Thursday, May 10, 2012

Ditch Digger


When I was little, a common refrain from my mother was that if I didn't "get a good education"--in other words, "do well in school"--I would "end up being a ditch digger". There was no lower form of employment in Lynda's opinion.  

And, though it wasn't one of my proudest moments, I did, in fact end up digging ditches.

Well, 'end up' is really not accurate, because I only did it the one time, right out of high school.  I don't dig ditches any more.  To this current state of employment, more than anything, I attribute my education and by extension to Lynda and Bill.

But the more central point is that Lynda was right.  After I got out of High School, I could have gone right into UT with a scholarship, but I elected not to, choosing instead to buy a van and travel around the country with a friend.  The van we bought consumed my savings and died on the street shortly after purchase.  The friendship faded from view not long after that.

My parents and younger brother had moved to England during the summer after I graduated, so when the van trip fell through, I was stuck.  I had no place to stay and no place to work.  I was staying with a friend, looking for a place to live and a job.  I also had no skills to speak of.  Though I had worked as a busboy at The Barn, I had no experience as a waiter and found it was very hard to get hired at a 'real' restaurant.  I resolved not to work in a fast food place unless it was the last possible choice, so this meant actually eliminating the other choices, like ditch digging.

To be fair, I didn't set out to dig ditches.  I set out to get a job.  I had heard from a friend that it was possible to get work in construction that paid pretty well.  All you had to do was go down to the local laborers union, get a union card by paying your first month's dues (like $20) and show up at the hall early in the morning when the construction contractors came in looking for day laborers to take to their various job sites.

So that's what I did.  I got my union card and went to the hall down on South Lamar.  At first, I didn't get any work, because I didn't show up early enough and wasn't agressive enough about getting up to the front when the contractors came by.  For a few days, I sat in the hall and played dominoes with the old guys until the mid morning, when it was apparent that I wasn't going to work that day.  

Eventually I got up early enough and was pushy enough to get hired.  I jumped into a truck with about half a dozen other guys and we headed into town.  I was the only white guy on the truck, and when we got to the site I was most certainly in the minority.  I was definitely the only white guy among the day laborers, who were mostly black.  The welders and carpenters tended to be white, while the painters and the concrete guys were mostly hispanic.

We were dropped off at the corner of Sixth and Congress, where the new American Bank Tower was going up.  In stark contrast to the shiny gold 'saltine box' look of the newest bank building over on 6th and Colorado, which was emulating the high Dallas fashion of the time, the American Bank building was solid and black, a fine representation of the conservative spirit of its Chairman at the time, former Texas Governor Alan Shivers.  Of course, when I arrived, it was neither solid nor black.  It was just a hulk of concrete, rising out of the dust for nearly a square city block.

Our first assignment as a team was to dig a ditch.  We were given tools.  Some of us got shovels and others got pickaxes.  I got a pickaxe that weighed almost as much as me.

Now, wiry is a good physical description for me back then--thin but stronger than I looked--but I knew just holding the thing that it was going to be tough.  To be sure, I'd seen a pickaxe before and perhaps had even tried to hack at the earth with one at some point, but to be honest, this was the first time I'd ever even thought about how to use this tool properly.

The ditch to be dug was in a patch of caleche fill dirt that had been filled into a pit previously dug out with a backhoe.  Now, though, it had to be dug out by hand because there were some rebars, pipes and wire conduits in the space under the dirt that had to be avoided.  The crew, perhaps six of us, gathered around the space.  Those with shovels proceeded to lean on them in a classic fashion, while those of us with pickaxes reluctantly started in on the caleche.

I went first.  I stood over the dirt, raised my pickaxe over my head and chopped down with my full force, only to have the tool slam into the ground, shudder though my body and yield no effect other than to elicit howls of derisive laughter from my colleagues.  The black guys thought it was especially funny, seeing a skinny white kid with no clue as to how to hold or wield a pickaxe, and they told me so.

Red with embarrassment and filled with that determination I get whenever someone tells me I 'can't do' something, I struggled on.  Even as I felt the heat of the moment burning me up, I fought to keep the tears down and my courage solid.

After a few minutes, I looked up to see how I'd done.  The little scratch I'd made in the ground was indeed pathetic, and the guys were not shy about telling me so.  Some of them started to tell me I should just go home ('lil cracker, what you think you doing here?') but one guy, big and built in the most opposite human physique from me finally stepped up.  He took the pickaxe from my hand and said, "Here boy, lemme show you how to do it."

And he did.  He showed me how to hold the axe, how to raise it above my head while sliding one hand along the handle, then how to let it fall, guiding it with the hand but not forcing it into the ground.  In a few rapid strokes, he dug a deep hole, excavating the space with an efficiency I didn't know possible.  It certainly wasn't possible for me, at first, but it was easier, once I tried the technique he taught me.

And, once I started to make progress, the others guys started working too.  Other guys with pickaxes attacked the patch of dirt, and the guys with shovels actually used them to clear out the space.  In a few minutes, we had exposed the tangle of conduits and rebar hidden by the caleche and we were all standing around the hole, leaning on our tools, waiting for our next assignment.

I never had to dig another ditch, fortunately, even though I worked on that site for a few months.  After a couple of days with the first crew, I hooked up with a sweeping crew in the interior, then I was given the assignment to clean painted numbers off of columns in the parking garage.  This solitary job was all I did until I quit to go to work in the torque convertor rebuilding shop on Maufrais Lane.

Of course, what I learned from this experience was two-fold.  First of all, Lynda was right.  I realized that I would need that college degree if I wanted to avoid doing this sort of labor for my entire life.  But I also came to realize that even something as simple as digging a ditch has to be done right or not at all.  

There is something be be learned even in the lowest of tasks, and the dignity I was shown by that unknown teacher is a lesson I carried with me for the rest of my life.

1 comment:

valgal said...

good post, phillip - one of my favorites...