(My apologies to John Steinbeck-Damn Straight)
Mike was a bear of a man, a towering six foot four and a hefty 26o or more pounds. We never were quite sure of his exact weight since 260 was as high as the scale would go, but it probably was much more judging by the way the numbers sped past in a blur when he stepped on the scale in the barn. His shoulders were as wide as Paul Bunyan’s and his biceps were as big as hams. His oversized hands dwarfed a normal man’s and his vise-like grip caused grown men to wince, which was the closest he ever came to harming anyone. Hands of this size were generally helpful for a farmhand, though it was a challenge for him to use small tools, but more about that later. He was definitely the type of guy you wanted on your side in a fight, not that Mike would ever harm a flea. He was a big teddy bear, with a huge heart and a broad gap tooth grin that went from ear to ear and was always on display. Sporting reddish blond hair, big blue eyes, and a pale complexion that was often sun burnt pink due to the nature of his outdoor employment.
The first thing you noticed about Mike was his massive protruding belly. His shirts fit like a tank top on a pregnant woman, stretched to their utmost capacity. I feared that at any moment a button might spring free and put my eye out, like an errant BB from brother’s Red Ryder, carbine action, two-hundred shot range model air rifle. They just didn’t make men’s shirts large enough for him, or so it seemed. Though the pickings for XXXL large shirts were a little thin at Goodwill, so he did the best he could.
The second thing you noticed about Mike, and it didn’t take long to notice this, was his putrid smell, like dead fish rotting in a dumpster. It was not mildly bad as in a guy who just worked out, but bad as in an overpowering stench that curled your nose hairs from ten feet. I think it was because his trailer home didn’t have running water, so bathing was an infrequent occurrence, and personal hygiene was an afterthought…or no thought at all. I still remember to this day, a trip we made to the farmer’s market with Mr. Moore, the owner of the orchard where we worked, crammed in the front of a Datson mini-pickup truck. If you recall, these were very small economy-sized pickup trucks that were a tight fit for two normal sized people. So it was no small feat for the three of us to squeeze into the truck, like human sardines in a tin can. Lucky me was in the middle because I was thinnest, and the gear shift was between my legs, so I had to shift when Mr. Moore told me to. We weren’t even off the orchard before Mike’s foul odor became so unbearable I became nauseous. He smelled like the inside of an old rank garbage can filled with spoiled milk, rotting fish, flies, maggots and other sundry items that had ripened in the summer sun. I’m sure World War I would have been much shorter if this toxic aroma could have been dispersed over a battlefield. The Germans would have dashed back to the Fatherland and never invaded another country again. Fortunately, both Mike and Mr. Moore mercifully rolled down their windows so I was able to breathe once again and my gag reflex subsided. They say that smell is the strongest memory trigger, so even today, 35 years later, whenever I smell a ripe dumpster, images of Mike flash in my mind.
When I reflect back about Mike, they are mostly good thoughts though. Sort of like when you reflect back on your favorite childhood memories. Mike was extremely entertaining, in a modern jester or funny clown like way, not like the evil ones stalking us today. And he possessed a great sense of humor and wit that made interactions with him enjoyable. He spoke in a simple folksy way and his dialogue was sprinkled with country twang and expletives. It didn’t take long after conversing with Mike to realize that he was a bit off. You see, even though Mike was around thirty years old and had the body of a super-sized grown man; his mind was closer to a middle schooler. In today’s world we would call him “special needs” or maybe “learning disabled.” Back in the 80s in rural Kentucky he was just referred to as “slow”, or “touched.” I prefer the term touched because I believe God had indeed “touched” him, though not in a mentally limiting way. But rather, God had touched him with a big heart and a kind, benevolent demeanor, and of course, that big broad gap toothed grin. Now that I think about it he did bear a striking resemblance to the actor John Goodman, both in physical appearance and demeanor, except Mike had straighter hair and a more pungent odor. Luckily, commonly accepted personal hygiene standards were not a prerequisite for being a farmhand, much to my detriment as one of his co-workers. Though being a strong as an ox certainly outweighed his other shortcomings. He once picked the back end of my 1975, baby blue Chevy Vega, completely off the ground. Not a remarkable feat, but impressive nonetheless. If my car ever got stuck, or a refrigerator needed to be moved, I knew who to call. Mike certainly was well qualified for the job of farmhand; he could drive any tractor or truck made, knew how to operate most all farm equipment; hay bailer, bushhogs, chainsaw, weed eater, apple sorter, cider press and cherry picker. He could weld, weed, and throw a hay bale from the ground to the 5th row of bales on a hay wagon, something I never did at my strongest.
