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.”

 

In Honor of Father’s Day

The following is a re-post  of a section from a Nonfiction piece titled “The Tools We Work With.” The essay itself was a part of the introduction to my dissertation, which explored the idea of creative writing as work. My father, Clarence Engel, certainly taught me the meaning and value of hard work.

 

When I was thirteen I took my first job outside my father’s supervision. A man hired me for two weeks to help gut a church sanctuary that he had contracted to remodel. My father’s jobs were slow and he could spare me. When I took the job, the way my parents treated me changed. My father bought a pair of lace up boots for me, where I had always worn tennis shoes to work before. My mother worried that I had enough sandwiches and coke money for lunch. She made my father talk to me about how to conduct myself on a real job. He said something like “Just do what they tell you.”

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The best part of the job was being paid to destroy. The man who hired me didn’t say ten complete sentences to me the whole two weeks. He wasn’t much bigger than me, and his silence and his close set eyes made me nervous. I started on a row of tall, frosted glass windows that had to be torn out and replaced with stained glass. I used a hammer and chisel, removing the brick around the sills one at a time. Mortar dust dried my throat and tasted of lime. I admired the straight lines of my work, the way the whole bricks stacked into a neat pile. When the man came to check on me, I stepped to one side to show him the layer of brick I had chipped out, the unbroken window glass. He picked up a sledge hammer from the floor, handed it to me and said, “That’s real pretty, but let’s see how hard you can swing this thing.” He pointed at the row of windows left in the sanctuary and I understood that on some jobs fast was better than pretty.

I began to notice weather while working for my father, something I had always taken for granted. We worked in attics where the summertime temperatures reached one-hundred and forty degrees, and in the cold and rain and mud where I layered my clothing to stay warm and dry. The weather gave each day, each job, a different set of problems to overcome, and intensified my sense of satisfaction as we loaded the tools and drove home in the pickup. Even now, when I drive through my home town and see the houses and businesses where I helped my father install a heating and cooling system, pour a foundation, or snake out a drain, I remember the weather better than the work.

Over the years my father mashed his fingers, crawled on his hands and knees under floors and across attics, burned himself with acetylene torches and acid, and was electrified once as he stood on a ladder and gripped a piece of conduit that wasn’t grounded properly. The electricity held his grip until someone thought to shut off the breaker. Another time, while trimming a section of air conditioning duct with tin snips, he ran a two inch sliver of jagged metal completely through his thumb. He wrapped a handkerchief around the thumb to catch the blood and drove to the doctor’s office. The doctor dabbed at the chunk of metal with alcohol, jerked it out with a pair of pliers, and wrapped his thumb in gauze. My father looked at his thumb as we were driving back to the job. “I should’ve done that myself,” he said. “It would have been free and it wouldn’t hurt any less.”

When I was seventeen years old my father was buried alive for thirty-five minutes. He was on his hands and knees at the bottom of a ten foot ditch, tapping a new drain into the city sewer line, when one side of the ditch sluffed off and buried him under seven feet of earth. The opening in the pipe and the air pocket his body made allowed him to breathe.

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My older brother Gary was working for my father that day. Gary said the backhoe operator was afraid to dig with his bucket. “I’ll take his head off if I go too deep,” the man said. Gary called the man a son of a bitch and said, “My daddy will be dead anyway if you don’t crank that thing up.”

The backhoe took off three feet of earth while my brother went for help. Soon, ten men were digging with shovels and hands, getting in each other’s way. My father told me he could hear the digging. He said that he thought about his brothers and sisters, and about my mother and Gary and me. He was sure that his life had come to an end.  Gary told me that they first uncovered one of his hands, and he heard my father call out that he was still alive. Afterward, a reporter asked my father what he planned to do next and he said, “I’m going home and spend time with my sons.”

