I woke up with my eyes and nose just peeking out from under the covers, feeling the cool of the West Virginia summer morning on the top of my head, and the warmth of the handmade quilt on top of me, calling me to stay put. Dawn had not yet broken but a dim light came through the windows. I could smell the gas heater in the room. My brother, Lin, was stirring in his bed next to mine. I rolled over, pushed back the covers, stepped out on to the hardwood floor, wandered through the grayness into the hallway and down to the end of the long walk to the bathroom.
As I walked back to our room at the front of the house, by the stairway, I heard Bob and Gary starting to move around in the large bedroom they shared. Lin and I passed each other as he headed to the john.
“We gotta go,” he chided, ever the timekeeper for this bunch.
It was 5:30 a.m. and if we were going to grab a hot breakfast before reporting to work we needed to head out soon. That was enough incentive to get us all going.
I put on a fresh pair of underwear and socks, pulled up my jeans, grabbed a shirt, jean jacket and my steel-toed work boots. It was almost like a firefighter’s drill, all the clothes laid out from the night before so I could jump right into them with little to no thought.
The others all took their turns hitting the lone bathroom.
Lin, once again, pushed us to get with the program. Other than that, we spoke little as we gathered at the top of the stairs, trying to make as little noise as five guys in work boots could manage, stepping down creaky wooden stairs. As we walked by the kitchen we saw Mrs. Nutter already busy. “Morning Mrs. Nutter,” Bob said. “Have a good day, boys,” she answered, keeping her head down, focused on what she was preparing for her and Mr. Nutter’s breakfast.
It was May of 1972. We had found the Nutters through our search for a place to stay when we came up to work on Nello L. Teer Company’s new road job in Wolf Summit. Frankly, none of us remember exactly how we learned that they rented out three rooms on their second floor for $7 a person per week, a whooping $48 a week for the four of us for two large rooms with two beds in each. You couldn’t beat the price and it was just 21 miles from the job, and, importantly, only 12 miles from The Farm in Pennsboro. More on that later.
Mrs. Nutter cleaned the bedrooms, the one bathroom on our floor, and changed the sheets and towels each week. She didn’t provide meals, which was too bad because she was a great cook. The draft of her cooking floated out of the kitchen and up the stairwell, especially when we had the windows open later in the summer. I recall, as they got to know us, that she did invite us to share supper or a pie with them on occasions, but not regularly.
They also allowed us to use their one phone on a limited basis. Mrs. Nutter didn’t want it to turn into a nuisance and insisted that we were respectful. We only gave out the number to our folks, girlfriends, the office manager at the job and the Wallers.
It was a beautiful old home built at the turn of the century, putting it at least 70 years old. The front porch was deep and stretched three quarters of the way across the face of the house. It’s where we would find them rocking when we came home from work each afternoon. Inside, throw rugs protected and quieted the creaky old oak floors. The second floor porch curved out over the first. The rooms, including the bedrooms, were heated by individual free standing ceramic natural gas heaters in each room. There was no air conditioning. Just windows and the cool porch off of the front of the second floor that we used a lot to wind down at night. The furnishings were also turn of the century. Well loved comfy chairs. Victorian style side tables. Beds that were more than comfortable.
The stars of each bedroom were the beautiful quilts on each bed cut and stitched by hand by Mrs. Nutter and her quilting family and friends. I remember her showing us a book of patterns that they had put together over the years. Patterns like Wedding Ring, Star, Fresh Diamonds and Bear Claws. Just beautiful, warm and soft as a baby’s face.
We walked out the front door onto the wraparound porch, down the steps to the front walk, and down more steps to where we parked off to the side and well below the house. We all got into Lin’s 2-door, blue with white roof, 1969 Chevy Nova. It was a sweet ride with a Hurst 3-speed stick shift in the floor. He had it equipped with an under-mounted air-conditioning unit added on by the dealer. Lin and a friend installed the “coolest of cool” in technology for the times: a 45 RPM record player, also mounted under the dash. You could stack multiple 45’s to play back-to-back songs. It only skipped on the hardest of bumps in the road.
