As some of you may remember from my column a decade ago, I have a friend, Jorge, who owns a small construction firm in my neighborhood. As happens all to often, our lives drifted apart over the years, so when our paths happened to pass at the supermarket this past weekend, it was with both joy and sorrow that we brought each other current on our activities.
“Annie’s the same as ever,” he announced a little sheepishly. “I don’t know why she still puts up with me after all these years…calls me an old grump.”
His old crew—Steve, Siegfried, and Tony—are still with him, along with a dozen new regulars, and when business comes his way he’s brought on as many as two dozen more. “Some new machines along with that electronic stuff you’re always talking about,” he said a bit ruefully. “I can’t compete without it, but there are times when I miss the good old days.” After a pause, he said, “I finally got around to retiring old Mo Gator.”
Who’s Mo Gator, you ask? Let me take you back to 2001 where I had just received a call from Jorge, inviting me to his annual Memorial Day barbecue.
“Lots of cow and corn and things to ward off scurvy and dehydration,” he explained. “Besides you’ll get to meet a few of my Gulf War buddies and the families of the crew.” You can’t turn down an invite like that.
The first thing I noticed two years ago when I moved into the neighborhood was Jorge’s yard—an acre of unfenced industrial-grade grass providing grazing room to one or more pieces of heavy equipment, a pair of inquisitive border collies, and what seems to be an ever-changing collection of kids of every size, shape, and description. Other than the addition of a hundred-or-so people, there was little to suggest anything other than “business as usual”…right down to the motor-grader that acted as a sort of centerpiece to the whole affair.
“Come meet the folks,” Jorge said, grabbing me by the arm and propelling me into the midst of the first of a dozen clumps of guests. Half an hour later, and well beyond my limited name-retention capacity, Jorge set me off on my own…sink, swim, or be carved into man-sized hunks of cow by Siegfried, one of Jorge’s crew I’d met before at a work site.
I’d remember Siegfried’s name even if it were Bill, since he is quite possibly the largest man I’ve ever met that had not one ounce of fat to go with what I guess to be 400 pounds of gristle, bone, muscle, and a goodly dose of brains. “Hiyuh, John,” he called, waving me over to the barbecue pit where he was performing delicate surgery with a machete. “Ready for some food?” I wasn’t but I wandered over, happy to see a familiar face.
“That’s your grader over there isn’t it?” I said, recalling the ease with which he turned what looked to me to be an impossible pile of dirt into a even roadway with subtle slopes to carry the water away. “Yup,” he responded. “That’s Mo Gator.” Then, noting my blank look, he encircled my upper arm with one hand while hanging onto the machete with the other to use as a pointer, adding, “Come. I’ll show you.” En route to the grader, he whistled at a clump of five-year-olds, which immediately fell apart and headed our way like a swarm of hornets. “Who’s that?” he asked, pointing at the grader. “Mo…Gator,” the swarm answered in absolute unison, resetting its course straight for the wonderful yellow machine.
“Mo…Gator…Mo…Gator,” they chanted, leaping up and down in unbridled glee just below the door to the cab. As we rounded the blade it came clear to me what the attraction was. There on the side of the cab, it big letters were the words “Mo Gator” stenciled neatly below a rough but compelling hand-painted picture of a fat-wheeled alligator scraping dirt with his tail. “Siggy named him,” he explained in a voice that told me everything there was to say about the relationship of this giant of a man with the people and things he cared most about. “He was a year old at the time and it was as close to ‘motor grader’ as he could come. Jorge heard him and, the next day, there it was…and still is.” Later, Siggy’s mother, Mary, provided an even deeper insight into not only Siegfried, but Jorge and his whole crew.
“Look at them,” she said at what was a most propitious moment since they were engaged in a hose fight that had started with some of the older kids but soon spread. “On one hand they can be so serious and protective and yet turn right around and behave like children. They all do, and Jorge let’s ‘em do it…even encourages it.” Spying Siggy climbing up on the frame of Mo Gator, she looked for a moment as if she were going to call out to him to get down, but then she thought better of it.
“Three years ago, when things were touch-and-go with the business, Jorge called us all together—the men, wives, children…even those stupid mutts were romping around like crazy—and explained the situation.” For an instant Mary’s face took on a faraway look, then she straightened and continued. “That’s the way it is with all the decisions. Jorge doesn’t bid a job without all of the men going out and looking the site over. Nothing gets decided until they’ve all kicked the dirt and had their say.” Again she sat thinking awhile before a satisfied smile lit her face. “You know what?” she asked, not expecting an answer. “We all knew that we’d have to tighten our belts until more work came along, but nobody thought about cutting out.”
Later, after those of us who had seen combat took a turn remembering fallen comrades, I felt a tug on my sleeve. “You hear how hard it is to keep good people?” she asked. “Well it isn’t. Not when people know they’re part of a team. Not if you know you’re needed just as much as anyone else.”