My first memory of Mike was the week he arrived to work at Moore’s Orchard. I had been working there myself part-time for a few years as an after school job. It was a perfect job for me, walking distance from school and home, and outdoors, which I greatly preferred over an indoor fast food sweat shop job. You see, cows and crops by their nature are generally not rude or impatient, and they don’t care if you wear a uniform or shower. When I arrived one afternoon to help harvest the fall crop of apples, Mike was there in full splendor, so to speak. I was immediately impressed with his massive size, and I instantly took to him. Not that I needed a friend, I had two very good ones at school, but he had a natural charisma that was disarming. It was in fact hard not to like Mike.
It was a very exciting day at Moore’s Orchard you see, because Mr. Moore had bought a new tractor, a Massey Ferguson. Though technically it wasn’t brand new, but it was much, much newer than the two Allis-Chalmers on the farm, the WD45 and the classic WC. The WD45 was top of the class in the early fifties and the WC was a World War II era workhorse. Both wore the faded orange paint of the Allis-Chalmers line, and both were powerful machines in their day, but this was 1981 and their best days were long past. That previous spring I was tediously plowing the back forty so we could plant the vegetable crop for the farmer’s market and I went to shift from second to third and the gear shift of the WD-45 broke off in my hand. I immediately shut her down and excitedly ran and got Mr. Moore. He was quite calm; I guess this was a frequent occurrence. He pulled out his portable acetylene torch welder and promptly welded the gear shift back on, then told me to get back to work, which I did. The “previously-owned” Massey-Ferguson by contrast, was big, powerful, and impressive. Like a modern day industrial wonder, silver and red, and shimmering. It was an awe inspiring sight, gleaming in the sunlight. I didn’t know whether I should fire it up, or kneel before it and offer up a sacrifice.
Unfortunately, this magnificent machine was off-limits to the adolescent part-timers like me. But Mike, being an experienced farmhand, had first dibs at taking her out. So we hooked up the bushhog to her PTO (power take-off) and Mike hopped aboard. Mr. Moore cautioned him to be careful, and Mike assured him that the Massey Ferguson was in good hands, and off he went to bushhog the orchard. I grabbed a ladder, picking baskets, and boxes, and loaded them onto a wagon which was hooked up to the WD-45. I then drove out to the Red Delicious row of the orchard to begin picking the fall crop. I actually enjoyed picking apples, especially the juicy ripe ones that occasional found their way to my stomach. It was a sweet job indeed and a lot better than flipping burgers. So I climbed up a ladder and began looking for grade “A” large Red Delicious apples to drop into the picking basket…and to sample. I had been at it for about half an hour when Mike came running to me with a look of panic on his face. He was flushed and sweaty, (more so than usual) and I feared he was having a heart attack. But as soon as he got close to me he blurted out, “I crashed the Massey-Ferguson.” I was dumbfounded, it was like hearing that a famous Kentucky thoroughbred had broken a leg and had to be put down. I rapidly slid down the ladder like a fireman off to a fire and ran with him back to the wounded tractor. There it was, run headfirst into a large apple tree, with a sizable dent in her front grill. I asked Mike what had happened, and he said he was bushhogging around the tree when a low branch raked across him and the steering wheel and caused him to drive right into the tree. We thought for a moment, and then decided we had no choice but to go tell Mr. Moore. Mike was crushed, and I was scared, Mr. Moore was a reasonable man, but we were not sure how he would take this news. The Massey-Ferguson after all, was the first almost new tractor that Mr. Moore had bought in nearly twenty years. We trudged back to the tool shop, like Marines on the Bataan death march, and found Mr. Moore. Mike then broke the news, like a surgeon giving bad news to a family member; I think I heard him say “I’m sorry for your loss.” Mr. Moore flashed a bit of anger, but it quickly subsided as it always did. Mr. Moore never stayed mad at Mike for long, nor did he ever fire him, though he certainly had plenty of reasons to do so over the years. Because, underneath the tough and gruff exterior, Mr. Moore had a soft spot for Mike as well. He knew that Mike didn’t have any family or anywhere to turn if he fired him, so he kept him on. Today, the world could use a few more employers and human beings like Mr. William Moore.
