I’m a prodigal son of sons of a mill town. When Dr. Gresham slapped my pink behind, my first ragged breath was filled with sawdust, cotton-lint, and the deep musky smell of the Georgia-Pacific paper company. Everybody I knew growing up planted row crops or cotton or picked and ginned it; cut timber or turned it into toilet tissue; or hauled all of the above thousands of miles on eighteen wheels and a few hours asleep. But my immediate family were all “mill people.”
I remember hiding in the folds of my grandmother’s skirts, more than a little scared of half the haggard and harried folks that sprouted from our family tree. Sharp-boned women with high cheeks and a low-tolerance for foolishness. Plain dressed, plain-spoken Free Methodists whose eyes seemed to search out the innate laziness in a young boy’s heart and condemn it with God’s own fury. And then there were their sinewy red-skinned men, as dark and hard as Augusta brick. They spent their days under the gaze of an unblinking sun, in boiler rooms, or staring up at the leaking belly of a twelve ton mechanical beast. They had the look of men who had not lived life so much as survived it, as though they had just walked out of a fire. It would be several years before I learned not to flinch when somebody offered me a three-fingered hand, or stare at a pressed and folded piece of denim where a foot should have been. But I did learn, and I learned that even though the mill got pieces of them, it never got the best parts.
Those who didn’t come from a place like this tend to mock and ridicule the clod-kickers and working folks from the Deep South and the poor rural regions of the Country. They see us as a backward people whose lives are consumed with college football, revival meetings, barrel races, and violence. But the truth is, the lives of most of these people are simply consumed by hard work. When we get together, conversations invariably turn to trees felled, transmissions pulled, and “I hate to run, but I have to pull an extra shift.”
I don’t know a man in my hometown over 50 who can’t split wood, run a chainsaw, or change his own oil. They’ve never heard of AAA. But they’ve swapped out a hundred miles worth of radiator hose in the glow of a Bic lighter, and would no more think of leaving their house without a tire iron and a pair of jumper cables than they would think of leaving home without their britches on. They know how to install a second-hand washing machine, cure the mange on a redbone hound, and catch catfish with a piece of twine and some stink bait.
Their wives are mirror images, only tougher. They have somehow managed to crack some hidden code of the universe, allowing them to compress twenty-four hours of work into six. Cooking and cleaning; washing and ironing; tutoring math and mending booboos and broken hearts, all while finding time to buy groceries, go to choir practice, and watch a show they’ve recorded on the DVR before ten o’clock. Work is the air they breathe.
There’s a kindness of spirit in most of these folks. Whether it’s because so many have stood on the hungry side of a picket line, or else because they’ve been despised by people who boasted in things like degrees and stock portfolios, I don’t know. But my family was never quick to judge a man down on his luck, or slow to help a woman in a bind. The only people I have ever known my folks to just out and out despise, is a person who could work but wouldn’t. Where I’m from you don’t have to dog cuss a man to damn him–you only have to say that an honest day’s work would kill him.
The grandparents who raised me, like most people of their generation, wanted to see to it that I never had to work as hard as they did. They meant well, God knows. But I wish they hadn’t made it quite so easy on me. There’s a sweet alchemy wrought in the deep down places of the soul that only comes by way of blood and sweat and tears. Whereas I was able to play baseball with the “town kids” when I was 11; my daddy, and his, and his before him never had time to play anything at all.
I thought about this last night while standing outside at two o’clock in the morning “helping” my dad fix a busted water line. He was bare-chested, covered in mud and sweat, knuckles bleeding from arguing with a pair of channel locks, some dry-rotted PVC pipe, and a broken cinder block. I mostly stood there holding the light as he tried this and that to get everything working again. To make things right. A trait former generations held in spades. Every so often he would say without the slightest trace of sarcasm, “Back up, Son. You’ll get nasty.” He never wanted that for me.
But I wish he had. Hard work, and the skills that come with it, make for strong men. And as I head into middle-age, I’m having to spend more time learning how to get nasty and get things done.
Grandaddy carried three suits of clothes to the mill with him year round. In the Summer, the extra garments were to change into when there wasn’t a dry thread to be found on the others. In the Winter, the extras were used as insulation. His fingers bear the tell-tale tattoos of a career millwright–permanent grease stains, cauterized by welding rods and time. He gave the paper mill 35 years and the strength of his body, they gave him a lapel pin, asbestos, and one functioning lung.
Grandmother gave her early years to the shirt factory, sewing buttons on uniforms by day, and crying with pin-pricked fingers by night. But she knew she’d struck it rich when she too was offered a job “down at the mill.” She ended up with a broken marriage and a broken neck. She retired early–at 65.
I am not sure why I am writing about all this. I guess it’s just because somebody ought to. People like that don’t deserve to work that hard, give that much, and then just rot away in the dirt without anyone ever knowing that the clothes they wear and the food they eat and the paper they wipe their snotty noses with comes by way of my people. I’m a prodigal son of sons of a mill town. God, don’t let me waste my inheritance.