COLUMN: Ed Olfert — Nov. 29, 2012

Ed Olfert
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It can probably be said, with a reasonable degree of truthfulness, that the family that formed me didn’t give big energy to teaching social niceties.

Certainly we were taught to respect others, but there was not a lot of specific language or action included with that, as in, “no, no, you take the biggest piece.” Probably connected to that, family culture did teach us to honour men whom the community might define as “rough.” Rough men were approached, appreciated, and integrated into our lives. Given that “rough” might in this case be defined as “lacking in social niceties,” it might well be axiomatic that the clan that surrounded me, (and I myself) was and is somewhat rough.

It was a fine place to be nurtured.

From early July until now, my work has put me behind the wheel of a truck. A long moribund Class 1 licence has been resurrected, as I’ve hauled around 700 loads of clay and gravel, in a total amount approaching 20,000 cubic yards, to build a base for a large building project next summer. The driving experience was more intense than expected, probably related to turning on and off a busy highway up to 60 times a day, accelerating, decelerating, shifting constantly, trying to keep track of where traffic is, am I signalling at the right time, are my blinkers clean, why am I getting the single digit salute from that minivan? The experience was overwhelmingly good. Nobody died.

In that project, I formed relationships with a couple of fellows, “Hank,” and “Jim.” Hank and Jim might be described as “rough.”

Hank is in his seventies. Family culture, besides addressing (or not) issues of social niceties, has also taught me that operating heavy equipment well is a virtue to be noted and valued. Hank has the gift. When Hank is loading me, I note that the machine never hurries very fast, or very far, it doesn’t roar very loud or bounce up and down with impatience, as when others are at the controls. But Hank loads me faster than anyone else. A cigarette droops from his lips, he appears mostly asleep, and work gets done, smoothly, efficiently, neatly.

When we visit briefly while the scale ticket is printing, I hear, in 30-second increments, stories of Hank’s life. When I ask him if he’s close to retirement, I glimpse a hint of fear. “Goddammit, what would I do if I wasn’t working?” he roars.

When my endgate won’t quite close because a pebble is jammed somewhere, and before I can react, Hank very gently squeezes it closed with the huge loader. He doesn’t leave a mark.

Jim is also part of the gravel pit crew. From his visage, mostly locked into a scowl, I immediately decide, “depression.” I know something about depression. This seems to be confirmed when Jim snarls in response to a simple question I ask. But over weeks of those same 30-second segments, I am offered glimpses of the stories that formed him.

Jim is a musician, sings and plays 12-string guitar. Thirty years ago, he was crushed in an industrial accident. I realize suddenly that there is something slightly asymmetrical about Jim’s face, and the words, “brain injury!” flash through my thoughts. Our family has some experience of brain injury, of uncontrolled bursts of frustration.

I learn that following his injury, Jim lost his memory of about 100 songs that had formed his repertoire, along with his ability to read music easily. One day, I tell him I’ll be shutting down a little early, I have a ticket to the Leonard Cohen concert in Saskatoon. Jim literally bounces in his chair. Following a few colourful epithets, he shouts at me that he loves Cohen’s music.

“I’ve got a song at my house called ‘The Secret Chord,’ I love the words in that song, I’ve got the words and the music but I can’t find them anywhere!” Jim is fairly vibrating by now, emotional, I suspect close to tears.

The day after the concert, (which is astounding) I phone my eldest. She quickly identifies what Jim named “The Secret Chord” as “Hallelujah,” currently Cohen’s most popular song. Within the hour, she has located and forwarded the words, the music, and a guitar score.

Jim’s morose and crooked face breaks into a huge grin when I hand him the sheets. Yes, he promises, whatever it takes, he’ll learn to play “The Secret Chord.”

The New Testament tells a story of the voice of God, offering a blessing to Jesus. “This is my child, whom I love.”

I’m thankful that I’m offered that same holy blessing. God’s voice comes to me through the stories and the trust of two rough men.

Geographic location: Saskatoon

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