I arrived at my new temporary home in Paducah, Kentucky, the Drury Inn on Hinckleville Rd., just across from the Kentucky Oaks Mall, and just a stones throw from the Ohio River. Paducah is out in Western Kentucky, and has a culture that is somewhat unique from the Eastern half of the state. I would compare it to Missouri, Western Tennessee, or Southern Illinois culturally speaking. It isn’t the deep South, but it isn’t the Midwest either. The terms “heartland” and “bible belt” get used a lot. Let’s just say, even though the Mason Dixon line supposedly ran through the middle of that river, there was never any doubt which side of that line the local sympathies lay.
There were just 3 people working at the site trailer out at the TVA plant, and only one of them staying at the Drury Inn. So the next morning I met up with him over the breakfast buffet, and we drove out to the plant together. His name was Richard, and he was in his early 50’s. He was an accountant by trade, and had spent a career in the military as a secretary for a general. He was a whiz at sorting out the finances of a construction site, and had been working in the construction services group as a field accountant, handling payroll, purchasing, etc… for years. Looking back after 25 years, I can say that he could run an office like few else I have encountered since. He was about 5′-9″, with thinning red hair, a pock marked face, and about weighed 90 pounds. He wore cowboy boots, and western style shirts, and as I would later figure out, was queerer than a 2 dollar bill. Not that it ever bothered me.
On our drive to the plant Richard filled me in on the history of the project, and the backgrounds of the other guys at the site. He really was a sweet guy, and the first friendly face I had seen since starting work a few days earlier. He gave me tips, like taking my new work boots out back of the trailer and scuffing them up a bit, so that I wouldn’t look so much like fresh meat to the construction crews at the site.
The lead engineer at the project was Gerald, another 50 something guy who had made a life out of working in the field, and it showed. He was overweight, and looked at least 10 years older than his age, with eyes and nose permanently bloodshot from years of hard living. Gerald had been the site lead for about 2 years at that point, and seemed to be on the way out. His health was failing, and he’d had a few heart attacks already, which limited his ability to do much outside of the trailer. The finances of the project, which he had mostly inherited, were a mess. That was why Richard had been brought in to help sort things out.
Gerald wasn’t much for small talk, and didn’t much care to have a fresh faced puppy dog on his jobsite. After exchanging the minimal of pleasantries, he told Richard to get me set up in the trailer, and give me the instruction manual to read for the next 2 days to familiarize myself with the unit until Denny returned.
Denny was the other engineer at the site. He was off on vacation, and wasn’t around those first few days on the job. His office was at the opposite end of the trailer from Gerald’s, separated by a big open room with some desks, a copier, the fax machine, and a bathroom. I spent those first few days drinking coffee, reading an instruction manual I had no hope of understanding, and sitting on the edge of my chair in nervous uncertainty about what exactly it was that I was supposed to do on this job.
I wasn’t totally naïve. I went into the position knowing that I was probably going to have little chance to use anything I had learned in my four years in college. In fact, that awareness was part of the reason they offered me the job. During my first round of interviews on campus I had answered the recruiter’s “Where do you want to be in 5 years?” question with an honest response. That after four years of engineering classes, I had very little real knowledge of what an engineer did on a day to day basis, so I couldn’t really say where I wanted to be in 5 years. The field service job would expose me to a lot of different experiences, and aspects of engineering, more so than sitting in a cubicle, and that I expected I would learn more in the next four years than I had in the previous four. A year later in a hotel bar, that same recruiter would confide to me that my answer to that question is what got me the job.
But those first few days I was sitting on pins and needles wondering if I was doing the right thing, or the wrong thing, by listening to Gerald and sitting quietly and staying the hell out of his way. And then one morning, the trailer door opened, and in strode a 6’-2”, 250 pound monster of a human being, with long curly black hair, coke bottle glasses, and a thick scraggly beard. He looked like Rasputin the mad monk, and as he set down his lunch box, and looked around the trailer and saw me, he did a double flip take like a cartoon character, and said “Jesus Christ, they’re sending us children now?”. My mouth just hung open silently in wonderment and awe.
