I’m reminded that travel contains, between the lines of now and then, compressed memories and highlights that remained pinned like banners across life’s parade route.
While trading stories around our campfire with newfound nomadic friends, I recalled a hot summer 1972 day in Birmingham, Alabama, walking the streets, job hunting. How I got there is, well, another story. I found myself in a warehouse district and paused as the sounds of a table saw and air guns punched through the humid air. When I opened the door, immediately before me was the office of what I presumed to be the general manager. This person was seated at a huge oak desk that consumed ninety-eight percent of the room’s space. A quick glimpse down a narrow corridor revealed a large shop the size of an airplane hangar, partially filled with stacks of plywood and cabinetry in various stages of completion. The rotund inhabitant looked up and invited me in. I got instantly to the point of my presence, having practiced my spiel all day. I must admit, I was caught off guard, having heard “no jobs available” all day, when, surprisingly, “Mr. Williams” offered me a position as an apprentice cabinet builder.
Before he walked me out through the sawdust-clouded air to his wiry meerkat look-alike supervisor Jimmy James, I requested some water to satisfy the thirst built from many hours of job search in the southern heat. Turning the corner, I was confronted by a strange, incongruous sight: two water fountains side by side. I asked Mr. Williams their purpose, and he calmly stated that one was for colored people, the other for white. At this moment it dawned on me that I was now living in a moment of tragic historical significance that, when read in textbooks and newspapers, had seemed remote from reality. What was to come?!
I’ll say at this point, that I was a direct emigrant from Chicago, and obviously something about my demeanor and accent caused the entire work crew to immediately stop work; grins emerged on their faces like so many Cheshire Cats. After a bit of conversation to determine my skill sets, a series of southern cultural personality tests ensued, beginning with a confrontational, deeply accented query, “Boy! How ya gonna ack?” I stood dumbfounded, not understanding a word they were saying, and responded politely and intelligently as one would in that situation, “Huh!?” How quickly the arrow of teasing found its mark. Remaining flexible, I managed to ingratiate myself to the crew, which seemed to be divided into two clans: the older, “good ol’ boys” and a younger generation that was just beginning to test boundaries and assumptions, transitioning from the southern cultural ubiquity, perhaps into “good young boys.” It was arranged. I was to begin work the following morning, and one of the crew just happened to live close enough to enable me to join his carpool.
Seven thirty the next morning found me waiting out on my front porch. A few minutes into my wait, I heard a deep rumbling slowly increase in volume from down the heavily scented magnolia-blossomed street. A gleaming 1972 Chevy Nova pulled up in front, and a young, handsome, long blond-haired, muscled man emulating his car engine, emerged, and introduced himself as “Bird.” Our carpool set off for a full breakfast at a local diner. I quickly realized that this was their ritual morning pit stop, fueling enough testosterone to power their day. The regular waitress was a stunning ultra-mini-skirted beauty who used her ample form, modeling smile, loosely buttoned top, and long reaches across the table placing orders, to squeeze out plantation-purchasing tips.
Time passed for me quickly, and I was placed in the position of “cutout man,” which meant that daily, I was given a punch list of all the cabinet material necessary for the shop’s large projects. Birmingham’s suburbs, like Atlanta’s at that time, were experiencing rapidly expanding apartment complexes, and our shop provided much of the kitchen and bathroom cabinetry necessary to satisfy this growth. I labored for eight hours a day over and around a beast of a table saw. It was a machine you could never take your eyes off. In the center of a ten-foot-wide table to support 8×10 sheets of cabinet-grade plywood it sat, while turned off, with teeth as sharp as razors bared in anticipation of the flick of a switch. When that moment of engagement arrived, the groan of the motorized belts instantly rendered the blade teeth invisible amidst a whine and roar, daring the user to lose their focus. I quickly learned a dance of respect around this dangerous creature. Running each slice of wood tightly along the guide fence, I made sure that every push of the plywood remained straight and parallel, lest a slight nudge off center cause the wood to torque between the guide and blade. If this happened, the saw barked like a wounded wolf, grabbed the wood and either jerked it over the blade and off the table with a force like a tennis serve, or stopped the saw in its tracks like a sucker punch in the gut. This would require crawling on all fours into the sawdust underneath to push the motor reset button.