I still have the clipping from the front page of the newspaper. The headline reads: “Tupelo Man Prays For Second Chance While Buried Alive.” The picture shows my father sitting on a pile of dirt with the hole in the foreground, staring down the street with a faraway look, and Gary beside him, looking scared. When I came home from my own job that afternoon, my father met me on the driveway and hugged me, hard. He was crying, and dirty in a way that could only come from being buried. There was grit in his eyebrows and teeth and ears, pressed into his skin so that he still smelled of soil the next day. He was sore for days afterward, but otherwise unhurt.

 

My father didn’t talk much about the experience, but once he told me how long thirty-five minutes really is. I don’t remember any changes in my father’s relationship with Gary and me. We were close before the accident, and remained close afterward.  I didn’t understand how his death would have affected me that day because I didn’t experience the fear firsthand. I remember being embarrassed by his embrace, by the display of emotion. I wouldn’t understand what had happened for years to come.

Just after he bought the pickup, my father had a magnetic sign made for each door reading “Engel Repair Service” in red, with our telephone number and the type of work spelled out beneath in blue letters. Sometimes he talked about my brother and I going into business with him after we graduated from high school, but we both went to college instead.

The Tools We Work With, Part VII

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My uncle was a lineman who told me that he could get me into the electrical workers’ union, and that they would send me out on construction building high voltage powerlines. He sent me to talk to the local IBEW business agent. I assumed it would be like any other job interview, so I dressed in a sport coat, tie and slacks, and carried a copy of my resume. The union hall was a prefabricated metal building on a street lined with huge oak trees. I parked my Toyota next to the door, underneath the sign that read:  THIS PARKING LOT RESERVED FOR AMERICAN MADE CARS ONLY. ALL OTHERS WILL BE TOWED. I went inside and told the receptionist my business.  She pointed to a chair and told me it would be a few minutes. There were two other men waiting, dressed in work boots, jeans, flannel shirts. When they went in to see the business agent I put my tie in my pocket.

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The man sat behind a desk backed by an American flag and the union creed tacked to the wall behind him. The ashtray on his desk overflowed with cigarette butts.  He wasn’t interested in my experience. He knew my uncle and I assume my job was in payment of a favor, or in return for a favor, whatever. He told me how to fix my application so it would show more construction experience than I really had. I paid eighty dollars for the privilege of joining the union, placed my hand over my heart and  read the creed aloud–a lot of stuff about brotherhood, pride, and dedication to craft.  The agent told me to report to work the next day to a Tennessee Valley Authority crew building a line in Nashville.

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The TVA is a federal agency that provides flood control and cheap electricity along a seven-state corridor bounding the Tennessee River valley. The first week my crew was assigned to tear down a powerline that had never been used, working East, away from the cooling tower of a nuclear reactor that never went on line. I never understood the reason, something to do with the recession, or poor planning, but that ghost of a powerline stretching across the Cumberland Plateau left an incredible scar.

There was a wiry man on the crew named Willis, who was waiting out the two years to retirement by doing just enough to stay employed. He drove the crew truck from headquarters to the job site, and back, and spent the rest of the day trying to stay in the shade. The job was thirty miles down the interstate. The first morning Willis turned to me and said, “I’m going to run this truck at thirty-five miles an hour and there’s not a damn thing they can do about it, because I’m practicing safe driving techniques.”  Apparently, Willis thought the highways much safer in the afternoons, because he ran the crew truck at fifty-five.

After a week a man visited our crew and asked me if I would like to enter the apprentice lineman program. “You’re tall,” he said. “I bet you’d make a good lineman.  You can reach things.” I said it sounded fine to me, as much to get off the ground and away from Willis as anything else.

The next day I entered the first year of my apprenticeship and was sent to work two-hundred feet up a tower. I’d never been aware of a fear of heights, but as I climbed my stomach went slack and my hands hurt from gripping the steel so hard. In the motel room, I couldn’t sleep for dreams about falling. During the day I didn’t have any appetite because I dreaded my next climb. I didn’t trust my equipment–my safety or my padded leather belt–or my grip. It was like that for a few weeks.

