I sat in my six-month-old, three-quarter-ton pickup with the air on and watched as streams of people came and went from the single-story, cinder block building simply identified by a large block-lettered sign as the Employment Department. Folks would flow in and out, often desperate people who were actually looking for labor and not actual jobs, as the twenty-first century had come to define them.
I was listening to a radio talk show on gun control, when Grady O’Shea emerged from the building with a pamphlet and some loose sheets of paper. He took a brief look around and then headed in my direction.
Most people who saw Grady for the first time would describe him as a big man, but he wasn’t particularly tall. He wasn’t short though, and he had a massive upper body with a deep chest and wide, heavily muscled shoulders. His imposing torso tapered to a narrower waistline, and everything was supported by his short, stocky legs.
He was wearing, as he always was, a pair of stagged off Carhartt double-front loggers’ jeans, with extra-deep hip pockets for falling wedges, and a hickory shirt with the sleeves rolled to the elbows. A bright red pair of Logger’s World suspenders connected his shoulders to his trousers. His feet were jammed into heavy wool socks and weatherproof Romeo slippers.
He walked with a grace and agility that belied his size, as he approached the passenger’s side of my truck. A smile emerged to grace his face, as he levered himself into the seat of my truck—a smile so wide it made the corners of his eyes crinkle.
A massive paw came at me on the end of a piston-like arm, and I politely shook it. “It’s good of you to do this, Reggie,” he said. “I was gonna drive my own old rig down, but I’m not sure the ol’ girl would stand the gaff.”
“Glad to do it,” I said. “I have a couple of day’s sick leave coming.”
“Sick leave,” he said, provocatively. “What the hell’s that?”
“It’s something that comes with a government job,” I told him. “They have that, and vacation pay too.”
“May the saints preserve us,” he said, in the Irish brogue that his father used to speak in, as he directed his eyes to the headliner of the cab.
I maneuvered my way out of the parking lot, and headed up a one-way street to the freeway. Then I asked,
“So where is your rig, anyway?”
“Down at Bub’s Bean Barn. I walked up to the unemployment office. Bub said it’d be all right to leave it there for a few days.”
I nodded in response, but Grady was gazing out the window and didn’t notice.
“It’s kind of late in the spring to be out of work isn’t?” I asked.
“I’ll tell ya’, Reg,” he said. “I don’t know what the world is comin’ to. “Ol’ Dale Shepard called me about three weeks back, said he could use the whole crew. He’d bought a bug kill sale up Mule Creek—said the Forest Service was anxious to get it out—to keep the beetles from spreading. So we all went out to Dale’s shop, worked one whole week on the equipment, had things ready to go. Then a bunch of them dirt bags sued the Forest Service to stop the loggin’.”
I shook my head. I could hear the disappointment in Grady’s voice.
“I mean, for Christ-sake Reggie, it’s bug kill. If it ain’t logged pretty quick the dead trees won’t be any good for lumber, and the bugs will spread through the rest of the forest. Them dirt-bags, though, they think the bugs deserve to have something to eat. Bugs are part of what they call the ecosystem.”
He pronounced this last word derisively and slowly, one syllable at a time, “e-co-sys-tem,” with a lot of anger in his voice.
“It doesn’t matter to them that the beetles are not native,” I asked, “and they originated in Japan?”
“We’re talkin’ dirt-bags here, Reggie. Most of ‘em don’t work, and none of ‘em’s got the sense they were born with.”
I shook my head. Any further discussion on the issue would come to no good end.
When it looked like Grady wasn’t going to comment further, and we were making our way up the onramp to the freeway, I asked, “So how’d you happen to end up down at Turlock?”
Grady had a way of getting your attention when he was about to launch into some kind of yarn or lengthy explanation. He’d look you right in the eye until he was sure he had your attention. Then he’d open his mouth, sideways, like he was about to bite off a bottle cap with his teeth. He’d hold that pose for a moment.
It always reminded me of an outraged character in a Lil’ Lulu comic book. Then, just when you thought no sound was going to come out, he’d speak.