One day, I was in the midst of a rush order job, and needed a break to grab a bite to eat. I called out to one of our shop characters, Galen, who spoke with a lisp, and covered this affectation by being the group clown, and asked him to cover for me. Galen had a jerky, sort of nervous twitchy tic. He shouted out some quip as he turned on the beast, and began cutting out the two-inch face strips that frame the doors of the cabinets. To an experienced saw handler, you run the sheet of ply with one hand, pushing along one side of the blade with equal pressure on your two or three fingers that are oh-so-carefully pushing between the blade on one side and the guide on the other. There is no room for error. Each push must be exactly even, allowing the narrow ply slice to glide out past the blade and separate from the main sheet.
Someone out in the shop responded to Galen’s comments and he looked up with a grin that quickly turned white in horror as the sheet began to twist and fight against the guide fence. It pulled the ply up and his fingers out—across the blade. I looked back to see Galen frozen in space as he stared at his dislodged fingers lying a few inches away on the sawdust-slick table surface. Blood cascaded out where once there were whole digits. I joined a rushing group of coworkers to quickly tourniquet the bleeding, gather the errant fingers into a Dixie cup (no pun intended) of water, and rushed him to the emergency room. Somehow, even though this was the early 1970s, surgeons were able to reattach his fingers, though they were never quite the same. Galen, in good humor, did manage to use at least one of his fingers to comment to others on his state of being.
I watched those piles of wood behind the table saw diminish day after day. One sheet weighs about 61 pounds, and pulling each sheet off the stack and onto the table saw required some careful body mechanics. Often in a day I’d go through 20 to 30 sheets depending on the work load, equivalent to from three-quarters of a ton to a ton of lifting a day. When the stacks came near their last sheets, Jimmy James would inform Mr. Williams, and he would order a truck load more. Our forklift couldn’t get all the way past the beast to drop the pallet load of ply, so we all chipped in to carry each sheet to the growing stack. This was pretty much up to a full day’s labor, and my young invincible body took it in stride. Later in life, however, suffering from continuous back pain, my orthopedist informed me that this early experience contributed to my intervertebral disc compression and nerve pain. If only we could go back in time and give a talking to our footloose and invincible selves.
Back in the shop, during every lunch period, Mr. Williams’s cousin, Bo (I know, it’s the South) would stand up, put one leg up on the low work bench in the classic posture of southern storytelling, pull out his daily sharpened pocket knife, and whittle. I never did see anything come of his whittle works, I just believe it was a carrier for him to share stories of his marital infidelities, a kind of open secret or side joke in the shop culture. When Bo’s wife came in from time to time to see him, however, his demeanor of subservience sharpened remarkably. Around this time, I was heeding the call to find greener pastures, and as it happened the shop acquired a new employee, an African American man, Sammy. Frankly, I was surprised considering the amount of good ol’ boy vibe that existed, but he had a strong back and didn’t talk back. I wondered about his thoughts on the twin drinking fountains but in sensitivity, never discussed it.
Exchanging the wood trade for the caduceus
I have to thank Sammy for becoming my deliverer to a new transitional life. Sammy worked part time with Hank’s Ambulance Service, and after talking with him, a wave of realization came over me that this was a door I needed to open.
There’s nothing won, if there’s nothing done. Sammy and I went over to Hank’s, where I quickly learned that much of that southern ribbing, good ol’ boy culture that resided in our cabinet shop, was omnipresent. After I asked about possible work, Hank informed me that the days of “grabbin’ ’em and slabbin’ ’em” were over, that it would be necessary to be licensed in Alabama as an EMT, Emergency Medical Technician. Again serendipity opened its doors to me when I trekked over to the University of Alabama, Birmingham, and they told me I was just in time to enroll in the second-ever EMT course offered in the state.
