"An Ode to Dirt-Bags and Behind the Scenes Georges by Skookum Maguire" by Robert Bennett
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.