Tuesday, August 30, 2005

We lived on the Gulf Coast in 1977

I worked a construction job on Bay St. Louis in 1977. We lived in a trailer court right on the beach with a view of the water. This was only for a few months, but I remember that all the houses were gone, only the trailers. Up and down the beach highway we could see rows of cement house foundations -- but with no houses on top of them -- all gone from Hurricane Camille in 1969.

By 1977, all the debris had been cleaned up and the beach front boulevard looked nice and natural. I expect that since 1977 they had built it all back up again -- and now a direct hit!

I can imagine families stuck in their cars somewhere, wearing dirty clothes, no place to wash, living on cold snack foods, and being told that they can't go home -- trying to use the toilet in some filthy bathroom used by a hundred other people at a roadside AM PM minimart just to the north of the coast -- worrying about the family pets left behind, wondering if they should call the wife's brother who lives in St. Louis and they could stay there for a few weeks, except all they really want to do is go home, and trying not to think that their jobs are gone too.

It's miserable, but sometimes people rise to the occasion -- and giving a stranger a clean glass of water or a fresh, hot meal can be the greatest of miracles.

Here's a story I wrote about the time we lived on Bay St. Louis in 1977:

We Lived on the
Gulf Coast Once Before

We lived on the Gulf Coast once before. It was in the fall and winter of 1977, the year Eugene was born. We had a little rented trailer at Crain’s Trailer Court in Long Beach, Mississippi. I have to tell you about this because Pappy Crain was the world’s meanest landlord, he was a redneck’s redneck. They said he knew a lot of gangsters in New Orleans. He was getting pretty old, but he had a young wife who was fat and ugly and several miserable looking small children hanging about listlessly. It was rumored around the trailer court that Pappy kept one child tied up in a room and never let him out. He was a snaky old bastard.

A word about trailer courts: they are the aluminum slums of the New South. No more tarpaper shanties, not today. Just buy twenty or thirty trailers, line them up in a row, connect to septic tanks, gravel the driveway, add electricity and start charging rent by the week or the month. The place will fill up quickly with the upwards, downwards, and more to the sideways in mobility.

We fit that last category, being headed from one place to another. Actually it was Vicksburg, Mississippi, where we had moved from.

Our journey had begun in Chicago. Eugene had just been born. Tommy, my seven-year-old stepson, had come back to live with us after a long soap-opera child custody battle between Susan and her parents. Her well-heeled parents didn’t care for our careless lifestyle and had made things very difficult for her and me. We decided to go someplace where they wouldn’t come looking for us, and besides that Chicago was getting too tough.

I was out of work and couldn’t find a job. Somebody had stolen my car right out of the alley in the back of the apartment -- on a Sunday morning, after we had come back from church. Susan thought that Chicago was too scary for Tommy to play in the streets.

Well, my mother, who lived in the suburbs, bought a new car, and gave us her old 1967 Buick Electra, a car big enough to go camping in. We sold our stereo and a few other goods and hit the road.

We ended up in Mississippi because Susan is from Oklahoma and was used to rednecks. I was in my anti-intellectual mood and didn’t mind them either. And because the state of Mississippi did not have mandatory public education -- Susan wanted to teach Tommy at home. Finally, Mississippi was the last place on earth that her parents would expect us to move to -- we wouldn’t be found out.

We had a nice trailer, it was on the front row facing the beach. We could step out the door, cross the highway, and go beachcombing. We could look right out the living room window at the surf. It was an old trailer with real wood paneling that gave it a certain warmth.

The trouble was the living room windows which were those peculiar louvered models. And it was winter; the winds blew off the gulf and the louvered windows leaked like crazy. We covered the windows with cardboard and ruined the view.

I shouldn’t have done that -- block my own view -- it was the beginning of a string of bad luck. Years later I still regret it. I could have figured something else out, like hanging clear plastic vinyl. Anything but cardboard blocking out the light and casting a shadow over my family’s soul, ruining the only decent thing we had.