TVA guys build new towers after tornado

TVA guys build new towers after tornado

One day in January I went up a tower with a fourth-year apprentice called “Bones.” The tower was set in a field of green winter wheat, in a valley surrounded by mountains. The sky was gray with light rain, the temperature hovered at freezing.  The towers were T-shaped. The girder section formed the top of the T, and at the ends of the girder the wire was suspended by a string of ceramic insulators. Bones and I climbed a hundred and eighty feet to the top of the tower and out to the end of the girder, where there was nothing between us and the ground but empty space. My legs trembled. One foot danced across the steel and I concentrated on making it stop, hoping Bones wouldn’t notice.

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We were stringing fiber optic cable for MCI, something new for TVA, and were having a bad time learning how to do it. The weather grew worse and after an hour we were no closer to being finished than when we’d started. The sky behind the mountain went black and came at us like a wall, as if the mountain was tilting over, rolling onto us.  The wind rose and threatened to blow us off if we let go of the steel. “It’s thirty miles an hour if it’s anything,” Bones yelled in my ear. The rain turned to snow mixed with ice that stung my face and flew so thick the white crew trucks were invisible. A trash fire at the base of the tower scattered across the field and blew out. When I looked back at the tower legs, the steel had begun to ice. “We’d better wait it out up here,” Bones yelled, pointing at the ice.

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The foreman yelled up at us but his voice couldn’t carry over the wind. Bones waved. The ground crew piled into the trucks. I thought about heat flowing from beneath the dash around my feet, about a bath, and clothes fresh from the dryer. There was hot coffee in my thermos and I wondered if they were drinking it in the crew truck.

Bones took out a pack of Marlboros and shook one out for me. We turned out collars up and smoked and talked over the wind and the ice rattling off our hardhats.  There is something very comforting about a cigarette when you’re iced into a tower and can’t see the ground.  That tiny glow of heat makes you think about warmth, reminds you that it exists somewhere. I don’t know what it was, but something about waiting out that storm with Bones made it all right to climb. I was still scared after that, but I began to grow out of it, and started to develop confidence in myself, something I’d never experienced on any other job before that.

The Tools We Work With, Part V

Crossties stacked for air drying

Crossties stacked for air drying

I found another job in the forest products industry, this time with Kerr-McGee as a yard supervisor in a railroad crosstie treating plant. I was in charge of a crew that graded the ties that came in from sawmills on trucks and railcars, and stacked the ties to air dry. A city had grown up around the plant, but the yard–twenty acres of ties stacked in ricks forty feet high, and half a dozen rail sidings–was as insulated from the rest of town as any wilderness. Pigeons roosted in the stacks, and the plant manager–this one a soft spoken man who jogged ten miles a day to relieve stress and who encouraged me to take vitamins–worried about pigeon shit on his crossties. We worked six days a week, ten to twelve hours a day. On Saturdays he asked the supervisors to bring shotguns to work and shoot the pigeons.

The work wasn’t hard. Mainly I had to maintain an accurate tie inventory, bug the maintenance supervisor to keep my machinery running, and stop other supervisors from stealing my fork lift and driver. The plant manager never complained about production or down time. In fact, he never seemed interested in the supervisors’ problems. I worried that eventually there would be a price to pay.

Incising and stacking crossties for air drying

Incising and stacking crossties for air drying

Hunting pigeons made the work more interesting. I would slip through stacks of crossties towering overhead like canyon walls. But the pigeons were wary. I rarely got a clean shot. Usually, they flew away unscathed. After a few weeks the employees—almost all black—began to complain about the guns. I hadn’t thought about it until one day I made the connection. Supervisors wore uniforms of bright blue shirts and dark khaki pants, white hardhats, and because we were outdoors all day, dark-lensed safety glasses. In the moment I looked up to see my friend Alan, another yard supervisor, standing with his shotgun perched on his hip, scanning the sky for pigeons, and behind him a crew of black men—all wearing their dark tan uniforms—working the yard. It looked like a scene right out of Cool Hand Luke. I could understand why it made them nervous.

