Inspiration — It’s Everywhere

In life, we require inspiration to awaken us to the possibilities of the world. As a young man, I worked in construction during high school and college. I garnered some inspiration on the end of a shovel handle digging ditches.

I worked for a general contractor at the Jersey Shore that built anything, but they also used to install the ocean intakes into the Atlantic Ocean for the seawater pools at beach clubs in tony places like Deal. Deal is an incredibly affluent shore town with enormous mansions and the most wonderful collection of shingle beach monstrosities. [Today, this little jewel could be yours for $12MM.]

When we would put in these ocean intakes, it required digging a ditch to install a pipe, sometimes for a long, long, long distance from the pump house to the point at which the pipe would enter the ocean.

Understandably, the beach club didn’t want that ugly, rusty pipe ruining their lovely sandy beach, so it could be a long way. Those were some of the ditches I used to dig.

I was assigned to dig with a man named “Blue.” Blue was a black man — iridescent blue when he sweated, hence the name — recently released from prison in Florida for murder. I knew the general outline of his story before we were assigned to work together.

The General Superintendent of the construction company told me, “Ahh, you and old Blue will get along fine. Don’t worry about it. Just be careful not to let him get up behind you.”

The job superintendent would drop us off at the job site, and lay out the line of the ditch, which would be from the pump house to a line about a hundred feet from the water’s edge where it had a fitting to turn to the left and then for a long distance to another fitting where it turned seaward.

We would dig all morning and then install the pipe which had to be bolted together. Afterwards, we would dig some more and install more pipe.

The ditch would be about five feet deep and we had to angle the sides to keep it from collapsing. Where we were digging, we had long pieces of plywood about twelve feet long on both sides of the ditch to keep the ditch open in case of a collapse.

The pipe was eighteen inches in diameter, iron, rusty as Hell, and bolted together with a gasket. We always used fresh bolts because they often had to be cut with a grinder when they were disassembled in the fall.

Get on with it, Big Red Car

So, Blue and I would figure out how much ditch we could dig and start, one at the beginning and the other at the end. We would start throwing sand out of the ditch.

It felt like easy digging at first — it was soft sand and then wet sand — but the sheer volume of it became hard work. At the end of the day, your arms ached. After two weeks of digging, your arms and chest felt hard and tight.

Blue and I could dig about a hundred feet in the morning and fifty feet in the afternoon. When we finished our morning’s work, we waited for a crane operator who had to swing the pipe into the ditch. I figured out how to get the crane operator to hold the pipe up so we could bolt it three feet off the ground rather than lying in the bottom of the ditch. Blue thought that was pretty good. We would tighten the bolts at the bottom of the pipe while suspended, but wait until it was flat in the ditch to tighten the top bolts.

The bolt tightening was hard work with a spud wrench. Pure muscle power.

That first day, Blue did more of the ditch digging and more of the bolt tightening than I did.

“Don’t worry, you’ll pick it up,” he said to me.

I was ashamed that this old black man — he was 55 — was outworking me and I was determined to match him.

He used a square shovel and I had been given a pointed shovel. First thing I learned was when he got me a square shovel.

“Get the right tools, boy,” he said. Immediately, I was doing better.

We would have lunch together which was always yogurt with fruit and an apple with a Coke. There was a ten cent Coke vending machine and the guy who ran the beach club used to open it up and give us a free cold Coke every couple of hours.

That first day, we got our 150′ of pipe installed that told me we would be there for more than a week. We also had to install 90′ of pipe going into the water once we got the land part done. I was a good swimmer. Blue was not.

What did you learn, Big Red Car?

I learned a bunch of things:

 1. Blue had never had yogurt and I brought him one for lunch. I used to put it in the freezer the night before and it would thaw by lunch time.

We had quite a conversation as to what yogurt actually was. I had to look it up in the encyclopedia — haha, an encyclopedia.

It was insightful to see what he knew and what I knew.

 2. I learned to work hard, to use the right tools, to pace myself, to take a rest, to make my motions as short and as clipped as possible. I learned to dig ditches.

It came in very handy when I was in the Army.

 3. Blue finally told me the story of his crime. He had come home from the Korean War and found his wife in bed with the son of an orange grove owner. His house was in the orange grove.

He’d traveled by ship, train, bus, car, and foot to get home. It took a month. When he got home, there they were.

He killed that man with a knife. Called a Deputy Sheriff who was a friend of his, turned himself in. He was sentenced to 40 years, but was released in seventeen.

He said his court appointed lawyer never defended him and told him he was lucky not to get the death penalty.

4. He told me what it was like to be black, poor, and in racist Florida. What it was like being in prison. I listened with rapt attention.

It struck me that he had accepted this. It was the late 1960s.

5. Blue gave me a good boot top view of the Korean War and what it was like to fight the North Koreans and the Chinese. He said you couldn’t kill the Chinese fast enough, that they kept coming.

It was an insight that would stand me in good stead when I went to Virginia Military Institute and when I was in the Army.

 6. He asked me once after a hard day, “How those arms and back feel, boy?” He used to call me “boy” or “college” because I told him I was going to go to college.

I told him they hurt.

“You remember that, college, when you’re tempted to slack off on your studies. You don’t get that degree, you going have sore arms and a broke back for the rest of your life. This is the onliest job I can ever get with my story. You got other choices. Make good ones.”

I cannot tell you the number of times I heard Blue’s voice when I was in college studying late at night.

 7. I learned about the dignity of work, how hard it is to make a living with your muscles, and the value of hard work.

At that time, it was worth $1.60/hour, but I got another $1.00/hour when I did the swimming work putting that pipe in the ocean.

We also got time and a half for anything over eight hours including the travel time to and from the construction company lot. We would book ten hours every day which meant we would get paid for eleven hours.

I learned that the owner of the construction company was a fair man and that because he had done well, we had jobs. I wanted to be like him one day. I got a whiff of what success smelled like, and I wanted some.

 8. I learned that backfilling ditches is just as hard work as digging them. I learned not to throw that sand too far from the ditch because you had to throw it the same distance when it came time to backfill.

 9. I once asked the owner of the construction company why the beach club didn’t use blue PVC pipe and leave the pipe in all year. He laughed and told me to shut up — in a nice way.

I asked him why he didn’t use a backhoe to dig the ditch and a blade to backfill it. He didn’t laugh as hard, and he walked away.

I’ve driven by that beach club a few times since then. It is still where the “have it alls” come into contact with the “haves.” It is a swanky place.

In this picture, if you look all the way to the left you can see a rock jetty. We used to put the intake out just this side of that jetty. The pump house is on the right side of the pool. It was a long haul.


Inspiration is all around us. I often wonder what ever happened to Blue. I never knew his name. Shame on me. I worked two more summers with him and then I went into the Army. I doubt he’s still alive as that was 50 years ago and he was 55.

I wish Blue knew that he provided a young man some life lessons and inspiration.

Thanks for the inspiration, Blue. God bless. you.

But, hey, what the Hell do I really know anyway? I’m just a Big Red Car.