“We were workin’ for Calloway last fall,” he started in. “Calloway’s kid hired this fella he knew from college to set Cat chokers. This other kid was full of stories about how there was all kinds of winter work down around Turlock. It had to do with gettin’ turkeys to market for the holidays. He gave us the name of a guy, and I called the fella up. He told us to come on down.
“Normally,” Grady continued, “we’d work through Thanksgiving in the woods, take a few months off over the winter, and go back to work again in March. But ol’ Calloway couldn’t line up any timber, so we knocked off the first week of November and went to Turlock.
“The guy I’d talked to earlier, his name was Halverson, he decided to use us to make repairs to the plant. He had enough help with the turkeys. ‘Course, most of his help was imported, but we’d figured on that goin’ in.
“Them other guys was good with turkeys, but ol’ Halverson, he wanted us to build sheds, pour concrete, weld up gates and pens, repair forklifts, stuff we were good at, and he got it all done for farm wages.
“Didn’t matter to us. If we’d stayed in Oregon and filed for unemployment, our claims would have run out before we made it to spring. And there was no guarantee there’d a’ been anything goin’ on in the spring, the way things are now.
I nodded my head by way of acknowledgment. I couldn’t think of a good way to respond, so we drove on in silence.
We were going up the Siskiyou divide when I noticed Grady looking at me with his jaw cocked to one side again. He was about to say something more.
“I gotta tell you, Reggie,” he started in. “It was one of the funniest damn things I’ve seen in a long time.”
I nodded and grinned. Grady was a great storyteller. He set things up well, paused in all the right places, used his hands, his eyes, and body language—and he never failed to get the punch lines right. He could hold a crew spellbound around a landing fire all through lunch break, and everyone would walk away howling with laughter, wondering where the time went.
“It don’t freeze that often down in Turlock,” he continued, “but this one week it got colder ‘n a witch’s tit in a blizzard. You know how it is, when you’re in a place where it don’t often freeze, when it actually does freeze it seems a whole lot colder than it really is.”
“Yeah,” I said. I’d experienced that myself.
“Well, this one week it got down into the twenties. We started to see things like water meters freezin’, pipes breaking under the sidewalks, people falling on their ass crossin’ the street… Some of the streets had been overlaid so many times they were crowned up in the middle like river dikes. Cars would slide over against the curb and just couldn’t go no place.”
“They probably don’t pave the streets that way in Minnesota,” I offered.
“I expect not,” he said.
We were making our way down to the Klamath River when Grady continued. “So anyway, ol’ Halverson had us runnin’ around replacing broken pipes and stopping up leaks, trying to keep the plant runnin’. Then this one day, I think it was a Wednesday, we was all out where the trucks come in to unload. It was lunchtime, so we sat down on the loadin’ ramp and opened our nosebags.
“But a rotten old one-inch galvanized pipe had froze and broke the night before—split right along the seam—sent out a mist of water that was almost like a heavy fog. It musta run all night, and over the course of several hours it managed to cover the place where the trucks drove in with three inches of water. ‘Course, being so shallow, that fuckin’ water froze right to the ground, tighter than a bull’s ass in fly time.”
I shook my head in wonderment.
“I’m here to tell ya’, Reggie, that fuckin’ parking lot looked like one giant ice skatin’ rink. Thing of it was, though, that broken pipe was still spraying, and the spray on that ice made it slicker ‘n snot on a doorknob.
You couldn’t walk on it. Everybody who tried ended up flat on their back. A guy’d take a step and his feet would shoot right straight up in the air.
“So, there was this little short guy—the rumor was the guy was Portuguese, a bald headed fella with big black eyebrows. I mean, them eyebrows looked like something you’d buy off the Fuller Brush man. Tubby little guy—looked like an oversized midget wrestler. Never knew his name… We got to callin’ him Eyebrows. The first thing you’d notice about him was his eyebrows.
“Anyway, ol’ Eyebrows drove an old B Model Mack with a forty-foot trailer to bring turkeys into the plant—guy must a’ got paid by the bird or something. He was always in a hurry.
