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.”

 

Jim Harrison: Novelist, Poet, Essayist (1938 – 2016)–A Love Story, Part I

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I found out today that one of my all time favorite authors, Jim Harrison, died yesterday. I discovered him at a time when I was beginning to develop a taste for literary fiction, sometime in college. I had grown up on comic books, whatever passed for young adult fiction at my school library, and a ton of mass market paperbacks, which I shopped for from spinning book racks in grocery and drugstores, where the choices were limited. My tastes ran to action, particularly anything to do with the west or WWII.  There were a few lucky finds (Catch 22, Mountain ManSerpico, M*A*S*H, Das Boot, When the Legends Die, and of course, the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, among others) and a lot of crap. This was in the 1970s, when paperbacks sold for two or three dollars, manageable on paper route and Burger King money.

Even in college, I had a rule where I only read for recreation between semesters or on summer break, but I was lucky enough to have a good friend who was an English major, who turned me on to Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire, J.D. Salinger, and Ernest Hemingway. As I got a taste of these authors, I grew hungry for more substantial reading, and so I turned to Trade Paperbacks, a significant investment since it more than doubled and most often tripled the cost of books, but publishers like Dell and Bantam were introducing new, cutting edge authors, and by then I was working factory jobs in the summers and then moved on to a salary when I graduated. I began to haunt the  bookstores like B.Dalton, focusing on the Trades.

I remember finding Legends of the Fall in a shoe box sized bookstore in a tiny mall in Tupelo, Mississippi, one summer while I was working a second shift on an assembly line making light fixtures. At the time I did my reading late at night, or in the late mornings and early afternoons before going in to the plant to sweat over the line.  The book is a collection of 3 novellas. The first, Revenge, told the story of a retired air force pilot who befriends a Mexican gang lord, falls in love with his wife and has an affair, and when discovered, is beaten and left for dead in the Mexican desert. Discovered by a peasant who delivers him to a missionary who is also a doctor, the novella traces the path for revenge on the drug lord, as well as the quest to reunite with the woman he fell in love with. The story is gritty and violent, and beautifully written. Among other things, it opened my eyes to Mexico and fueled a burgeoning love (first ignited by Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire) for Southwestern deserts.

The title piece of the collection, Legends of the Fall, opens memorably:

Late in October in 1914 three brothers rode from Choteau, Montana, to Calgary in Alberta to enlist in the Great War (the U.S. did not enter until 1917). An old Cheyenne named One Stab rode with them to return with the horses in tow because the horses were blooded and their father did not think it fitting for his sons to ride off to war on nags. One Stab knew all the shortcuts in the northern Rockies so their ride traversed wild country, much of it far from roads and settlements. They left before dawn with their father holding an oil lamp in the stable dressed in his buffalo robe, all of the silent, and the farewell breath he embraced them with rose in a small white cloud to the rafters.

Often described at Hemingwayesque, mistakenly, in reviews, Harrison’s writing was lyrical in style and mythical in scope. I fell in love, and I’ve been reading him ever since. Harrison is one of the reasons I wanted to become a writer. After Legends of the Fall, I went back and picked up Wolf, A Good Day to Die, and Farmer, and I’ve been collecting and reading him ever since. With over 21 volumes of fiction and a half dozen or more collections of poetry, there was a lot to read. Over the next few weeks I hope to share some of the better pieces I’ve found, and hope others will find him as well.

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