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After I had been with Kerr-McGee about three months, several corporate vice-presidents scheduled an inspection of our plant. We had been working twelve hour days for six days a week, trying to get the yard ready, but it was still a mess. The evening that they were to arrive–the plant manager had already left to meet them at the airport–a man named Charlie was killed in an accident. Another crew was loading treated ties into open railcars for shipment. After they filled a car they would push it out of the way with a forklift and push an empty car into place. Charlie was riding the loaded car. His job was to secure the handbrake when the car rolled clear. Maybe the brake didn’t work, or maybe Charlie lost his nerve and didn’t set it properly. The railcar rolled down a slight incline and picked up speed, and Charlie saw that his car was going to bump a string of cars at the bottom of the hill. Instead of jumping off the car, he climbed inside. When the cars bumped, six tons of crossties, slippery with creosote oil, shifted into Charlie, pinning him against the end of the car.

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The work went on for a while. The crew filled another railcar and pushed it down the grade, but it was about then that the foreman realized he hadn’t seen Charlie since the previous car. He called over the radio that he thought Charlie was hurt–he couldn’t find him. Everyone who heard the call ran for that end of the yard.

When we found Charlie it didn’t look so bad. Another railcar had slammed into his car and shifted the load off him by the principle of equal but opposite reaction, like those desk sets where steel balls clack against each other–swing two balls into the line and two are bumped away on the other end while the balls in the middle don’t move.  Charlie was unmarked except for a bloody lip. He wore sunglasses and a smile that reminded me of the way Stevie Wonder looked when he played the piano. He was unconscious, but we didn’t know that everything inside was crushed. I climbed into the railcar and helped immobilize Charlie on a stretcher, then helped pass his body over the side of the car to those waiting below.

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The Tools We Work With, Part III: Particleboard

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My first job out of college I was hired as a quality control supervisor in a particleboard mill in Georgia. The mill was housed in a building fifty yards wide and a quarter mile long, with metal siding painted a dirty pale 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 blow-lines 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.

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The company was based in Texas, but the particleboard division had mills in Alabama and New Hampshire as well. In college I had studied forest products and had worked for another particleboard company through cooperative education. The man who supervised my co-op job had told me that I could expect to work sixty to seventy hours a week in management, and that dedication to the company, good intentions, and hard work would ensure promotion. That sounded right and I was willing to make any sacrifice for the company. But everything I thought about how big business operated turned out to be wrong.

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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, 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.”

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The Tools We Work With, Part II

When I was thirteen I took my first job outside my father’s supervision. A man hired me for two weeks to help gut a church sanctuary that he had contracted to remodel. My father’s jobs were slow and he could spare me. When I took the job, the way my parents treated me changed. My father bought a pair of lace up boots for me, where I had always worn tennis shoes to work before. My mother worried that I had enough sandwiches and coke money for lunch. She made my father talk to me about how to conduct myself on a real job. He said something like “Just do what they tell you.”

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The best part of the job was being paid to destroy. The man who hired me didn’t say ten complete sentences to me the whole two weeks. He wasn’t much bigger than me, and his silence and his close set eyes made me nervous. I started on a row of tall, frosted glass windows that had to be torn out and replaced with stained glass. I used a hammer and chisel, removing the brick around the sills one at a time. Mortar dust dried my throat and tasted of lime. I admired the straight lines of my work, the way the whole bricks stacked into a neat pile. When the man came to check on me, I stepped to one side to show him the layer of brick I had chipped out, the unbroken window glass. He picked up a sledge hammer from the floor, handed it to me and said, “That’s real pretty, but let’s see how hard you can swing this thing.” He pointed at the row of windows left in the sanctuary and I understood that on some jobs fast was better than pretty.

I began to notice weather while working for my father, something I had always taken for granted. We worked in attics where the summertime temperatures reached one-hundred and forty degrees, and in the cold and rain and mud where I layered my clothing to stay warm and dry. The weather gave each day, each job, a different set of problems to overcome, and intensified my sense of satisfaction as we loaded the tools and drove home in the pickup. Even now, when I drive through my home town and see the houses and businesses where I helped my father install a heating and cooling system, pour a foundation, or snake out a drain, I remember the weather better than the work.