Clouds hung in the air and fog wrapped the low lying areas as we traveled to the two-lane State Route 18 that followed and curved along Middle Island Creek to the four-lane Route 50. Lin drove while the rest of us fell instantly back asleep, leaning our heads against the window, for the 15 minute ride. The air inside the car quickly became thick and humid with the breath of four people. Lin cracked his window drafting in cool, but pre-dawn humid morning air.
He turned off of four-lane into the village of Salem and parked in front of the breakfast diner.
He shut off the car and as he opened the door he said, “Okay boys, let’s get some breakfast!” We all woke up again, fell out of the car and dragged ourselves into the diner.
In a very short time, we had become regulars at the busy little diner. We knew the owner and the waitresses and they knew us, what we liked and how fast we needed to eat. My order was classic, two eggs, over easy, grits, bacon, toast and a big glass of OJ. It required zero thought.
I have a very vivid memory of dropping a quarter in the jukebox almost every morning that we ate there. That 25 cents bought three selections. Selection #1 was the current hit “Rocket Man” by Elton John. It seemed to fit. Ethereal. Eternal. Galactically provocative. Cool but warm at the same time. Importantly, not too bright to overpower the morning and the others eating breakfast. Anyway…
We made haste and were out of there in under 30 minutes. The job was just six more miles up the road heading East to Wolf Summit which is on the West side of Clarksburg. That’s where the four-lane squeezed down to a two-lane, which was the point of our work; to complete the remaining few miles of the overall 73 mile project connecting Clarksburg to Parkersburg, changing the two lanes into a modern, straighter, smoother four-lane highway.
At the job site, Lin pulled off onto a small patch of land scratched out by a motor grader and topped with a layer of stone to stabilize it for parking. Other workers leaned against their cars and pickup trucks, smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee and waiting for their foreman to pick them up just before 7 a.m. Lin popped the trunk and we snatched our hardhats. Teer used a color-coding system to identify the “pay-grade” level of folks on the job by their hats. Ours were red signifying that we were hourly workers, grunts on the scale. Foremen wore yellow hats and white, well, white meant “the man” and covered superintendents and visiting VIPs. Cam=white. Steve=red. The red hats generally became scarred and smudged with dirt and grease by the hands-on work. The yellow and white hats remained pretty pristine and shiny over time.
This was my second year working for Cam, who continued to run the Burnsville job which was winding down, while opening up this new job. And, this was to be my opportunity to leap from the fence crew to running a piece of real-man equipment. Cam had as much said so before I came up. What he hadn’t mentioned before was what piece of equipment. It was a mystery he created purposefully, to tease me and show me who was in control. He wore the white hat and he never let me, or anyone else, forget that fact.
I allowed myself to dreamed of running a scraper, the coolest of the gear on the job if you asked me. A scraper did just that, scrape up dirt from the “cut,” the area that needs to be lowered, and then haul and dump it in the “fill,” the area that needs to be raised to flatten the road. To me, the guys operating scrapers were like bronc riders, bouncing along the haul road in a sort of controlled yet chaotic ride, hanging on and kicking up dust that made them look like they were moving faster than they were.
If not a scraper, then maybe a D9 push-Cat bulldozer. That is generally the largest bulldozer on the job and it pushes the single-engine scrapers through the cut. Here’s a video on how they work.
When we all showed up for our first day of work in mid-May, I couldn’t wait to find out what Cam had in mind. He personally drove me on to the job. We came upon a team of scrapers where he stopped, got out of the car, so I followed suit. He walked over to my side and barked a “Good morning, Jim,” at the yellow-hatted foreman who had walked over to the meet him. Jim quickly, respectfully, replied, “Morning Mr. Waller.”
I was thinking, this is it. He’s going to assign me to a scraper.
“Jim, where’s that new vibratory roller that just came in?” he asked. Jim answered, “Down yonder,” and pointed down to the fill area.
“Okay. Jim, now, this is Steve Riley, Homer’s other boy. He’ll be running that for you this summer. Steve, this is Jim Carson, your foreman.” Jim and I shook hands, “Nice to meet you Mr. Carson,” I said. He gave me a quick look over and nodded, “Nice to meet you son.”
Cam turned to me and said, “Let’s go!”
We got back in the car, Cam stomped on the gas and left Jim in a cloud of dust and rock spray heading down to the fill. And, there it was, the aforementioned vibratory roller, sitting there quietly waiting for me. It had a big steel drum in the front with two very large rubber tires in the back. Nothing, and I mean nothing, looked exciting about this piece of equipment.