So we walked out to the wounded Massey-Ferguson, resting there against the tree like a broken horse in want of a drink. Mr. Moore quickly surveyed the damage and then hopped aboard. He fired up her powerful engine and backed her away from the tree. To our relief, it was only a superficial wound, a small dent, a light scratch, no obvious mechanical damage. Mr. Moore drove her back to the barn and parked her there for the evening. She stayed inside for several days, like a lioness licking her wounds, until it was time for her to prowl again. Though there was no mechanical damage, she was never the same glistening modern marvel we saw that first afternoon. She was dented and scratched, and looked used, like the two Allis-Chalmers tractors. It was as if her virginity was stolen that fateful day, to a very large farmhand with a big gap tooth grin.
This wouldn’t be the last time that Mike violated one of Mr. Moore’s tractors; there was also the cherry picker accident. A cherry picker was a very useful apparatus on an orchard because you could pick apples, pears, peaches, and of course cherries without using a cumbersome ladder. Best of all, you could reach the choice locations that were often out of the reach of the tallest ladders. For those not familiar with this device, it is similar to the bucket trucks that utility companies use to work on the power lines. The interesting thing about this particular cherry picker was that Mr. Moore had built it from scratch, no kidding. You see, Mr. Moore was a college educated engineer by trade and as a young man during the war he had worked in a manufacturing plant in Cincinnati, Ohio. At some point in his life, Mr. Moore grew weary of the city life and had bought a farm in the country. He was Green Acres before Green Acres was cool, but his wife was no Zsa Zsa Gabor. She was in fact a talented local artist, but her demeanor and appearance were less than welcoming. Picture an old Russian gymnastics coach and you get the idea. She avoided farmhands and farmhands avoided her. But back to Mr. Moore and his hand-built cherry picker. We were never sure where he got the idea or design, but he had in fact built a gasoline-powered, hydraulic-controlled cherry picker from scratch. All the welds were hand done, and you could tell that his baby wasn’t made in a factory. There was a “country” legend among the farmhands that Mr. Moore had invented the cherry picker but never got it patented and missed his opportunity to have a fortune. I personally was scared to death of the contraption and never went up in it, which was a good call on my part since it wasn’t the most reliable machine. But Mike loved to use it and was always looking for a reason to take her up. So one day that fall Mike took her out to pick apples. He pulled her up to a tree that was loaded down with big juicy golden delicious apples, its branches sagging like a clothesline loaded with wet long johns, and proceeded to fire up the engine. He then climbed aboard and touched the hydraulic lever to lift him skyward. Normally this was a pretty cool sight, to see an adult man free himself from the bounds of earth. In Mike’s case it was utterly amazing to see this apparatus lift his gargantuan frame heavenward. You could hear and see the machine straining to lift his 260 plus pounds and you stood in awe of this modern marvel. Since Mr. Moore built this thing from scratch there was no owner’s manual, or legal disclaimers, or fine print about operating limits, but I can say with confidence that it wasn’t designed to lift a 260 plus pound man. So, one fine day the law of gravity and the laws of mechanics had a dispute, and the law of gravity won. While Mike was raising the bucket, with himself in it, a hydraulic line burst and the hydraulic fluid quickly dispersed, like air rushing from a balloon. This meant that Mike, and his 260 plus pounds, lost their argument with gravity, and fell earthward at a rapid pace. At the time, Mike was directly above the tractor, the WD-45 this time, and he promptly landed on it with resounding crash. Fortunately he was unhurt, though a bit shaken, however the WD-45 did not fair as well. Her hood was now v-shaped on top, and Mike had claimed another defenseless victim. I heard the racket and rushed to the scene, in time to hear Mike cursing as he climbed out. “Are you all right,” I asked, “Damn straight” was his excited reply. This was Mike’s frequent response for an emphatic yes. I occasionally use this term myself still today. My all knowing wife just smiles at me when I say it with a look that says, “What hillbilly, redneck part of Kentucky are you from?”
