could experience the potential danger of a flipped raft and a cold swim, and where she could take in the wonders of the canyon, quietly reflecting on the flat sections, and talk to a guide one-on-one, and listen to his jokes and stories and take a turn on the oars in the slow water. I reasoned, correctly, that we were much more likely to encounter a higher quality of fellow clients on an oar trip–people like us who appreciate quiet wanted to engage with the river on a more personal level. As we drove, we focused in on the oar trips (much fewer than I anticipated), weighing options.

Lisa finally read a description of the upper canyon section of the river slated for mid-July, a trip that featured oar-rafts and no motorized support for the gear. The detail that sealed the deal, the one sentence that led me to choose Canyoneers, and our particular trip, was the fact that it featured a historic cataract boat built by Norm Nevills.

I didn’t remember all the details about Nevills, about his running the first commercial trips through the canyon and taking the first women end to end, but I knew the name from having read a book, over 30 years earlier, titled River Runners of the Grand Canyon. Off and on through the years I had studied the history of river running through the canyon, beginning with Wallace Stegner’s Beyond the Hundredth Meridian and the explorations of John Wesley Powell,  and tracing its history all the way to the young adult fiction of Will Hobbs and his book Downriver. Over the years I have marvelled at the courage, audacity, willpower, grit, foolishness, cleverness, and pride of those first men who built wooden boats and pushed them into the river. The opportunity to touch a bit of history, to experience the rapids in a handbuilt boat, to feel the movement of the river in the same way that some of  the earliest runners had felt it, was the only way that I could imagine my (for all I know) once in a lifetime Grand Canyon run.

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We booked the trip while driving across Arizona, and I began to plan and dream. I even gave Julia Rose Riverrunners so she could read up on the history and have an appreciation for just what a trip through the canyon promised.

Throughout our early days in the canyon, Julia Rose and felt a real sense of anticipation as we watched others ride the Sandra ahead of us and waited our turn. I don’t think we could have picked a better day to ride the Sandra. It’s a small boat, probably 14 feet, made out of marine plywood and painted white with green trim. It has a regular prow and a square stern, but it’s designed to float square stern down river. Otherwise, the current would push the square stern making the boat difficult to maneuver. Like all river runners, Greg has outfitted his boat to suite his personality, so the Sandra sports a variety of animal figures–from a plastic Gila monster to a Teddy bear (to remember his son while he’s away on the river)–lashed to the deck and cockpits. Inside a waterproof hatch, there’s a picture of his grandfather and grandmother in a cataract boat, laminated and glued to the inside hatch cover.

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Cockpit for the pilot and the second passenger

In operation, the guide sits in the middle of the boat in a little cockpit, and one passenger rides in a second cockpit  immediately behind the pilot. This passenger operates a bilge pump and bail bucket and gets a bird’s eye view of the rapids over the guide’s shoulders. The second passenger rides on a mat strapped to the deck in front of the guide, and in the rapid has to lay prone on the deck of the boat, legs spread out in a V, holding on to two grab loops at the front (stern) of the boat. The front passenger’s face is just above the water level, since the boat only has a foot or two of freeboard above the water line. In the big rapids the front passenger gets an eye-level view of the waves, and a very wet ride. As Greg explained, the front passenger has to pay attention to the holes and troughs in the river and throw his or her weight on the downriver side to help prevent the boat from flipping. Nevills called this “fish-eying.”

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Fish-eyeing

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The Grand Canyon/Colorado River Oar Trip: Day 4

July 17, 2016

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Packing up for the day

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Sunrise at Lower Saddle Campsite

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Daylight at Lower Saddle

Julia Rose and I had originally scheduled with Greg Reiff to passenger on the Sandra, today, the short, wooden cataract boat built by Greg’s grandfather, Norman Nevills, one of the first commercial boaters in the canyon. It only takes two passengers, and Greg likes to get as many people on the boat as possible on a trip so that they can have a real historical perspective on boating in wooden boats. However, the day before, Ethan had warned us that Day 4 was much like Day 3 in terms of lack of big water and excitement. One of the reasons to ride on the Sandra is the excitement afforded by lying face down on the front deck, face just above the water level, holding on with two hand straps, and crashing through the rapids–Nevilles and Greg call it “fish-eyeing.” So the night before, I asked Greg if it would be okay to delay our time on the Sandra a day, since Day 5 promised lots of big rapids. Greg accommodated and let a more timid couple ride that day, and we teamed up with Terry and Amy and Don on Ethan’s raft.

