I took the summer job to make a lot of money, and by my graduate student standards I did. In three months I raked in more than my assistantship paid all year. I had no sense of prestige on the line, and it didn’t bother me at all that, in the realism of conversation, my title was “grunt.” My job for the Texas Electric Service Company was to haul insulators, nuts and bolts, and tools and parts up a rope to the linemen who, their crampons dug into the creosoted utility poles, leaned back against their leather braces as they strung or repaired line, changed out insulators, and fixed or replaced transformers. What they found easy, I found hard.
I don’t think I ever did get the hang of twisting wire sheaths around guywires. I was also belligerent to their politics, but in other ways I was prepared to enjoy their company, hot as the summer sun was. I found out, too, that they were more than a cut above what the previous generation of linemen had been noted for: going from bar to bar after work and fighting. Nearing retirement, the foreman, a big man with rattlesnake eyes, was from the earlier generation, but he had obviously settled down, though the other ones on the crew told me he’d really been a pistol. I never heard him say much except for something racist one day. Stiffly contained and laconic, he seemed to have no taste for stories or jokes, whereas the younger members of the crew were full of both. I never felt I got to know the foreman. He stayed to me an alien though imposing presence. But no lightning flashed in his eyes.
After I’d been on the job for several weeks, we and other crews changed our eight o’clock starting time to six. The permanent workers and the management above us were in favor of us escaping the late afternoon heat. I didn’t care much about the shift in schedule, after having gotten through several years of intense two-a-day football practices followed by windsprints in August. I was, however, sensing more and more a hot air of separation between the others on the crew and me. I had always had good peripheral vision, but even if I hadn’t, I think I’d have noticed some obliquely belligerent glances turned my way near the end of lunch the first week. For dessert they ate onions as if they were apples whereas I had strawberries and powdered sugar.
The real trouble, though, started on June 19th, also known as Juneteenth. The day commemorated the arrival of the first news in Texas about President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. That morning we were having our regular pre-shift safety meeting, and in several weeks on the job I’d only seen one black man among the employees. He looked to be near retirement age, and his name was Jack. I’d talked with him several times, though I never was sure what his job was. I did find, however, that he seemed to have two major points of reference. Each day, he told me, he had a routine: a long bath and a six-pack of Jax beer by the tub. More important was the pride he had in his daughter. She had earned a master’s degree in biology, he told me, and was working for a government agency in Washington, D.C. I wasn’t by any means the only one who was friendly with him. He seemed to get along with everyone. That morning, however, my sense of benevolence about the place got turned upside down.
I remember when he walked into the meeting, one of our crew said, “Hey, Jack, what’s today?”
“You know what day it is.”
“No, Jack. Come on, tell us. It’s a special day, Jack. Ought to be a holiday. What day is it?”
The banter went on for what seemed to me an awkwardly long while, Jack trying to brush away the chatter. Then impatient now, the lineman—and others were chiming in, too—said, “Come on, Jack—Black Jack—tell us. How come you come to work? Thought you’d take a holiday—be out eatin’ watermelon on a picnic. How come, Jack? I know—it’s Nigger Day, ain’t it?”
Jack then turned toward him, and without changing his thoroughly impassive look, he coolly informed the heckler, his voice going low, “Well, it sho ain’t no po-ass white man’s day.”
The room went quiet and Jack took his seat. Then one of the other workers laughed out loud and told the lineman, “He sure put you in your place—po ass,” and the tension in the room broke. There was a flurry of laughter then the room was called to order.
Like “the dozens” in other parts of the country, “cutting contests” were common here, especially in schools, but they usually didn’t seem to have much to do with social levels. This time Jack had won, and most of the room seemed to accept that fact, not that it altered anyone’s insight. Sometimes X won, sometimes Y, and wisdom was never on the line.
Several days later, when I saw Jack by the vending machine after my shift was over, I told him I thought the guy had sounded dumb. He cocked his head and told me, “Don’t worry about it. The guy’s just trash, and his kids are gonna be trash, too. It’s the same with a lot of these guys. They ain’t got nowhere to go ‘cept up and down a pole. I ain’t going anywhere dramatic either. But my daughter is, and that’s all that counts. That’s why I don’t worry about these guys. They ain’t got enough imagination to think farther’n they can spit.”
