Biff America: Pride of a workingman (column)
Charley Rawley seemed like an old guy 35 years ago, but I would imagine he was younger than I am now. He was a truck driver and dock worker, thin and wiry. We worked together a couple of summers off-loading coffee bags from semitrucks. During winter and spring I was a waiter, but in the summer I’d trade my bow tie for work boots. Though I could do the work, my co-workers never considered me one of them; though I barely finished high school they called me ‘college boy.’
The coffee bags in question weighed about 100 pounds each. They would come off the ships and be trucked to the mills. Charley and I would load the bags onto pallets to be carted off the truck with a forklift. It might take 50 pallet loads to empty the truck and you would work from the back of the trailer to the front.
It was hard work but paid well. Using freight hooks, two men would grab a 100-pound burlap bag by the corners and throw it on pallets to be picked up by a forklift. There was no ventilation in the trailer and the forklift ran on propane, giving off thick fumes — pretty sure my spelling and punctuation issues are a lingering result of those fumes. If I stopped for a second to wipe the sweat from my face Charley might ask, “Are you tired, college boy?”
We were into our last pallet, both of us working in the nose of the trailer when Charley and I were thrown sideways against the wall of the trailer. I fell on my freight hook, which sliced through the thigh of my work pants. Obviously, someone had hit our truck, but I was more concerned about groin damage than vehicle damage. While Charley ran out to check on the truck’s front end, I had my pants down checking my own front end. There was a slice in my pants from just above my knee to almost my groin, but my skin was barely scratched.
Our tractor had some damage to the front quarter and the heavy cast-iron bumper was pulled off on one side. Whoever hit us had taken off, but it being an industrial area there were warehouses and trucks all around. I wanted to call the cops, report a hit-and-run, and take a coffee break, but Charley wouldn’t hear of it.
We spent the next 30 minutes walking around looking for damaged vehicles; we found one backed-in, being unloaded less than a quarter mile away. The green paint of our truck was evident along their bumper and the red paint of their truck was the right color and height that we found on ours.
This was before cellphones and I assumed that we would look for a pay phone and call the cops, but Charley wanted to confront the driver instead. We walked into a warehouse and found two guys doing what we had been doing, but unloading boxed freight instead of coffee bags. They were older than me, younger than Charley and bigger than both of us. Charley told them that we knew they had hit us. He ignored their denials, but said that if they agreed to accept blame, we wouldn’t tell the cops they hit us and took off.
There was a lot of posturing as both guys again denied their guilt, stood close and towered over Charley and me in a threatening manner. I was too afraid to say anything and was glad I still had freight hooks hanging over my shoulder. Charley wasn’t backing down and said something about how there was no way they didn’t know they had damaged our truck, but he didn’t want to get a fellow workingman in trouble with the law.
It could have been my imagination, but they seemed to be considering the ramifications of the added charges of assaulting Charley and me along with a hit-and-run. Luckily, cooler heads prevailed. While we waited for the cops to come and fill out an accident report, Charley and the two big guys smoked cigarettes, made small talk and ignored me. Charley sent me back to finish off-loading the remaining coffee bags.
Before I got out of ear shot one of the guys yelled, “Hey kid, for the luv of Gawd getta new pair of trowsas ya arse is hanging out.”
I could hear Charley laughing along with them at my expense.
Walking back alone, I was again reminded that, though I was a worker, I had a ways to go before I could call myself a ‘workingman.’ …………..
Jeffrey Bergeron, under the alias of Biff America, can be read in several newspapers and magazines. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Biff’s new book “Mind, Body, Soul.” is available at local shops and bookstores or Shop.holpublications.com/products/biff-america-mind-body-soul
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