A Shovel and My Wife: Sometimes it Pays to be Lucky

It is hard to believe it has been two years since I retired after 37 years as an educator. After the initial withdrawal questions that I am sure most retirees experience such as what was I thinking to quit a perfectly good job; what will they do without me; what will I do without the daily interactions with people on the job; how will we pay the bills; and what will I do with all this free time; I finally came to grips with being a “has been” and moved on to being a “whatever I what to be.” It took some time, but I came to realize there is more to life than a “perfectly good job” that requires 12 to 14 hour work days; I learned to accept they, the job, will get along just fine if not better without me; I still miss the job specific interactive discussions that led to disagreements as well as confirmations, and kept me on my toes as a professional educator, but I have not had a single parent or teacher complaint in two years and that makes retirement heaven in of itself; as for “paying the bills,” my wife’s and my careers have provided us with a comfortable retirement with enough to pay the bills, and to occasionally travel and spoil the grandkids, so what more could we ask for or need; and when it comes to “what to do with my time,” the answer is very simple – WHATEVER I WANT TO DO! I sleep late almost every day; I play my guitar and sing along with cats screeching and dogs howling in agony; I write songs so I don’t make a mess of other people’s work; and I write stories, poems, and articles that hopefully are readable attempts at making people smile and think. I have no delusions of literary greatness, so I write what I have always wanted to say with little regard for political correctness, who it offends, or what people might think of me. But, most of all, retirement has given me the freedom to simply lie in my hammock all day with a cold drink in my hand and a smile on my face and be absolutely “sorry” if I so choose.

It goes without saying, “I am lucky,” but I have worked hard my entire life to be “lucky.” However, hard work alone will not make a person happy (I am), wealthy (I am not), comfortable (I am) or even lucky (I most definitely am); the right people, the right situations, and the right opportunities are also factors that determine a person’s worth as well as a person’s success. I have been blessed to have had such people, situations, and opportunities in my life. Looking back over my career, the biggest reasons for any success I had were God, the people I worked with, my father, a shovel and my wife.

I strongly believe the reason I survived as an educator as long as I did was due in no small part to the patience and sense of humor of God and the people I worked with over the years. I am sure I gave both God and the people who supported me, as well as those rearguard mumbling geniuses who were never pleased with anything I did, a good chuckle on more than one occasion. Although I did not always make everyone happy, it was not for lack of trying. I have always prided myself on trying to do the right thing, but doing the right thing as you see it does not always make you the most popular or liked person around. Leadership does not come naturally for most people, and I was certainly no different; I made good decisions and I made some “bone head” decisions, but as a leader I made the final decisions. I always felt the buck stopped with me, so ultimately all decisions rested on my shoulders even when that sometimes meant standing alone. It was during those “stand alone” times that the humor and patience of God and the people who supported me meant the most. They stood by me while I learned – often the hard way – and they provided the wisdom to help me learn to laugh at myself and understand no matter what decision I made, in the end, it all turned out as God planned it.

However, when it came to my father’s contribution to my success, patience and humor were in short supply. He had a sense of humor and could be patient at times, but those were traits he rarely shared with me. Nevertheless, the straight forward work ethic he instilled in me was a major cornerstone of my career. Although I hold three college degrees, including a PhD, I came from a background where graduating high school and getting a job were the expectations. College was not financially a practical option. A man in my family was expected to graduate high school, get a job that paid a decent wage, and stay with that job until retirement or death to ensure a livelihood for his family. Missing work other than for severe personal illness or emergency family illness was not a consideration. Growing up, I was taught if you agreed to take a man’s money for a job, you were to give the man an honest day’s work for his money, and I was taught the time for quibbling over wages was before you agreed to take the job not once you were on the job. These were the expectations handed down by my grandfather who labored for Hercules, Inc. in Hattiesburg, Mississippi for 40 years and by my father who labored there for 38 years. Both men rarely missed a day of work, and because of their influence I am proud to say I missed less than 10 days of work in my 37 years as an educator. The work ethic I was taught growing up helped me as much as anything to have a successful career. I can still hear my father say, “Boy, you will sometimes meet a man who is smarter or more talented than you, but you should never meet a man who can outwork you.” He said the only man he feared was a smart man with a work ethic, and if such a man existed and had common sense to boot, you might as well say, “Yes sir, boss,” and move out of his way. According to my father, knowledge, hard work and common sense were all a man needed to climb a mountain. Looking back on my career, I would have to agree.

