This is a short story about my experiences while working on a farm-to-market road in Ozark County in the state of Missouri during the fall of 1978.
If you imagine five uneducated poverty stricken real good ole' boys out working on a farm-to-market road, you probably won't credit any of them with very much intellect. Nearly one hundred percent of the time you'd be absolutely correct. Occasionally someone will come along to work with a road crew who is simply down on his luck and needs a temporary job until something better comes along. He may not be a real country boy and likely enough may have held very respectable jobs in the past. This was my situation at that time. There are a few minimum wage jobs that retain a small degree of respectability, however there are many more that attract mostly parasites. If you are not familiar with the area and the job, you, too, could wander into the midst of local scum.
It was obvious as hell that I was not a country boy. Everyone at the tool shed took a long hard look at me that Monday morning about seven a.m. as I rode up on my Yamaha Enduro. I parked near the front door just inside of the shed. I was wearing a bright orange snowmobile suit that made me look about one and a half times my actual size. In the spring of the year you just don't see that sort of clothes being worn. The mornings can be cold and damp. Riding a motorcycle at seventy miles per hour for thirty five miles can ruin your whole day if you're improperly dressed for the wind chill.
I got off my motorcycle and looked around. People were standing in the various places throughout the building. At the far end I spotted the road Judge who had hired me a few days before. He yelled at me, "TURNER! "Come over here and get acquainted with the men you'll be working with!" [ The counties in Missouri use elected officials to judge where and what road work will take place. They always pay particular attention to the road leading to their own house along with their political cronies.] I walked across the concrete floor in the direction of the clump of men standing near the Judge. I edged my way between the tools and brown splotches of tobacco spit on the floor as I moved along.
The Judge looked me over and said, “You men are going to be working in the brush today, cutting and burning." I was standing there clean shaved and slick as if I had just arrived at my office on the Braniff Airlines Concourse at Love Field in Dallas, Texas back in 1969. There was an air about my presence that made the Judge feel physically uncomfortable. I could see that he and everybody else realized that somehow, I just didn't fit in. "Mac here will be the road boss and he will try to see to it that everybody keeps busy." Said the Judge.
Mac said, "Well let's get our tools together and git." At that he stuck a large “Chaw” of twist tobacco into his mouth. I picked up the chain saw and the gas can, then headed for the truck. I looked back as I treaded around the splotches of spit to note that I was the only one who actually was carrying a tool. I stuck my lunch box in the back of the truck and we loaded up. The four of us sat side by side in the cab. The seating was close, but I did not want to ride alone on the truck bed. We had traveled down the highway for about five miles, then Mac turned off on a graded dirt road. "Well, boys, this is the place where we work today." He said. I could tell from the conversation that Mac and the other guys were well acquainted and were involved in each others social activities after work.
We piled out of the truck and picked out a place to start trimming tree limbs alongside the road. Pete, who was definitely the largest guy in the group was assigned to do the cutting. He started the chain saw and walked down the road. When he came to an overhanging limb, he would cut it off. I noticed that he applied considerable effort to cut off a small limb. It wasn't long before ole Pete was huffing and puffing. "This god damned saw is so damned dull that it won't cut a fucking thing!" "Well," said Mac, "The Judge will be by in about an hour and I'll have him take the saw into town an git it sharpened." At that point we just sat down and waited for the Judge.
I said to Mac, "Don't you carry a file in the truck to sharpen the saw?” “Hell no, ain't nobody here knows how to file a chain, sides, the Judge don't want none of us filing on a chain." "Why not?" I asked. "Them chains cost a lot of money." Then I volunteered, "I know how to file a chain." A look passed among their faces that indicated disbelief. All of us knew that filing a chain took a little more know how than just raking a file across the teeth. It's a fact, many chain saw owners don't know how to correctly file a chain. I've always found that to be funny. "Do any of you fellows have a chain saw at home?" I asked. They all shook their heads no. "I do." I said. “The first thing that I did when I purchased the saw was to learn how to file the chain.” "Well" said Mac, "This way we can all sit around and shoot the shit while we wait for the Judge, its always been that-away.”
I picked up the old saw and looked it over. The clutch was so worn that it slipped quite easily. The bearings were pretty bad too. It was a good brand of saw, but it had seen better days. Before long the Judge arrived. I told the him that I could file the saw if he got me a new file. Also I asked him to get a new clutch. He was pleased to see that I knew something about the saw. After the Judge left we sat around for about another hour then ate lunch.
