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View from the bottom rung

I hear tell the good Lord watches over fools and little children. My co-worker was neither fool nor child but in a profession which required the close attention of guardian angels, Ken’s angel stuck closer than most. No other explanation of his survivability in one of the nation’s most hazardous occupations. His carriage, pretty well defined by his cousin, my neighbor from across the way, was embodied in the nickname ‘Sack’ after the inept comic strip character Sad Sack a bumbling army private of World War II. At first impression one might imagine the lad had only wandered in from a land “way yon beyond the boonies,” yet one soon found substance in the color, a magic to his madness.

We met on the job site, he the old hand me and the new hire. First cat out of the bag he transgresses my work area and asks in a whiny-like near feminine voice half joking half serious if I were “trying to show him up.” Unsure of his motivations I eyed the man askance, shrugged my shoulders and replied guardedly that the industry he witnessed was my customary pace. Time would come that my safety would be given to his hands, not at all something I was happy about but just the way fate decides the game will be played.

At first glance the bedraggled fellow appeared just to have emerged from an “up close and personal” confrontation with a bob cat in a brier patch after being chased miles through a cactus plantation; shirt hanging in shreds, suspenders supporting work pants frazzled and torn. All this discombobulation loosely hung on a gangly frame, not a promising specimen to have as co-worker though later I would learn the man was mountain poor and valley rich. Whereas my friend may have been ragtag way yonder in the remote forests where civilization consists of bears, catamounts and hirsute out-backers, down at the municipal air port where he hung with his little clique of sky jocks there was pride of association, sporting nothing but the finest regalia, top quality, high-end you name it, “Smilin’ Jack” incarnate.

Who can say why nature enjoys so much, teasing and tinkering with our personal character, here a little there a little until we become sidetracked from what is ordinarily judged as normal behavior ‘till we are a creature, but for the hand of destiny we didn’t plan to be, didn’t really want to be or had expected to be; in the end adding to a rich social mix of habits and color that they become identified as characteristic to the personality, to a culture or to a species.

Out of this multitude of diverse beings Ken may have been a bit more “diverse” than others but getting to know him, clearly much of the mans eccentricities were the result of his raisings, scars of youthful poverty that had been carved into his character and imprinted upon his soul. Necessity it is said, is the mother of invention and perhaps it was the disadvantages and denials of early childhood that drove his near genius as a craftsman. When he could not afford an airplane to fulfill a dream of flying he purchased a skeletal frame and restored it himself, in order to become a member of an antique car club restored an ancient automobile vintage ’20s.

Like so many other Southerners driven to desperation during the great depression, Ken’s family headed west, destination the State of Oregon but were destined not to make it past the uppermost end of the Sacramento Valley. There the vehicle in which they traveled gave up the ghost, broke down, and with no money for repairs, on the spot dropped they their gear and put down their roots.

The upper Sacramento is hades hot during summer, but the vast flood plains along the river contain fertile soil from which various commercial crops are grown, the foremost being olive, almond, and English walnut. This along with a robust timbering and saw milling industry offered ample opportunity for employment for anyone able and willing to bend a body to the labor, and for a destitute family from the rural American South, would offer significant incentive for settling.

Like me, my new found friend had married into a family of loggers which served to channel his life in a timberly direction – and like me, he was perhaps less than brilliant for doing so, yet for different reason. For me the craziness of it was being a shy kid joining a bruising association with no concept of the inherent danger and no preparedness for the rowdiness of a culture with the reputation of being populated by hard drinking and hard living men.

Kenny? Well, my friend must have been phenomenally, the world’s most uncoordinated person, the very “essence of clutz,” yet defining him as such is not to mock since not one of us is responsible for the design of our own genes. Sack was a near genius in his element, a Tinker Man Tad forever ready to offer his ingenuity in the form of a helping hand. Nevertheless, the reality is that physical coordination is vital to survival in the timbering industry where each day is a risk and staying healthy is a challenge.