“But the minute we saw him comin’ that day, we started gathering up our lunch. We could see, nothing good was gonna come of little Eyebrows getting’ out on that fuckin’ ice with that old Mack, and if a guy was lookin’ for a show, he wasn’t to be disappointed.
“Thing is, the way the trucks came into the staging area, they went up a little ramp and then down into the parkin’ lot. So ol’ Eyebrows, he stands on the fuel coming up—wheels a’ spinnin’, the old Mack blowin’ black smoke out the stack. So he comes on over the hump and lets off on the fuel, but he’s got the Jake brake on—‘course that brakes the drivers and the rig goes sideways. The trailer, though, it’s just free-wheelin’, so it starts on out around the truck.
“Naturally, the next thing ol’ Eyebrows does, he jumps on the air. And I’ll tell you what, lockin’ up all them rubber tires on that ice was like puttin’ the whole kit-an’-caboodle into high double overdrive. We’d climbed up onto a fence by then, and from where we was standin’, it looked like everything speeded up. Like one a’ them old silent movies.
“‘Course, in all the excitement, Eyebrows forgot to flip off the Jake, so it’d killed the engine. The drivetrain was still in gear, though, so when he took his foot off the brake pedal, the trailer came on around the truck, and the truck itself was acting like a sea-anchor—which was fitting because Eyebrows was now sailin’ off across that fuckin’ skatin’ rink backwards.
“When he went by us, I looked in through the windshield. That little fucker had his mouth open so wide, it looked like he didn’t have eyes—and them eyebrows, they was goin’ a hundred miles an hour.
“And that’s when the turkeys in the trailer started to cluckin’.
“Well sir, it looked to me like he hit that fuckin’ loading dock going about twenty, maybe twenty-five miles an hour. And it hit hard enough to pop the trailer doors open. Within thirty seconds that fuckin’ ice rink was wall-to-wall turkeys. There was white feathers and turkey shit from one end to the other—and them birds, they was in an extreme state of agitation.
“One of the funniest things about it, though, and I was kinda surprised about this—them turkeys, they couldn’t get around on the ice much better than people. One of them would take off runnin’, and his feet would get to goin’ like a buzz saw—but he’d just be runnin’ in place. It was like something you’d see in a Wylie Coyote Cartoon.
“‘Course, that raised the frustration level for them turkeys, and they started clucking like a son-a-bitch. A guy couldn’t hardly hear himself think.
“And that’s when ol’ Eyebrows decided to get outta the truck. Now if you or me were to get down out of a rig like that, Reggie, we’d grab onto the handhold on the cab, and just step down. But little Eyebrows, he couldn’t do that. He was too short; he had to jump.
“I’m here to tell ya’, it didn’t take long for that little fella to learn his lesson about ice. Thinking back now, I expect it had to do with past experiences he’d had about falling. Any time ol’ Eyebrows fell down in the past, he didn’t have far to go to hit the ground. But this was different. I mean, ice is flat-fuckin’ hard, right?
“So sure enough, little Eyebrows jumps outta the cab a’ that truck, hit the ground, and immediately both feet went straight up in the air. He landed flat on his back, but he still had the momentum from the fall, so the little rascal went slithering off towards the south side fence.
“He was wearing a sweat shirt when he first emerged from the truck, but it got pulled up around his ears. There was lot of bare skin was showin’, and I’ll tell you what, it was damn cold.
“Anyway, we all sat there watching little Eyebrows go foggin’ off across that ice—looked kinda like a human hockey puck, and them eyebrows was goin’ like a couple a’ black-footed ferrets, trying to detach themselves from his face. To make matters worse, he was mopping up big gobs of turkey shit and feathers as he went.
“Ya’ ever watch the Winter Olympics on television, when they do that curling? Well, I couldn’t help but wonder, if a guy coulda run along beside ol’ Eyebrows, if he coulda steered him off in one direction or the other with a broom.
“Anyway, I suppose you’ve heard about guys getting’ tarred and feathered. Well, what was goin’ on with Eyebrows was kinda like that—only different.
