There are always a lot of water main breaks this time of year. Seeing the men working in holes dug in the road always makes me think of my old boss, Dirty John.
When I was in college, I worked full-time for the university’s physical plant as a “student plumber.” For the princely sum of $3.75 an hour, I, and my co-worker Abdul, sometimes found ourselves up to our knees in the frigid, muddy water, digging around the burst pipes so the union plumbers could be called in to complete the job. Dirty John was making good wages of course, but he was right there with us, cursing the cold, working as hard as we did. He was about fifteen years older than I was and had a bad back. He never complained.
Most days, we were finished with work early, free to play euchre while we fielded emergency calls from the school buildings and family housing units. We laughed a lot, playing as hard as we worked, occasionally cashing in all the abandoned soda bottles to pay for for a feast from Domino’s Pizza. Sometimes, I think it was the best part of the years I spent in college. I was nineteen, being treated like a man because I could be counted on to work like one.
Abdul was in a frat, which we visited occasionally, on the clock and off. One night we attended a bachelor party for Abdul’s brother, an evening I can’t forget no matter how hard I try. When the beer ran out before the entertainment had arrived, our spirits were kept high by passing around fifths of liquor, of various types, taking a pull from the bottle and passing it on to the next guy. I won’t discuss the strippers…and you can’t make me…but the last thing I remember that night was losing my lunch while leaning over the porch railing. Dirty John whispered into my ear between heaves, “Don’t puke on my bike, Sport.” He meant it. As I was not beaten to a bloody pulp, I can only assume that I missed his Harley with my bazooka barfs.
That is one story that we all shared. But we shared a lot of stories from our own lives, trusting each other with information no one else knew. To my knowledge, no one ever betrayed a confidence. I intend to betray Dirty John’s today.
With no children of his own, Dirty John was fatherly, in his way, towards his young charges. He didn’t give advice or hugs. He didn’t loan us money when we’d blown all of ours on a girl we’d met in a bar the night before. He was just there, a constant presence, someone who knew me well enough to walk up beside me when something went wrong and say, “You fucked up, Sport.” It wasn’t a condemnation. It was a question, as in, “What are you going to do about it?”
One thing he didn’t like was being called “Crazy John”. It would be imperceptible to most, but to those of us that spent a lot of time with him, we saw the pain in his eyes when he heard the words. He would blink and recover, responding with a smile, “That’s right, and I got papers to prove it.” And he did. He showed them to me.
John had served in Vietnam. He once told me, “Those were the greatest two years of my life, because I got paid to shoot people.” He described some of the horrors he had seen, adding, “I had pictures, but the doctors took ‘em away from me.” He was just another West Virginia boy who chose picking up a rifle over picking up a coal shovel. I don’t know which would have been better for him.
There were times when the stories where so sensational that you had to doubt their veracity. And then there were other times, like the day Abdul committed a minor infraction in a card game, when John whipped out his buck knife and slashed him across the hand, cutting him nearly to the bone along the lifeline, where the thumb met the palm. It took twelve stitches to close the wound. If Abdul had said a word, John would have been fired the next day, but it didn’t happen. John’s contrition was immediate, though the damage had been done.
Abdul graduated not long after the incident and I flunked out a short time later. After leaving school, I never saw John again. It was shocking to hear, a mere seven years later, that John had died of a heart attack at the age of forty-two. I’d never made the fifteen-mile trip to visit him and recall the times we’d spent in a hole dug in the road, the water pouring into the rubber boots that were supposed to insulate us. I was told, second-hand, that he had found love with a second wife and had two daughters that he doted on. I hope that is true, and that the years that followed our brief association were blissful.
I tell you all of that to tell you this…there is an election coming up in a few days. There are a lot of candidates telling you to “Support the Troops” that don’t support them with their votes in Congress. We have to remember that these soldiers, men and women, have put their lives on the line and have scars we can’t see even after their physical wounds have healed.
Dirty John, wherever you are, I’m sorry I told some of your secrets. Just know I did it with the best of intentions. I miss you, for the man that you were. I love you, for the man you wanted to be. May every returning soldier receive the care to which he or she is entitled.
We, as a country, may be stuck in a muddy hole right now. But we can still climb out.