Richard introduced us, and brought Denny up to speed, as he wandered about the trailer, shouting to Gerald, who was in his office, “Jesus Christ Gerald, you mean to tell me you’ve had this poor kid sitting here reading manuals for two days? Why didn’t you get off your fat ass and walk him up on the unit?” I think I must have just sat there for an hour with my mouth open, just watching and listening. He spent the rest of the morning filling us all in on his weekend.
Richard had told me that Denny was a character, but that he was a top notch field guy that the company had brought in to whip the project into shape, and get us the hell out of there without losing too much more money. He had somehow left out the details about his appearance, and mannerisms though. Denny wore motorcycle boots, and chain smoked Marlboro lights, and talked non-stop about everything and nothing at all. It was quickly apparent, that if there was anything to be learned in Paducah, Kentucky, Denny would be doing the teaching.
Work quickly fell into a routine. I would brew the coffee when Richard and I got into the trailer in the morning, and the other guys would arrive soon after. Denny would spend the first hour leaning back in his chair with his boots on the desk telling me stories while he smoked and drank his coffee. Then he’d come up with a list of things to do, and set us off on various errands around the site. In the afternoon he’d take some more time to show me around the plant, before we returned to the trailer to get out of the summer heat. Denny’s conversations with Gerald occurred with both of them sitting in their offices at opposite ends of the trailer shouting back and forth. Denny’s constant complaint when Gerald didn’t agree, or couldn’t deliver on his end of the project was always a deep inhale on his cigarette, and a cry towards to the heavens. “Gerald, you’re boning me!!!!!!!!”.
The trailer was located underneath the conveyor belt leading from the limestone pile into the crusher, and next to the coal dumper. When they were loading sandstone, it would rain rocks down on the trailer. When they were unloading coal, the shakers would cause the whole trailer to rattle. I spent hours in that trailer listening to Denny tell stories. He could spin a yarn like no one else. For a guy in his early 30’s he had done a lot of living. He had kicked around coming out of High School, getting into lots of trouble and raising hell before getting himself through technical school. He had been in the field for 10 years by that point, spending a good chunk of the mid 80’s working in Iraq, building a power plant during the Iran-Iraq war.
Denny was no dummy, in fact, he was damn sharp when it came to mechanics, and I have never known a better judge of people in my life. We would sit through the 2 hour long punch list meetings with the customer and contractors on Monday mornings, then he would spend the next hour breaking it down for me, explaining the angles that each party were playing, and how we needed to respond to manipulate them into doing what we needed them to do. I was in awe.
Denny was married, and his wife and dog were living with him in the roach infested “El Rancho Motel” down the street from the Drury. They allowed pets, and had a small kitchenette for about $19 / night. Living on expenses, and maintaining a house back in St. Louis on his per diem, Denny did what most field guys did. Deposit their money into their bank account, and live like vagrants.
After work Richard and I would meet with a group from the plant, at the Holiday Inn down on Park Ave. by the river for happy hour in their lounge. For a recent college grad it was surreal to sit in the cool dark Naugahyde surroundings listening to stories of divorce, and the flotsam and jetsam of the lives of these vagabonds. Denny seldom came by and when he did he seemed more out of place than I did. But I did not spend all my time with them. I spent a lot of time alone too, enjoying my new found wealth and freedom, although I could find little use for either in Paducah, K.Y.
One night, having dinner at the Mexican Restaurant at the mall across from my motel, the waitress recognized me. I had been going to church on Sunday’s at the local Catholic Church in an attempt to get right with God after the train wreck of my senior year, when I had exchanged smiles with a pretty freckle faced blond, who was greeting folks on the way into church with her family. Running into her again in the restaurant, seemed like a positive stroke of luck, or perhaps payback from the Lord for getting myself to Church in those days. She sat down across from me and we struck up a conversation. When it was time to pay the bill, I had planned to ask her out, but she didn’t return to the table. Instead the bill was delivered by another waitress, who made sure to turn it over and point to the name and phone number on the back. It was the first and only time in my life a girl ever gave me her number without asking. Maybe the South wasn’t going to be so bad after all.