Over the years my father mashed his fingers, crawled on his hands and knees under floors and across attics, burned himself with acetylene torches and acid, and was electrified once as he stood on a ladder and gripped a piece of conduit that wasn’t grounded properly. The electricity held his grip until someone thought to shut off the breaker. Another time, while trimming a section of air conditioning duct with tin snips, he ran a two inch sliver of jagged metal completely through his thumb. He wrapped a handkerchief around the thumb to catch the blood and drove to the doctor’s office. The doctor dabbed at the chunk of metal with alcohol, jerked it out with a pair of pliers, and wrapped his thumb in gauze. My father looked at his thumb as we were driving back to the job. “I should’ve done that myself,” he said. “It would have been free and it wouldn’t hurt any less.”

When I was seventeen years old my father was buried alive for thirty-five minutes. He was on his hands and knees at the bottom of a ten foot ditch, tapping a new drain into the city sewer line, when one side of the ditch sluffed off and buried him under seven feet of earth. The opening in the pipe and the air pocket his body made allowed him to breathe.

buried alive article 1 clarence engel

My older brother Gary was working for my father that day. Gary said the backhoe operator was afraid to dig with his bucket. “I’ll take his head off if I go too deep,” the man said. Gary called the man a son of a bitch and said, “My daddy will be dead anyway if you don’t crank that thing up.”

The backhoe took off three feet of earth while my brother went for help. Soon, ten men were digging with shovels and hands, getting in each other’s way. My father told me he could hear the digging. He said that he thought about his brothers and sisters, and about my mother and Gary and me. He was sure that his life had come to an end.  Gary told me that they first uncovered one of his hands, and he heard my father call out that he was still alive. Afterward, a reporter asked my father what he planned to do next and he said, “I’m going home and spend time with my sons.”

I still have the clipping from the front page of the newspaper. The headline reads: “Tupelo Man Prays For Second Chance While Buried Alive.” The picture shows my father sitting on a pile of dirt with the hole in the foreground, staring down the street with a faraway look, and Gary beside him, looking scared. When I came home from my own job that afternoon, my father met me on the driveway and hugged me, hard. He was crying, and dirty in a way that could only come from being buried. There was grit in his eyebrows and teeth and ears, pressed into his skin so that he still smelled of soil the next day. He was sore for days afterward, but otherwise unhurt.

buried alive article 2 clarence engel

My father didn’t talk much about the experience, but once he told me how long thirty-five minutes really is. I don’t remember any changes in my father’s relationship with Gary and me. We were close before the accident, and remained close afterward.  I didn’t understand how his death would have affected me that day because I didn’t experience the fear firsthand. I remember being embarrassed by his embrace, by the display of emotion. I wouldn’t understand what had happened for years to come.

Just after he bought the pickup, my father had a magnetic sign made for each door reading “Engel Repair Service” in red, with our telephone number and the type of work spelled out beneath in blue letters. Sometimes he talked about my brother and I going into business with him after we graduated from high school, but we both went to college instead.

The Tools We Work With, Part I

“The Tools We Work With,” Part I

An essay originally published as the introduction to my dissertation, High Range Driving, and published in Cream City Review19.2, 1996

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I drove across a picket line with my father one Sunday afternoon when I was seven years old.  He was the maintenance foreman for DayBrite, a company that manufactured fluorescent light fixtures.  The people on strike carried signs with angry messages and blocked the gate, but they didn’t seem mad, or even particularly interested in their protest.  Men spoke to my father through the car window as they cleared a lane for us.  I knew some of them from the yearly Christmas party my father threw for his department.

My father had talked about the strike and I vaguely realized that something was wrong at DayBrite, but I didn’t know that crossing picket lines could have been dangerous somewhere else in the world, like Peoria or Detroit, or about how weak unions were in the South.  What interested me was that the mechanics who worked for my father used electric golf carts to carry their tools when they repaired machinery, and on Sundays, when my father went in to look over his paperwork and plan the week ahead,  I learned to drive in the  aisles of the plant.  For me, DayBrite and the world of my father’s work was more magical than DisneyLand.