To make it short, after a while we got on the bad side of Pappy Crain and he ran us out of the trailer court and we got so scared that we didn’t stop running until we got to my sister’s house in Venice California, where we lived for six months and that is a story in itself that I will get to later.

At Pappy Crain’s we lived across the driveway from Ray Lloyd, the “lead man” on the pile driving crew out on the construction job where I was working. We were building this giant chemical construction plant for DuPont. It would be for the manufacture of Titanium Dioxide which is the pigment in white paint. Three thousand men worked there, erecting dozens of industrial strength buildings and large chemical-cooking facilities connected by miles of pipes. DuPont must make a lot of white paint because we were building a plant to make it by the railroad tankcar load, in vats the size of a house.

The plant was out in the middle of a large and pristine swamp on the edge of Bay St. Louis, some sixty miles east of new Orleans. The environmentalists didn’t want the plant there and made protests , but men came from hundreds of miles for the work, to live in the trailer camps, and to collect the high construction wages.

I had been working in a pallet factory in Vicksburg for $2.35 per hour. I was getting $3.50 per hour building this plant, so it was a lot better.

But it was winter and it was really cold working outside everyday. I was on the labor crew. Besides picks and shovels, we used gas-powered wheelbarrows, sort of a modern-day contraption which is hard to describe -- basically it was a three-wheeled cart and you didn’t have to push it with a heave and a ho. It went by itself and you just steered it, but the rest was plain old shovel work.

We wore a lot of clothes to work: long johns, knit caps under our hardhats, pounds and pounds of clothes. There were several of us from the trailer court who made the 15-mile drive to the worksite, leaving early in the morning before sunrise, driving by the edge of the bay, over a small country road that was built for quieter times -- the road was getting beaten to death by heavy truck traffic. I couldn’t hurry -- it was warm in the car, the warmest I would be all day.

And it was bitter cold at the site. This kind of inspires a man to keep on working. On a shovel crew you have to pace yourself, especially if you’re experienced, which is to say, getting older -- work hard enough to stay warm, but slow enough to last all day.

And besides that, you’re not going to work yourself to death for H.B. Zachary Construction Company with world headquarters in San Antonio, and enormous projects going on all over the world.

Everything came out of a computer, the whole project, down to every little nut and bolt. The computer was in a complex of temporary trailer offices, relaying commands and instructions down from one level to another until it got down to the area supervisor who was a human being that I saw walking around. I could tell who he was by the color of his hard hat. It was gold.

The carpenters wore red hardhats. They were liberals: they had two women working on their crews. Some carpenters had wire-rimmed glasses. Electricians wore blue hardhats. The cement crews were all black men and they wore grey hardhats. The electricians, carpenters and welders were all white.

We were the laborers, proud of our green hats. We were integrated, black and white together. Our foreman was a tall, fat fellow with glasses and a skinny nose. His name was Bob, I don’t remember that for certain. but I will not forget his one-gallon-size stainless steel thermos that he guzzled coffee out of. He used a cork for a stopper.

Serious workers only use stainless steel thermoses. A plastic quart-size thermos costs about $8, but they will break in a week. It would be awfully dainty of a fellow to own a plastic thermos. If you’re serious, get stainless -- it will last a lifetime. You could run over it with a truck and it won’t break.. The trouble is that they cost $35, which I didn’t have to spare.

But Bob, he was very serious -- one-gallon size and stainless all the way. He was a contented fellow in his way. Laborer is the lowest class of worker, so the labor foreman was lower than the other foremen. But Bob was still a foreman, so he didn’t have to work. He didn’t seem to have any envy for someone else. He didn’t lord it over us. He would even pitch in from time to time, and he didn’t care if anybody noticed. He acted friendly toward the crew and didn’t worry that we might abuse his authority.

Naturally I liked him. He had such an unashamed attachment to his thermos jug, such contentment, knowing that he would never run out of scalding-hot, sweet coffee.

When I saw him driving up in his pickup, I felt no anger or fear or resentment, no childish urge to misbehave or act defiant. I would have worked even harder for him except that would have helped Mr. H.B. Zachary to get even richer, and Bob didn’t want that anymore than I did.