Soon my free time became focused on nights out with Katie and her friends. Like a good Catholic girl, she never allowed herself to be alone with a guy lest I want to “try something”, and always arranging things so we were out with her closest friend. I quickly came to understand that I was to be their driver for the party circuit that summer. Trips over the bridge to the nightclub in Illinois, and basement parties in the homes of Paducah’s spoiled rich kids. I didn’t mind the distraction, in fact, the parties in the suburbs of Paducah were so eerily similar to the ones back home on Naramore Drive, I realized that spoiled middle class kids defied regional borders and were in fact a countrywide phenomena.
But I still led my bizarre double life from the Drury Inn. Neither happy hours with the plant crowd, or nights out with the party girls made me feel at home. Instead I felt like an anthropologist living on some South Sea island, observing the habits of the indigenous tribes of Paducah. Interesting to be sure, but not nearly as entertaining as one of Denny’s stories.
On July 4th Richard hosted a party in his hotel room. Denny, myself, and two other guys from the Holiday Inn happy hour crowd, sat around drinking beer, and bourbon, and bull shitting the day away. Around dinner time we headed downtown with the intention of seeing the fireworks over the river, from behind the Holiday Inn. I rode along with Denny in his old beat up Mazda pickup truck. The drinking continued unabated, until after the fireworks ended, when Denny turned to me, informed me he was too drunk to drive and handed me his keys. If he was too drunk to drive, I couldn’t understand what that made me. I had been drinking all day to keep up with them, and he had me by 100 pounds of body weight. But he was the boss, what could I do? So I did the least sensible thing possible, and climbed behind the wheel of his truck, and proceeded to try to drive us home. To this day, I am convinced the only way we made it back to the hotel without killing ourselves or someone else was by the grace of God. We were both blind drunk, but thankfully, the drive from the Holiday Inn to our hotel was a straight shot down Hwy 60. Well, the road was straight, I can only imagine how crooked out path was. Kids, trust me. Do not ever try that one at home.
The alarm went off the next morning, and I had all I could do to get up and dress myself. I drove the 15 minutes out to the plant, and parked, and walked the mile through the gate to the trailer only to discover that the trailer was locked. Richard was wisely taking the day off, and Gerald was away on vacation. Only Denny had a key. It was a hot and sticky Kentucky morning, and I sat on the steps outside of the trailer, trying hard to keep it together. After an hour of waiting, I couldn’t hold it any longer, and I walked behind the trailer and threw up. I felt a little better, but the heat and the hangover was killing me. After another hour of waiting, I decided it would be best to return to the parking lot, and sit in the air conditioning of the car.
I was in the car about 5 minutes when I saw Denny’s truck pull into plant, and through the gate. (He and Gerald were the only ones that had a parking permit to get their cars into the plant). So I got out of my car and trudged a mile back to the trailer through the shimmering waves of heat. I climbed the steps, and opened the door, and from the back came a booming voice “Mr. 20 Prospect, you’re late! You shouldn’t go out drinking on a school night if you can’t handle your liquor!” I opened my mouth to protest, but instead just collapsed into my chair panting. For his part Denny looked like he had been hit by a truck. The two of us spent the whole day sitting in the air conditioning, drinking coffee and ice water, and licking our wounds. I felt like I had passed another test.
The summer continued with more nights out with the chaste party girls, and more happy hours with the motley crew from the plant. I was bored, and wondering if anything would break the boredom that filled Paducah like the buzzing of cicadas. Katie and I had little in common, and there was little attraction there beside the exoticism of each others accents. Eventually, even her accent began to grate on me, and when I closed my eyes she sounded more and more like Minnie Pearl. So when the call came from the district office to head to Mobile for my next assignment, I wasn’t too sad to go. Summer was ending, and she would be returning to Lexington soon anyway.
So I said my goodbyes to Denny and Richard, and thanked them for the education that they had given me. I still didn’t know a damn thing about boilers, or power plants, but I felt like my summer school class in living on the road was complete, and I had passed with flying colors. And with that new found confidence I pointed my car South once more, and began the long drive down to the gulf coast.