“It was a fence post that finally stopped him. He hit like a horseshoe ringer, dead on, spread eagle, right in the crotch. He made a funny noise, like a wounded coyote—woodle, woodle, woodle, woodle…”
I had to laugh, listening to Grady reproduce the high soprano, falsetto noise that the little truck driver made.
“After that, we all just stood there, watchin’—wondering if the little guy was gonna be able to get up. But after a bit he began to move. He got a hold of the fence post with his left hand and hoisted himself up.
“I suspected the manure and feathers he’d gathered up on his trip across the ice would peel off and fall to the ground, once he got to standin’ upright. But, like I said, it was real cold. Turned out that shit was froze right to him. And I ain’t lyin’, boy, that little fucker was shaking like a redbone hound shittin’ peach pits.
“And that’s when ol’ Halverson come outta the building. He told us to knock off for the rest of the week. ‘We will start in again Monday,’ he said, ‘after things warm up.’”
“So me and the crew, we went around and turned off the water every place we could find a valve. Then we left. I don’t know who gave Eyebrows a ride home. Somebody must have. But there was no way in the world he was gonna get that old truck outta there until the ice melted.”
We were just pullin’ through Red Bluff by then. I’d assumed Grady’s narrative had come to an end, but as we continued south he started in again.
“We showed up over at the plant on Friday afternoon, hoping to get our paychecks, but Halverson wasn’t around, so we figured we’d pick ‘em up Monday.
But on Monday morning we were told there’d been a problem at the bank—something about a wire transfer. Halverson blamed it on the cold weather, but that didn’t make sense to me. On Tuesday, Halverson took off before noon, said he was going to get the bank straightened out.
“By Wednesday, the story hadn’t changed. The fellas were starting to get a little antsy. Halverson told us to knock off for the week—said to come back Monday morning and he’d have things worked out. We’d be able to collect our last two week’s pay.
“So we showed up the following Monday morning to find the gate locked and No Trespassing signs all around. There was a foreclosure notice on the front gate from Stanislaus County, under a great big sign that read, IN RECEIVERSHIP. ‘Course, we’d been working up in Oregon. We knew what that meant.”
“So what did you do?” I wondered aloud.
“We went back and told the manager at the apartments where we’d been staying what had happened. We made the best deal we could with her. She had to call the owner to get permission. Then we packed our gear.
“I was rooming with ol’ Hap Hanson, so while Hap filled the duffle bags with clothes, I went to see an attorney. He took my last two-hundred dollars, but he agreed to take the case.
“When I got back to the motel, everyone was ready to go. We went to a gypo gas station to get some fuel and started back to Oregon.
“We stayed in a group in case somebody broke down or ran out of gas. Punky Garret called it a convoy, but he was always a little slow on the uptake, if you’ll remember.”
“We wanted to conserve what little money we had, so we didn’t stop to eat, and when we got to that rest stop on the south side of the Klamath River, we had to siphon a few gallons of gas outta Punky’s car and dump it in Jimmy Ogle’s pickup to get him back over the Siskiyou divide.
“We stopped at a gas station in Ashland and everybody got five dollars’ worth to make it home. By that time, Hap and one other guy were the only ones who had any money left.”
“The attorney must have done the job for you,” I said, realizing we were headed down to pick up the paychecks.
“Yeah, he did,” Grady replied. “We had to send him more money, but he took care of it. I had to get everybody to give me a power of attorney so I could take possession of the checks. I’ll have to sign for them. It’s something the court wanted.”
“What a hassle,” I said.
“Yeah well, I guess that’s life in the big city.”
We drove on in silence for a while. We were in a no man’s land north of Sacramento—a stretch of ground a little too poor for farming that was still used to support a few range cows.
It was just beginning to get dark when Grady spoke up again. “You know anything about Gaylord Nelson?” He asked.
It was a question I wasn’t expecting. I was a little slow to respond. Finally I said, “Yeah, he was the best public speaker I ever saw.”
“You actually saw him?” Grady asked.
“Not really,” I replied. “I saw him on television. Why, what’s your interest in Gaylord Nelson?”
“I was reading an article about him in an old magazine at the unemployment office,” he said, “while I was waitin’. Nelson started the first Earth Day.”