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The cement floors were black from years of forklift tires and there was a constant low rumble like a furnace, the hiss of compressed air, and the smell of hydraulic oil.  We’d walk past the time cards and time clock, cross a grate full of a yellow liquid that I pretended was acid, and on to the plant floor–a five acre wilderness of tractor-sized hydraulic presses, piles of metal sheet,  and rows of conveyor assembly lines.  The walls of the maintenance department were lined with radiator hoses and belts, welder’s hoods, racks of steel pipe, calandar girls in bikinis who demonstrated the use of electric drills and pipe wrenches, and tools of all sorts–some that I knew how to use, and others more interesting because I could only imagine.

Ausstellung/ Verlorene Orte/ Axel Hansmann

My father would pick out the golf cart with the best charge, tell me to be careful, and I’d make my  rounds.  In the paint department bare metal fixtures hung from an overhead conveyor that ran all weekend.  The parts looked like the scattered bones of a skeleton, waiting to be sprayed with enamel paint and baked in the furnace.  I’d stop by the breakroom and check the vending machines for change.  The tables were littered with coffee cups, dirty napkins, dominoes and decks of cards.  Feral cats skulked along the aisles of the warehouse.

In 1970, when I was nine years old, my parents bought a newly constructed house in a suburb with unfinished streets.  The back fence, shaded by a six deep row of pine trees, marked the city limits.  Beyond the fence cattle grazed.  My mother worked as a secretary all day, and after cooking supper, she put in a full evening dusting and vacuuming.  My father came home from work dirty and tired.  The upholstery of his little Peugeot sedan smelled pleasantly of oil and grime.  Because of his dirty clothes he napped on the floor rather than the couch before starting in on projects around the house.  I helped him cover our sand lot with squares of sod, and then we burned off the honeysuckle under the pines, and built a shop in the back yard.

70s+Ranch

Not long after we bought the house, DayBrite fired my father.  He came home one afternoon, earlier than usual, and told us that he’d been called into the office and given a check with two weeks severance pay, been told to clean out his desk and locker.  “I’m not surprised,” he said.  “I’ve got a lot of sorry tails on my crew who lay out and drink and I tried to cover up for them.  I thought I was doing them a favor.”

My mother was afraid we might lose the house, and I’m sure she thought about her childhood.  She was the youngest of seven children who my grandmother raised through the Depression, alone, after my grandfather died in a farming accident; they lived in a house when my grandmother and the older children could find work, and in a canvas tent the rest of the time.

My father once told me that leaving DayBrite was the best thing that ever happened to him.  He put together a handful of tools and bought a new Chevrolet pickup, called friends who worked for electrical and plumbing supply houses, and found enough work to get by on.  Starting a new business from scratch was tough for my parents, but I was so caught up in the excitement of buying a pickup from the Chevrolet dealership and riding out on service calls with my father, that I didn’t notice.  I learned how to run copper tubing and cast iron plumbing, electrical wire, and air conditioning duct.  We poured concrete foundations and I learned the proper drainage grade for sewer lines.  My father paid me well.  I bought my first rifle with a telescopic sight, books and records, and even worked out a short-lived savings plan for a 1973 Chevy Nova that I spotted on the showroom floor when we were supposed to be looking at pickups.  It was yellow with a black interior, and I planned to pay cash when I received my driver’s license in 1976.

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I’ve always considered myself lucky to have spent so much time with my father as I grew up.  I knew more about how he earned a living than most kids my age, and even more, I was a part of his work.  My father attacked each job with a tireless energy.  He consumed whole cigarettes, blinking away the tears that the smoke brought to his eyes as he ran electric drills and cutting torches.  “Work” was not a place he disappeared to for eight hours each day; it was something he shared with my brother and I, and wrapped himself in most of his waking hours.