Then, as if it were an afterthought, he asked if I’d trained my wife the way he had his.
“How you mean?”
“Bring you beer by the tub when you get off work.”
Laughing, I told him no, and he put his coins in the vending machine. The conversation was over, but the tension on the job wasn’t.
Soon after that day, on a coffee/snack-break, the subject of integration came up. The guy who had baited Jack said he wouldn’t ever go in a swimming pool where a black had been.
“Why?” I asked. “You afraid the color’s going to come off him and get on you?”
He didn’t think that was funny, but one of the other guys did. That didn’t mean that he agreed with my politics. All it meant was that he liked the winner in a cutting contest better than the loser.
“You ever been in the Army?” the lineman asked me. He obviously wasn’t through arguing.
“No,” I told him.
“Then you don’t have any experience. You don’t have any idea what the world’s like. I do. I been around.”
“Hell,” I said. “Here you are—born in the middle of a wheat field then you spend six months in the Army and you’re going to spend the rest of your life going up and down a damn pole. You don’t know anything, except you’re scared.”
“Hell, you’re not even smart enough to figure that out.”
The gulf between us was obvious. I was what they called “a college boy,” and from their point of view there wasn’t anything good that could come from that.
We were far off the main road in the country when the crucial moment came. After that day, we’d simply have to endure each other till I left to go back to school. Part of me is still surprised I didn’t get fired. It’s possible that the only reason I didn’t was the fact that my father was a friend of the District Manager, but who knows?
The racist comments soon began again, and once more we’d wind through class differences, each of us convinced the other side was at best naive but more than likely deranged. One of them, though, liked to stir the controversy, apparently out of an enjoyment of chaos.
Then one day two telling things happened. We were on a highway, and a funeral procession was coming toward us. As was customary, the driver pulled our truck over on the shoulder and stopped in a ritualistic gesture of respect. Sitting shotgun, the foreman even placed his hardhat over his heart and kept it there till he started squinting at the procession.
“Oh hell!” he said. “Just a bunch of niggers. Drive on, Trucky,” and we pulled out into the lane with the others laughing.
Soon we were far off the main road and alongside a vast, mesquite-crowded field. I’d just sent up by rope a bucket load of materials and was gazing idly out into the sun-scorched landscape. Suddenly something flashed by my face and smashed into the weed-ragged ground at my feet. It was a big insulator, and it had barely missed me. I glanced up and, grinning big, the lineman dropped another one. I dodged out of the way and saw him laughing. He was paying me back for my poisonous ideas, but he’d made a mistake. A big mistake, I told myself as I gathered up two hands full of big steel washers and bolts and started throwing them at him. “Damnit!” he yelled, flinching to miss my weaponry.
“You could’ve killed me!” I yelled back at him. I was shaking, I was so angry, and I think the only thing that calmed me down was the realization that he didn’t have much room to maneuver in, and I had acres. I think he knew, too, that the next time I threw I might aim for his face. Then I noticed that another lineman, the one on the next pole, was looking our way and laughing; and I knew that that fact alone would make the rest of the summer bearable.
About a year later I heard, though indirectly, that management had decided that their summer hiring practices needed changing. I assumed that meant the “college boys” program wasn’t working out. Maybe I should’ve taken the desk job I’d been offered, but I didn’t think so then and I don’t think so now. In several ways I value the memories of that jacklegged time. I never saw any of the five men I had worked with again. But a year and a half later, when I was working as a newspaper journalist and riffling through papers at the police station, I noticed that the light-hearted one of the crew—the one who, atop another pole, had laughed at the mayhem between the lineman and me—had had a peace bond put on him. Something had apparently chased his casual, peace-making humor away. But who knew what?
The memory of the insulator drop stays vivid, and with it the hot-headed throwing I did in response. I think I was lucky, for several reasons, that I never hit him. I was also lucky to realize that I had wide spaces to maneuver in, and my enemy didn’t.
All that happened a long time ago. There is, though, one thing I’ve never figured out. When I was throwing bolts and washers at the lineman, why did I miss him? Was I involuntarily maintaining a semblance of sense, or was I just a bad shot? I simply don’t know the answer to that.
James Hoggard is the author of 16 books, most recently Patterns of Illusion: Stories & A Novella and Medea In Taos & Other Poems. He is also the Perkins-Prothro Distinguished Professor of English at Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls.