Throughout high school, I worked every summer on Mustang Prairie Ranch. I drove a water truck, worked cattle, flagged for the crop duster and did a lot of odd jobs they didn't want to bother the quality laborers with. I worked at a neighborhood grocery store in the summer of 1971 before my first semester of college began in the fall. The following summers of my college years were usually spent going to summer school. In short, I never did a lot of work, and never anything that required me to learn a meaningful skill.
I enrolled in the first summer term of 1974 and took two classes. In early July it came time to register for the second summer term. I hadn't been paying a lot of attention to my finances, and I was about to be in for a shock. I registered as usual and wrote a check for my tuition. I went back to the apartment for lunch before going to the campus to buy my textbooks. I stopped by the mailbox, and my bank statement had arrived. One glance showed me I was screwed! My balance wouldn't quite cover the tuition check written half an hour earlier, and I still needed two textbooks. I would be getting a social security check in a couple of weeks, but that wasn't any immediate help. The only thing to do was go to the business office and whine until I got my money back. Thirty minutes later I had my hot check in hand and was on my way to Crockett.
My next problem was going to be finding a temporary job for the rest of the summer. Having never actually looked for a job, the process was a daunting one. Not having any skills other than eating, sleeping and breathing, my chances of finding something were pretty slim. Unless someone felt sorry for me, or just had need of a warm body for manual labor for a few days, it wasn't likely I was going to find anybody that would hire me for only six weeks.
The only solution was to drive to the Dairy Queen and bitch and moan to my friends, who couldn't have cared less. They were all working at real jobs. One day I was talking about my situation when Joe Brannen told me I should apply at the Dolly Madison furniture factory. He had worked there before and said they always needed someone. He said to see a Mr. Walker, but NOT to mention I only wanted a job for six weeks. I drove out there immediately.
Mr. Walker was in a meeting when I arrived, so I waited almost an hour before I was shown into his office. I was nervous as I could be, having never been in that situation before. He asked me what kinds of jobs I'd held in the past, and I told him about the ranch work and the job at the grocery store. He asked why I thought Dolly Madison might be a good place to work. Without thinking I said I needed something to do for six weeks until school started in the fall. He gave me a disgusted look and told me there wasn't anything available. I slinked out to my car and returned to the Dairy Queen.
At last Eugene May came to the rescue. He mentioned my plight to his dad, Leonard, who was a painter and always had a job going somewhere. He said he had a job coming up and could probably use me for a couple of days.
I had known Leonard for years, and he was one of the most entertaining people I'd ever met. Eugene came about it honestly. Leonard was always carrying on about something. He could tell you what a stupid idiot you were, but do it in such a way that it tickled the hell out of you, even if he really meant it.
Leonard employed two painters who lived in an old hotel just off the courthouse square. When we drove past on many occasions while circling the drag, Eugene would comment on their current physical conditions by observing the window shades of their rooms, which were located at the front of the building. When the shades were up in both rooms they were usually working on a job for Mr. May. As soon as the job was completed and they were paid, they immediately went on a drinking binge. The next morning the shades would be closed, and over the next couple of days they would be opened gradually as the hangovers wore off. Usually they were wide open about the fourth day, which signified they were once again ready to work. When sober, they were both very good painters.
Leonard called and gave me directions to a house they were working on. I was to report the next day. That evening I drove by the house to be sure I could find it easily the following morning. It was a large two-story house with lots of gables around the upper level. That should have tipped me off.
I arrived at the house at eight a.m., just as Leonard and "Bartles and James" showed up. They had been working on the house for two days already and were nearing completion. Leonard gave me a brush and a bucket and escorted me to a very tall ladder that was fully extended. The very top of the ladder rested at the bottom of one of the gables. Even from the ground I could see at least a dozen yellow jackets flying in and out of the gables. I didn't just ride to town on a turnip truck - I knew immediately why I was hired. Everyone else had more sense than to climb twenty feet in the air on a rickety ladder and paint around the main entrance to the Yellow Jacket Hilton. But, hell, I needed the money.
