I have no idea why the memories I am about to relate have emerged from the fog of the past. I get these moments of clarity often when shaving, as in this case. Perhaps it’s something about having a super-sharp blade scraping down my throat. In any case I want to set down some memories and thoughts about an episode from my youth, long since passed into the rearview mirror of time. And, no, they are not closer than they appear.
In high school, late 1950s,I was elected by the student body to the “student government.” The student government had no real role to play, but we were selected to visit with a member of the Memphis city government. In my case it was the Commissioner of Public Works, or something similar. The essence of my “job” was to follow the Commissioner around for a day, do photo ops with him and try to learn something while staying out of the way. I did. I learned that I did not want to be the Commissioner of Public Works.
However, of greater importance at the time was the connection I made. I needed a summer job badly and, at that time in Memphis, they were hard to come by. So, the Commissioner gave me a job on one of the survey crews that laid out the elevations for streets being built at a furious pace in those days.
The crew consisted of the chief, whom I’ll call Bill, and two others, a young white boy whom I’ll call Jack and another, possibly Cajun but likely white, man whom I’ll call Dax. Truthfully, the other crew member is lost to memory. I do not remember their real names. Dax was a person of very limited intellect, likely suffering a mental disability, but was always kind to me. He would pick up screws, bolts, anything of a salvageable nature on the streets and handle them like they were lost gem stones. I asked him why he kept such things but he just said they might be useful to him some day. I better understood when we stopped by Dax’s “house” one day and I was told to go in with him to pick up something. Dax lived in what amounted to a hut, a single room house, with a single bed, single chair, small table and a small black and white TV. He literally had nothing. Yet he showed up for work every day and went about his job without complaint.
Bill was a good ole’ boy in many ways, but also had a degree of native intelligence about things. He did the math calculations in a notebook and seemed skilled with trigonometry. How he acquired that skill was never revealed and it wasn’t something you asked about. Overall, Bill was a pretty decent guy. He always did the driving, in a beat-up station wagon (remember those?) into which the three of the working crew and the surveying equipment were crammed. There was no car air conditioning in those days and Memphis was a humid baking oven in the summer.
The day always began the same way. All the crews convened in a single room in downtown Memphis, where they mingled, smoked and just hung around waiting for the crew chiefs to come in with the day’s assignments. I was the odd man out in this group, a high school student bound for college, and not a person to whom anyone was drawn. Mostly, I just watched and stayed out of the way as much as possible. The chiefs always met with the top guy in a separate room to discuss, and argue about, which crews would go where during the day.
The crew’s assignment generally was to drive to wherever surveying was needed. Bill would park the wagon in the shade if he could find it. The work always began by finding, often with difficulty, a “marker,” consisting of the top, or what remained of the top, of a large nail or spike that had been driven in the pavement somewhere near an intersection. The altitude of that point was known from prior survey work, so it became the reference point for staking out the altitude and direction of the street that was to be laid down. Finding that initial point sometimes took a half hour or more of crawling around on the hot pavement in the open sun, brushing aside gravel with our bare hands, until someone yelled “got it.” If Bill confirmed the location, we were able to use an adjustable level and a long stick with marks on it, like a long yardstick, to determine the various levels for the giant road graders and dirt haulers to go by.
Many of our jobs entailed redoing the stakes that had been driven under or simply destroyed by the road graders that were far from fine-tuned instruments and were driven by what I believed to be ex-rodeo riders. Bill shared something in common with them, as his favorite diversion during the long days was to drive the wagon at high speed between, for example, two parked road graders with literally an inch of two to spare on either side. This led to much hooting and hollering among the crew, who thought we were going to die each time. But Bill never hit anything.
The other diversion was, I thought then and now, remarkable. The crew loved to play chess. Every day when we weren’t on immediate call, which was often, Bill would drive the wagon to one of his favorite cheap sandwich shops, where we’d order lunch meat and cheese on white bread and soft drinks, then drive to a shady spot somewhere, decamp from the truck and set up the chess board. On a good day, that is, one with little or no actual work to do, the chess games would go on for hours. Bill thought nothing of driving for an hour across the city to find a sandwich place and a nice park, even when the next job almost certainly would be where we had just been.
So what, you may say. The city was paying for men to play chess and occasionally do some necessary but largely unpredictable work under poor working conditions. No surprise there.
The real point of telling this long tale is this that one day we were working in downtown Memphis. In those days Main Street was actually a busy thoroughfare with department stores and other active businesses. The area was the center of commerce in Memphis. It was sometime in July, I believe, when the heat and humidity were almost unbearable and we were out on the pavement finding our marks, moving from spot to spot, probably for a repaving that was due. Jack, Dax and I removed our shirts to try to get such relief from the sun as we could. In those days we believed this was the proper approach. Later we learned otherwise. In any case, it felt better at the time.
During the next morning’s preparation meetings, we were informed that removal of our shirts when working in the sun was no longer permitted. Some citizens had complained that it was unseemly to have city government workers outside without their shirts. Of course, we weren’t told who had complained or how many complaints there were, but we did learn that the complaints were from members of the gentler sex, and that was sufficient. It was irrelevant that we did not have government uniforms. Jack, Dax and I worked in our own blue jeans. No matter. The sight of young men without shirts was offensive to Memphis womanhood and henceforth we would wear shirts regardless of the weather conditions.
And so that’s how it was back then. Opinions may differ about whether the city’s action was justified. I can only recall the events as helping form my view, later realized, that I had to leave Memphis.