Mike then drove the cherry picker back to the shop and found Mr. Moore, who as usual, was briefly angered but quickly recovered to assess the damage. He quickly replaced the busted hydraulic line and refilled the fluid and the cherry picker was back in action. But the WD-45 now bore the scar of this accident. However, since she was a battle scarred veteran of fading paint and many scratches, it wasn’t as disturbing as the Massey-Ferguson incident. She wore the dent proudly, as if to say, “Is this your best shot? To the rest of us farmhands, it was just another episode in the growing legend of big Mike. A stranger might take these stories as folklore, but there was plenty of evidence supporting them, all you had to do was go look at the farm machinery, it told no lies.
Not that Mike was alone in his misadventures; I myself had an occasional turn with the mistress of misfortune. There was the time that I was entrusted to cut some metal with the acetylene torch. I had done this before on a few occasions, but this particular torch was not easy to light. I had turned on the gas but I couldn’t get a spark to light it. Instead of stopping after a few seconds and letting the gas dissipate before trying again, I left the gas going and kept trying to get a spark. After about 15-20 seconds I got my spark all right, I also got a blinding flash as the gas exploded. Luckily, I wore glasses so my eyes weren’t damaged, but since it was summer I was wearing a short sleeve shirt. All the hair on my left arm was burnt off and my eyebrows and hair were singed. To this day, I think my right arm has less hair than my left.
Although quite frightening at the time, this incident was rather minor and only temporarily damaged my arm hair and my ego. The previous fall, however, I had another incident, later referred to as the “mum affair” that caused greater damage. Mr. Moore was an idea man, must have been his inventive nature, and he was always attempting new ways to make money. One year, he decided he was going to grow about 500 chrysanthemums during the summer and sell them in the fall. One day, late in the summer, Mr. Moore and Mike were headed to the market and I needed a project to work after school. Mr. Moore told me to fertilize the mums, and said to use about a teaspoon of fertilizer on each plant. So off they went to the market, and off I went to fertilize the mums. I, being a bright young man, figured that if one teaspoon of fertilizer was good, then two was better. Little did I realize that two spoons would burn them to a crisp. Just about when I had finished fertilizing all 500 mums and was feeling good about myself, Mr. Moore returned and he quickly noticed that I had over-fertilized the mums. He quickly scolded me on the error of my ways, and directed me to spoon out as much I could, which I laboriously did. Over the next few weeks the mums slowly curled up and turned yellow. Most of the mums eventually survived, though few really flourished. Mr. Moore probably sold enough to break even, but it wasn’t the cash cow he expected. That was the last year that Mr. Moore raised mums, and though I am sure he forgave me, I am not sure if I ever forgave myself. In my mind, I will always be the mum mass murderer, the madman of mums, the mum assassin. I keep thinking that mums are quietly plotting their revenge and that one day mum zombies will rise out of the ground and hunt me down like the dog that I am. I keep the house doors locked at night, and if my wife buys mums in the fall, I always keep my distance. Most importantly, I never, ever, turn my back on them. My therapist says I have issues, but that’s easy for him to say, he didn’t slay hundreds of innocent mums, oh the horror.