I worked the pick and shovel crew for a while, and then they put me on pumps, which was a lot easier. We had to keep water out of the holes. Since we were working in what had been a swamp, water had a tendency to collect anywhere the bulldozers carved out a hole.

We set up gas-powered pumps by the holes. We took a flexible hard-rubber hose about twenty-feet long, with a round screen at the end to keep out debris, and ran that into the deepest part of the whole. Then we strung out rolls of canvas hose out the other end of the pump, maybe a long way, to a collecting pond.

That was it. Mostly we would lean against something convenient, holding on to a shovel for the sake of propriety, and watch the pump. As long as the pump was working we didn’t have to look busy when somebody important drove by on inspection. We got these tours from DuPont VIPs. They wore tan topcoats, three-piece suits, and honorary white hardhats.

It was a ritual. The cars halt. The VIPs emerge, peering closely at some equipment, striding manfully through a modest mud puddle, acquiring dirt on their shoes and hands-on experience, then quickly back into the car.

I kept an eye on how clean the water was coming out of the pump. Being an environmentalist myself, I felt compromised working for DuPont De Nemours et Fils. Imagine the intense chemical poisons this plant would produce. Think of the slick public relations work, the public tours, the press releases to convince everybody that Bay St. Louis would stay pure -- “the water will stay clean, we will never hurt the oysters, don’t be alarmed, we’re experts.”

But there I was on the inside. Hey, where was I supposed to work? Mississippi is full of little backwoods sweatshops, where they work you half to death on the minimum wage. Men came from all over the South to work for DuPont because the money was good.

And they tried to keep things clean too. Very neat and tidy. One of my co-workers got very seriously cussed at by a supervisor because had dropped a gum wrapper on the ground.

It was true, I never saw old coke cans or brown lunch bags on the ground. It was a clean place. I had the job one day of cleaning up after a truck spilled some oil on the ground. They told me to dig it all up and put it in the wheelbarrow, which I did, several loads of it. I was very conscientious to get it all, but then nobody explained to me where I was supposed to dump it, so I kind of left in a corner someplace where it wouldn’t show.

Still, the water we pumped out was clean, except for the mud. There was no oil sheen or strange smells.

Later we had to work nights on the pumps, when the whole work site was empty. I drove out about 10 p.m. The huge parking lot was empty. Walking through the gates was liking walking through a ghost town, brightly lit with white mercury lights. The site was the size of a town of 10,000 people, with streets, towers, rail sidings, warehouses, and offices. It was a chemical city, and not a soul in sight on a cold, lonesome January night.

There were three of us guys in the front seat of a pickup truck late at night with the motor running, the windows open a crack, and the radio on, a little small talk, a little coffee, whiling the night away. Sometimes the pump would clog up and we would have to go out into the cold, cold night and wade into the deep, muddy water to move the intake hose to a better position, or just to shake some junk off the screen. Anything more than 15 minutes was bad -- boy, that will wake you up at 3 a.m.

In all, it was a nice place to work. I only quit because of the trouble we had at the trailer park, when we decided to head to my sister’s house in California. I kind of enjoyed being part of a project with 3,000 men. It must have been that way when the pyramids were built, or the medieval cathedrals -- the mass, group feeling. We took some pride in our work, we enjoyed each other’s company, all out there in the swamp building a new chemical city.

But I started to tell this story about the work because I was thinking about Ray Lloyd on the pile driving crew.

He was the lead man. The lead man is part of the crew and so not above the others, but the foreman passes his orders along through the lead man, at least on a pile driving crew. I don’t know if this set-up is widespread in the construction business. It may have been set up just for Ray, as a way of taking advantage of his talents.

The pile driver makes a tremendous amount of noise. The piles are fifty feet long and weigh in the tons. When the crane lifts them up, they swing and sway in the wind, and some men work down deep underneath the equipment in the hole.