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River guides’ solution to the wear and tear of the desert on sandaled feet

Terry and Amy are Arizona natives making their third trip down the canyon, and they will be celebrating their 36th wedding anniversary on the river (by design, actually riding the Sandra). Terry is a retired engineer for the state and Amy a second or third grade school teacher. They’ve left Arizona and moved to Oregon, near Bend, and they’re a very cool couple. Terry likes to hike and we chatted a good bit on various hikes. Amy is gregarious and funny, easy to tease and teases back. It was a relaxing day on the boat because there was time to talk and observe the canyon while Ethan rowed. They will celebrate their anniversary on Day 6, the day we climb out of the canyon, and that is the day they’ve reserved for the Sandra. Terry and I had hiked together for a while going up Saddle canyon the day before.

We’re surprised to learn that Ethan is younger than he looks, though he looks fairly young. I would have put him in his late 20s, but turns out he’s still in his early 20s and has been working the river since he was 17. The guides on the equipment boats are apprentice boaters, working for tips and experience. Ethan worked his way up pretty quickly, due to his skill with the boat, which is obvious, and his easy-going personality. He’s a good leader. He tells us that when gets off a long river trip he always takes in an afternoon movie to soak up the air conditioning and the dark of the theatre.

The morning broke clearer than day 3, with little trace of smoke. We weren’t sure if the fire had burned itself out or if the wind had shifted or if we had just paddled out of the downwind stream. It turned out to be the latter of the two, since the fire was still burning weeks after the trip ended. Not long after we got on the river we passed Nankoweap Canyon and one of the bigger rapids of the day, Nankoweap Rapid which drops 25 feet through a long, sweeping left hand curve–lots of splash and quite long, but not very technical. High above the river under an overhang of the cliff the ancients built pueblo style granaries that dates back to 1100. The overhang had been walled off with tightly fitted adobe bricks, which formed rooms that held grain and seeds and protected them from rodents and decay. From the river four rectangular windows are clearly visible.

As we floated Terry and Amy told stories about their kids and each other. A motorized oar rig passed us and Amy knew someone on the other raft, someone she had taught with before, so it prompted a shouted exchange and kept Amy telling stories about her friend for a few miles.

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lunch stop

The highlight of the day was an afternoon stop at the confluence of the Little Colorado River. Because of the high alkaline content and other minerals the water is eye-hurting turquoise blue. We hiked up the upstream bank of the Little about a quarter mile where a nice fast chute of water poured through a narrows. We took turns floating the chute in our life jackets, and in between swimming we rested under the shade of an overhang. Some of the rafters hung out beside some big boulders and made handprint designs by dipping their hands in the mud and laying them on the rock.

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Confluence of Little Colorado River and the Colorado

 

20160717_121931We camp at Upper Tanner, which is a wide delta where the cliffs draw back from the river and we get the sense of wide desert, the feel of being hemmed in by the canyon forgotten for the evening. Julia Rose and I pick out a campsite below a short cliff  near the boat landing, but decide to move further away from the rocks  after watching a long thin snake cross our campsite and disappear into some brush on the other side. Clearly his territory, and while non-poisonous, unsettling enough to encourage us to move.

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Looking across the valley from Tanner

Greg Reiff leads a group on a half mile hike to get a close up look at “Newspaper Rock,” a cluster of rocks on a hill that have dozens of petroglyphs carved into them. The site suggests that the area was heavily visited, most likely farmed hundreds of years ago, and important for whatever ceremonial, spiritual, or communal reasons that can be inferred. A teacher by trade, Greg establishes rules about not touching anything, but then leads the group in thinking about the importance of respect for cultural artifacts, comparing the site to the churches, temples, and synagogues of the Western and near-Eastern worlds. Sitting on the rocks near “Newspaper Rock,” we have a nice view of the river and a wide valley within the canyon.