“Yeah,” I agreed, “in 1970. It was a really big deal at the time. Richard Nixon planted a tree in Central Park.”
“At that time,” Grady said, “Nelson wanted the US to cap the country’s population at two-hundred million.”
“Well, we sure blew by that in a hurry.”
“Yeah, it’s funny now, lookin’ back—how folks completely ignored all the things they insisted they needed to do back then.”
“Well, we sure have a mess to clean up now.”
“I copied down something Gaylord Nelson said back then, on the back of one of them papers they gave me. It really started me to thinkin’. Anyway, Nelson said…” Grady held the paper out to read it.
“There's no practical way of stabilizing the population of the U.S. without reducing the immigration rate. When do we decide we have to do something, or do we wait until things are as bad here as they are in the countries people want to leave?”
“Words to live by,” I offered.
“Yeah, but here’s the thing,” Grady offered. “Them dirt-bags up in Oregon are suing the Forest Service for what they laughingly call, an effort to save the planet, but they’re the same bunch of dirt-bags who are down on the southern border trying to sneak as many illegal aliens into the country as they can.”
“It doesn’t make any sense,” I agreed.
“That’s the thing, Reg? A dirt-bag is a dirt-bag any way you look at it. Sense ain’t got nothin’ to do with it.”
Grady had his own way of stating things, but I had to agree, it was a perplexing conundrum indeed.
By this time, we’d blown by Sacramento. We were on our way to Stockton. I wanted to cut over to Highway 99 to get a cheaper place to stay, so I turned off on Highway 12 at Lodi. We went down 99, past Stockton, and pulled into a place that was offering rooms for thirty dollars a night. I ordered one.
There was a beer joint across the highway from the motel, and Grady wanted to go over for a beer. I went with him.
The building looked like it might have been an old Sambo’s Restaurant at one time. I was a little suspicious of the place when I discovered five bullet holes in the front door when we first walked in. The establishment had that familiar tavern smell, human sweat, spilled beer and stale tobacco smoke. The lighting was dim, and it took a few seconds to realize the place was mostly patronized by bikers.
But that didn’t deter Grady. He simply stepped over to a table full of the scruffiest group in the place and said, “How you ol’ boys doin’?” Then he dipped into his meager funds and bought them a pitcher of beer.
I found a table in the farthest dark corner and ordered a pitcher and two glasses. There was a band with a very limited repertoire. But it was loud, and that’s all that seemed to matter on a weekday night in this part of the country.
Grady got along famously with the bikers. They swapped stories and he danced with their women. One young lady in tight Daisy Duke Jeans came over so ask, “Are you into dancing?”
Wondering if she was even old enough to be in the place, and remembering the bullet holes in the front door, I invented a story about having just come off knee surgery, but I thanked her for asking.
I was about to go back to the motel and leave Grady to his mischief, when he came over to the table, finished his beer, and asked, “You ready to go, Reg?”
We hit the road the following morning. Grady’s appointment with the attorney wasn’t until ten o’clock, so we took the time to look around a little. We drove by the still closed processing plant where the crew had been working, and went west of town to the San Joaquin River. We passed acres and acres of produce fields and almond orchards.
I dropped Grady off at the attorney’s office and went to gas up for the drive home. When I got back, I had to wait for over an hour before Grady came out with a stack of paperwork and a frustrated look on his face.
“He charged us two-hundred dollars apiece for the balance of his fee,” Grady said, as he climbed in and slammed the door. “There was seven of us.”
I shook my head in sympathy, but I wasn’t surprised. I’d dealt with attorneys before. “What’d that leave you?” I asked, wondering if the trip had even been worth the effort.
“About seven hundred apiece, I made a little more. I was supposed to be the foreman.”
I pulled away from the curb. Grady was going through the paychecks. He wasn’t paying attention and I managed to get off onto a one-way street going east.
I took the next left, and then another left to get back to the highway, but I quickly discovered I’d pulled into a street that was clogged with people living in tents. One car could barely drive between them. Most of the campers had encroached on the street from a parking lot that surrounded a now defunct supermarket.