Ray had a tremendous loud, brass voice, even operatic, except it was ignorant and twangy. Since I was on the pumps nearby, I had plenty of time to observe Ray standing there at a strategic location midway between the crane, the pile driver, and the hole, bellowing out commands and making intricate hand gestures like a traffic cop -- truly a dramatic role.

When Ray hollered, everybody heard it, and he had great style. He only did half as much work as anybody else and only important stuff. You see, they had to find something for Ray to do. He wasn’t smart enough to be the foreman and actually understand the grand scheme of things. On the other hand he has much too tall and big and self-important to perform lesser labor. So they hit upon relaying commands as his special task.

Ray lived next door to us at the trailer park with his young wife and two kids. He had an older ex-wife and a teenage son. I would go over to his trailer at night for a game of chess. If I started winning and took his rook, Ray would start to get huffy and a little unhappy, maybe bark an order at his wife, or see something on the news and say, “why those dirty bastards...”

The room would start to blacken -- Ray had this subtle way about him. Besides, when he was happy, he was just a big teddy bear. So I would let him take a couple of my pieces. It made Ray feel better if he won.

We left Mississippi in January, 1978, on account of the fight I got into with Pappy Crain. It was Susan’s fault. She is a sweet tender woman, very true and loyal, and her heart is good; but sometimes her mind doesn’t work quite right.

We were very poor. I wouldn’t say it because it is so sentimental, but at Christmas we had enough money to buy Tommy a bike or to pay the rent for the week, but not both. Susan and I argued and she won. We bought the bike. It was a victory for the spirit of the season, but Susan should have realized that we needed to lay low with the landlord, a man who could have beat Scrooge himself at a game of poker.

Although she wanted to teach Tommy at home, it was driving her crazy having him around all day. She could not discipline him without getting right down and walloping the lad.

That wasn’t the problem. it was the oven -- it didn’t work. And she insisted that I had to talk to Pappy Crain about it and get it fixed. I wasn’t so sure. The trailer court looked like the kind of place that if the roof didn’t leak and the heat was on, you didn’t bother the landlord about any little thing.

But she pushed me into it, and I got Pappy Crain to say he would fix it. So he came over and shut the gas off to our trailer. Now Susan can get very paranoid, and besides Pappy was a scary guy. She started screaming at me because she thought Pappy had shut the gas off because he was mad at us. I tried to explain to her that he had shut the gas off only to fix the oven. But she kept screaming and telling me to do something and saying I was no good.

When she got like that I would be more scared of her than somebody like Pappy, even if he was with the Mafia. So I told him to turn it back on, and he said he wouldn’t, and I yelled at him, and he yelled back. And then I picked up a shovel and swung it at him and missed.

Jeez, that was stupid. He just walked off. The next day a really mean looking sheriff in plain clothes came to the door and told us we had 48 hours to get out and we did.

We sold our color TV and our Buick, gathered up our meager possession and our cat and bought bus tickets for Los Angeles. The bus driver made us put the cat off in Shreveport, Louisiana.

But there were some pleasant moments at that trailer court on the beach. Where else could we afford a home on the ocean? not Malibu or Cape Cod.

I used to cross the highway and stroll up and down the hard sand beach, gathering pieces of driftwood. Winter is the best time for driftwood collecting because the stormier weather washes up pieces and because there are fewer people on the beach looking for stuff. I didn’t gather branches or limbs, I preferred old boards.

It’s like getting a free piece of wood, already washed by the waves, feeling salty and clean and refreshed. And a painted piece of wood is really good. Usually the painted piece is half-cracked and peeled, and contrasts very nicely with the grey-colored wood. The grain is often raised and fibrous; the edges are rounded and soft.

Beachcombing is a way of life, like surfing, fishing, or hanging out on the dock, watching the boats coming and going, watching the tide come in -- right there is work for a lifetime.

But we left the Gulf Coast and lived in Los Angeles for the next six months. Then, when Susan became pregnant with Eva, we left for the Skagit Valley in Puget Sound, where we lived for the next seven years.

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