No doubt a man reaches a point in his life when his greatest treasures are memories of days long gone. Maybe he is still storing away precious times but those he can only touch by reaching back in his mind, are those days held most dear. Today’s story is such a time.
Growing up a Southern boy, I was approaching the teen years when worldly influences can shape or distort a young man’s thinking to the point of no easy recovery. Thankfully for me I had a father who loved me and cared that I become the man God intended….Not what the World was molding me to be….One of the areas of great concern to my father was that of racist tendencies. It was quite common in my era of development, for young men of my age to be wholly lacking in racial sensitivity…..Obviously my father saw this in me and although, by no means perfect himself in this area, my leanings concerned him greatly. One day after a ‘slur’ had so easily rolled from my tongue and slipped my lips, he gave me a good ‘dressing down’ about it. I remember him saying, he thought he had a solution. Little did I know his solution would become one of life’s greatest blessings.
Jessie Reuben was a black man who worked for my father….His ‘Right-Hand Man’ so to speak…. Perhaps I should refer to him as an African American, as is more politically correct…. But in all the years I would know Jessie, I never thought of him as anything other than just plain American. And so it was that no ancestral labels would be necessary… As I mentioned, my sensitivities to other races lacking, my father thought I might value from working around other types/races of people. Therefore, when I was of age, (summer of seventh grade) to begin working a job, of course I worked with my father, a Construction Contractor. ….And in his wisdom, he assigned me as Jessie’s working partner. This first met with some resistance from me, but in the those days, resistance by a teenager was …futile…. And, in all honesty, I was not completely against the idea…..I was curious as though I knew I might actually learn something.
I think daddy’s reasons for placing me under Jessie’s wing were two-fold…..The lesson’s I would learn….and….He knew I would be protected…..A construction site can be and is almost always a dangerous place. Many have met their demise due to mishaps or carelessness. As long as I was with this man, my father knew I would be virtually safe. I will never forget Jessie’s promise to my father ….”Don’t worry Mr. Wilber….I’ll keep him straight!”….His way I think, of saying he would protect me at all costs….I don’t think any of us, certainly not me…. realized the impact this would have on me as a young man.
Jessie Reuben was a ‘real’ man…..He was not huge in statue, but tall and muscular. His arms were like two sticks of rebar molded on granite shoulders, grown thick and tempered from years of heavy labor. When he wielded a wrecking bar in his hand to move an object, either the object moved or… the wrecking bar snapped ….He was that strong…..He always had an ever present cigar in his mouth, no matter the situation. It seemed to be his anchor. When pondering a problem, he shifted the cigar over to one corner of his mouth and with his head cocked to the side, his eyes would gleam…..In a moment the gleam became a twinkle, followed by a wry smile, …. Jessie would declare….”I got an idea!” And of course it would always be a good one!!!
Work ethic and pride in one’s work was one of the greatest lessons I learned from this man. No matter how menial the task, nothing was too invaluable to not be done properly. Both he and my father were insistent that I absorb this fact…..When excavating a foundation for a new building, I worked right along with the others, including Jessie ….By excavating I mean we used a shovel….(Yes the boss’s son was shown no favoritism….He dug ditches!!!)…..When my father came by to inspect, he would show me the difference in Jessie’s footings and mine…..I was always amazed….His were like a work of art…..Sides perfectly perpendicular to a level bottom, properly proportioned in the correct size, as though sculptured by a master… Comparatively mine sometimes more resembled the work of a drunk ground hog. In these things, I admired this man so much more.
Jessie could operate any piece of machinery he came across…..Given time to adjust to its peculiars….. After purchasing a bulldozer, my father became frustrated with finding a dedicated operator. Finally after trying several men, he decided to ask Jessie to try. I don’t think he had ever been on a dozer, but having grown up around farming he had operated tractors and so another piece of equipment, although quite challenging, became a snap to learn……I believe it became his favorite occupation….One of my favorite memories is watching Jessie on a D4 Cat, feet propped, steering clutches in hand, and….an ever present cigar clenched between his teeth…..Not to mention a mile wide smile across his face…..He was in his element.
I mentioned the protective nature of Jessie……I remember one day on a job, an unruly truck driver, not wanting to follow the instructions of a young boss’s son in charge. My post- puberty voice trying to sound authoritative, a confrontation escalating ….until I felt Jessie’s hand on my shoulder as he entered the fray, his voice quite authoritative, sternly admonished the driver…..”You will listen to this young man….Or…You will answer to me!!!!”……Situation solved!….Instructions followed with precision!….Perhaps my guardian angel was this black man revealed by God and made manifest by the wisdom of my own earthly father….I will always wonder.
As with all of life’s days, these were but fleeting vapors…..No matter how dear, life’s lessons visit us, hopefully shaping, molding and moving us in ‘our way’…..My father’s health began to fail….In almost the same time frame, Jessie was found to have Cancer in his throat….The two pillars of our company were in such fragile condition, that it began to crumble and eventually fail…..In the remaining years of their lives both men were only shells of former selves. Jessie drifted away to work other places, I believe mostly as a concrete finisher as long as he was able. Due to my years in college and other concerns I didn’t see him so often. It was always a meeting of two dear friends when we did.
Years passed and I ran into my old guardian/ mentor, …somewhere,… I forget the place, He was talking to a group of his companions. I put my arm around his shoulders and told them…..”This man helped raise me!”……His eyes glistened and he nodded in agreement…..Not many years later he returned the favor when I ran upon him after a failed campaign for political office…..He came to me and in a voice which remained only a whisper…..”I voted for you!”…..This time my eyes glistened and my words failed when trying to tell him how honored I was…..He could never have known that no prize could have replaced such trust he had bestowed upon me…..It did not matter to him that one of my opponents was a black man as he…..He had voted for…..me.
Only a short time later my friend succumbed to the cancer that had ravaged his once herculean body. I did not have a chance to express my gratitude and my love but I know I will some day for we had both spoken of our faith in times past……I actually have envisioned that meeting, perhaps due to my own failing health, perhaps only my vivid imagination…..But…..I see myself arriving in Heaven that day, the magnificent glory round about. I will be joining the heavenly crew assigned to ‘Mansion Construction’ under the supervision of my father who has since gone there himself. He will greet me at the gate with great joy and then say……”There are many folks here who be will happy to see you son…..But don’t tarry long…..There is much work to be done!”…….Then from somewhere in the light a familiar voice will say……
“Don’t worry Mr. Wilber…..I’ll keep him straight!”