1996 doesn’t seem that long ago sometimes, and sometimes it seems as if it were another lifetime away, and the people, events and places, works of fiction, or part of some historical display, but not relevant to this life, this place and time, or for that matter, relevant to me. It was fourteen years ago, however, and no matter how I feel about the time, it is what it is, and it will never come back to me in any form except memory, and of course, writing.
In the business of Transportation Construction there isn’t very much cross pollination between construction companies. Anyone who is fired from one has difficulties getting a job with another in the same area. Rarely are employees poached from one company by another, although that is more frequent than the hiring of the fired. Sometimes a disgruntled employee can talk his way into being hired on by another company so they can perhaps learn something of the old company’s ways, but that too is very rare. Most men who own their own construction companies are not interested in advice from outside their own circle of advisors. The consequences of poor judgment in this business are an abrupt end of profits, so most owners already trust what they are doing. Or they are already gone.
There was a motor grader operator of great renown who quit three different companies, all of which were top of the line operations, because as the best, he wanted to get paid as such. Three times the company in question let him go rather than up his pay, but a fourth local company did pick him up, and he is still there today. Personally, in over eighteen years in this business, I have know at least one operator that might have been as good as he, maybe, and two that might have come close, but no one I have seen was, or is, better. Is it worth what he was asking? Obviously he is as good enough to bring in more profit than he costs, or he would not be there.
I knew a man who talked his way into a job above his skill level, and the company that hired him is now bankrupt. That speaks to the judgment issue, and I have known men who were able to talk their way into jobs only to be released from their responsibilities within a year or so. Most companies will give you a year to either sink or swim, and it is a shameful thing to be hired into a position higher than you have had before, and then a year goes by and you are ushered to the door with a handshake and a grim smile. But mostly people of any sort of skill stay put, either through lack of ambition, or they are being rewarded to do so.
Lower level workers rarely change companies within this business simply because running a shovel is something almost anyone can do. Once a worker has been in one place for a few years, even the shovel operators, they are making better than entry level wages so there is little for them to switch jobs. As I have already said, those who are fired usually cannot get on with another company.
I met Billy in 1996, and he was working for another company, running a shovel, and now he’s working for someone else and he’s still got that same job. The last fourteen years have not been kind to him physically. He’s likely a little younger than I, and when I first met him he looked younger still. Now he looks much older than I. Drugs, alcohol, and/or a life regulated to manual labor in the Summer heat and endless shifts can age a man. All of these things taken in combination can age a man quickly. Still, this is a man who takes pride in his work. Even at the lower end of the skill ladder, Billy has always tried hard to do what was right, even if it meant little to anyone else. Day in and day out, Billy has gone out into the heat, the traffic, and in fourteen years, he hasn’t moved up at all.
We talked about that project, fourteen years ago, and it seems he took a break away from the shovel to drive a truck for someone else, hauling pulpwood, but came back to asphalt. We talked about those who quit, got fired, moved on, retired, or just plain went missing and never came back. Billy’s mind is sharp and clear; he remembers names and men and problems on projects from fourteen years ago better than I.
There was a project where a man donated some of his property as easement to the construction company that was running the show. The man’s only stipulation was they move a rather large rock from his property. Billy was there, and I remember he was the person they wanted to help clean up the pieces of the rock when they were done breaking it up, but the rock wasn’t a rock at all, but the tip of a small mountain sticking out of the bedrock and up into that man’s property. The company had to dig down several feet, get several men with jackhammers working for a week, and finally satisfied the man when they moved enough rock to fill four or five dump trucks. That was genuinely funny and that story has made the round for a while now. Other men have heard it, and they come over to listen to two people who were there. Billy makes a show of how he told the operator that the rock went down deeper than they thought. How much deeper? Billy told him, “You better call the boss because he’s going to lose some money here.” I remember when he said those words, those exact words, fourteen years ago.
I asked the supervisor about Billy, and why he never got past the shovel, and he told me Billy had gotten a job driving a truck and was doing fairly well. Billy’s daughter was killed by a drunk driver one night, and the man lost everything that went with living after that. He got his old job back and never once looked up again. Billy’s daughter was the first member of his family to go to college. He was on the road when she died, and it took them a couple of hours to find him, and tell him.
My niece leaves to go to Mercer in one month.