This page was last updated on Wednesday, 01 July, 2015.
This is the story of events on how I came to meet Norman.
Growing up in a medium sized southwest border Texas town, any substantial economic expansion made news. The addition of a mall to the town was a big deal in those days.
I was just out of high school and having moved back to a medium sized border town from a town that had two stop lights. I had lived there before but had moved to a small country town four years earlier. The town was growing and was getting a new indoor shopping mall. The mall was built on a piece of undeveloped real estate that had numerous trails that we used to ride our bikes through back when you got your first bike and that sense of freedom to go explore abounded. Of course, that was once clearance from ma was obtained. Such a construction project meant jobs and a perfect opportunity for a young man fresh out of high school.
The beginning phase of such a construction project as a mall begins with site preparation including the parking area; this includes the grading and drainage for the parking lots encompassing the building.
In 1978, I got on as a plumbers helper and was put to work in the trenches of the parking lot, installing the drainage systems, in the hot Texas sun with the words of my book keeping teacher ringing in my ears, “Pay attention or you’ll wind up digging ditches!”
The drainage pipe was constructed of two foot diameter concrete pipe that had to be laid to grade for the drainage to function as designed. The ditches were roughly machine dug but when encountering large boulder obstacles underground, these boulders had to be manually jack hammered down to grade to allow for the pipe installation as well as each trench having to be manually leveled to grade. Needless to say this was interesting work to say the least and the cast of characters one meets on a construction project of such size was an eye opening experience for a young man ignorant of the ways of the world.
Vietnam Veterans, ex-convicts, vagabonds and such type characters are common on large construction sites as large companies move about the country completing various projects, most coming from the closer larger cities. I worked through completion of the drainage phase and was put helping and older plumber running the water connections in the building as the iron workers were finishing up the roof decking having completed the framing. The bricklayers had been on site for some time and having completed the equipment and materials logistics phase had begun the building phase which was constructed with cinder block and the outer walls capped with a “split face” stone.
The bricklaying crews, having come from one of the larger nearby cities, were great guys and many a beer was shared in the parking lot after work and occasionally there were “mud” wars when I was working out in the trenches close to where they were laying block during the workday. This involved chunking handfuls of mortar back and forth at each other.
"Mud” was slang for mortar used in masonry work. I became friends with the guys on the bricklaying crew and since the plumbing phase was beginning to winding down, I hired on with the bricklaying crew and began learning how to be a bricklayer’s helper.
I stayed on with them building scaffold, tearing down scaffold, mixing mortar and the regular helper’s duties for most of the duration of their part of construction until the plastering crew came in from another city. The city the plasterers were from was 45 miles from the town I had just moved back from.
The entire non faced block or stone masonry exterior of the building was to be covered in stucco, which was common in that desert region of the southwest. I began interacting with them when they arrived on-site and their boss offered me a job as he saw I was dependable, was local and had experience building scaffold.
This crew was just as much a bunch of great guys as the bricklayers and the boss even more so.
The crew would stay in local motels or travel trailers if they had one, while working out of town jobs and given this locale, would travel back to the home office every two weeks. After working for them for a short time, I started getting raises almost each time they returned. Like I said, the boss was a great guy and once the plasters were getting close to completing their phase of construction, the boss approached me and asked if I had ever thought about leaving this town.
I inquired as to what he mean and he told me they were greatly impressed with my work ethic and should I decide to relocate to the home office location, I would have a job.
This was very appealing and I accepted since the mall project was growing close to completion and I had worked there on the project when the site was first bulldozed and graded to begin the project.
This began my adventure with the Swain plastering company and the various humorous incidents that I experienced while working there. Incidents such as towing a plaster mixer to a project site in another town and while in transit, to look in your side mirror with horror to see the mixer you were “allegedly” towing trying to come around you in the passing lane without so much the courtesy of using a blinker. Or of the time when transporting a trailer of sacked plaster mix, someone forgot to latch the trailer hitch correctly and when going through the downtown area, the trailer came off and the driver had to ram it with the truck in order to stop it from going through the front door of the local country and western wear store.
Maybe it heard there was a clearance sale, but I digress.
There was another particularly humorous incident that I personally was involved with which involved the work truck and a building, but I’ll get to that after some groundwork.
Swain Plastering had humble beginnings and grew from there.
Mr. Swain had bought a 1 ton ford dually and started his business, eventually expanding to a fleet of trucks. He also purchased an old corner gas station that the main building was set farther back from the street and corner than normal gas stations of the time.
There was enough room on the corner end of the property to build a new office next to the station, thus utilizing the gas station building as a maintenance center for his fleet of trucks and keeping the existing gas pumps as a fuel depot for the fleet. And since he was in the stucco business his new building was built out of? You guessed it, Stucco.
His first truck was old number “41” and being that it was his very first work truck, had no power steering, no air conditioning no nada. We used to call it “Armstrong” power steering. Now, no power steering is not so bad, once you get rolling, but if you’re sitting still. Its crankola city and being the “new meat” I always got stuck with old number “41.” Old 41 wasn’t too hard to steer once you got the hang of it and having to fill up once at the end of work, I was returning to the shop from the opposing traffic direction and needing to pull into the gas pumps. This meant I would have to perform the dreaded “fish hook” turn into the gas pump lanes. Now in any other truck this was no big feat, but in old number “41”, you never wanted to try to turn from a dead stop, especially across opposing traffic without fear of extreme fatigue or a possible pulled muscle. So you learned to let her roll some so you could crank the wheel easier.