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Ed Zifkin, Greg Reiff (Sandra cataract boat), Erin Brugler (hike guide)

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Don Schumm, Ira Wagner, Amy Burks, Terry Burks

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Terry Burks, Glenn Sherratt, Sue Feldman, Elena Zifkin

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Ed Zifkin, Chris Adakai, Erin Brugler

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The evening is windy, blowing sand, and after a supper of spaghetti and meatballs, Omar and Greg stop by our campsite for a little while. For some reason we end up talking about Racism and the deep South, which Omar can appreciate since he grew up in Virginia with a Nicaraguan mother. Greg was flabbergasted by the stories Julia Rose and I told about the pickup truck parades flying Confederate battle flags in reaction to the black church shooting in South Carolina and talks about taking the rebel flags off of Southern capitols and state flags. That such a thing is still an issue is a concept that Greg, a true Westerner, can’t seem to wrap his head around. Chris, a friend of Leo’s  sets up a dome tent, fearing rain, and while we talk, the canyon walls in the distance color and darken with the setting sun. Sure enough, during the night we get a heavy sprinkle and a few people break out the rafting company’s dome tents and set them up by headlamp. Julia Rose and I debate setting one up, but decide it’s too much trouble and the rain blows over before we could have gotten it set up anyway.

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Omar Martinez, Julia Rose, Greg Reiff

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Evening at Tanner

 

On the National Mall, Jan 1, 2017

 

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Lincoln Memorial

 

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On the step where Martin Luther King Jr. gave the “I Have a Dream  Speech”

 

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Korean War Memorial 1

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Korean War Memorial 2

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Korean War Memorial 3

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Korean War Memorial 4

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Vietnam War Memorial

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Temple Green and Revenge, Part I

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Temple Green and Revenge, Creative Nonfiction

February 19, 2017

Today I saw Temple Green, a color that carried me back, not pleasantly, to 1984 and 85.

I have written before about the company that I worked for those two years: Temple Eastex, a forest products corporation that owned a half-million acres of timberland in East Texas, which it used to feed its manufacturing facilities that produced corrugated fiberboard, particleboard, oriented strand board, and gypsum wallboard, among other things. The company later merged into Temple-Inland, and recently was absorbed by International Paper. But at the time I worked in its particleboard division in its most far-flung outpost, in Thompson, Georgia, it had a definite Texas attitude. Imagine a management team of pint-sized cowboys who imagined themselves as John Wayne and sported metaphorical over-sized Stetsons and spurs.

Today, driving from Houston, Texas toward my home in Arkansas, I drove through Diboll, the hometown of Temple-Eastex, and I caught a glimpse of one of their buildings, distinctive from its color.

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In 1984 I got my first job out of college working as a quality control supervisor. The mill was housed in a building fifty yards wide and a quarter mile long, with metal siding painted a drab yellow-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 dusted the cars in the parking lot and formed windrows on the ground that looked like cream colored snow.

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, John, 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 two “problems” in my department–two technicians whose main crime proved to be that they 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 I learned that I was doing a bad thing 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 and 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 on 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 fatherly 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 upstairs to his office.

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 physics. 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.”

 

Hurricane, a Prose Poem

Job.  It was an appropriate book for the weather because, after all, Job’s troubles had started with tornadoes striking the house where his sons and daughters were feasting, killing them all.  Hubert listened to the wind shake his house and thought about the book of Psalms, where King David had written:

He makes winds his messengers,

flames of fire his servants.”

He wondered what the wind had to tell him tonight. Probably nothing. Maybe, that it was time to go out in the storm and let God have his way. That painter on the coast had done it. Anderson. Walter Anderson. Rowed a boat out into the Gulf of Mexico, clear out to Horn Island, tied himself to a tree and howled into the throat of a  hurricane. He was dying too. Cancer. The storm didn’t get him though. The cancer did.

Everything was in order, he guessed. The will was signed, cattle records filed, pass book and insurance policies locked in the safe-deposit box. His lawyer knew where everything was, and Caleb wouldn’t have any trouble sorting out his affairs.  He’d already made the arrangements at the funeral home—everything paid for.

There were worse ways to go out than in a storm. God spoke to Job out of the whirlwind. Jesus calmed the waters. He would be with his cattle, and that’s where anybody who knew him would expect to find him. Out in the field with his cattle. That’s where Caleb would know to look.

He rolled another cigarette and thought about it, picked up his matches and lit it and took a deep drag. He coughed it out, eyes watering, and waited until he could take another pull.

When he finished the cigarette he ground it out in the ashtray and dropped the butt in a mason jar about half full of butts, insurance against a day with no makings.

He set the Bible on the table beside his chair and stood up to go.

