Friday, October 19, 2012

The Longest Week of My Life

Since I am still recuperating and could literally burst into hysterical tears at any moment, my dad, author of the Kelven's Riddle fantasy series, agreed to share this story with my readers. It is about the year I was born, and he told it to me the other day to bring me out of my depression. It worked, because I suddenly realized there are worse trials than my broken ribs.
Dad way, way above the earth...on a power line pole
In 1979, after a prolonged fiduciary illness, the economy of my home state of Idaho finally died, and in its dying throes it thrashed my own means of making a living completely out of existence.  At the time, my wife Karen and I had three small children, and she was expecting our fourth.

We lost our house in the spring and our fairly new Chevy pick-up by summer.  By fall, Karen and the kids were staying with her parents and I was bunking with my older brother in Boise, where both of us were trying to scrounge what work we could.

Do you know what desperation feels like?  It feels like this: you know yourself to be utterly useless, for you have no way to house and feed your young family - and if you could, you would just shoot yourself, but that would only make things worse for those you love.  So, you're stuck.  Miserable and without hope, you stumble on.

Karen gave birth to our youngest on October 4.  By then, opportunities for work had disappeared entirely, and I was back with my wife and children, living in a three-room house provided for us - to my shame - by my very kind father-in-law.

I couldn't afford a daily paper, so I took to walking across the street every morning to an elderly friend's house.  John would make a pot of coffee, pour me a cup, and then go about his business of being discreet while allowing me to peruse his paper for job listings.

And one morning, there it was: a construction company needed people.

In Nebraska.

Nebraska!  Hundreds of miles away, across the continental divide - which by this time was piling up snow in prodigious amounts.  Nonetheless, after but a moment's hesitation, I called.  Was I experienced in EHV power line construction? the voice on the other end of the line asked of me.  Yes, I am, I lied.  Well then, could I be in Ogallala, Nebraska by the following Monday?  (This was Tuesday)  Certainly, I stated, hoping I wasn't telling yet another whopper.  Alright then, the voice said; come on - and when you get here, come to the office, ask for Richard.

Now, understand this: had there been a ray of hope coming from any quarter of the local map, I would never have considered trying to move my family across four states in winter.  But I was desperate; my attempt at husband-hood and fatherhood was on the verge of abject failure.  The horizon of our future was bleak and black.

We had no car, no money.

Karen suggested we sell everything we had that was sellable, which of course was nearly nothing. We managed to raise about thirty dollars.  My older brother gave me a 1958 dodge which, he declared, would run if we could find a battery.  My Dad found a battery, and lo!, the car did in fact, run.  He also gave us another ten dollars, and my father-in-law, after failing to persuade Karen to remain behind while I went on alone, pitched in another twenty.  So, we had sixty dollars.

I know that doesn't sound like much, but gas was much cheaper then, as was everything else. Relatives parted with what non-perishable and easily consumed foods they could spare, and we filled bottles with water.  On a cold, blustery day, we loaded our three children, aged 1, 3, and 5, and our new baby into the ancient car and headed east.  As a parting gift, my retired friend, John, bought us a tank of gas.

We slept that first night in a rest area south of Kemmerer, Wyoming.  In the morning, after bathroom duties and a cold breakfast, we went on toward the continental divide as the sky lowered and snow began to fall.  Just beyond Laramie, a flashing sign said: Interstate Closed.  I went on anyway.  Two miles further on, there was a gate across the road and a state trooper who informed me in tones that brooked no argument that I had to return to Laramie.

There, I parted with twenty precious dollars to buy a room to house my family for the night.  The next day dawn cold and overcast, but without snowfall.  The road opened mid-morning and I drove like a bat released from the nether regions to get across the mountain before the sky changed its mind.

Three days after leaving Idaho, we drove into Ogallala, Nebraska late in the afternoon.  I checked my wallet.  I had exactly fifteen dollars.  We found a motel with efficiency kitchenettes and I went in to talk to the proprietor.  "Twenty-five dollars a week," she said.

I drew a deep breath.  "Do you know about the company building a power line here-abouts?"

"Yes, some of the workers stay with us."

"I have a job with them," I said.  "I start in the morning - is there any way -?"

