Jim Pollard Gives Me Career Advice
July in Mississippi, a mean sun hammering down in the late afternoon. The smell of tarpaper, shingles, the sting of sweat in the eyes. Hot. Oh, my Lord, HOT! I’m a long way from the hallowed halls of academe and an air-conditioned office and the title of Texas State University System Regents’ Professor and author of over thirty books. Not long out of high school, I am broke, as always, and this job is the only thing keeping me going.
“Just too hot to be nice,” Jim Pollard is saying as he wrestles another sheet of plywood into position. “What we’re about to do is the hottest part of all and the part I hate most.” It’s a long time ago, and I don’t really remember his name, but I’ll call him Jim Pollard. The Jim part is right; Pollard’s probably not, but it’ll do.
Jim’s one of those all-around good craftsmen who can build a house from dozer scrape to the last finish nail, and for two summers I’ve tagged along behind him doing what needed to be done when he told me to do it. I’m not bad with a hammer and saw, and except for roofing there’s almost no part of house building I don’t understand and enjoy. (As a matter of fact, I’d frame for nothing even now: That’s how much I enjoy the feel of driving a sixteen-penny nail through new pine, smooth and solid and resolute.) I’m not exactly learning a trade here, you see, because I’m starting my second year in engineering at Mississippi State in September and earning whatever money I can to handle tuition and pay off an old car that at present won’t even run. The money I saved in my short stint in the Army is gone, and it’s a year before I will see the light and switch over to English and take on an easier job with Parker Furniture Company in Columbus.
As soon as we finish the decking, we’ll roll out thirty-pound tarpaper, tack it down with metal disks, which we jokingly call silver dollars, and call on another couple of guys to help carry up shingles. I know what’s coming. I’ve roofed on July afternoons before. (I’ve never helped build a house yet that the roof job didn’t come in the afternoon in the dead of summer.) I know the heat and the smell of tarpaper and shingles, and I know how sore I’ll be tomorrow after carrying double bundles up the rickety ladder; I know how smooth my fingers will feel, sanded down.
The worst part of this could be toting up the shingles except that we’ve turned it into a contest of sorts, seeing who can carry the most bundles in a given length of time without dropping to his knees and begging for mercy. Three of us lug them up, two white boys and a black man probably in his mid-thirties, built like Gibraltar and the best shingle-toter I’ll ever know. He always wins, because he can carry three bundles at a time if somebody will load him up, like a mule: 270 pounds (not the lightweight shingles you get today). He’d tote four, 360 pounds, except that he’s broken ladder rungs twice, and the foreman of our crew says it’s not worth having to replace a ladder just so Cliff can beat us at a game he’d beat us at anyway. Besides, when you dump four bundles of shingles on a roof, the whole structure vibrates like it’s been hit by an asteroid. Cliff beats us hands down, as always.
A Southern roofer is among the toughest men on Earth, if he sticks with it long. He gets leathery and pain-tolerant and strong and agile, because he learns how to scoot around on slopes a mountain goat would have trouble on. He learns not to think about what he’s doing, to put his mind off someplace else, like the river or a spring-fed creek he knows about, or with a woman he’s known or would like to. And he learns to ignore the methodical runs of shingles: Reach and grab a shingle, slap it down, drive four nails across it, two licks each, reach and grab another, following that chalk line on asphalt, steady and accurate as any machine. This he must do quickly, because at any moment he might look over his shoulder and see a bronze-headed thunderstorm rearing on the horizon, likely as not to billow the felt and whip it away and soak the plywood, warping it. He pays no attention to the surface he is sliding across, a surface he’s just laid down, though the coarse sand will wear through his jeans and abrade the side off his left tennis shoe, if he’s right-handed, before the afternoon’s out. The stench of asphalt will linger in his head for days, but it is nothing to him.
Mostly he learns to ignore the heat, which he must do, or he will curse his fate the entire afternoon. No sin is worth this, if he thinks about it. So he doesn’t. He pays no attention to the furnace of the sun, that fierce meat-eating eye of God, as it bears down on him. With new houses there is rarely merciful shade. A bandanna rolled up and wrapped around his head to absorb the rivulets of sweat that begin in his hair and trickle down like water from a melting glacier, he need only wipe the sleeve of his T-shirt across his eyes when they begin to burn and blur with sweat and he cannot see to nail. This he does automatically, constantly.
When finally his thirst builds almost to the point of madness, he holsters his hammer and clambers down the ladder and fishes his gallon jug of water from the nearby bushes where he’s stashed it to keep it cool. He slugs long and hard, wipes his mouth, and goes back up the ladder, shutting off his mind as he ascends to the bam-BAM, bam-BAM, bam-BAM, bam-BAM of the other roofers.
I am standing with Jim Pollard in the failing light admiring the house we’ve built in a day: It is weathered-in, big and solid, and when the bricklayers and painters are through with it, it will be beautiful. People will live here, and our walls and roof will protect them from sun and wind and rain. A plain concrete slab when we approached it that morning, still in dark, with stubs of copper and galvanized pipe for bringing water in and sending it out, it is now a house with a shingled roof.
“I don’t know how many more years I can take heat like that,” Jim is saying. “It about kills me now. I’m almost fifty years old, and I just don’t think I can take it many more years.”
“Boiler duty in the Army’s the only job I can think of that’s hotter,” I say.
“Yeah, but you don’t spend your life doing that. That’s like KP. It ain’t a profession.”
I look at him. He’s a small, wiry man, all gristle and muscle and bone, his skin dark and heavy-textured from long days of sun. God, I’d hate to have to fight him, I’m thinking. I’d rather face a pistol than his fists and hammer. Our arms and hands are black with asphalt, whose pungent smell clings to us like sin. It’ll take a lot of Lava to make us clean again.
“I don’t intend to spend my life doing this,” I say.
“Neither did I. But I waited too long. Things . . .” When his voice trails off, he looks awfully sad, and I don’t know what else to say to him. Here’s a man who with help can build a house from the slab up in a day, and I’m figuring that men like him won’t be around much longer. I know the day will come when one crew will do the foundation work, another the framing, another the roof, another the finish work. And it’ll happen before he’s ready to quit.
I’ve walked across the yard to my bicycle, slung my tool belt across the bars, and tied my water jug to the carrier on the back.
“Hey, boy,” his voice comes out of the dusk.
“You want to thowe that bike in the truck and let me drive you t=house? It’s almost dark.”
“I reckon not. It’s not that far.”
He says nothing for a few seconds, then, “Boy.”
“Don’t wait too long.”
I’ll have time to think about that on my way home, with four miles of gravel road to go before I sleep, four miles to go . . .