Category Archives: In the lumberyard

One summer day

What I think I remember is standing in the coffee shack, or maybe next to it, waiting for a customer to come out in the lumber yard waving a yard ticket. Or maybe I was waiting on somebody. Wherever I was standing was someplace out of sight of the bay in the back of the building where the loading dock was for paint and hardware. The paint and hardware was kept on the second floor, so you had to drive the pallets of paint or hardware into the bay, and then raise them up to the second floor loading dock, which could be a little tricky at times.

I definitely remember when Scooter started yelling. Screaming is more like it. Everyone within earshot heard it, and knew instantly that something had gone wrong. I was around the corner fast enough to see Scooter hopping on one foot, while the other foot dangled, hanging by the Achille’s tendon, the white end of the bone showing. The forklift was slowly rolling backwards behind him. Scooter had gotten his foot stuck in the forklift somehow, and it had ripped his foot off. There wasn’t much blood.

Jack Crane got to Scooter first, and made him lie down. Someone else ran inside and called the ambulance. The little yellow Clark forklift was still slowly running backwards so I ran over and turned it off, put on the parking brake, and lowered the blades.

A few of us gathered around Scooter. Jack was holding his head. “How bad is it?” said Scooter. “Am I going to lose my foot?” Scooter was just eighteen that summer. Jack told him it was going to be O.K. I looked at the foot hanging there, and wasn’t so sure; but I wasn’t going to say anything like that out loud. In between saying it hurt, Scooter said he was lifting a pallet of paint up to the loading dock, when some of the cans started to shift, so he stood on the tire of the forklift, but he hadn’t put on the parking brake, so it started to roll back, and had caught his foot. He was crying, and kept saying it hurt, and you could tell he was wondering inside, would his foot be all right?

The ambulance came really quickly, and they took Scooter away. After they were gone, we talked what had happened. I could see it in my head, see just how it must have happened. When those five-gallon cans of paint started to shift, he should have stepped gently on the brake and come to a stop while slowly lowering the blades, because when a forklift starts rocking if you lower the blades you can often stop the rocking. And then keep lowering them slowly: if a few cans of paint fell, well then they would fall, but the less distance they had to fall the less likely they would break open. But Scooter had a tendency to act quickly, before he thought everything through. He quickly got up out of the driver’s seat to try to brace the cans, and to reach them he stepped farther than he meant to and stepped on the tire of the forklift. But he hadn’t put on the parking brake, and the forklift started rolling back, and his foot got caught between the fender and the tire, and — God almighty, what a horrific image that was.

I was the first one who had to use the little yellow Clark forklift after the accident, and I didn’t much like doing it. We talked over what had happened again and again, convincing ourselves that we wouldn’t have done what Scooter had done. The more we talked about it, the less vivid was that image in our minds, Scooter’s foot being pulled — even today, my mind backs away from that thought. We kept talking about it, and even though no one said so, we all knew that there but for the grace of God went each one of us.

They managed to reattach Scooter’s foot. He was in the hospital for quite a few weeks. Of course we took up a collection right away, and Art went out and bought Scooter a Sony Walkman, so he could listen to music while he lay in his hospital bed. I remember going in to Emerson Hospital with a bunch of the guys from the yard to give it to him. He gave one of his big goofy grins when he saw what it was.

This happened twenty-five or thirty years ago. I can’t remember if he came back to work that summer, but he was pretty much completely recovered by the time came for him to go back to college. Scooter came back to work the next summer, and then he moved away. I stayed in town, working at the lumber yard, and since Scooter’s father was a carpenter I’d see him around, and every once in a while I’d ask how Scooter was doing; he was always doing fine. Finally I moved away.

About five years ago, I went back to town for the big annual parade, and who should I run in to but Scooter, standing there watching the parade and looking about the same as he had twenty years before. I was in a rush to meet my dad somewhere, so I couldn’t stop to talk; all we did was say, Hi, hey good to see you! Then we said, Take care, good to see you! — and as we did I thought about his foot but didn’t say anything.