I had timed my turn perfectly and whipped old “41” into the gas pump with the precision of an experienced driver. I had her rolling quick enough I could almost turn the wheel with one finger like a power steering job. I whipped up next to the pump and hit the brakes…. which went immediately unimpeded to the floorboard.
As I said before, he had built a new stucco office on the corner and thankfully, but unfortunately, it would be the only thing that stopped old “41” from continuing through the parking lot and out the street on the other side incurring god knows what kind of peril.
Imagine a one ton Ford flat bed dually loaded with 100 lb sacks of stucco and related plaster gear.
It weighs a bit and with no brakes? Whammo!
Luckily it was only a corner of the building. But as luck would have it, it was the very corner the owner chose to put his office and the very wall he put his desk against. I heard it knocked his coffee mug off the desk, but then again, I wasn’t there in the office. After all there was an accident outside.
I didn’t get fired by the way.
There were various other hilarious incidents that happened while I was employed there that year and I met many interesting characters while working there. Some that had been with the company from the beginning and various other casts of characters that passed through briefly and were gone.
It was while I was here that I met Norman and the true purpose of this story. Once I had passed the rite of getting accepted into the crew, despite the fueling incident, I was put out on projects to be the “mud man.” It was my job to keep track of the required materials related to stucco mixing on that job under supervision of the head plasterer on the site as well as keeping the plasters constantly supplied with fresh “mud.” Part of the perks of the position was that, on every job site there was one break in the morning and one in the afternoon and a half hour lunch. Being that most stucco jobs were in town and there were the usual fast food places and convenience stores around and part of my job while out on a site to be the gopher.
Being young and green I asked what a “gopher” was to which the reply came, “You know, go for this go for that.” This task involved going around person to person and take orders and payment from everyone, then going forth to acquire said ordered items. On any job that Norman was on, when I would go to take his order it was always the same. A quart of beer at morning break (normally at 10 a.m.) then for lunch, a six-pack, then afternoon break at 3 p.m. would be another quart. God only knows what he drank off the job.
It was the same day in day out, least ways the whole year that I was there. Norman was a very kind man. You could hardly tell he was inebriated, if he was at all. He had two sons, both of whom worked there as well, though not necessarily being put on the same job site as their father all the time. It would occasionally happen but not always.
They were roughly around my age, not so far removed from high school and were both very pleasant young men much like their father. Norman was continually maligned and made fun of by most of the crew who labeled him as a wacky old drunk.
You see, Norman was a D-Day veteran and had landed on Omaha beach. Now I have always judged people by the way they treated me and I would often sit at break and chat with him as he was always very kind to me. Most avoided him like the plague and he would normally sit alone at break and lunch. There was a deep sadness in him that I have only rarely seen in another human being. He would often speak of the war and vaguely speak of the horrors he witnessed there and as I was still just a very young man, inexperienced in the ways of this world, could only scarcely grasp what he was trying to tell me.
It seems that he was one of only a few in his company who survived the initial landing and again one of the few remaining from his company who survived the war. Well, you could count the survivors from his company on one hand I was told. And it troubled him deeply for the remainder of his life. He would often get that “thousand yard” stare when speaking of it.
Now that I am older and a bit more experienced in the world, I can better understand what he must have suffered, though not fully as opposed to the one who had been there can really understand. There have been people, events and certain phrases throughout my life that have stuck with me for one reason or the other. Like markers in the mental filing cabinet of the mind that point to experiences and memories that shape each and every one of us, but what I remember most about that time and meeting Norman was his kindness to me. Having come from a broken home with and abusive step father, Norman’s kindness made a lasting impression on me that remained throughout the course of my life.
You see, I too was one of the characters that came and went from that place and crew.
I left that job after a year and knocked around in that area for another year before joining the Navy and after completing basic training, I was back in the area before going to my first duty station and so I stopped back by to see the old gang.
I found that Norman had passed away in that time since I had left. They said he eventually had drunk himself to death. The doctor had warned him that if he did not stop that it would kill him. It was said that he told the doctor he wanted to die.
The first work day after the funeral, one of the sons brought in a shoe-box to the break room where all hands gathered to get the days assignment and had dumped its contents out on the break room table in front of all the scoffers. It was filled with the campaign ribbons and medals Norman had won in that war on those far shores so many years ago, where he watched those he had grown close to and formed friendships with, being blown to bits around him. Can you imagine having your best friend’s brains all over you?
The things that he witnessed with his own eyes, the images that haunted him for the remainder of his life only to receive jeers and castigations from his co-workers as he carried that burden within him day after day. How often they told him he was some old drunk that has lost his mind and how he was full of crap. He had once told me he felt guilty that he survived the war and his fellow soldiers did not. It seemed to always beg the question. Why me?
I heard that the room that was bubbling with the morning’s activities and male banter suddenly fell deathly silent when the contents of that box were dumped out on that table.
It seems Norman had been telling the truth all along and I am sure his sons felt a sense of vindication that their dad was not full of crap as everyone said even though they themselves knew it when no one else did, at least not until that moment. Even now, I wonder how his sons felt about it.
Knowing their father was not a liar, along with bearing the pain of his loss.
What I will always remember was his kindness to me and I cannot do enough to honor his sacrifice and pray that he has at last found peace.