Fortunately, those two incidents were the extent of my personal misadventures at Moore’s Orchard, though I had plenty of good adventures. One of the most exhilarating but nerve racking things I ever did was drive the tractors from the orchard in Hebron to the orchard 15 miles away in Bullittsville. Mr. Moore had two orchards you see, his main operating location where he lived, and the remote operating location where his oldest son lived. Often, we had to drive a tractor with a farm apparatus in tow down to the Bullittsville orchard to spray pesticides or harvest crops. This was fun, because you got to take a tractor out on the open road and let ‘er rip; 4th gear, full gas, as fast as they could go. I am not sure of the top speed because the tractors didn’t have speedometers, but I felt like I was flying down the road. It was exhilarating, going full bore, wind blowing through your hair (I had a lot then), like James Dean leading a motorcycle pack, without a care in the world. Well not exactly no cares, because it was a bit nerve racking when you took the WC out because its brakes were really only brakes in the figurative sense. They had worn out years ago and Mr. Moore didn’t have money at the time to replace them. So at full speed they did little good, you had to downshift all the way to first gear and stand on the brakes to make her stop. Stopping on a flat road wasn’t too hard, but stopping at the bottom of a hill took considerable skill. If a car or kid on a bike had pulled out in front of me at top speed it would have been all she wrote for me or the kid. They’d still be picking up pieces of the WC and me. But I was young and bolder (or dumber) then and it was gloriously fun and easy money. The drive took over an hour and it was a lot better than spending an hour putting in itchy hay or hoeing the vegetables in the hot sun. And it was a whole lot better than going on a truck drive with odorous Mike, the fragrant honeysuckle by the side of road smelled much, much sweeter. I love the sweet smell of honeysuckle, it reminds me of my old Kentucky home. I tell my wife that when we settle down and buy our dream home, I will plant honeysuckle all along our white picket fence, right next to our rose garden, lilac bushes, and gardenia plants. It may not be a big house but it will be the sweetest smelling one in town.
Plus, it was pretty neat that Mr. Moore trusted me to drive one of his prized tractors all the way across the county. I wasn’t even old enough to legally drive a car, but I got to drive an expensive piece of machinery without any supervision. Cool. I guess in retrospective I probably was one of Mr. Moore’s favorite employees. Maybe it was because I showed up to work on time, or because I worked hard. But I think it was because he knew that I had a future beyond the farm. Most of Mr. Moore’s employees weren’t exactly model citizens. His farm was a kind of halfway house for the county’s misfits, rejects, and dropouts. Like the Island of Misfit toys, except the toys were young men. To this day, I am not sure if Mr. Moore hired this workforce by design, or because the downtrodden were the only ones willing to work at his ridiculously low wages. We were always looking up at minimum wage, but we got paid in cash and no taxes were taken out. And you got to eat all the fresh fruit you could. My favorite harvesting job by far was picking peaches. Absolutely nothing tastes better in this world than a sweet, ripe peach covered with early morning dew when it was still cool. Every time I go grocery shopping with my wife she has to listen to me complain about how all the peaches in the grocery are green as gourds, and taste like them too. It’s an American tragedy, damn straight!
Picking Concorde grapes was my second most favorite thing to do. The taste of a ripe Concorde grape was flat out divine, sweet, juicy and flavorful, not like the California seedless grapes we eat today. I got my money’s worth and then some when it was grape season at the orchard. Sometimes at lunch I would spend the whole time out in the grape vineyard, eating grapes until my belly hurt. If there was ever such thing as a good kind of pain, that was it.
You would think, with all of this fruit available, that big Mike would lose a few pounds, but that wasn’t the case. Mike was a meat and potatoes man, and I am talking about a lot of meat and potatoes. He didn’t tip the scales at 260 plus pounds by accident and he didn’t have a glandular problem, he ate a whole, whole lot. At lunch he typically consumed 2 large sandwiches, a large bag of potato chips or French fries, and a couple of pieces of pie. At dinner he would fry up anything that wasn’t moving. You could smell the grease as soon as you stepped into his dilapidated trailer, which was conveniently located on Moore’s Orchard, right next to the shop. Mr. Moore grew tired of Mike arriving late for work so he bought a “previously owned” trailer and rented it to him. Mike’s tardiness was due to the unreliability of his primary means of transportation, hitchhiking. It’s hard enough for the average Joe to get across town hitchhiking, but it is especially challenging if you weigh over 260 pounds, look like you just escaped from the local pen, and smelled like a dumpster. Talk about a win/win, Mr. Moore made money on the rental and he had an employee living on the premises available to work 24X7. The only real drawback was that the trailer didn’t have a sewer or water hookup. So Mike had to use the restroom in the main house and he was allowed to shower once a week. Mrs. Moore wasn’t fond of this arrangement because it took hours to get the Mike aroma out of the house, but I think she liked having the big guy around so her husband didn’t have to work as long hours. The trailer itself wasn’t anything special, but it was Mike’s own (sort of), and he was proud to have his own place. I only ventured in a few times, (holding my breath), and although I’ve never been in a meth lab, I bet it looked and smelled something like this. I could hear the cockroaches and rats scatter when I stepped inside, and I looked before placing each step so as not to hear a crunch. The dilapidated trailer still sits rusting next to the shop, I am sure that no amount of ammonia or disinfectant could make it humanely habitable again.
