Clearing Land

My Pop had a ring of keys that would make a janitor jealous.

My Pop had a ring of keys that would make a janitor jealous. He had so many keys that he just left his truck key in the ignition all the time, something I never have felt comfortable doing. Pop had the keys  to all the fences and codes to all the gates of the rich people’s property in our community, which wasn’t a lot of people, but most of the property in that part of the county. Pop was constantly doing work for these people. Which meant that Zach and I were constantly working on some of the most outlandish projects you could think of. Once, I built a cross shaped garden out of cross ties with specific instructions that the garden faced south. Rich people can be peculiar.

One of the biggest projects that I remember doing for one of these people involved clearing a large tract of forest for a horse farm. I want to say it was a good twenty five to thirty  acres, not a bad twenty five to thirty acres. After the timber had been cleared Pop secured the bid to clean the land, so it fell to Zach and me to pick up all of the rocks and sticks while Pop plowed the land. If that sounds like an easy task to you, then you’ve probably never cleared land. We picked up enough rocks to line the ditch on a three mile road, on both sides.

While Pop was pulling the disk on the tractor, Zach and I would walk in front of another tractor and load the rocks and sticks into the bucket. This all seems so easy since you are now reading this while sitting in your comfortable chair. In the air conditioning. But I assure you that it was no easy task. This was the closest I have been to doing prison labor. Dust was flying from the disk, the raging Alabama sun was beating us down. The rocks were not merely gravel size, but anywhere from softball size all the way up to Volkswagon size. Many times we would have to use the bucket or the box plow to dig out a five hundred pounder, and it was all we could do to get it in the bucket. We would have to do the same thing for stumps and roots. When you move something like a five hundred pound rock into a tractor bucket, you get a brief taste of triumph that quickly vanishes like the dusty wind when you realize that it is only 8:30 in the morning and you still have three and half hours till lunch,and seven or so hours until you get to go home. I do not exaggerate when I say that this was the hardest work that I have ever done, but $10 an hour is a lot of money for a twelve year old kid.

We did get to catch our breath for five minutes every time the tractor had to dump its load at the ever growing rock pile. Every once in a while we did get to drive the tractor. This happened if Pop couldn’t secure us a designated tractor driver, usually someone about fifty or sixty years our senior to keep us in line, because we had so much energy to get out of line. Pop was probably right in hiring an adult to drive, because we would ride in the bucket whenever one of us were driving. I remember once my cousin wanted to be lifted up in the bucket, my brother lifted him up about ten feet into the air and tilted the bucket dumping him out. I don’t know how, but my cousin hung on with his hands, his feet dangling. Zach, still trying to get a handle on the bucket controls, tried to right the bucket, but instead gave my dangling cousin a few rough shakes with the bucket until my he let go and fell to the pile of rocks below. All in good fun, although that cousin never helped us again after that day.

I say all in good fun. It’s amazing how even in the worst working conditions, we did indeed have fun. But it wasn’t fun all the time, this job was where I was introduced to workplace violence. One day Pop hired my two meanest cousins to help us. They were mean as snakes, and if that wasn’t enough they were lazy. I did not enjoy working with these cousins, at all. They would make fun of you for no reason then laugh at you when you got upset. Their first week on the job ended when one of them hit me in the head with a rock. Pop must have sacked them, because I don’t remember working with them again.

Dad also helped on this job occasionally. I remember one day we were slaving away, bent over trying to dig a humongous rock out of the ground, when Dad stood up abruptly with his rear end as far forward as possible, stiffening his body, trying hard not to move a muscle. He said gravely, “I ain’t gonna make it boys.”  He began to trot down towards the woods with his hands out to his sides and trying only to move from the knees down, being careful to not jar himself while running across the rough rocky ground. He hollered at me without turning his head, “Go get me some napkins from the truck!”  By this time Zach and I were laughing uncontrollably. He made it to the woods. Barely. I brought him two Sneaky Pete’s Hot Dogs napkins. He was not amused.

Pop ragged us all summer about not “getting after it”, as he termed it. I guess we were not only supposed to do labor camp type work for eight and ten hour days, but we were supposed to do it faster than anyone else, without cutting up. By the time fall rolled around, Pop had finished the disking and was able to start helping us load rocks. He worked with us one full day before he changed our shift, stating “Four hours is all a man can stand of this kind of work.” I guess the cold was getting to him.

I remember those paydays. Cold hard cash. Zach saved his money and bought a nice rod and reel that he still uses today. I bought the ugliest pair of shoes that Dr. Marten’s has ever made. They had thick platform soles and monk strap buckles and weren’t even boots. Sarah doesn’t drmartenslet me wear them out of the house. Every once in a while she will badger me about cleaning out my closet in hopes that I will get rid of those shoes. I worked harder to earn enough to buy those hideous shoes than I have worked for anything else in my life, and I’ll never get rid of them.




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