Every now and then, that accident comes back into my mind. I happened to think about it this afternoon, for no good reason, while I was out taking a walk. When that happens, then for just an instant I relive that day: summer day, blue sky, sun shining down, Scooter yelling, the ambulance, then standing around talking about it and getting back to work and finishing out the day just like every other day at work, until finally you punch out and go home.

A random memory

This took place back somewhere around 1984, when I was working as a yardman in a lumber yard.

One of the truck drivers — we’ll call him Skipper — was a young guy, maybe twenty or twenty-two, with sandy hair down to his shoulders and a friendly open face. Like all of us, he always wore a baseball cap, and like most of us younger guys he always wore shorts and a T-shirt in the summer; like me, he wore wire-rimmed aviator glasses of the type that were popular back then.

But he was a little louder and more cheerful than the rest of us, and he had a wicked west-of-Boston accent, and above all he partied much harder than anyone else who worked there. He was late for work more than once because he was hung over, or he slept through the alarm clock, or (so it was said) he was still drunk or stoned when he got up in the morning and couldn’t get it together enough even to drive to work.

Skipper managed to make it work for a couple of years; he wasn’t the best driver we had, but he was good enough. Then he started getting worse. One morning, Bob, the senior driver, came back from a delivery just before lunch. “Where’s Skipper?” he said. “I don’t see his truck.”

One of the other drivers said that Skipper wasn’t back yet.

Bob, a master at sounding disgusted, said, “Jesus, he just had to go up to Carlisle, and he left before I did.”

Pretty soon everyone, even the kid who came in to work after school, was aware that Skipper was screwing up. The other drivers were resentful because Skipper wasn’t pulling his weight. Georgia, the yard foreman, would make a point of checking his watch when he saw Skipper driving into the yard. It became obvious that the shipper and the vice-president were also keeping an eye on him. Skipper didn’t seem to care; he was the same happy-go-lucky, half-stoned, cheerful guy as usual. This went on for a few weeks: tension building around Skipper, while he seemed utterly unaware of it.

One day, late in the afternoon, several of us were standing around in the coffee shack, pretending to wait for customers but really waiting for five o’clock to come around. One of the drivers came out of the shipper’s office. “They caught Skipper.” “What? Whaddya mean, they caught him?” He told us what he had heard, a bare-bones account of what had happened: Skipper was driving one of the box trucks; the vice-president shadowed Skipper in a car, followed him to a jobsite, a place where there was no delivery scheduled; Skipper was selling drugs off the back of his truck.

That’s all we ever heard about it. Nobody had to say that they fired Skipper, we all knew that. But was he just selling marijuana, or was it something more serious? Were the cops called? Was he arrested? I never found out, and no one ever talked about it. Skipper never came back, and I never saw him again.

Assabet Lumber: early September, 1980

An installment in a spiritual autobiography. For other installments, search tags for “assabet lumber“. Cast of characters here. Names have been changed, and some identifying characteristics and events have been fictionalized, to protect privacy. These are early drafts and may be a little rough; bear with me….

The coffee shack was a sort of shed tacked on the back of the main building of Assabet Lumber. The coffee shack was pretty small, all of twelve by sixteen feet, and divided into two rooms. The back room had a shelf with the coffee pot under two windows looking out at the main entrance to the yard, and the rest of the room was mostly filled up with a picnic table. The front room had the time clock, a shelf where we put the yard tickets when the orders were filled, various odds and ends of equipment and junk, and a the window that looked out on the yard. On one wall of the front room, there was huge map of eastern Massachusetts, maybe three feet by four feet, showing all the main highways and most of the smaller through roads.

We got a fifteen minute coffee break every morning. I usually wound up taking mine at the same time as Frances Blood. He was the shipper, or dispatcher, a slight, calm, quiet man with a quizzical smile. He’d always have exactly the same thing for his coffee break: a small container of milk that he brought from home. He was pretty friendly to me, in a non-committal way, and we’d chat idly about this and that.