Unattached plastic bags would follow each car as it went by. The bags would catch the draft of a car going east, and then turn around and follow another car going west. The bags, like the folks who lived here, never went very far in any one direction.
There were wet newspapers, discarded fast-food wrappers and screaming children. There were scantily clad teenage girls, made up to look older, and tired, heavily stressed mothers. But I didn’t see any older boys or men. They must be out foraging for substance, I thought.
Grady looked up from what he was doing, and said, “You found one of the local tent cities, Reg. Take the next right; go over to Golden State Boulevard and on out to the highway.”
Just as I was turning, I saw something in the gutter along the street. I pointed to it and asked, “Is that a cucumber?”
“That, Reginald my boy, is a recently deposited human turd. Careful you don’t get any on your tires.”
“Yeah,” he said. “It’s not uncommon down here. It’s the first thing I think about when I hear of an E.coli outbreak in the lettuce hereabouts.”
My stomach did a little flip-flop. “At least it got deposited next to the storm drain inlet. It’ll get washed off the street when it rains.”
“There’s no rain in the forecast,” he said. “It’ll be maggots that’ll get washed into the storm drain.” Grady wasn’t doing anything to ease my stomach.
I saw a sign that read—Patterson to I-5—and made a quick turn. We’d lost a lot of time at the attorney’s office. I-5 would be a quicker way home. It was already well after noon.
After driving by cauliflower fields and apricot groves, we made our way into the town of Patterson and up the interstate onramp.
I hadn’t forgotten Grady’s last comment. “When it does rain,” I said, “a whole lot of the garbage around that tent city is going to end up in the storm drain, along with the maggots.”
“They don’t worry about what goes into the storm drain around here,” he said. “At those apartments where me and the crew stayed, when folks changed oil in their cars, they’d just pull over a surface drain in the parking lot, remove the plug from the pan and let the old oil run into the storm drain. Then they’d put the plug back in, fill the engine with new oil and drive away.”
“The owner of a commercial business would go to jail for that,” I offered.
We were driving along the arid side of the coastal foothills—lifeless dry grass and dirt. But off to the east there were lush, green fields watered from the San Joaquin River system.
Some time later we came to the 580 freeway. Grady looked over and asked, “You ever go over the Altamont Divide?”
“Often,” I replied. “I worked for a company headquartered in San Jose at one time.”
“Ever go up around them windmills on the top of the hill.”
“No. I’ve seen them from the freeway.”
“Well, I’ll tell you, Reg.” Grady was giving me that stare again. “Me and ol’ Jack Peters went up there one weekend, out doin’ a little sight seein’, before we knew the guy we were workin’ for was going broke.”
I knew Jack Peters. He was the landing chaser on the high-lead logging side where I first set chokers. Grady was the rigging slinger then.
“You gotta take the back roads,” he went on. “We were drivin’ Jack’s Jeep. And I’ll tell you what, them windmills are big. They don’t look like it from the freeway, but they’re huge.”
“I’ve seen pictures of them,” I told him, “with people standing around. I’ve got a pretty good idea how big they are.”
Grady nodded. “But they don’t run all the time, when we got up there, two-thirds of ‘em weren’t turning at all. Down for maintenance, maybe or didn’t need the power right then… But the ones that were running made a real strange nose—whoomp-whoomp-whoomp. Sounded like a guy fifty feet tall cuttin’ hay with a scythe. And each one of them had a windrow of dead birds lying around the bottom. A few birds hit the blades while we were there.
“Instant death, I’ll tell you—big birds, little birds, sparrows and eagles. We was close enough to the sea there were even some gulls and terns in the mix. They’d hit one a’ them blades and drop right straight to the ground.”
“I understand they don’t generate all that much power either,” I offered.
“I hear that too,” Grady said, “but if you like dead birds, them windmills are real world beaters.”
We stopped in Stockton for something to eat. It was late afternoon and none of the fast-food places were crowded. We ended up at a Long John Silver’s. I took the opportunity to stretch my legs a bit before going in.
Once we were back on the road, the traffic was moving at a snail’s pace. It took ten minutes to get up the onramp to the freeway. Halfway to Sacramento, we discovered a semi-end dump full of hot asphalt had tipped over across two lanes of traffic, but things were slow even after we got around it.
