I loved working on musical instruments. It was a craft that I felt proud of and I thought I was pretty good at it. However, when it became clear that I was not going to get paid a reasonable wage, I decided it was time to follow the other men I knew and get a real job. Many of my friends from church worked on the “tree crew” and were making big bucks (up to $50 or 60 a day or even more)! Coming from $50 a week job, that was looking pretty good. So I jumped ship at the music store and joined the tree crew.
They paid us 5¢ a tree to plant white pine seedlings and 4¢ a tree to plant loblolly seedlings. The reason white pines were so much more is that they take two hands to plant. To plant a white pine, you poke a hole in the ground with the dibble (the tool in the picture). If you are lucky, the ground is soft enough that you can slam the dibble into the ground and it will sink in and create a hole for you. More often than not, when you slammed it down, it bounced on the hard ground. Then you would have to step on the foot peg and wiggle it back and forth to open a hole. After the hole is open, you stick the dibble into the ground next to the hole just to keep it upright so you can let go. Pull a seedling from the bag on your side. Twist the roots and push them down into the hole (making sure not to “J” root-where the roots come back up at the bottom end). Now that the tree is in the ground, you stand up, grab the dibble and poke a hole very close beside the tree hole. Wiggle the dibble such that it pushes the dirt against the tree and leaves a little hole to catch the rain. The tree must be tight enough that Ben could not pull it out by tugging on the needles (right Ben?). It’s one of those things that is tedious to explain, but it is not so difficult to do. It is physically hard work, but mind numbingly simple.
Loblolly pines were easier to plant because they had a “tap root” that was stiff and pointy with hairy roots connected to it. So, you could plant a loblolly one handed (leaving the other hand free to hang onto the dibble. No double sticking the dibble. No two handed planting. No danger of “J” rooting. That’s why we only got 4¢ for these.
I averaged about 800 white pines a day for about $40. On my very best day ever, I planted 1600 loblollies! I will never forget that day either. It was one of the few overnight planting trips we made down to the piedmont region. The land was flat and felt as hard as concrete. We had been planting the site for a couple of days and we were all very tired. It was looking like we wouldn’t finish that day, so the boss called us together and said that we would stay another night if we didn’t finish it. We were so anxious to get home that we all busted our butts to get it done… and we did!
At the end of each day, the foreman would take a tally of how many trees we each planted so that we could get paid for them. This was all honor system and as far as I know, no one ever broke that trust. The trees came in bundles of 200 and we tried our best not to end up with loose, unbundled trees at the end of the day. So if someone finished up and there wasn’t time to plant another bundle, we might take some of the trees that another person hadn’t finished to help him out. Also, when they took our tally’s, some of the guys would “give away” some of their count to others. My friend, Jim Kassner was constantly doing this. I know, because I was frequently the recipient… and it wasn’t always from his excess. He would just lean over and whisper in my ear to add 100 or 200 to my count from his count. He was one of the most selfless people I have ever known.
One of my favorite Jim stories was of a particular site we planted just west of Boone. It was a small knoll next to a garden. The farmer who owned the garden was plowing his field while we were planting trees. Each time we came around the hill, we would see him plowing the field. What was remarkable about his plowing was that he was using a horse. When we finished planting, we all took our lunches down by the garden to eat and watch him. He stopped to chat for a telling us the advantages of a horse over a power tiller. After a while, he asked if anyone wanted to give it a try. I wanted to, but I was afraid I would look goofy. After a minute or so, Jim stepped up and said he would like to try. He hooked up the straps and grabbed the plow and went for it. It was not so easy as the farmer made it look. The plow would not go straight and he couldn’t get the horse to turn. (The farmer called out “gee” or “haw” to get him to turn). I was right. Jim looked extremely goofy. However, that decision is one of my few regrets in life… not trying because I was afraid of what others would think.
One of my frequent commenters on this site (ded) and I were on the tree crew together for a time. One day, several of us (including ded and me) finished a site early and had to wait for the truck to return for us. While waiting, ded and I decided it would be fun to play a game of Battleship. Only problem was that we didn’t have the game. Not to worry… we played it in our heads. We agreed to a 10×10 grid and started with a single ship three coordinates in length. Gradually we added one or two more ships. This became a regular passtime for us and irritated our workmates to no end as we called out, “D-6”. “Miss”…
I have so many stories about the tree crew that it is hard to know when to quit. In hopes of not losing my audience from entries that go on too long, I’m going to wrap it up with a memory that is less of a single snapshot and more of just a feeling of the way things were. Everyone on the tree crew was committed to following Jesus, so we had a commeraderie that went very deep. We sang together on our trips to and from sites. We frequently prayed for one another and many times just worshipped together. It was a very rich time of bonding and spiritual growth. I am thankful for the experience.
Next time… Rocko Woodstove Mat manufacturing
Workin’ for the Man Series