One day, Sam Gagnon, one of the truck drivers, happened to come in for his coffee break as I was sitting there, and just as Frances was leaving.

“Ever notice how Franny always has milk for his coffee break?” Sam said to me, after Frances was out of earshot.

I nodded.

“He has ulcers,” Sam announced. “He’s so quiet, you wouldn’t think so, but he’s got ulcers.”


Most of the yard crew got to punch out and go home at five o’clock, but the yard stayed open until five-thirty, so two men had to work an extra half hour. One evening, Ed Fox, one of the truck drivers, and I were the two who wound up working from five to five-thirty. Ed and I watched the other guys punch out, and after they had left, Ed said something about wishing he didn’t have to work late.

I didn’t mind working late because I had to hitch a ride to and from work with my dad, and because of his work schedule he couldn’t arrive to pick me up until twenty after five at the earliest, so I might as well be paid for that time. But I didn’t say that to Ed. “I’ll work late every day,” I said. “I need the money.”

Ed looked at me seriously. “You wait until you’ve worked here a while first,” he said. “Then you tell Carolina that, and unless someone else wants to work, you’ll probably get to work late every day.” He paused. “Except when Sam wants some extra money and decides to work late, but he needs money he usually arranges with Frances to change the oil on the trucks. He does as much of the maintenance as he can. But if he decides he wants to work late, he has the most seniority, so he gets to bump all of us.”

A customer came out of the store just then, and since I was low man on the totem pole, I had to walk out to him — “Can I help you?” — while Ed stayed in the coffee shack staring at the nearly empty yard.

That evening, when I got in the car to drive home, I told dad there was a pretty good chance that I’d be able to work until five-thirty every day. We both knew that I needed all the money I could earn to help pay for college, and we both knew that the last half hour was overtime pay for me — an extra two dollars and thirty-six cents for that last half hour. Dad nodded, and said something about how it was good that I’d be able to make some extra money.

Assabet Lumber: late August, 1980

An installment in a spiritual autobiography. For other installments, search tags for “assabet lumber“. Cast of characters here. Names have been changed, and some identifying characteristics and events have been fictionalized, to protect privacy. These are early drafts and may be a little rough; bear with me….

That first week, Carolina had to show me how to do nearly everything.

“These here are lally columns,” he said, on the first day of work. I had no idea what a lally column was, but at least I knew where to find the rack where they were kept. One morning later that week, I got a ticket that read something like this:

   1 — 6’6″ lally
   1 — cut to 6’2-1/2″
   2 — plates

I had to go find Carolina, because I didn’t know how to cut lally columns. He was in the middle of making up a load of lumber when I found him. He pulled the fork lift off to one side of the yard, set the load down, turned off the engine, and stalked down the warehouse to where the lally columns were kept. Continue reading

Assabet Lumber: late August, 1980

An installment in a spiritual autobiography. For other installments, search tags for “assabet lumber“. Cast of characters here. Names have been changed, and some identifying characteristics and events have been fictionalized, to protect privacy. These are early drafts and may be a little rough; bear with me….

The next Monday, I showed up for my first day of work. All the guys who worked out in the yard — the truck drivers, and Willie Hildebrand who stayed in the yard — stood around waiting for seven-thirty to come, when the yard opened for business. Someone pointed out that I had the same first name as someone else at Assabet Lumber, so they decided to call me “Slim,” because I was tall and thin.

The truck drivers showed me how to punch the time clock — I hadn’t ever punched a time clock before, because the job I had had in high school had been piece work. I had to go in the back office to fill out some paperwork, and by the time I had done that, the yard foreman was ready to show me around the yard.