So as a permanent resident Mike became more than just a farmhand, he was the handyman and also the foreman of sorts for the misfits, rejects, and dropouts who worked there off and on. As Mr. Moore grew older he gave Mike more of the handyman duties that he used to do himself. As I alluded to in the beginning, Mike did the simple things fairly well, but tools were not exactly scalpels in the hands of a fine surgeon. The best example of this was when Mike was tasked to fix the float in the pond. The float adjusted the water level that fed the pump that was essential for watering the plants in the greenhouse and spraying the fruit. When the pump didn’t work, the crops weren’t watered, and the fruit trees weren’t sprayed. That was a serious problem. So Mike loaded the toolbox into the rowboat and gingerly stepped into the little boat. When Mike’s full weight was in the boat it rode dangerously low in the water, like a supertanker filled to the brim with a load of crude oil. The sides of the boat were only a few precarious inches above the water line. Mike then proceeded to cautiously row out to the float, like the Captain of the Titanic, not knowing this was his last voyage. Mike pulled up to the float, set the tool box in front of him, and leaned over to fix the float. That was a mistake. Water began to pour over the side and the tiny rowboat begin to fill with water. Mike then leaned back, and water began to pour over the other side of the boat, by this time his fate was sealed. Realizing that his situation was dire, he feverishly grabbed the oars and began to frantically row back to shore, but it was too late. Mike, the rowboat, and the toolbox were soon on their way to the bottom of the pond. No band played Auld Lang Syne, no flares were shot, and Hollywood won’t ever make a movie about it, but it was a tragedy none the less. Fortunately, Mike’s “flubber” made it quite easy for him to float, so he dog-paddled back to shore and the only loss was the rowboat and toolbox. The next day, my brother was pitching in at the orchard and like Jacques Cousteau; he recovered the rowboat and most of the tools. No Hope diamond was found though. Mike vowed that he would never get back in the boat, which was an unfortunate turn of events because any time his body encountered water it was a good thing, one shower a week just wasn’t quite enough for a man who weighed 260 pounds and sweated profusely.
He did occasionally get an insecticide shower but that gave him an odd dusty smell that wasn’t much better. I know you just asked yourself, what is an insecticide shower? Well, on a fruit orchard you had to spray insecticide on the fruit trees about once a month if you wanted a bountiful and bug-free harvest. Mr. Moore had a large industrial-sized insecticide sprayer that we towed behind the WD tractor. It was an odd looking machine with a huge fan blade that helped pressurize the humongous tank. When we started it up it sounded like a turbo-jet preparing for take-off. The apparatus was capable of spraying a tremendous volume of insecticide over 100 feet. Mike or I would drive the sprayer through the orchard with Mr. Moore in back spraying the fruit trees with a deluge of toxic insecticide. When we did this chore both Mr. Moore and the driver got completely drenched in insecticide, which considering that day and age was some pretty nasty stuff. I don’t recall the name of the toxins we loaded in the tank, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there was some Dioxin in there. Mr. Moore’s son was convinced that years of spraying insecticide had caused his dad to begin to lose his senses, it’s quite possible. My wife thinks this “dioxin” shower may have contributed to my forgetful nature, but I blame it on the large quantities of cheap bourbon I drank in college. There’s a medical term for this condition, its called “Jim Beam” syndrome.