“Well, son, I promised you a piece of equipment and you got the newest piece on the job. Let me show you how it works.”
We got out of the car and climbed up to the cockpit. I tried to hide my disappointment, but I wasn’t very successful. Cam said, “Hey, I promised you a piece of equipment. And, believe me, it’s a whole lot better ‘an the fence crew.
“Let me tell you how important it is. This roller vibrates, compacts and helps binds the fill dirt together so that we meet all of the state requirements for compaction with each layer of material we lay down. If we fail the state’s test, well, oh brother, we got ourselves a mess that will set us back a half day or more redoing what we already done. So, it may not look like much, but it is just as important as any other equipment on the job…and you get paid the same as all of the other operators. Now, let’s see…here’s how you start her up.”
Cam turned the key, throttled it up, put it in gear, pulled the lever that engaged the front steel drum to vibrate, then reversed gear. The basic task of the vibratory roller was to wait until a new layer of fill dirt had been brought in by the scrapers and smoothed out by a D8 dozer tending the fill. Then run over all of it compacting the dirt for stability. Essentially, it was like mowing the grass. It didn’t take much skill. You go across the fill one way, then reverse and start a new row going the other way. Back and forth. Back and forth. Vibrating all the way, which was particularly jarring when you went over rocky terrain, which happened quite often as you could imagine.
“Now, you wait until the there’s enough new fill dirt in here to get going,” Cam instructed. “I don’t like anything running when it doesn’t have to. Any questions, flag Jim down. I’ll check back by later.
“Also,” he got my attention one more time, “Stay away from the edge of the fill. It could give way on ya and you could roll off and over.” He gave me a stare. “You got that?” I answered with a “Yes sir” and gave a hard nod to assure him that, yes indeed, I got that.
Understanding that I could compact the area of the fill way faster than the scraper team could add another layer, I spent most of my time sitting, watching the scrapers come and go. Watching the wizened dozer operator named Titty Pie run the fill, directing the scrapers where to dump, then expertly spreading their load, keeping it a pretty even three feet or so high all across the fill. I tried to look attentive while working hard not to fall asleep in the 80+ degree heat. I had completed a few passes and was sitting, waiting to start another round, when I saw a trail of dust and then Cam broke over the hill in his company car. He skidded to a stop and the dust cloud wrapped around me. Cam waited for the cloud to roll on by, climbed out, boots first, pulling on his hard hat as he walked over to me. He leaned on the side of the roller, then pulled his hand back as he clapped the dust off in slight disgust.
“Son, you’re going to have a lot of down time…but I don’t like seeing anybody just sitting around. I want you to use your time in between runs to keep this new piece of equipment clean as a whistle.” He walked over to his car, popped the trunk and pulled out some old white towels.
“Here, you keep these and I want you to wipe your roller down after every round. I’ll check in later. I don’t want to see a speck of dust or grease. Spick and span.”
Off he went in a cloud of dust leaving me holding the towels and feeling like the lowest of lows. Like a freshman pledge to a fraternity. All the while I wanted to be recognized as, well, a man. That, my friends, was going to take a lot of vibrating back and forth. And, every time a scraper operator blew by me to dump their load, I could feel them laughing at me, the rookie, and the ridiculousness of me trying to keep anything clean while engulfed in the prevalent dust on a construction site. I started to think that maybe they were smiling about whatever crazy assignment they were given before they’d earned their stripes. And once, when I vibrated my way by Titty Pie while he was marshaling the material dumped by the last scraper, I caught him eyeing me. When I met his eyes, he cracked a slight smile and, maybe, flashed a quick wink. I’m not 100% sure because of the dust. But I think that salty old fella knew exactly what I was getting, and what I was giving, to join this club. I’m not saying that he was showing me much respect for anything more than the slight connection that this was hard work and everyone had to earn their place.
Apparently, I had a lot more to learn about road building and part of that learning was a continuing lesson of humility along with graduated responsibility.
Next up, a day on the job, a great blend of sweet tea, bologna sandwiches and Ritz peanut butter crackers. Plus, The Nutters of West Union and The Farm in Pennsboro.