Two weeks later, I was in and studying was like ice skating. Each step of the way carried me deeper and faster into a strangely familiar and comfortable new world. Our instructor, David Markham, a dynamic young firefighter with a personality of self-sacrifice and patience, presided over a class of about fifteen fellow firefighters, including Sammy and me. The pool of EMTs was so small in those days that David, who had just graduated himself, became our instructor. I worked days at the wood shop and studied nights for over a year, eventually graduating as an EMT 3, the highest level in the state, and gave notice at the cabinet shop.
This new life phase was a step into the storm of Type A personality encounters. Each day we’d find ourselves on the road awaiting that radio call to wherever the wheel of misfortune would spin. Car wrecks requiring complicated joint fire department extraction, crazy injuries, sudden births, it all passed like a whirlwind. Our ambulance service held a contract with the Veterans Administration to transport patients within the southern regional VA hospitals. At the same time I studied the care and transport of premature babies which was a stunning, awe-inspiring, and humbling experience. Starting an IV on an infant not much larger than your hand requires nerves of steel and an embracing desire to preserve such a tiny life.
Once I was called to carry a dead motorcyclist who had crashed into a bridge abutment while on his way from Memphis, Tennessee to Pensacola, Florida. The only vehicle available to perform this transport was a modified station wagon that could hold a stretcher locked directly behind the driver. Upon arriving at the receiving and loading dock of the hospital and entering the morgue, the attendants pulled out a battered and very “ripe” body. He was wrapped in a sheet, tied somewhat loosely onto the stretcher, and loaded behind me. I suspected that the attendants were more than happy to be rid of that battered carcass.
It wasn’t long before I was overcome with the sickly smell of death, and realized that I had four hundred and fifty miles to drive with it as my only companion. It soon became apparent that air conditioning would only intensify the stench of cold death. As we began our trip out of town, to my (our?) left I spied the estate of the still-living Elvis Presley, and making a quick reactionary decision, saw an opening in traffic, and jerked the wheel to enter the driveway of his estate. “We” were greeted at a guard station and informed that Mr. Presley was not in and that the estate was off-limits to visitors. Regretfully I turned around, murmuring my apologies to my dead rider for his missing his last opportunity to meet the King.
We hit the highway, heading south fast. The only way I was able to obscure the acridness of death was to drive as fast as the station wagon would go, roll down the windows, and turn on the radio to country music—hopefully loud enough to overpower the scent of mortality. Never was there a thought to what my explanation would be if a highway trooper should stop our careening cadaver car. Observing the passing roadside as we sped along, the geography morphed from green rolling hills to forests, and eventually miles of swampland below miles of bridge causeway. No sooner had I found some balance between inner scent and outer swamp air than I heard a THUMP from behind me. It couldn’t be?! Was this man alive?
It turned out that his arm had managed to come loose and drop to the floor. With one hand clenched on the steering wheel, I reached behind me at one hundred miles per hour and tucked the wandering arm back partially into the sheets, and eased the speedometer to 110, to push more air into our speeding coffin. Stopping on this causeway wasn’t in the picture, and I suddenly remembered all those movies I’d seen of zombies coming alive out of the swamps. Those bayou causeways in the South can be interminably long, and several more times that pesky arm broke from its loose sheet to hit the floor. I couldn’t bear to look in my rear view mirror or out of the corner of my eyes and see that arm and beseeching hand, but it and I had a bit of a driving tussle until we reached the Gulf shores.
I felt I deserved to reward myself and my dead passenger before dropping him off, so at dusk, I drove to the beach, pulled off my shoes, and walked in the warm water, which melted the tension from our long drive. The dead guy didn’t complain. Perhaps he had one of his better days?
To be continued.