that I last worked
one day, one afternoon, hours
all that I needed
It was in the spring of 1977 I think that I last really worked.
Worked really hard.
I may have been Kentucky Derby day and it stands out in my mind that way.
My Mom had a friend who, with her husband, was building a house.
Not working with a developer to pick out door knobs and windows, but doing as much of the actual construction as they could do themselves.
These people had purchased a lot in our neighborhood down on Gilpin St. and the basement had been dug out.
What they had so far was this big pit right out Mike Mulligan and his steam shovel.
They arranged for frames to be installed and concrete to be poured, but first the bottom of the pit had to be leveled out.
My Mom’s friend told my Mom that they needed a couple of strong boys to get down in the pit and shovel some dirt around from a few high places over to a few low places.
Just level it out.
My Mom may not have thought that she had some strong boys but she knew she had some boys who were pretty much, desperately lazy.
And the story moved my Mom’s heart, which was easy to do, she had a big heart, and the next thing that happened was that my brothers Pete and Steve and I were volunteered to spend a spring Saturday doing some shoveling.
I think we were told the night before that we had volunteered.
We were instructed to show up around noon which we did and we met the feller whose house it was that was being built.
He greeted us and pointed out his friend, James, who had a surveyors transit set up.
He then led us over to the side of the pit where there was a ladder and we climbed down into the pit.
You know how the mud smells at a construction sight?
That is what it smelled like.
The pit was a construction site and it stunk.
The guy picked up this long pole with had some black type wrapped around near the top.
He would set the end of the pole on the ground and James would site it with his transit and looking at the piece of black tape, announce “down 6 inches” or “up 3 inches.”
The guy would the point at spot and say we got to lower this area or we got to fill in this area.
After giving us the general layout, he pointed out shovels and told us to get to work.
We three boys looked at each other.
We were worried.
We were more than worried.
We got past worried when we climbed down into the pit.
This looked like real work.
The first thing my brother Pete did was to nudge me with an elbow and say, “Notice that JAMES isn’t coming down here.”
We had noticed that.
James was smart.
We also noticed that what were standing on wasn’t sand and it wasn’t dirt, it was clay.
It was more like solid rock.
I picked up a shovel and let the the handle slide through my fingers to drop the point of the spade against the surface.
The shovel bounced back.
Pete picked up a shovel and tried to drive it into the clay and nothing happened.
Stevie just watched.
I took the shovel in both hands and chopped with against the surface.
Pete took his shovel and pushed the point down with one foot and managed to get the point down under the surface.
He then levered the shovel over and popped off a chunk of light brown clay.
Pete straightened up and says, “I’m done.”
The guy and that James feller both laughed.
Then they left.
I think Pete was serious but there we were.
I pushed harder and was able to the get my shovel into the clay and found out something else.
The hard clay was only about 2 or 3 inches thick.
Once you got through that 2 or 3 inched layer of hard clay, underneath was a bottomless quagmire of construction site muck.
I brought up a shovel full of that stuff and tossed it one side.
I looked at my brothers.
My brothers looked at me.
I am not sure what happened next but I remember we stayed the rest of the afternoon down in that pit.
I have this vague memory of walking around the floor of the pit, banging my shovel down, searching for softer places to dig but nothing more distinct than that.
They guy building the house and James had left and we kept at it.
None of us had a watch on so all we could do was make a guess at the time by watching the sun and shadows.
And we worked.
We didn’t suffer in silence but we kept at it.
Not sure how much of an improvement we made, but we tried.
Maybe a battalion of US Army Corps of Engineers with dynamite could have done better, but with who we were and what we had and what we were doing, we tried.
In my memory, the shadows along one side of the pit were getting deep and dark when the guy came back and called down to us that we were done.
We put the shovels in a corner and climbed up and out.
The guys wife had pulled up to the building site and in the trunk of her car was a cooler.
The cooler was filled with ice and Coca-Cola.
She had in her hands these giant Styrofoam cups that she filled first with ice and then Coke.
Never again has icy cold Coke been more icy cold and more welcome and more refreshing than those Cokes.
The guy thanked us and gave us each a $10 bill.
Never again did I feel such satisfaction from earning $10.
I can say that as I never again worked so hard in my life.
There is only so much satisfaction that you can get out of satisfaction.
Jim Harrison once wrote something along the line that society has yet to understand and label work done mentally, as hard work.
I support that concept.
On the other hand . . .
There is exhaustion.
There is mental exhaustion.
And there is physical exhaustion.
There is no substitute for hard work.
And I have worked hard to avoid it ever since that afternoon in the pit.
There is a family legend about my Dad.
My Grandfather was a Dentist.
When my Dad graduated from Grand Rapids Creston High School in 1936, my Grand Father, according to the legend, told my Dad that he would buy him a farm or send him to Dental School.
This side of the family were farmers who had emigrated from the Netherlands and still lived and farmed in the Jamestown area of Ottawa County, Michigan.
My Dad was then sent out to spend a week working on some relatives’ farm.
According to the legend, after that week, my Dad came home and asked when Dental School started.
I had thought about being a Dentist then I met a class called organic chemistry.
I had planned on being a history teacher.
I fell into a career of website design and management.
But when I climbed out of that put in 1977, all I wanted to know was, when did school start?