It was soon after the “boat” incident that Mike’s luck took a turn for the better and he made the first step in achieving his lifelong dream of being a garbage truck driver. Not exactly what most of us aspire to, but for Mike it was the real deal. To him, nothing would be cooler than driving the monstrous garbage truck around town taking care of business. It was man’s work for a real man, and Mike was all man. The big first step towards independence and achieving his dream was owning a car so he would have reliable transportation. Hitchhiking to work or living on your employer’s premises were not reasonable alternatives for finding a good paying job, unless you up and joined the military and enjoyed living in a barracks with thirty two of your closest friends. I did that once during basic training and although I enjoyed the camaraderie, I did not enjoy the lack of privacy or the smell, it brought back those god awful memories of long truck rides to the market with Mike.
But now that Mike had steady employment at Moore’s Orchard combined with the relatively cheap rent (and no utility bills), he had patiently managed to save enough money to buy a 1975 Buick Skylark. This wasn’t just any car either, it was golden bronze American muscle car that sparkled when the sun hit it like a stack of gold bars at Fort Knox. I remember the day that Mike drove it onto the orchard. He was like a proud papa showing off a newborn. He was especially proud of the sound system, which he referred to as the kick-ass speakers. That was no understatement either, you could hear Mike’s classic rock music blaring long before you saw him driving up to the orchard. It was almost like some type of early warning device to tell mothers to hide their daughters and lock their refrigerators. I usually went and hid my lunch far out of sight so that Mike wasn’t tempted to see (and eat) what I had packed that day. The car was indeed a sweet ride, if you are into 70’s muscle cars and that type of thing. More importantly though, it made Mike feel like he had arrived and was a card carry member of adult society. He could go where he wanted, when he wanted, and he didn’t have to subjugate himself to the humiliation of begging for a ride or waiting for a bus. This may not sound like a big deal to you, but trying going without your car for a month and then tell me how you feel. I have had the great fortune in my career to help find jobs for people with disabilities and nothing is more rewarding than to see the smiles on their faces when they get a job, even the most menial jobs such as janitorial or food service. Most people find this type of work degrading, however severely disabled person are thrilled to do this work because working for a living brings them dignity and makes them contributing members of society. If you talk to them you will find that all they really want is a normal life; a job, a companion, a family, a home, a car. Things that most of us take for granted. So when Mike became a good ol’ car owning American his eyes shown brighter, his gap tooth grin was broader, his step had zip in it, and he was a foot taller. Mike was no longer a reject of society, he had arrived. He now had hope that he could achieve his dream of being a garbage truck driver, with a companion, a family, and a home.
The next step in Mike’s upward spiral was equally important, he got his own place, a small efficiency apartment in the city of Covington. It wasn’t a big place, it wouldn’t meet most people’s standards, but it was his own apartment. It was on the wrong side of the tracks, but it was his. He packed up all his worldly possession, loaded them into Mr. Moore’s 2.5 ton truck, and he moved out of the trailer. Mike was now an adult who had his own car and his own place.
Not long after Mike moved out we were hit with the most shocking news of all, Mike had found employment with Rumpke Services, a sanitation company in Covington. It wasn’t yet as a garbage truck driver, he worked in the shop and changed tires, but it was one step away from the dream. I remember the day he told me and Mr. Moore that he was leaving to work with Rumpke. He was so excited, his dream was coming true, and he would be a truck driver within a few months. It was a bittersweet day for me and Mr. Moore, we knew it was a good thing for Mike, but we would miss the big lug. He was like a big sheep dog who you would curse when he slobbered on you, but was all heart and no brain and you couldn’t help but love. Our lovable stinky sheep dog, John Goodman-like, tractor crashing, boat sinking, gap tooth grinning bear of a man had left us. Years later when my kids left for college I had the same feeling. The tears welled up in our eyes and you don’t know if they were tears of joy or sorrow. I still don’t know. But Mr. Moore and I stood with our shoulders drooped and watch him drive off, and then we went back to the chore at hand, with bittersweet tears and heavy hearts There was no joy in Mudville that day.
