Friday, January 09, 2009

Stories from work. and Mr. Grace.

I have been thinking a bit on wholeness. From a conversation with a man in Chattanooga a few days ago, and an article I read from Tim Keller on hell.

What makes us whole, and full, and complete as humans, and followers of Christ? If the opposite is destruction, and hell, which Tim Keller describes as "decay and decomposition," apart from Christ. Well, then what makes us whole? And moving towards restoration.

A friend from Milwaukee who sits a few stories high in a beautiful rising office building looking out to Lake Michigan, sent these words. It was such a great capturing of his days as a young man, and his background, I wanted to forward along, used with permission.

I think about this man, and his places of working with large calculations and strategic formulas on market timing, and then these stories, and I am left with some version of whole. Or complete. and least partially on this side of heaven....

This is some of what he wrote...

I recall working for Mr. Grace one summer on his farm. The elder Mr. Grace everyone referred to as Pappaw, even though he was not my grandfather. Pappaw's son was known to everyone as "Happy" or "Hap". Hap was my father's age, mid-40s, when I was in college. The farm they owned was multi-purpose. The only "crop" they grew was hay. The other sources of income were raising Holsteins to sell to beef processors, selling sand, culverts, backhoe and dozer work and a few small oil wells. I was always intrigued by the work ethic which permeated the place.

I remember the smells of the farm: the musty smell of the hay barn, Levi Garret chewing tobacco, Miller Lite and Old Charter bourbon. The fence around the barn and office area was made from oil well pipe and "sucker" rods. The fence required painting at least once per year. It was a tedious job because it required prepping the fence with a wire brush to remove all the rust and old paint. Fortunately, Mr. Grace was not too particular and allowed me to apply the paint directly with paint "gloves". It was honest, hard work that paid well. We always had a break for lunch, ham sandwiches and tea (sweet, of course).

I remember one day Hap telling me we were going to deliver sand. I was excited about getting a reprieve from the painting. I was more than excited when Hap said that I would be driving the dump truck while he handled the backhoe. Happy would fill the truck with sand while I waited in the cab. I would then drive down the road several miles to dump the sand for the client. Looking back now, I realize what a gift that was from Happy. His trusting me with the dump truck was an invitation of sorts into the world of men an of work and machinery.

Every summer, Happy bid for a job clearing a portion of a levee on the Red River. This particular summer he was awarded a job to clear 9 to 10 miles of the levee. Brush and small trees had grown on the levee since the last time it was cleared. The Corps of Engineers is responsible for maintaining the levees and they prefer to keep them clear of undergrowth.

This was a team effort, my father, Ross, drove the bulldozer while Happy drove the backhoe. I led the way with a chainsaw, cutting down the trees that were too large for the bulldozer to snap. We worked hard for several weeks in the sweltering heat of an Arkansas July. It was hot, dirty, grimy, sweaty work. But, it was great! Being invited to work with these men and being trusted with a chainsaw was very affirming for a young man. We ate our lunches together under the shade of a tree. We shared ice cold Miller Lite's at the end of the day.

On Friday's we would stop by an all-you-can eat catfish restaurant for dinner, swapping stories from the day, enjoying a good meal and a pitcher of beer (Miller Lite, of course). I remember those days of hard work vividly and fondly recall the good times we had. Those weeks were some of the best times that I had with my father. I definitely took away some good lessons of hard, honest, dirt-under-your-fingernails work. The money, which was great for a 20 year old, is long gone but the affirmation and validation as a man still remain.

The Holstein cattle arrived on the farm as bulls but departed several months later for the processor as steers. You may or may not be aware of what is required to turn a bull into a steer. Shortly after the bulls arrive they are marshaled into a corral. Lots of mooing and bawling in the corral as the young bulls seem to sense their fate. Each bull is funneled into a narrow chute. At the end of the chute the fence tightens so that the bull is held stationary (they don't like this at all). Lots of bucking and moving, even though the chute is supposed to hold them steady.

The first step is to cut the horns, which are only a couple of inches long, with a device that looks like a pair of large bolt cutters. Getting a firm grip on the horns of a bull with the bolt cutter is difficult. Once you get the grip you pull the cutter together quickly and after a gruesome crunch the horn flies off and the blood spews straight up into the air with every heartbeat from the bull. The last step to transform this bull into a steer is castration. The bull's boys are removed with a large, sharp knife. Lastly, antiseptic is sprayed on the wounds and the steer is released into a separate corral. Blood and snot fly everywhere as the newly christened steer shakes off this experience. It is a messy, nasty job. After the first one, the jig is up and all the remaining bulls are bellowing loudly because they know their time is short.