The yard foreman was called Carolina because he came from a little town in South Carolina. The name stitched over the left front pocket of his uniform shirt said “Carl,” but everyone called him Carolina. He was thin, and loose-jointed, and wore the brim of his cap low over his eyes and tipped to one side, and could swear with great inventiveness and at great length. He had a thin face, leathery and expressive, and the lines around his eyes crinkled when he smiled. I instinctively liked him.

“This here’s the number two common pine,” he said in his soft Southern drawl, walking me down the A-frame racks just inside the right front door of the warehouse. Long knotty pine boards leaned up against the racks. He showed me how the common pine was organized, starting with the one-by-twos, which were arranged by height, from sixteen footers which nearly touched the rafters down to six footers; then came one-by-threes, also arranged by height; around the corner on the other side of that rack stood the one-by-fours and one-by-fives; across a narrow aisle from them in another rack stood one-by-sixes and one-by-eights; and on the other side of that rack were the one-by-tens and one-by-twelves.

“Now a one-by-four is really three-quarters thick and a three and a half inches wide,” Carolina continued, and he told me that, unlike some lumber yards which carried number three and better, we carried number two and better common pine. I asked what the difference was between number two and number three, and Carolina told me it was the size of the knots and how many knots, and that there were grading books that explained all that. I felt a little confused. Continue reading

Assabet Lumber: summer, 1980

An installment in a spiritual autobiography. For other installments, search tags for “assabet lumber“. Cast of characters here. Names have been changed, and some identifying characteristics and events have been fictionalized, to protect privacy. These are early drafts and may be a little rough; bear with me….

On the last possible day, I went over to the registrar’s office and turned in the paperwork that would allow me to officially take a semester away from college. I waited until the very last day because I was uncertain about a lot of things. I wasn’t certain that I wanted to return to that college. I wasn’t certain that I wanted to finish college at all. If I did finish college, I wasn’t certain what I wanted to study. The only thing I felt certain about was that I desperately did not want to return to that college in September. I have only the vaguest memory of stepping into an office and handing in the appropriate forms, but I have a very definite memory of walking outside afterwards. It was a beautiful spring day, the kind of perfect spring day that you get in Philadelphia, warm and sunny, but I remember feeling a little odd, as if I weren’t quite there any more.

That summer, I went back to my old familiar summer job working as a camp counselor in a progressive day camp near near Concord, Massachusetts, where we lived. But even that familiar summer job didn’t feel all that familiar. My older sister no longer worked at the camp, and she wasn’t even living at home that summer. And unlike the other counselors, most of whom were college and high school students, I would not be returning to school after camp ended. In fact, I had no idea what I would do after camp ended.

The last day of camp came. We counselors said goodbye to the kids, and then we said goodbye to each other, promising each other that we would return to work there again next summer. I stayed on for another week, working with the maintenance man and the assistant director to clean things up and close up the buildings for winter. Then I had to start looking for work.

Reading the Help Wanted ads in the local paper discouraged me. I had no real skills. About the only job I could imagine myself actually doing was working as a bank teller, so I applied for a job with Harvard Trust in the center of Concord. Then, on a whim, I walked over to Assabet Lumber Company, walked in to the office, and asked if they were looking for help.

Surprisingly, I was immediately ushered in to the office of the president of the company, an active, friendly middle-aged man with a reddish face, and a bit of a paunch. He introduced himself as Frank Pierce, and told me that they just might need some additional help. “Let me call in Henry Barrett,” he said, picking up his phone, and punching in an extension. While we were waiting for Henry Barrett to come in, Frank Pierce asked me why I was looking for work, and I told him I was taking a semester off from college to make some money; I did not tell him that I had doubts about ever returning to college. He asked me which college, nodded in appreciative recognition at the name, and said that he was a Harvard man himself.

Henry Barrett came in, looking hurried and frazzled. Frank Pierce talked to him about whether the paint department might need an extra hand this fall, and Henry, without really looking at me, said he thought it might. Henry was dismissed, and left in a rush. Next thing I knew, I was hired to work out in the yard, and maybe in the paint department, beginning the next Monday and lasting through the month of December.