There is pride in the fact I survived 40-plus years as a logger with only one major injury; surviving the long hazardous venture required a great deal of cunning, a lightness of foot and an element of luck, that extra little margin which some call guardian angel which intercedes when one becomes distracted at the most critical moment or pulls a bonehead play.

Thanking God for deliverance from evil was a nigh daily custom for one whose commuting buddy was the most uncoordinated man on face of the planet. Most drivers looking to the side of the roadway tend to drift whichever direction that draws his attention; a notorious rubberneck, with “Sack” it was all across the spectrum, left, right, up, down whatever, amazingly unpredictable. We had our “discussions” about erratic chauffeuring but the best one could do is stay alert, ride “shotgun” for the duration and hope for the best; however, when the getups are early, the commutes long, the passenger brain dead and body weary, reluctantly and with resignation the job is relinquished to the guardian angel, the hand of fate or whatever benevolent spirit it is that watches over fools and little children. Inevitably fatigue overcomes, sleep overtakes and reluctantly the trust is given.

The beginning of dawn, just enough light to reveal canopied trees alongside the roadway identifying the point of our commute; as I lay slouched against the pick-up seat a jarring rattle, a lurch and on down the road with nary a word spoke. Curious, that afternoon leaving the job site inquired I of my friend the location of the protruding boulder we had bounced over in the road on our way in: Oh, sez he, it wasn’t in the roadway.

Poor people have poor ways: During our association “Sack” acquired two small aircraft, three hanger rentals at the local airport, a home in the valley and country retreat on the mountain plus every fashion, fancy or technology that came down the pike. Yet, tighter than a spit-wad, away from his small social circle was the perception of poverty. His on job appearance was matched by the raggedness of tools required of the profession, the least money spent maintaining a work vehicle, tires etc. For awhile my austere friend kept two sets of mounted tires for his work truck, both roadweary and worn, these he switched back and forth as the treads wore thinner and thinner, another frustration for his already uneasy passenger.

Stop on the way home from work for a soda pop and peanuts, out comes his wallet in a studious search for funds, then to a small change purse stashed away in a lunch pail or else squirreled away somewhere in the truck. Somehow he always found just enough. But the habits of poverty went beyond the purchase; as with the old Maxwell House Coffee slogan, “good to the last drop,” after the last swallow had been downed, the can was then tilted, a searching eye cast at the open mouth, another coaxing of contents, then again and once more in rapid succession until convinced there was nothing left before at last tossing aside the – well empty container, a habit one suspects acquired during a childhood of extreme poverty when commodities were hard to come by. More difficult to imagine is that the package of dry peanuts was opened and eaten only after the drink had been completely consumed. A robust metabolism propelled a bottomless gullet while at the same time scars from yesterday’s poverty drove an adversity to wastefulness; constantly scrounging for something to eat after a days work, a pruned up old apple or orange pulled from a lunch pail or glove compartment of his truck sufficed in an emergency.

A tale of two commutes: My bed time was no later than 8 p.m. on work days, only way to survive the early get-ups long commutes and exhausting energy draining labor of the day. With “Sack” it was different, chronically late to bed, especially after cable television fetched the playboy channel to town, habitually late of the morning often requiring a knock on the door and 10 minutes of waiting out front. The only companionship going out a radio tuned to easy listening, the only consolation that it was my week to drive, my thoughts peaceful and uninterrupted, the vehicle in which I road solidly in command of an alert driver.

North fork of the Feather River “Sack” at the wheel: Crossing the river coming home after work, he turns to me and sez, Ya know, I almost hit that bridge abutment this morning on the way to work? Yes I reply, I know that; what! Protests he, you would have sat there and let me run smake on into the thing? Sure would have, I answered you slowed for the approach but was rubbernecking as usual and a brush with the abutment might have taught a valuable lesson.

Some folks said they had much rather fly with Sack in his aeroplane than ride as a passenger in his automobile on the calculation that up there the ground was the only obstacle he might crash into. However it is, the powers that be, have shown the man amazing grace during his lifetime and with a guardian angel like that he’s probably safe to be around.

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