Norris Chambers Old Timer's Tales

Work Like You Live

by Norris Chambers

   "Work like you live, men. Work like you live. I mean hard!"

  The big foreman shouted these words as he walked up and down beside the open gondola freight car that had been full of gravel. Eight of us stood on top and shoveled the rough stuff into a two dump trucks, one on each side.

  "Hey, Slim," he continued, "You on the end, show some action. There's men in the bullpen that want your job. I'd hate to let one of them have your job!"

  Those days in the late thirties were just the beginning of government backed work. The old foreman hadn't heard that you didn't work hard on a government job. He was from the old school that expected two days work for one day's pay. He looked as mean as he talked. He wore high leather boots, khaki pants and shirt and wore a narrow brimmed felt hat. The clothes and hat were clean. His name was Mat Horton.

  I was one of those eight men on the car. Clyde and Carl were there with me. Carl was the slim one on the end that the old man was threatening.

  Clyde and Carl were Clifton's younger brothers. Clyde was about 19 years old, and Carl was 16. Carl was slim and didn't look too strong, but he was tough. We had run into a little trouble getting the job for him. The Superintendent said he was too small to do the job. We assured him that he could pull his own weight.

  Carl didn't like the foreman. He had been bugging him and calling him Slim all morning. He muttered under his breath something about him being a son of a bitch. He had hardly said it when one of the other guys yelled out: "Hey, Mat, Slim called you a son of a bitch!" The big old foreman turned around and looked up at us. We all stopped shoveling then.

  "Did you do that, Slim?" he asked. Before Carl could answer, he continued, "You know I don't take that from anybody."

  Carl was real calm. He looked down at him and spoke softly. "If the shoe fits, wear it".

  "Come down here and I'll show you how to mouth off at me!" The foreman presented his most menacing face and pointed his finger at Carl. Carl was quick to answer, "You come up here."

  The big bully started up the iron rungs at the end of the car. Carl walked over to meet him. Clyde and I followed him. I knew Mat would have to deal with all three of us. The car was about half full of gravel, and it wasn't over two feet to the top. When he arrived at the ladder he reached down and scooped up a shovel full of gravel and as old Mat stuck his head up over the edge he threw the gravel forcefully into his weather beaten face. This action was totally unexpected and the intruder tumbled heavily to the ground. Everyone stood and watched. It was so quiet you could have heard a snail crawl.

  Old Mat got to his feet and wiped the gravel out of his eyes. His fancy hat had gone flying, but he didn't bother to find it. He didn't say a word, but jumped back up on the ladder and started climbing. Carl was waiting for him. When his head came within range he popped him on the jaw with a fist that was almost as hard as a hickory knot. Carl had been involved in his share of fights and he could hit so fast and hard you could hardly believe what you saw. Mat started to fall back, but before he could tumble Carl hit him again on the other jaw with his left fist, then the right came up and caught him squarely under the chin. Once again he fell off of the car and tumbled to the ground like a ton of bricks.

  Mat hit solidly on his back. Carl didn't wait to see if he was going to get up, but jumped over the side and landed heavily on the old man's legs, just above the boot. A swift kick from Carl's brogan harshly along the side of his head. He was definitely out. Carl just stood there looking at him. The other men in the car began to clap their hands and cheer. One of the truck drivers ran over to him and began lifting him up. He was as limp as a skinned ‘possum.

  All of us climbed off of the car and gathered around. Mat opened his eyes and gazed around, apparently trying to figure out what had happened. The truck driver was still holding him up. There was a bloody gash on each cheek and blood was oozing out of his mouth.

  A car drove up and the Superintendent got out. He took a quick look at Mat and asked what happened. Someone answered, "Carl had to teach him a lesson." The big boss looked at Carl and back at Mat, who was still trying to determine what had transpired. He turned to the truck driver and said, "Help me get him in the car. You men get back up there and get busy. When you finish this car get on the next one. When I get back I want to see some empty cars." They loaded him in the back seat and we went back to work.

  We all thought Carl would have been fired immediately. Carl said he guessed they would do it later or the next day.

  When we came to work the next day, Mat was not present. The Superintendent was there sending out the different crews. He walked up to Carl. "Here it comes," Clyde whispered. But he didn't say a word about the incident. "Carl," he said "I need you over at the warehouse. Go with Jim." He pointed to some sort of straw boss. Carl went over and joined three or four more who were going with him. He came to Clyde and me. "You two are going to the lumber yard." He pointed out another boss and continued his job assignments.

  The lumber yard was not a bad place. It was in a field and comprised about four or five acres. As the lumber was unloaded from box cars it was brought here and stacked according to length and dimension. There were no shelters except a small office building at the main entrance. When an order came for lumber, a foreman assigned some of us to load the truck. If lumber was coming in, we had to unload it and pile it on the proper stack. Usually the trucks were not close to the stack, and we had to carry the cargo to the edge where they were parked.

  There was much rain that fall and the whole construction project was a muddy mess. We sometimes waded in mud six or eight inches deep when carrying the lumber. The trucks had to be assisted by tractors much of the time. The work had to go on - we were building an army camp. The work was routine for several days. Carl worked in the warehouse, loading and unloading cement, plumbing supplies, electrical, and other items that were kept inside out of the rain. He had no more foreman trouble.

  One long afternoon Clyde and I were carrying 2X10's about 18 feet long. We carried two at a time. I walked at one end with a board on each shoulder and he brought up the rear the same way. It was about 150 feet to the truck. Two other crews were doing the same thing. The foreman tried to get us to carry two boards on each shoulder, but we didn't cooperate. Two were plenty heavy in that mud.

  I decided to play a dirty trick on Clyde. About every ten minutes he would ask me what time it was. I had bought a dollar pocket watch that I had found on sale for 69 cents. It kept pretty good time. Every time he would ask me, I would subtract about five minutes from the real time and get him farther behind. By quitting time he was a little over an hour behind. He complained about it being the longest evening he had ever seen. The bosses insisted that everyone work until the whistle blew.

  When the whistle blew he was pleasantly shocked. We were wet, tired and muddy and were ready to quit. He thought my watch was wrong, and he never did find out that I tricked him.

  My cousin, Paul, who was still unloading the box cars said that Mat had come back to work, but walked with a crutch. He had settled down and become a pretty good foreman. Clyde and I wondered if Carl should have got a medal for making a better man out of Mat.

  Shortly after Christmas soldiers began to move into the finished huts. The huts were wooden framed boxes 16 feet in diameter with a tent top. There were thousands of them. There were also theaters, a hospital, warehouses, latrines and various other necessary shelters. When Clyde and I got laid off, Carl kept working in the warehouse. I went back to my radio repair shop and Clyde found odd jobs on the oil leases and in the fields.

  Clifton had a full time job pumping an oil lease. In the late Spring I got a civil service job at Kelly Field in San Antonio and Ella and I moved away. Carl had got laid off at the camp. Before too long Clyde and Clifton were working in an aircraft plant and Carl was in the Air Force.

  Later Clyde was in the army and Clifton and I joined the Maritime Service. After the war was over Clifton, Clyde and Carl got good jobs in the oil fields of west Texas and I continued my work in aircraft and electronics. The good old 'possum hunting days were behind us and we entered into a new world that was full of responsibilities.


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