She cut me off rather sharply.  "Is that your family in the car?"


She grabbed a coat and headed out the door.  "I'll talk with your wife."

I blinked.  "Yes, ma'am."

When she returned, her attitude had softened.  "You can stay two weeks," she informed me.  "If you have a job, you can catch me up from your first payday.  If not, at the end of two weeks, you'll have to go."

"Thank you - God bless you!"

She watched me for a moment and then smiled slightly.  "God bless you, too."

The next morning, I headed for the company's HQ on the outskirts of town.  Upon entering the office, I found a slim, blond-haired man putting personal effects into a cardboard box.  "I need to see Richard," I said.

"I'm Richard."

"Oh, good.  I'm Dan Hylton from Idaho - you hired me last week."

He shrugged.  "Well, I just got fired, so I'm sorry, but I can't help you."

I stared.  Then, without realizing what I was doing, I crossed the room and grabbed him by his collar. "I just drove my family through a snowstorm to get here.  You have to give me a job!"

He twisted loose.  "Look - go out to the show-up, ask for Nevin, see if he's got a spot open.  That's all I can do."

He gave me directions and I drove to the show-up yard. There were clumps of men standing around loading tools and equipment into trucks, getting ready to start their day.  One man nearby had a dark braid hanging down his back.  "Where can I find Nevin?"  I asked.

He glanced around and then pointed.  "That red truck over there."

Nevin turned out to be a small, weaselly-eyed man with thinning hair.

"Excuse me, sir, but I need a job."

He turned and examined me.  I must have been a sight.  Corduroy pants, simple, worn-out boots, shivering in my flannel shirt and light jacket.  "Go to hell," he said.

My eyes widened.  "What?"

He didn't answer, just closed the door and drove away, leaving me gaping after him.  (Later, I became his boss, and he was forced to become accustomed to dealing with difficult assignments.  I don't know if he remembered that first meeting, but I did.)

I stood there, my heart and mind as cold and numb as my fingers and toes.  Desperation rose up out of the frozen earth and swallowed me whole.  All this way to fail again!   I was utterly hopeless. How could I face Karen?

There was a tap on my shoulder.  "Hey, Buddy."

I turned.  It was the slim man with the dark braid.  He looked as tough as the icy ground we stood upon but his eyes were kind.  "Need a job?"

I nodded.  "Oh, yes."

He pointed.  "See that blue truck over there.  Go talk to that guy - his name is Chris."

With my heart in my boots, I stumbled over to the blue truck.  Inside, talking on his radio, was the largest man I have ever seen or met.  Seriously, were I a grizzly bear, I would avoid this guy's section of woods.  He finished his conversation and turned to study me, looking me up and down.

"What are you?"   He asked in a gruff voice that matched his behemoth-like looks.

I decided to answer in the same vein.  "I'm an unemployed father of four - and I really need a job. Please.  I'll do anything."

He grinned at my ragged appearance and the desperate tone in my voice.  "You certainly look unemployed," he said.  Then he pointed with a sausage-like finger.  "See that guy with the braid?  Go and tell him that you're on his crew.  I'll come around later to do the paperwork."

"Thank you, sir!"

His grin faded.  "Don't snivel - just get to work."

"Yes, sir."

The days were long and bitterly cold, but I took to the work as if I did indeed have experience.  My first paycheck only covered a few days, but it was enough to bring the rent current, fill the cupboards with groceries, and buy me some serviceable work clothes.  One week later, I cashed my second check and Karen and I just sat and stared at $440 spread out on the table.  It was almost equal to what I had earned in a whole month at my last job.

I looked up and met my wife's lovely brown eyes.  "Thank God," I said.

She smiled.  "Yes, thank God."

A few years later, I was making a thousand dollars a week as a project engineer for that same company, and times were as good - financially - as they could be.

But I still can't think of that week, or indeed of the whole of 1979, without a cold shiver working its way up the length of my spine.  Removed from the dark desperation of those times, I simply cannot imagine taking the risks that I took with my young wife and small children.

Thank God, indeed.  It's true what my grandfather once told me about the Good Lord - He does, in fact, look after fools.

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