Archive for January 9th, 2009

apI’ve talked before about personal mythology, which is taking ordinary events and finding details in them that give them depth and interest. 

For example, after I left high school I worked in a factory for about five years.

Left alone the statement says nothing of interest to anyone but me and even that is borderline.  But when you find the details that fill out this time spent,  it becomes more interesting.

I worked at the A&P factory in Horseheads in the late ’70’s and early ’80’s.  It was only open for about 17 years or so and was torn down a few years ago to make way for yet another shopping center.  But in its time it was a huge factory (its roof was alone was over 37 acres in size) that could reputedly produce enough food to supply the population east of the Mississippi each day.  It produced all types of food- pastas, juices, teas, canned foods of all sorts, condiments and on and on.  I worked primarily in the candy department, as a candy cook, making jelly beans, candy corn, thin mints, chocolate covered cherries, etc.  

It was actually interesting work at times but the real interest came in learning the details of the lives of my co-workers.

There was Lester Clark, a black man who was like a big teddy bear with his gentle nature and easy humor.  He had ran jazz clubs in his native New York in the 50’s and ’60’s before fleeing the chaos and crime of Harlem in the 1960’s to settle upstate.  He had seen and known many jazz greats but now was the thin mint maker.

Then there was Rich Dempsey.  Rich was a little Irishman from County Cork who had came to the States in the late ’40’s and never went back.  He had a quick grin, huge laugh and  legendary toughness.  There were stories of fist-fights at the factory he had with guys twice his size that were told periodically at the lunch table.  He taught me some Gaelic curses.

There was John Taylor.  He was a very thin man with a neat appearance and quiet manner.  He looked like a cat with his neatly trimmed mustache  and wire rim glasses.  He would quietly approach new guys and  calmly ask, ” Lick your nuts for a nickel?” just to see how they would react.  Most freaked out and John would smile a very small, wry grin.  He had been a Marine, had a history degree from Penn State  and had been in the Foreign Service in the Middle East in the ’50’s.  He had lived in Beirut, Jerusalem and Damascus, a city that he spoke of with great affection and nostalgia.  He would talk literature with me and taught me Arabic curses.

There was Rasputin.  I won’t use his real name.  He was a convicted rapist who had spent 6 years in Attica and had been there for the riots.  His ribs were a mass of scar tissue from having them broken by the authorities after they regained control of the situation.  He was called Rasputin for the wild unruly beard that adorned his toothless face.  No uppers at all.  He looked like an old hillbilly until he took off his shirt.  The guy was ripped from many years of working out in prison.  He was a scary little guy, crude and angry.   I got along well with him but working with him was like having a strange pit bull around –  you never felt too comfortable.

There was Nelson Waffle, a country boy from northern Pennsylvania with a twitchy , exceedingly nervous demeanor.  He, too, had few teeth but had a passion for music.  He could play all types of instruments but played guitar best of all.  He spoke of his Gretsch guitar as though it were his lover and had played with Chet Atkins and had backed Elvis several times while they were both in Germany in the Army

There was Jim B. who had spent two tours in Viet Nam as a medic and was still living it in his mind through those A&P years, which manifested itself in alcohol and drug abuse.  Jim was a smart guy with a great sense of humor but the war stories he told were horrific.  He was never shy about telling his tales but his eyes would always go a bit dull and distant when telling them, like he was only a few steps from that time.

When war stories were told Tommy K. from Corning  would regale us with his stories of going through Europe in WW II  as a radio operator for Patton’s forces.  He had been in Berlin at the end and told of the terror in the Germans who begged to not be turned over to the Russians.  He also told of the constant shooting from across the river where the Russians were receiving the German prisoners.  He told, with damp eyes, of shooting a young  boy armed with a hand grenade from a second story window.  Tommy lived as much in his distant WW II memories as Jim B. did in his more recent war experience.

For a young guy, the texture of these lives made the droning, mind-numbing hours and hard labor somewhat easier to tolerate.  There are so many others I could have mentioned that would add even more layers to this little sliver of my own personal mythology.  I think though that this enough for now.

So, if your days seem drab, look around– there’s a story everywhere…

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