Saws, Maters & Men Long Gone

Produce stand evokes memories.

Growing up in eastern Georgia deep in pines, I wakened to the wail of chainsaws six days a week. Yellow McCullochs and red Poulans sliced through green resinous pines as Dad and his partner, Bobby Cooper, tested saws they had fixed. Not repaired, mind you, fixed, in a sweltering shop of tin. The wailing was the sound of money. Broken saws put food on our table, clothes on our back, shoes on our feet.

I loved Dad’s old saw shop. Its classic Coca Cola sign hung on tin siding out front. Sitting above two large doors the long white sign with green letters proclaimed “Cooper & Poland.” At each end, red discs with white letters spelled “Coca Cola.” I loved the old red Coke machine. A six-cent Coke provided cold sips of joy. I got a good taste of work too in that shop.

Well, here come the years, and here comes change. Bobby and Dad have gone to that great saw shop in the sky. That old Coke sign? Vanished. Across a stretch of field the old shop sits empty, no more wailing saws, but it’s not alone. A Texan come to Georgia is selling produce in a building mere feet away.

Full of memories and emotions, I stopped by on a Saturday morning. Saturdays I worked in that concrete saw shop building next door. Those Saturdays were greasy and loud, and the smell of gasoline hung in the air nonstop. Sharp tools gleamed in sunlight streaming through big tin double-doors. Sparks flew from acetylene torches and electric welders. Farmers in coveralls hauled all manner of steel things in for fixin’. I remember seeing a worker afire bolt out those doors screaming. The spark from a welder had set his gasoline-soaked overalls on fire. He spent weeks in the hospital. I remember, too, seeing the farmer who lost both arms in a hay-baling accident walk into Dad’s shop. He walked in a strange, stiff way that frightened me.

An altogether different scene met me as I entered the produce shop. Yellow squash and red tomatoes sat by green bell peppers, purple onions, orange carrots, and pink petunias. The grounds where Dad had welded broken steel pallets to haul slain pines again now yielded the jewel-like fruits of farm labor. It was quiet, no saws, just the whoosh of cars and trucks speeding down Highway 47, the Augusta Highway.

The Texan makes three 200-mile treks a week to the Farmers Market in Columbia, South Carolina, to buy Mother Earth’s true treasures. I refer to him as the Texan for a reason. I gave him my business card. “Email me. I’ll write a story about you.” He never did. I don’t know his name, but I’m writing the story like I said I would. Your word is all you’ve got you know.

Tomatoes, saws and the pop of acetylene torches swirled in my mind as I picked out some of the Texan’s tomatoes. As I left, I glanced at that old shop where Dad made things. We kids had chores. Hard honest work is good medicine. We chopped weeds in a patch of corn and we picked and shelled butterbeans and crowder peas. Shelling butterbeans hurt our thumbs. Dad to the rescue. He took apart a washing machine with rollers and attached the rollers to pulleys and belts and powered it with an electric motor. Just like that we had an electric pea sheller. It crushed many a pea and sent others ricocheting all over the screen porch but some peas made it into a bucket, alas not enough. Back to manual shelling we went, knowing Dad had tried.

Dad’s been gone almost 17 years. Were he in his shop today, come summer days at 11:30 a.m., he’d buy the Texan’s tomatoes and walk the now grown-over path to the house where we’d enjoy tomato sandwiches, known down South also as mater sammiches. It never happened. It could not happen, but I can see Dad striding down the path with a brown paper bag of tomatoes. He’s wearing a National Linen blue shirt with his name, John Poland, stitched in red on an oval of white, colors similar to the oval slices Mom would salt and lay upon white bread and slather with Duke’s.

Life has a way of repeating patterns but there’s no repeating my days in that saw shop. Once was all I got but it left its mark on me. It was there that I came to respect blue-collar workers far more than the college-educated fools I’d encounter later. Thanks to that shop I came to feel more comfortable around men and women who get their hands dirty. While risking their life and limbs they bless us with beauty and nourishment. What more could we possibly want?

Logging and farming are big business today, powered by technology and a lot of knowledge. Still, I know the basics involve hard work, risk, and a relationship with Mother Earth. Here’s to the work of hands. Here’s to those who grow and harvest a thing we can best describe as life itself. What more could we possibly need?

Tom Poland is the author of 12 books and more than 1,000 magazine features. He writes a weekly column for newspapers in Georgia and South Carolina about the South, its people, traditions, lifestyle and changing culture, and speaks often to groups across South Carolina and Georgia, “Georgialina.” Visit Poland’s website at tompoland.net or email him at tompol@earthlink.net.