Walking Train Tracks on Superbowl Sunday

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February 4, 2017

It was a warm day for February, mid fifties with a mild wind and overcast skies but no rain. Mid-afternoon, I had an afternoon to kill, waiting for the Superbowl to come on tv, waiting on my daughter, who was dancing at the ballet studio all afternoon and into the evening, (halftime to be exact, before she finished and we could make the hour drive home; she wanted to watch Lady Gaga, so we sat in the lobby of the studio for another fifteen minutes and watched the spectacle).

A couple of miles from the studio Two Rivers Park sits at the junction of the Little Maumelle River and the Arkansas River. There’s a big parking area, a boat ramp, and a bicycle/pedestrian bridge that crosses the mouth of the Little Maumelle and connects the Two Rivers trail to the Arkansas River Trail, which runs all the way downtown on the south side of the river and splits to cross the Big Dam Bridge and run into North Little Rock on the north side of the Arkansas. It being Sunday afternoon the parking lot was full and the Two Rivers trail, paved for bicycles, was busy. Railroad tracks ran west, toward cone-shaped Pinnacle Mountain in the distance, the tracks squeezed between a steep bluff and the Little Maumelle River. Opting for time away from crowds, I followed the tracks and soon found myself alone, following the curve of the rails as it paralleled the curves of the river.

I’ve got a history with railroad tracks dating back to my early teenage years, when a friend and I used the tracks near his house to get out of the neighborhood he lived in and into what passed for near-country despite being in the middle of a mid-sized Mississippi town. We’d lay our ears on the rails and try to detect approaching trains, like American Indians or train robbers in the movies, but never really heard anything even when we could see the big diesel engines a quarter mile down the track. We’d lay coins on the rails and wait for the train to flatten them into silver and copper pancakes. We’d collect rusted railroad spikes and look for blue-glass insulators at the base of utility poles that often ran beside the tracks. The benefit of railroad tracks is that they usually go cross-country, where highways and streets seldom seem to go. Unlike cars, trains don’t need to stop, or turn off or lead to houses or businesses, so in just a few minutes of walking, it can feel like you’re miles from nowhere. Traffic noises dissipate, trees crowd up close to the right of way, and the gentle curves provide an incentive to find out what’s around the next bend. Walking the rails, I’m reminded of Hemingway’s young hero Nick Adams, walking the rails and riding the trains to get away from something, or to get somewhere new and promising.

In college I rented a room in a house that sat on the edge of town. Behind the house railroad tracks led off into the country, and beside the tracks for a long way was a nice creek with steep banks and wonderful hardwoods. Across the creek stretched the experimental farmland of Mississippi State University’s College of Agriculture, several hundred acres. Afternoons I would gather my books and head off down the tracks and walk as far as I wanted until I found a nice place to study in the woods that sheltered the creek.

Despite the peaceful setting, passing trains never failed to excite the little boy inside of me. The deep throb of the diesel engines, the wave of the engineer, the screeching metal-on-metal of the wheels, remind me of the excitement Walt Whitman felt in his poem, “To a Locomotive in Winter”:

. . . .
Fierce-throated beauty!	 
Roll through my chant with all thy lawless music, thy swinging lamps at night,
Thy madly-whistled laughter, echoing, rumbling like an earthquake, rousing all,	  
Law of thyself complete, thine own track firmly holding,	 
(No sweetness debonair of tearful harp or glib piano thine,)	 
Thy trills of shrieks by rocks and hills return’d,	
Launch’d o’er the prairies wide,across the lakes,	 
To the free skies unpent and glad and strong.

Although there were no trains running today, it was pleasant to be outdoors. The Little Maumelle, about 40 yards wide at the mouth, narrowing to twenty by the time I had hiked two miles, barely registered a flow as it was backed up behind Big Dam Bridge. But the tracks were covered in fallen leaves, oak and hickory, and fat acorns had dropped between the ties. I tossed a few tie spikes and some rusted bolts into the river to hear the deep splash. The bluff towered above me on the left, a couple of hundred feet in places, and at the end of my walk I came upon a small marina on the far bank, with a tiny houseboat built on a small barge, and I watched a fat dog waddle down the gangplank onto the boat. In the marina a pontoon boat sported a confederate flag. I turned back toward the park where my car was, and as I walked back a few squirrels scampered across the tracks and up on the ridge a deer walked through the trees, silhouetted against the sky behind him.