The Judge arrived during lunch with the saw all sharpened and a new file for me to use next time. I took the file and noted that it was the wrong size for that particular chain. "Dammit" said the Judge. "There's always some reason why things don't work." "Did you get the file at the Western Auto Store?" I asked. "Yes" said the Judge, "and come to think of it, that son-of-a-bitch ought to know the correct size of file too." "How about the new clutch?" I asked. "I'll have it tomorrow, said the judge. "Maybe you men can get some work done after you finish lunch, OK?" At that point the judge left. As he walked off he was mumbling something about the old bastard knew all along which size file was the right one. After all, he'd been filing the damn saw for five years.
Pete suggested to Mac that I do some of the cutting after lunch. I said, "sure, why not?" A few minutes later I picked up the saw. There was that usual grin among the men as I headed for the brush. I started up the chain saw and after a short warm-up period started to cut limbs. I expected to be able to whack off the limbs pretty easily. As the chain touched the limb it dug in lightly and as I applied more pressure the chain stopped completely. I backed off and started again. The clutch was so bad that I couldn't load the saw for the bite. Also, the chain had been improperly sharpened.
"Who is the person that sharpens this saw for us?" I yelled. Everybody laughed, "the old man at the Western Auto Store" someone yelled back. "How in the hell are we going to get any work done today if the damn saw won't cut?" I asked. "Don't worry too much about work, Turner, we want this road to last about two weeks before we finish it. When this is done we go back to filling pot holes with asphalt. I ain't in no hurry for that!” “OK” I said, “If the Judge lets us off because of this saw, I don't care.” There would be a lot more work done if the Judge would buy another saw for stand-by." I said. Mac spoke up and offered, "We're paid with federal money for road work but the saw has to be furnished by the county, so the Judge says the county can't afford another saw." I listened to Mac while observing the one half mile of dirt road. I figured It’d would take me about six hours with a good chainsaw to clear cut the whole thing by myself.
What me worry? At that point I went back over and sat down with the men. We spent the rest of the afternoon just talking about different subjects. Pete liked to tell stories about bar fights he'd been in. He indicated that there wasn't much fun doing other things. He pulled out his knife from a belt holster. It was one of those Barlow type knifes and was sharp enough to easily shave the hair on your arm. He liked to shave a few hairs and talk about how it would slice a man up in a good bar fight. Pete looked at me as he talked. I was never quite sure if he was trying to impress, threaten or intimidate me.
During the afternoon we talked about guns. Different ones of us had a few things to say and finally I talked about my hobby of fast draw with a .357 Ruger Magnum. Eyes flickered and grins were passed about when I mentioned doing fast draw at tin cans at 30 yards. Mac said that he had a .357 like mine and that he had taken the rear sight off of it because he always skinned his left hand when he fanned the hammer back. I said, "Why didn't you just wear a jersey glove on your left hand so it wouldn't hurt your hand? That's what I do." "Didn't think of it I guess." said Mac.
Next morning I rode into the tool shed and parked my bike. Outside Mac and Pete's families were just leaving. Both cars were full of kids. Pete was dictating how his wife was to handle someone regarding a debt. We loaded up and left for brush cutting.
Mac always kept a “chaw” of tobacco in his mouth and chewed as he talked. As he drove the truck down the road you couldn't help noticing that his voice seemed to gurgle while the words decreased in volume. Concurrent with his inability to properly enunciate, his head tilted backwards more and more making it difficult to drive. As time went by, he was literally gargling while looking down his nose. About the time you thought he was going to drown in his own spit he would reach into his shirt pocket very carefully and pull out a Prince Albert Tobacco can. He would extract the can with great care using his left hand. Using his thumb he would push up the lid and very slowly spit into the can.
I was quite curious as to why he didn't just roll the window down. I figured maybe he had a good reason but I just didn't want to ask. That can would only hold about one and three quarters mouthfuls of spit so he had some left over. after carefully placing the can back into his shirt pocket, his left hand would drop down into his coat pocket and up would come another chaw. All conversation in the cab would respectfully cease while Mac was transferring spit. Later that day I discovered that the window on the driver's side would not roll down.
We arrived at the dirt road and returned to our sitting spot. That morning I brought my .25 cal. pocket pistol. It was for protection in case Pete decided to slice me up with his Barlow knife. A sharp knife always scares me more that the biggest gun. Especially when in the hands of a potential psychotic. I didn't show it to anyone.
