Sunday, December 05, 2010


When I was in my late twenties, I was working at a large commercial lumberyard down here by the beach. It's not there any more but it was only a few blocks from where I live now. The beach is a good place to have a lumberyard. The humidity and mild climate lets you store the lumber for a long time without warping and the salt in the air keeps fungus from getting into it too bad. Part of the way the guy that owned the yard made money, was to buy when the price went down and demand was low and hold the lumber to sell when demand and thus the price, went back up. Lumber is a cyclical commodity. The ability to store lumber cheaply for long periods of time gave him the ability to leverage the fluctuating market, usually to his advantage.

The hardest job at the yard was load builder and also the lowest paying. That's where I started. The guy that trained me was named Pat. Pat was maybe 7-8 years older than me. Made him 36-37 years old at that time. He was a good load builder. He had been doing it at various lumber yards since high school. A pretty long time. His job was secure because if you wanted a load builder, they didn't come much better than him. On the other hand, he wasn't the kind of guy that was ever going to get a promotion and load building was the hardest job in the yard.

You never want to have any more staff at a lumber yard than you absolutely have to and there would be frequent layoffs when things slowed down a little. Sometimes the reason was seasonal sometimes because the housing market contracted. Even though it was a union job, the layoffs were never by seniority. They laid off the guys who had personal problems, didn't get along, missed a lot of days or couldn't maintain production.

So, Pat was getting up towards 40. He had been married when he was younger. It didn't last too long. His wife had a methamphetamine hunger. That's never too good for a marriage. It became especially bad when his wife got pregnant and had a little girl. She really couldn't manage raising a child.

They got divorced. The wife got custody of the baby, even though she was an unregenerate speed freak. That's just the way the law was and is. Since she was expected to raise the child, the court awarded her $800 a month. Pat would be paying that amount until the girl turned 18. When I met Pat the little girl was 7 years old.

There was always a lot of overtime. We normally worked 54 hours over six days. When it got busy we'd go to 60. It didn't matter how many hours you worked though, you could never break much above $300 dollars a week take home and you always needed to save a little in reserve. We never worked when it was raining at all. A day here and there and at least a few storm fronts every year that might stretch to a week or more. Things could get tight. Don't get me wrong. It wasn't bad money in the late 70s, if you were single and lived cheap. I did. Pat wasn't exactly in that kind of situation though.

He had to pay his wife $200 a week, right off the top. She had got the court to have it taken out of his pay and sent straight to her. She wasn't really raising the child though, her parents were and they got nothing. The money was just a head start on her monthly drug expenses.

Pat lived with his own retired parents, in a screened patio they had on the back of their house. He drove an old car of his father's, still in his parent's name because the insurance was cheaper that way. He had to pay for gas and keep it running. He gave his mom what he could afford for expenses. His parents fed him and kept him in cheap work clothes from Kmart. His father bought him a couple cartons of cigarettes and a twelve pack of beer every Friday. He got to see his daughter Sunday afternoons. Any money he had extra went to taking her out and buying her all the things a little girl needs, otherwise she wouldn't have anything.

The really sad thing about Pat was that he had no way out. His little girl was only 8. He was going to be paying his ex wife and living in that screen porch for another ten years. By that time he would be close to 50. If you're working 54 hours a week as a load builder in a lumberyard, that's really old. Things change, of course. Most of the lumberyards around here shut down long ago. The land got too expensive to keep using for that. Most of the home building moved way inland, even out into the desert. Then Las Vegas became the main market and that was mostly direct shipping. It was cheaper for the builders to do that and hire guys to break it down on site. Even that's all gone now. Nobody's built much of anything for years.

If Pat's alive now, he's close to 70. At least he has Social Security and Medicare. Maybe he found a kind woman with a little income of her own. I hope so.

I remember Pat's one big claim to fame was that he'd gone to high school with Gary Gilmore in Buena Park. I guess every thing's relative. He probably did better than Gary, all things considered.


Contrary said...

Sad story. I've known a few guys like that. Men are considered simply as "walking wallets" by the court system.

When I divorced, I was ordered to pay 42% of take home pay on child support. Since 25% was sort of the standard for one child I wrote to the Texas Bar Association complaining that the judge had gone beyond his power.

Voila! The judge suddenly rescinded his order and made it 25%. Didn't even hire a lawyer.

Steve Harkonnen said...

Isn't it interesting how people influence our lives? This was a pretty deep story, bubblehead. Sorry I haven't been around.