The fourth factor that influenced my career was a shovel. In fact, a shovel was the second biggest motivation I had for not following in my grandfather’s and father’s footsteps and going to work for Hercules after I finished high school. Actually, that is exactly what happened; I graduated high school in May 1971 and started to work at Hercules in June 1971. I couldn’t have been happier! I had worked a couple of part time jobs while in high school for about $1.35 per hour, so when Hercules offered me $2.50 per hour for a 40 hour week, I thought I had it made! Making a $100.00 weekly wage was more money than I had ever seen or dreamed of in my life. I would have probably retired from Hercules if not for a girlfriend who was a lot smarter and wiser than I was and a shovel stuck fast in Mississippi red clay.

My first week at Hercules, I spent unloading and stacking 55 gallon steel barrels (Thank God they were empty!). I am not sure how much each of those barrels weighed, but I can tell you rolling those barrels into place and stacking them in rolls a hundred feet or more long and five to six barrels high whipped a skinny 140 pound 17 year old’s butt! I have never been as tired in my life as I was at the end of a day stacking those 55 gallon steel drums. However, that $100 dollar paycheck dangling in front of my sweat blurred eyes kept me motivated. When at 7:00 a.m. Monday of the second week they handed me a shovel and told me and one other rookie to dig a ditch two feet wide by three feet deep around a group of storage tanks near the front of the plant, my motivation began to waver. It took us three days to dig that ditch, and then on the fourth day, the foreman told us to cover the ditch over; there had been a change of plans. Week three, the two of us were taken to the middle of the plant and assigned to dig a three foot wide by four foot deep ditch. We spent a week under the sweltering Mississippi sun with shovels and picks digging that ditch, or I should say, I spent a week digging that ditch since my partner spent the majority of his time leaning on his shovel, singing hymns and praying for deliverance from the trench he had appropriately named “Hell’s Door.” God must have heard his prayers because just before noon Friday of that week my shovel became wedged in a crack in the hardest, driest red clay I had ever seen in my life. I could not force the shovel deeper into the crack nor could I pull it out of the crack, so I grabbed the pick and commenced to hammer on the shovel head and claw at the dry clay to try to free it. About that time, the foreman over the job and an assistant stopped to check our progress. He said something about the heat and then he started choking, sputtering, and pointing to where my shovel was wedged in the clay. His assistant’s face went pale. He yelled something at me that I could not understand and jumped into the hole, grabbed me and literally lifted and threw me out of the ditch. After the two men caught their breath, they angrily scolded the two wide eyed, sweat drenched kids in front of them. It turned out the red clay my shovel was wedged in was not red clay at all. It was red concrete marking a high voltage electrical line just inches below the tip of my shovel. One more good whack with the pick against the shovel, and I most likely would not be here today. My partner quit that afternoon. I made it through the rest of the summer, but shortly after the red clay incident, I followed my girlfriend’s advice and enrolled in college for the fall. Although at the time I had no idea what it might be, I decided there were better ways to make a living. The Mississippi sun and that shovel wedged in red concrete were all the motivation I needed to look for something new.

Everything I have mentioned played a significant part in my career success. However, the biggest reason for any success I have had in my career or life came from the single most important person in my life – my high school sweetheart, my girlfriend, my wife. Without her, I would never have finished my undergraduate degree much less my doctoral degree. Without her belief in me, I would not have survived when so many others doubted me. She gave me the courage and motivation to keep moving forward when it would have been so easy for me to say, “To hell with the world; I quit!” She stood by me when I am sure it would have been easier for her to say, “To hell with you; I quit!” Without her, I would not have had a career, nor would I have had a life of any quality or worth. Without her, I wouldn’t have the three greatest kids a man could have. In fact, without her, I would probably be an old single guy frequenting church socials and local bars looking for love with blue haired ladies wearing pink skirts too short to hide cellulite and varicose veins. Thank the good Lord, my wife saved me from such a life. She helped me grow up, clean up, and rise up to meet life’s many challenges. Anyone who knows me and has also met her will attest to the fact that she is certainly more beautiful, intelligent, and unselfish than I deserve. A buddy once said after meeting her, “Wow! How did you manage that? You are so out of your league.” As I explained to him, it’s called luck, and sometimes it is better to be lucky than good looking, smart, wealthy, or charismatic. I may fall short in all those, but I am LUCKY, and luck has served me well.

JL

©Jack Linton, July 14, 2015

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