About then I found out the answer to a question I had always had about Leonard May. He, like the rest of his crew, always wore a pair of white coveralls. I would run into him in town at various times of the day for years and he would never have a drop of paint on him. I knew a few other painters that dressed in similar fashion, and they always had varying amounts of paint on them. Mr. May, although an excellent painter, was smarter than the others. He would always have just enough paint on hand to keep the workers supplied for a couple of hours. He would walk around and be sure everyone was where he wanted them to be, then he would say he had better drive to store for some more paint. He would purchase three or four gallons, then go to the Royal Restaurant and drink coffee and bullshit for an hour before returning to the job site. With the exception of me, he had a fast and efficient crew.
My only job was to climb up the ladder and slap enough paint on the gables for them to look presentable. Nobody would ever see them closer than twenty feet anyway. There were six gables to be painted. I was halfway through the second one when Mr. May returned from the paint/coffee run. My chest was swelling with pride when I saw him walking toward the ladder. I just knew he was about to tell me what a good job I was doing. I had made sure not to crush any of the flowers in the bed next to the house when I moved the ladder. The flowerbed encircled the house, so the ladder would rest in it at each of my workstations. I looked down to see Mr. May glaring up at me. He yelled, "Shit, boy! I didn't tell you to paint the damn flowers!"
I was so wrapped up in my work I never noticed how much paint was falling off my brush each time I dipped it in the bucket. Mr. May forgot to instruct me on the proper technique of wiping the excess paint off of the brush. Even with dealing with workers like Eugene, two drunks, and Charlie Jackson in the past, it slipped his mind that I would be too stupid to figure that out on my own. He had me bring my bucket and brush down off the ladder and patiently showed me how to do it. As I climbed back to the top, he had a wet rag and was wiping paint off of each flower and shrub. He was mumbling in a gruff voice, and I'm glad I couldn't understand what he was saying.
By the end of the day, I had finished four of the gables and had yet to be stung by a wasp. My pace had initially slowed down after my quick painting lesson earlier, but by five p.m. it was picking up. Mr. May said he would see me the next morning, and said, "Tomorrow see if you can just paint the house! Dammit, boy!" I think he might have really been upset.
I woke up tired and sore the following morning. Climbing up and down the tall ladder and having to hang on for dear life had beaten me down more than I realized. By my expert calculations I should be through by noon if my job was just to finish the remaining gables. Mr. May had the ladder set up, under a gable, when I arrived. I smiled as he pointed at the flowers, frowned at me, then, shook his head. I climbed the ladder and went to work. By noon I was finished. Mr. May checked my work, careful to check the flowerbed more closely than the gables. He said he wanted me to paint the garage door after lunch.
As I sat in the car eating my peanut butter sandwich, the excitement was building. He must not be too mad to let me paint something on ground level that will be seen every single day by the customer. I could hardly wait to get started.
Mr. May had put down a tarp at the base of the garage door. Obviously he thought there might be a slight chance that I would drip some paint. I began to expertly dip my brush into the can, wipe off the excess, and use long and even strokes to apply the paint. The two winos were finishing the railing on the back porch, and Mr. May was painting around some windows. They all appeared to have a lot more work left than me, so I decided to really take my time and do a good job.
A couple of hours later I was a little over halfway up the door when Mr. May and the others came around the corner. They were finished. Mr. May put his hands on his hips and looked at me with an expression of disgust. "That is all you have done?" he asked. "Boy, I could shove a paint brush up my ass and turn somersaults and paint faster than you!"
That was about the funniest thing I'd ever heard! I sat down on the ground and laughed my ass off. The drunks were holding their sides and laughing too. Mr. May looked at all of us for a couple of seconds and then, in spite of all his efforts not to, chuckled a little bit. He and the other two grabbed their brushes and finished off the door in about five minutes.
Mr. May paid me off in cash after we loaded up the ladder and rest of the supplies. I told him I was available if he needed me to help again. He smiled and said he would keep that in mind. Now that I'm older I realize the smile really meant "It will be a cold day in hell before I call you again!"
In later years, when I would see Mr. May, he would never pass up a chance to tease me about my talents as a painter. I didn't make much money over those two days, but I got paid a lot more than I was worth.