As a Midwesterner, a Kansan, I often hear that others value us for our work ethic. I’m not sure I believe that those of us in Flyover Country are working any harder than anyone else, but I know we value what work ethic we have. Although I’m a college professor (does that make me part of an intellectual elite?) and a writer (does that make me flaky?), I’m happy for how I started my work life, in Topeka, Kansas.
My first job was at Mount Hope Cemetery. I was 16 years old, and had never had more than the odd jobs of mowing yards or babysitting. The summer of 1965, I was one of what the permanent grounds crew called “the boys,” hired on after school ended. All spring, the regular crew, watched a half mile of hedge grow along 17th Street. The first job we “boys” had to do was trim that overgrown hedge. “It’s been waitin for you,” the crew would tell us. Armed with heavy hedge clippers, non-electric, non-powered, we spent four solid days trimming. Lift the clippers, squeeze them together, cut and chop until our arms were heavy, our shirts soaked with sweat, our hands blistered and swollen, our shoulders so tired and heavy we could barely lift our forks to eat dinner at night. The hedge, long and tedious, woody, thorny and stubborn, was our test. Some boys quit, the full-timers told us. Some weren’t tough enough. Well, I wasn’t tough, but I was determined to pass the test. And, finally, the hedge was trimmed, and we moved on to other work–mostly push mowing where the big riding mowers couldn’t reach. Those mowers were heavy, but believe it or not, we felt lucky, because at least we weren’t trimming hedge.
Tightening the mower blades
Each morning one of the permanent crew was responsible for getting us out with our mowers. His first order was always, “Boys, take off your blades. I’ll sharpen them.” We angled our mowers and leaned under with our wrenches. We found the bolt that held the blade and tried to twist it off. We couldn’t budge that bolt. “Boys,” Don would say, shaking his head in disgust. “Weaklings,” he’d call us, standing over us. “Wimps. Sissies. Give me a wrench.” Don was six feet tall, with legs like columns, arms and shoulders thicker than our thighs. He’d take our wrenches, lean under the mower and flick off the bolt quick as shooing a fly. He’d sharpen our blades on a power grindstone, then hand them back. “Now put them back on. I suppose you can do that!” We’d bend down and do as we were told. But when we started to push our mowers toward the truck, Don would stop us. He’d approach with a wrench in his ham of a hand. “I’d best make sure they’re tight,” he’d say. “Don’t want the blades flying off while you’re mowing.” He’d lean down and put so much torque on that bolt that next morning, of course, we’d never be able to twist it back off. Every day we mowed we were doomed to be boys, wimps, sissies. At least until Don had taught us what he wanted to teach us.
Minimum wage, maximum work
Don quit tightening and loosening our blades right around the time the main boss raised our salaries. Every temporary employee at Mount Hope had a trial period. Don was evidently just part of that trial. For the first month I worked, I was paid a dollar an hour. Once I proved I could do satisfactory work, my hourly wage jumped way up to $1.25. I hadn’t liked starting at less than minimum wage. I always told my brothers that I was doing maximum work for minimum pay. I know I earned my money and beyond. I knew my worth. Still, I had to prove my worth. The chief grounds keeper, Les Pierce, was just as happy with my getting a raise as I was. When he handed me that bigger check at the end of the week, he pretended the envelope that held it was weighing him down.
Watching and doing
Les Pierce used to tell a story around the break table. We sat in a dark room in the cemetery barn, a fan cooling us, drinking pop, and Les would use the time to tell us what we’d be doing next. One day we had a huge load of brush in the back of the truck. We boys were supposed to get in the back and make sure none of it fell off. With similar jobs ahead of us, we boys always heard the story of a boy hired years before. Back then, Les had to move some cabinets from where they had been varnished in the barn to where they’d be installed in the cemetery office. The cabinets were stacked high in the pick up, and Les told the boy, “You sit in the back and watch this load.” The kid climbed in, Les got behind the wheel, and off they went. They only had one corner to turn on those cemetery roads, but the load shifted and began to teeter. By the time they completed the turn, half the cabinets were on the asphalt, smashed to pieces. Les caught a glimpse of the disaster in his rearview mirror, heard the crash, stopped the truck and got out. “I thought I told you to watch that load,” he said to the boy, who sat on the edge of the truck bed as though nothing had happened. “Well?” asked Les. “I did watch it,” said the boy. “You should have seen it fall!”
Don of the mower blades, of the ham hands and sausage fingers, had a glass eye. People with just one eye often struggle with depth perception. But Don’s main job at the cemetery was as back hoe operator. Running a back hoe requires coordination, grace, precision, and amazing depth perception, and in spite of that glass eye, Don had all these. He was our grave digger. He’d drive the back hoe up to a grave site, where the others of us had cut the gras in the outline of the grave. We’d have dug down about three inches into the sod, and Don’s first job was to find our cuts, ease in his broad bucket and scalp three-inch thick pieces of sod off the top of the grave. Don always cut clean sod. Then, he’d dig out the grave, to the old cliché–six feet under–piling the dirt to the side, to be covered by sheets of artificial grass. Don cut a grave completely perpendicular, even though he sat up five feet above the ground, manipulating the controls almost without needing to watch what he was doing. After the graveside ceremony, our crew had to cover the coffin with a vault lid, a heavy piece of concrete, and then Don began to fill. We boys went down into the grave to make sure the dirt was tamped tight between the vault and the sides of the grave. All the time we were in the grave, Don was filling in, bringing that bucket sometimes within inches of our heads. If we started, Don would say, “Just do your job, boys. I’m watching your heads.” We leaned forward to tamp dirt from the head to the foot of the grave. We learned to trust Don to keep the dirt coming without injuring us. Once, Les said about Don and his skills with the backhoe, “That man could change a baby’s diaper with that bucket. You won’t find any better.” And as tough as Don had been on us with the mower blades, he was gentle, even tender, with the back hoe. I learned to trust him.
Of dogs and rabbits
Les had a small dog that followed his truck everywhere, running as fast as his little legs could carry him. The dog wasn’t as smart as most dogs, and was legendary for paying so much attention to the truck he was following that he might actually run smack dab into a tree growing close to the roadside. He’d roll over, yelping, then get right back up and run blindly and madly after the truck. That dog was always tired, and wherever the truck stopped he’d curl up next to the tire and rest up for his next run. “Just like a rabbit,” Les would say, “whenever he stops, he’s sitting down.” I had never noticed that about rabbits before, how you can’t tell whether they’ve just stopped moving, or whether they’re resting. Of course, I also tried to figure out why Les always commented on that dog, and on rabbits. By summer’s end, I realized that he was talking to us about pace. He didn’t care if we worked fast, he cared that we worked steadily and consistently, that we didn’t have to rest every time we weren’t in motion. Les had been raised on a farm, where people worked from before sunrise to after sunset. He knew all those stories about how a young person might say, “Let’s run out and pick some corn,” and the elder person would say, “Let’s walk out and harvest the whole field.” I learned to keep moving, to always have enough energy for what was next. I learned not to be like Les’ dog, or like a rabbit, but to be the old farmer, steadily pacing myself for a full day’s work.
I still work hard, though thankfully not at Mount Hope Cemetery. In hard work, there is more hope than gravity. I learned to enjoy a full day. And if that’s a Midwestern or a Kansas attitude, then so be it.
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