For the first few miles of the slowdown Grady had sat in the passenger’s seat like a coiled spring, wanting to get a move on. But after a while, he seemed to resign himself to the situation and became lost in deep thought.
When this condition continued, I asked, “So, what are you thinking about?”
He looked at me with a blank expression and announced, “Liberace’s brother, George.”
I almost hit the car in front of me. “Why in the world would you be thinking about brother, George?”
“Well, you know how he was, Reg, George I mean. He never said nothin’. He was only there to keep things in line for his brother. Moving things around when Liberace went back stage for a costume change, running for this, running for that. He never spoke. He would simply smile and nod. It was like he was sub-human. And right now,” he said, “I feel a whole lot like Liberace’s brother—sub-human.”
Grady continued. “When them dirt-bags first filed that suit against the Forest Service, me and Jack Peters went up there to see what things looked like. We just expected to see a bunch of dead trees. We wondered how much longer they’d be good enough for lumber. But when we got there, a bunch of them dirt-bags had chained themselves to the trees. News people were filming the whole thing.
“I’m tellin’ ya’, it was a zoo. Besides the dirt-bags and news people, there was a bunch of Piss-Fir-Willies and a couple of sheriff’s deputies trying to calm things down. ‘Course, me n’ Jack, if we’d a’ tried to do anything, we’d a’ been the first ones arrested. So we turned around and left.
“It was like we were Liberace’s brother. Couldn’t say nothin’, couldn’t do nothin’… We were just there. And them fucked up buffoons was the ones puttin’ on the show.
“We coulda chained ourselves to a tree as well as the dirt-bags, probably better. They couldn’t do our jobs if their lives depended on it—and they would have, by the way, their lives would have depended on it—and they’d a’ likely lost ‘em.”
“It doesn’t make any sense,” I said, sympathetically. But I knew it was all political, and human reason was the victim.
Grady fell back into silence, and I decided to concentrate on my driving. As we emerged on the north end of the city it was dark, but the traffic was able to get up to speed. Just as we were coming into Woodland, though, we encountered another wreck. We were stuck in another sea of brake lights.
Grady groaned. “People,” he said. “There’s just too many people.”
After a couple of miles, the traffic picked up speed again, and I looked over at Grady. He’d fallen asleep with his overnight bag pushed up against the window to serve as a pillow. Grady O’Shea, I thought, a real man’s man, bull of the woods, high-lead genius, hook tender extraordinaire, suffering the humiliation of having been born a generation too late—brought low by hysterical, uninformed dirt-bags with strong herd mentalities and a phobic terror of seeming to be different.
By the time we got to Weed, I was beginning to feel a little drowsy. I pulled off the freeway and turned into the drive-through at a MacDonald’s for coffee. Grady awoke to second the motion. We both ordered two large cups each, thinking that would get us home.
We weren’t in the mood for conversation, and my thoughts drifted back to when our journey started at the unemployment office. They called it the Labor Exchange in the UK, which reminded me of Pete Best, the Beatles first drummer. He went to work at the Liverpool Labor Exchange after the Beatles replaced him with Ringo Starr.
As we went up the south side of the Siskiyou Divide, and I was prying the top off my second cup of coffee, I began to reflect on Pete Best, and why he’d been fired. One account was that Pete was better looking than the other Beatles, and all the female groupies flocked to him. Another was Pete wasn’t social enough; he just wasn’t spontaneous. He’d stay by himself and brood while the others went out on whichever town they happen to be in at the time.
But the most believable account centered around George Martin, a man who was often referred to as the fifth Beatle. Martin was well known in the British recording business during the early 1960’s. He was an accomplished musician in his own right, but he gravitated towards classical music. His real talent, however, centered around recording studios, acoustics, arranging and the art of getting just the right sound.
Everyone seemed to agree there was nothing wrong with Pete’s drumming. He was a great stage drummer, but Martin wanted a studio drummer for recording. Through a long convoluted process Martin’s search led him to Ringo Starr.