We sat around for awhile and the topic of conversation changed from one thing to another until finally it got to guns. Mac said, "Turner, you say that you fast draw your .357 and fire at tin cans, right?" "Yes that's correct." I said. He pulled his .357 out of his lunch bucket and said, "Lets see how good you can shoot with this one." This was a plot to show me up. A lot of grinning hillbilly style was going on and they were all anxious to see my response. I said, "You should have told me yesterday about this, I could have brought my own fast draw holster and ammunition." One of the other guys walked thirty steps up the road and set up three beer cans. On returning he said, "Mac, you can shoot any way you want to, Turner here has gotta shoot from the waist." I asked Mac to shoot first. Remember, there was no rear sight on the pistol. He shot four times and missed the cans each time, he aimed down the side of the barrel. My turn, I fired my shots from waist level. My first shot hit very close but was a miss. I walked the next three shots through the cans. Two were good hits and the third just nicked the bottom. I could hardly believe those country boys had never seen a pistol walked to the target. A new respect was slowly appearing but not any real comradeship. Not that I needed it.
When it was all over we sat back down on the ground. Pete took out his knife and shaved a few hairs off of his arm. He said, "Boys, you can have those guns, just give me a good knife to slice somebody down with." He began carefully cutting away a callous at the base of his thumb. It was a tough callous and he pressed a little too hard when, zip, the extremely sharp Barlow knife cut right through the connecting skin between his thumb and the forefinger. It was a serious one inch long cut with the skin hanging open, "God damn" said Pete. "Looks like I really fucked up my hand." It didn’t bleed very much because it was just the loose skin between thumb and finger, but you could see a lot of raw meat the skin formerly had covered. When we did go to work that day, Pete had to work with a handkerchief wrapped around his hand.
Along about eleven a.m. the Judge came driving down the road. "Well Turner" said the Judge, "I've got the new clutch and the right size file for you. I'm depending upon you to get these men working today." I sat down in the road and began disassembling the chainsaw. The Judge stood there and watched me for awhile then said, Looks like you know what you’re doing all right so I’ll go now!
The men stood in a circle around me and watched as I measured the file against the chain. To them I made it look like I was really incapable of knowing exactly what I was doing. I pressed the file against the cutting chain tooth, then viewed it from different angles in an apparent stupid manner just for their benefit. I noticed them laughing lightly and grinning at each other, really enjoying what they thought was a demonstration of my inability to do the job correctly. Mac said, "Turner, we'll walk up the road a ways, maybe pickup a few rocks on the shoulder. You can go ahead and work on the chainsaw. If you get it where it cuts, cut whatever you can and we'll pick it all up." "You mean that you want me to do all the cutting today and you fellows will do all of the stack and burning?" " Yeah," said Mac. Together they walked off laughing quietly.
"Cut whatever you can" Aha, those seemed to be magic words to me. I knew that Mac would be eating those words shortly. I installed the clutch, adjusted the chain tension then sharpened the teeth. I did my very best job. The drags needed filing too because the old chain was so used up from heavy use and improper filing that it was on its last leg. When I was through, the old saw was ready to romp.
The men were about a hundred yards up the road from me. Once in awhile one of them would bend over and pick up a gravel then flip it in any direction. I walked out into the road and waved at the guys to indicate that all was well, then I started the engine. They stood spread across the road watching my every move with antipation. I let the engine warm for about thirty seconds, then I walked over to the shoulder where the brush was hanging heavy. My thoughts were exactly this, "I'm going to teach me a bunch of Real Good Ole Boys a lesson today." As the limbs and small trees stated falling into the road, I detected a change in their concern about how the saw worked. Within twenty minutes the road looked like a jungle, and I was slaying small trees with the touch of the chain. Finally I stopped cutting down trees and started cutting them up so the guys could handle them. I worked with vigor for about thirty more minutes then sat down on the truck bed and relaxed the rest of the afternoon. They had to work their butts off to get the road cleared before time to go home. The pleasure was all mine.
That night Pete's wife came by the tool shed to pick him up as usual. He asked me to go for a drive with him because he wanted to talk with me. I went with him out of curiosity. First he stopped and got some beer at the liquor store then pulled his car upon a knoll above town. He said to me, "You know, Turner, I'm just a country boy, there's things that I'd like to do but I need some help. I don't know why your out here working on the road but, if I was as smart as you and as good with a gun, I'd get myself rich." "So what's on your mind?" I asked. "I'd rob a bank if I could get you to help, me and the boys were hoping that you could do the planning and we’d follow your directions..................................."
As I rode away from the tool shed that night I wondered if Pete had enough sense to have a doctor sew up the cut. That's the only possible way it could heal properly. I'd had enough of the road work by now so I never returned to Ozark County.
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