July 1991

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Harpending's Corners


Edwin N. Harris

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More Summer Jobs

The next spring Charley Hill found for me a few months work with Jesse Hinson, a native of Virginia and a tall, gangly, sandy-haired man whose speech sounded the dialect of his southern heritage. He had a nervous, high-pitched laugh always near the surface. Years before I came to work for him he had been subjected to community speculation that seemed to surround some dark malfeasance by Jesse. He was not charged with anything but had to bear the suspicions of his small town. I was deemed to be too young to be told. He was quite good to me, but I was aware that his temper was never far below the flashpoint.

Jesse was a John Deere farm equipment dealer, and a farmer, in the hamlet of Lakemont, a few miles east of Dundee. The work involved assembling and repairing farm machinery, and truck driving to move it where needed. The forced diet of my RBI days in Rochester had kept my weight at 135 pounds, a bit lacking for handling the heavy steel until I gained strength. This was helped by Jesse's wonderful wife who fed me huge meals if I was in the yard at mealtime. She probably felt sorry for me.

One memorable morning Jesse dispatched me to load onto his Chevrolet flat-bed truck a two-cylinder John Deere to be hauled to a prospective buyer's farm near Odessa for a demonstration of the John Deere's wondrous capabilities.

The demonstration went quite well, and with my duties finished I returned to Hinson's yard, prepared to unload the machine by backing it off the truck onto a ramp used for this purpose. This was before electric starters were used on tractors. We cranked this model by hand turning the flywheel on the left side of the engine. When I tried to turn the flywheel, it refused to move. One of the horizontal cylinders was flooded with fuel, a nasty habit of that model if the valve to the fuel tank over the engine was left open. Following the usual procedure, I removed one spark plug and left it hanging by its ignition wire—too close, I would soon learn, to the port it came from. When I rolled the engine over to purge the excess fuel, I was instantly put ablaze from head to foot with burning fuel that the dangling plug had ignited. Proper reflexes had me jump the several feet to the ground, land rolling, and keep rolling until the fire was smothered.

Shaken, but unharmed except for singed eyebrows and scorched clothes, I decided to tell no one, and did not—until now.

Summer waned, business slowed, and my work with Hinson was finished. Soon after, good friend Charley Hill found a truck driving job for me with the L. B. Smith Company, contractors for the Arkport Dam, near Hornell. Charley was already working there. This was a PWA (Public Works Administration) flood control project, in part inspired by the flooding in much of south central New York in July of 1935, when Hurricane Agnes tore through the area, leaving many dead or homeless. By 1937, flood control projects were a popular way to provide work for the jobless victims of The Great Depression.

I joined the teamster union and was assigned to the night shift to drive a huge Mack chain-drive dump truck. The pay was sixty-five cents an hour, a grand sum at the time.

It was my job to drive the truck down dark, winding dirt roads to a monstrous power shovel at the creek bottom, to be loaded with rock and dirt, then drive the loaded truck back up the hill to the fill area of the rising earth dam. It was tough work for a scrawny eighteen year old. To start with, the engine had to be hand cranked. Steering the truck through the soft dirt fill without the benefit of power steering was arm and shoulder wrenching work. A grizzled old veteran advised me, "Son, main strength and ignorance is what you need for this job."

Through the dark, trip after trip, from cut to fill, ten trucks groaned in low gear as they wallowed through mud and rock to gradually elevate the dam. Despite the monotony, I fell in love with heavy construction, and became bound and fascinated by it for the rest of my life.

My fascination, however, did not keep me on this project long. After two weeks, I was summarily fired for backing over the crest onto the dam slopes too many times. Too much time was lost pulling my truck back to the top with bulldozers.

I had to wait a couple of days until Charley could take me home, time ill spent, as I lost my pay in a crap game that some older hands were conducting in my rooming house. Memories of hunger has bolstered my aversion to dice games until this day.

© 1991, Edwin N. Harris
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