Chainsaws, Elm Trees and paying for College

Sweep the Drive

My daughter is looking for a summer job.  It is nasty tough out there.  She has two solid leads and we have our fingers crossed.  One of the coolest would here:


Mount Washington Hotel

All thru high school I worked and saved my money.  Going into college I had saved $2000.  A fortune, almost twice what I needed and about what my daughter’s books cost her freshman year.

My dad was dying of emphysema and his business was failing.  He had put my two older sisters thru school and would have done it for me.  But the money just wasn’t there anymore.  It would have to be on my dime.

That first year was a grand time.  I blew thru every penny.  Fun and stupid.  Stupid fun. Then Summer came and, like now, times were hard.  I searched every day, knocked on every door, stopped at every construction site.  Nothing.  If I didn’t find a job I wasn’t going back.  I loved college, but I was broke. I needed a damn job.

One day I drove past a crew taking down a huge old Elm tree.  At the time Dutch Elm disease was ravishing these trees.  No cure.  They had to be removed and burned in an effort to halt the spread.

I walked up to the workers.  They were tough old boys out of south  Alabama.  I was a Chicago  kid.  No jobs, they said.  But they told me where to find the boss, what he looked like.  He hung out at a local pool hall that had a lunch counter in front.  His name was Sal.  He was sitting on a stool at the counter when I walked in.

It was easy to pick him out.  He was a crusty old southern guy nursing black coffee in a chipped white mug  and reading a racing form.  I sat on the stool next to him and asked for a job.  He looked me up and down.  I was a big guy, 6’2″ and around 210.  Lean and strong.  But I had soft hands.

“You’re a college kid,” said Sal.

“Yes sir,” I said.

“This work is too hard for a college kid,” he said.

“It’s not too hard for me,” I said.  I had a cockiness born of desperation.

“You won’t last an hour,” he said.  I didn’t say anything.  Pause.  “Go out to the job and tell Charlie to put you to work.  We’ll see if you’re still there at the end of the day.”

No talk of pay.  No indication I actually had the job. I went to the site and worked the rest of the afternoon.  When the day ended they loaded up and drove to the gas station where they parked the trucks for the night. I followed.  Sal was waiting for them there.  It was a Wednesday.

“I told you this work is too hard for a college kid,” he said.

“It’s not too hard for me,” I said.

“You won’t be here tomorrow,” he said.

“I will if you’ll put me to work,” I said.

He got in his pick ‘em up truck and drove off.  The other guys had all already left.  I went home.  Next morning I was there.  I had nothing else to do.  He sent me out with the crew.  That night at the gas station….

“I told you this work is too hard for a college kid,” he said.

“It’s not too hard for me,” I said.

“You won’t be here tomorrow,” he said.

“I will if you’ll put me to work,” I said.  He got in his pick ‘em up truck and drove off.  That was Thursday.

Friday morning I showed up again and again he sent me out.  I worked all day.  Still no talk about whether I had a job or what if anything I was getting paid.  That night we had the same conversation.  Word-for-word.  Next day was Saturday.  I showed up.  He sent me out.


We cut the logs and load ‘em up on the truck by hand

Saturday evening when we pulled the trucks into the gas station the crew all hung around.  This was new.  Sal wasn’t there.  They put coins in the Coke machine and were drinking cans of pop, crushing the cans when they finished.  Talking about girls, fights, bars and Alabama.  Half an hour later Sal pulled in.  He got out of his pick ‘em up truck and everybody gathered around.  I stood off to the side.

He reached into his pants pocket and dragged out the biggest cash roll I’d ever seen.  Hundreds, fifties, twenties, tens.  One by one guys stepped up and he pealed off notes and handed them over.  The roll got smaller.  Once paid the guys drifted away.  Then I was the only one left.  He put the remainder back in his pocket and turned towards his truck.  At the door he paused.

“I told you this work is too hard for a college kid.”

“It’s not too hard for me.”

“You won’t be here come Monday.”

“I will if you’ll put me to work.”  He looked at me long and hard.  He pulled out his cash and peeled off the roll three twenties and a ten.

“I pay my ground men $20 a day,” he said.  “If you’re here Monday morning you’ve got a job.”  He got in his pick ‘em up truck and drove off.

An Elm: The tree that put me thru college and toughened my hands.

I worked three years for Sal mostly taking down diseased Elm trees.  It put me thru college.   It taught me just as much.  Maybe more.

One day about three weeks in, we had finished taking down a huge old tree.  It was late afternoon and the truck was loaded with logs and brush.  I was tired.  But I was low man and had to sweep the sawdust off the driveway.

Roping down logs was cool.  Cutting them up with the chainsaws was cool.  Dragging the brush was cool.  Loading the truck was cool.  Sweeping the driveway with the push broom, not so much.  I was doing a crappy job at it and didn’t notice Sal was noticing.  He came up behind me, grabbed the broom and pushed me aside.


“Professor,” he said, “as you go thru life always remember:  With everything you do there is a right way to do it and a wrong way.  I’m going to show you the right way to sweep this drive.”  And he did.  And I remember.

The nickname stuck.  He never knew my real name.  Never cared.  He cared that I knew how sweep the drive.

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