Starr had everything going for him. He was as good in the studio as he was on stage. He got along with everybody—i.e. he wasn’t a lonely brooder—and he didn’t seem to be any better looking than the other Beatles. It was a match made in heaven.
Early Beatles recordings were really quite pedestrian, I thought, similar to other material on the market at the time. The later stuff, though, was bigger, fuller, deeper, more sophisticated. It was said that the difference could be attributed to the unseen hand of George Martin.
We’d reached the bottom of the Siskiyous by then, and started the last leg of our journey. Grady sat up in his seat as we went by the Oregon port-of-entry. He looked over at me in the gleam of the dash lights and said, “It’s my turn Reggie. You’ve been lost in thought ever since we crossed the Klamath River. What the hell are you thinking about?”
“Another behind the scenes George,” I said.
I could tell Grady was surprised by my answer. He came back with a question, “Another behind the scenes George?”
“George Martin,” I said.
“What’d he do,” Grady asked, “pop out of a hollow log, like any other marten?”
I laughed, “George Martin was known as the fifth Beatle. He arranged their music, among other things.”
Grady was looking down at my empty coffee cup. I could tell he was wondering if there was something more than coffee in it.
“George Martin put the cello in Eleanor Rigby,” I told him.
“No shit,” he said.
“It would have been kind of bland without it.”
“It sure as hell would,” he agreed.
It was Grady’s turn to sit quietly and reflect, as we made our way down the exit ramp to the surface streets.
We were cruising down to Bub’s Bean Barn, when Grady said, “I wonder why Martin never got out on stage to play with the Beatles?”
“Like I said, George Martin was a behind the scenes guy. It would have been nearly impossible for him to get up on a stage with a rock band.”
Grady sat silently as we drove into Bub’s. I parked a few spaces away from his old pickup, a beat up blue and white F-250 with lock-out hubs and a winch in front.
When he opened the door to get out, the dome light came on. Grady gathered up his overnight bag, the papers from the unemployment office, the papers and the checks from the attorney’s office and he stepped out onto the pavement. Then he turned, stuck out a hand to shake, and said, “I want to thank you, Reg, for doing this for us.”
“Glad to do it,” I said. “Let me know if you need anything more.”
He nodded and turned to walk away, but then he turned back to say, “I still don’t see why Martin didn’t perform with the Beatles.”
“It wouldn’t have worked,” I told him again. “George Martin played an oboe.”
“No shit,” he laughed, as a bright, wide smile formed across his face. “There’s not a lot of demand for rock-and-roll oboe players.”
“No,” I agreed, “there isn’t.”
“Well, maybe there’s hope for all of us behind the scenes guys after all, Reg.”
“I’d like to think so.”
He nodded again and walked over to his ride.
I’d worked in the woods enough years to know not to drop a guy off at a piece of equipment without waiting to see if it was going to start. And when Grady put his key in the ignition, I could hear the dead clunk of the solenoid engaging, but the starter refused to turn.
Before I could hop out to ask if he wanted a jump, Grady was out on the ground. He grabbed the cab of the pickup with two massive hands and pulled it out of the parking space. Then he put his shoulder against the doorpost and began to push the old rig towards the street.
The pickup started to gain speed as it rolled down the drive approach to the street. At that point Grady jumped in, slammed the door shut, put the transmission in gear and dumped the clutch. He did it all in one motion like he must have done a thousand times.
The engine caught, fired off, and he coasted to a red light at the first intersection.
He sat there with the tranny out of gear and his left foot on the brake, while his right foot pumped the accelerator. The engine responded with regular, intermittent roars.
When the light changed, he put the tranny back in gear, kept the engine turning at a high idle, feathered the clutch in, and waited until he was going good before he shifted into third. Then he stood on the fuel and turned on his lights.
He’ll have to park the old rig on a hill tonight, I thought, in order to get it started in the morning.
But this is Oregon. There are lots of hills—some to climb up and some to coast down, to help get a guy started.
Robert Bennett was a logger in Oregon, driven to California for economic reasons. He took up writing fiction and completed an MA in creative writing at Sacramento State University.