Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Flamethrowers and Cacti - Lessons from a Renaissance Man

My undergraduate career was riddled with employment opportunities of various measure. I worked at the theatre shop, constructing sets for shows. I worked as a Speech Tutor for the freshman speech classes and guided upperclassmen through presentations. I even worked one semester as a Resident Assistant, one of the few jobs I have been asked to leave.

But the income I most remember was gained over the last two years of my college career. My schedule did not allow for traditional employment, so I put a call out to all of the faculty and staff at my private liberal arts college, that any odd jobs, big or small, messy or domesticated, that they wanted accomplished, I would be willing to assist. Each job was negotiable based on time necessary, labor involved, and the bargaining power of the parties involved. I raked leaves, shoveled snow, mowed grass, cared for children, cleaned houses, chauffeured partying business men, and tended to sheep. Amid all of these tasks, one professor stands out as one of the most interesting people who has ever hired me for an errant job.

This professor was one whom I never personally learned from in an academic setting. The man appeared ancient to my early-twenties mind, his balding, bespeckled scalp smattered with a few solitary hairs that refused to conform to the trajectories of their counterparts. The man, despite his well worn facade, was as spry as a young buck in many ways, riding his bicycle to campus on any day that would allow and always sporting a fanny-pack that, against all efforts to reveal the contents, remained one of the great mysteries of Monmouth College.

This professor enlisted me for labor one spring semester, promising to pay me an agreed-upon hourly wage to perform yard work, house cleaning, and whatever other projects arose as the arrangement progressed. I met the scholar at his home one weekend, and he immediately set me to cutting down a tree. To clarify, this deciduous leviathan was at least a foot in diameter at the base and I was given a hand saw that was probably made in the nineteen-forties to perform this lumberjack feat. The tree was growing along side a shed for years and the professor had always had the notion that this tree should be removed to protect the stability of the structure. It was as if the thought of chopping the tree himself had never occurred to the academic, but when I came calling for manual labor, the job was an obvious candidate.

I sank the metal teeth into the tree, spewing soft, wet wood shavings onto the ground around me. The saw skidded out of the groove several times as I labored to find a rhythmic pace against the bark. After a few timid scrapes, I finally set the saw against the tree in a consistent time and began to denigrate the arbor. Whether it was the monotony of the task or my short attention span, I only brought the saw a third of the distance through the trunk before deciding that I should probably start anew from a different angle. I moved to the other side of the tree and unsteadily began a new cut. After digging several inches into that side, the weight of the tree did much of the heavy lifting on my behalf. I few pushes and the tree was horizontal, narrowly missing the neighbors fence. I was tasked with cutting the wood into appropriate-sized chunks for firewood. I finished the tree, was paid for the services rendered, and with more exhaustion than my collegiate body had felt in a long time, I staggered home.

After the tree, I earned the right to operate the blaze orange electric hedge-trimmer that had been bought new in the early sixties. The machine was temperamental, noisy, and threatened to die or to electrocute me at any moment. I'd never trimmed hedges with anything other than a pair of sheers, so this monstrosity made me anxious. The fear of murdering this professors bushes created a hesitancy within me that prevented me from doing any real damage, but it also made the progress slow. At one point the teacher came outside to review my progress. Upon seeing the dainty scraps of branch scattered in my wake, he pulled the running trimmer from my hands and gruffly instructed me on the proper way to trim a hedge. Driving the blades of the machine into the topiary, he gouged out an eight inch swath across the top of the shrub. Properly instructed, I relaxed as I finished sculpting the hedges. Another job completed.

One day I arrived at the house, unsure of what my duties would be. The professor had simply emailed me stating, "I have a job for you. Should only take a couple hours." When I arrived, the mentor took me into the house. As we navigated through dark rooms full of bookshelves and esoteric art pieces, I was amazed by all of the memorabilia this instructor had collected over his travels. I knew he had been to several countries over his years, but it seemed that every inch of his house was filled with an item that he or his wife associated with some event or location from his past.

We continued through the house, from the back door where we had entered, through a parlor room, into the living room, past a large wooden staircase that ascended into darkness, and finally to the enclosed front porch. This addition was full of the most verdant array of flowers, small trees, and cacti. Though hardly a greenroom, this porch served to supply the house with all of its plant life, and during the colder months, the professor moved all of the plants out to the porch to get the sun they needed. The inadvertent side-effect of this arborous migration was the molting that had occurred over the last several months, leaving a biodegrading filth across the floor of the addition. This was my task, to clean the porch, top to bottom.

I set to work on the room, taking care to move the planters with caution, lest I disturb the life within. Though it had not been explicitly said, I had a suspicion that each of these plants had some deeper meaning to the owners than simply decorative foliage. Just as the artifacts and trinkets in the house bore life through the stories they told, the unique variety of flora that was present on the porch had to be of significance. Because of this assumption, I gingerly adjusted shelves of plants with tender care.

As I was hesitantly shifting a large cactus plant, taking care not to impale myself on one of the large needles that protruded from its husk, the professor meandered onto the porch. As he watched me struggle with the pot, he mused,

"Back when I was moving cattle out in Texas, those cacti came in handy quite a few times." His voice was gravelly and contemplative - I wasn't sure if he was telling me the story, or merely speaking it aloud for his own benefit.

"You see Chris, If you were to run low on the water supply, you'd just take one of these cacti, burn the needles off with your flamethrower. Then you crack the top of the thing clean off - there's enough water in one of these things for two or three head of cattle can drink from."

I was dumbfounded on so many levels. I wanted to learn more about this mans time herding cattle in Texas. I wanted to know why he was caught without water in such a situation. I wondered if there might be a flamethrower in that fanny pack that he always wore.

But I simply nodded. I was intimidated by the professor before, and that anecdote only solidified that meekness. He stood there quietly for a moment, mulling over the story in his mind, as if it had just struck him anew. It was almost as if the cactus I was shifting held more than simply water. The plant had been the dwelling place for this unique memory, and by moving the plant, the story dislodged from its resting place, found its way back into the scholars mind. From there it traveled back into the atmosphere by way of the mans vocal box, landing in my ears, and finally into this essay.

I completed many other tasks for the professor and his wife over that semester. Each was demanding and yet rewarding in its own right, as I was offered an opportunity to more fully understand a man who has lived an incredible life, full of adventure, family, and hard work. 

I learned a great deal working for that man. I learned about hard work, flamethrowers, and the cactus.


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