A few months later while working at the orchard I heard a Steve Miller tune from a distance and I looked up to see the bronze Buick Skylark driving down the lane onto the farm. My heart skipped a beat and I dashed out to greet my former companion. Much to my surprise, Mike was not alone, he had a woman with him. And it wasn’t any woman, it was his girlfriend, Sheila. She hadn’t won any beauty pageants recently but she wasn’t a bad looking woman by any means. Especially for a man who weighed over 260 pounds and just a few short months ago lived in a trailer and hitchhiked to get around. Mike introduced her to me and Mr. Moore with a sparkle in his eye, it was clear he was a man in love. He trotted her around like he was showing off the prized filly at the Keeneland horse track in Lexington. Moreover, he oozed confidence and enthusiasm like a man who had come into his own. On the Mazlow hierarchy of needs scale Mike had quickly rose from the Physiological level, where he didn’t know where his next meal was coming from, to Safety, past Love/Belonging, and all the way up to Self Esteem, in record time. I soon found out that he not only had a girlfriend but that he had worked his way up to driver at the sanitation company, which included a pay raise to $12 an hour. Mike had reached Nirvana. Mr. Moore and I were beside ourselves, we felt like proud parents whose child had just graduated from medical school. But just like that, Mike and his trophy girlfriend drove off in the distance and I thought that I would never see his broad gap tooth grin again.
Which is why, only a few weeks later as I arrived to work at the orchard after school one day, I was absolutely shocked to see Mike. I just assumed that he stopped in for a visit, but I didn’t see the bronze Buick Skylark nor did I see his girl Sheila. I quickly learned to my amazement and utter dismay that he wasn’t visiting, he was working here again and living in the trailer. When I saw him he had a look of deep despair on this face and I knew that all wasn’t right in the world. I gathered up the courage to ask him what happened and he quickly told me his tale of woe. That past weekend his girl Sheila had broken up with him, I think she left him for a long haul truck driver who made more money. In a fit of rage, Mike jumped into his Buick and intent upon killing himself he drove directly into a telephone pole, totaling the car. Fortunately for Mike, when you are a person who weighs 260 pounds and carry considerably padding around your mid-section, you have natural protection. Mike wasn’t even scratched, the only damage was some bruised ribs, a bruised ego, and a broken heart. Mike told me that even though the car was totaled, by some miracle the windshield didn’t break, so as a final coup de grace, he took his massive elbow and rammed it into the windshield, completely shattering the glass. “Damn straight” he said. So without a car he had to quit his job at the sanitation company. And without a car and a well paying job he couldn’t afford the rent and utilities of an apartment, so he was car less, jobless, and homeless again. Without anywhere else to turn he asked Mr. Moore if he could return to work and live at Moore’s Orchard, the halfway house for misfits, rejects, and dropouts, the island of misfit boys. Of course Mr. Moore took him in with feelings of joy and sorrow. The big lug and his broad gap tooth grin was back. He was like the Phoenix from Greek mythology, he had risen so fast and flown so far only to crash to earth again. At first I was deeply saddened, for this teddy bear of a man had overcome huge obstacles to achieve his dreams, only to have them slip through his fingers. Oliver Wendall Holmes once said, “Beware how you take away hope from another human being.” But in talking with Mike I soon realized that hope wasn’t lost. When he told the story of breaking the car windshield with his elbow he did it with great zeal and his broad smile. Mike had been at the bottom before, but now that he had been to the top he knew he could get there again. He still had hope, he still had his dreams, and he still had the conviction to keep going, toothy grin and all. So when I have a bad day I don’t stay down for long. I think of Mike and his misadventures, and how he kept going even after his dreams were dashed. A smile comes across my face and I know that life is good, damn straight.
I haven’t seen Mike since I left for college some 35 years ago, but I heard that Mr. Moore has passed and his orchard was turned into a low rent subdivision. The barns and shop are in disrepair and the apple, cherry and peach trees and my luscious concord grapes all plowed under and replaced with asphalt and row houses. The Allis-Chalmers WD45 with worn brakes and the antique WC sit rusting away in dismembered pieces, like dinosaurs bones from an ancient prehistoric age. But I still have my memories, and they are good ones.
This month’s song and video is Helplessness Blues by Fleetfoxes. It’s a fitting song for both this story about working on an orchard and our current political climate: