The Salesman's Apprentice

I switched on the conveyor belt and it chugged to the same beat as the Lee Dorsey song, “Working in a Coal Mine,” over and over again, and I began singing the refrain out loud, “Lord, I am so tired, how long can this go on?”

I was 16, it was summer, and I had agreed to ride shotgun with my father in his big Chevy to help him on his rounds. We rode with windows rolled down, the backseat cluttered with auto supply catalogues, order sheets, samples, returns. The monotony was broken only by bathroom stops, by Paul Harvey on the radio, or when hot ashes from one of my father’s El Productos fell onto his lap and he had to slap his trousers to keep them from scorching his leg.

We passed farm stands with hand painted signs, locals hawking sweet corn, snap peas, jars of beach plum jelly. The diners had illuminated clocks heralding Sunbeam Bread or the name of a local fuel oil distributor, and the waitresses wore their hairdos pinned up with barrettes or bobby pins or spun onto plastic Spoolies.

The men we met at the stations talked about their lives, their wives, they wore green overalls, names woven in cursive red thread on white panels over their pockets, their skin darkened with axle grease. My father listened. I stood next to him holding his order book. He puffed on his cigar. When there was a pause between pleasantries he countered with descriptions of new product lines, discounts being offered on multiple orders of Thrush mufflers and Champion spark plugs. He knew the model numbers by heart. “How many cases have you used this month?” he’d ask. “Better bulk up on that line,” he’d advise.

When we were back in the Chevy, he said, “It’s all about writing up the orders.” At the next stop he tried out a new pitch: “You need ’em fast? Well, I’ll hand in the orders tonight and everything will be ready to ship tomorrow night from our warehouse in Pawtucket!” Back in the car, wet-chewing his cigar, he said, “This is what you need to know when you take over my route some day.”

We’d hit two or three gas stations in the morning, take a break for lunch at one of the diners, and amble over to Otis Air Force base. Because my father was a veteran, we had privileges at the base PX. The list my mother prepared included stocking up on flour, sugar, a couple cases of Coke, all for a fraction of what things cost at the local supermarket.

“I got drafted right after high school,” my father said. “My father disappeared when I was 8, my mother could never really provide for my sisters and me. The Army gave me three squares a day, first time in my life I’d eaten that well. Lots of guys had nothing, not even shoes. The Army took care of us. When I retire, I’ll get a nice pension. You ought to think about enlisting in the armed services next summer, after you graduate high school.”

We’d head back on the road, home by eight-thirty, give or take. Supper would be waiting, my sisters and mother had already eaten, I carried the supplies upstairs. My father said, “Now you know what it’s like to earn your daily bread,” and he peeled off a couple greenbacks and handed them to me.

I went to work at the warehouse in Pawtucket the next summer, it was the Summer of Love, and while my friends were cavorting at Woodstock, I unloaded trucks. The Teamster drivers would pull their rigs up to the loading dock. They got paid five times more than I did, and never had to lift a finger. They didn’t care that the newspapers said Jimmy Hoffa was crooked. “He can take whatever he wants so long as we get our cut,” one driver told me.

I’d count the boxes and sign the bills of lading. At lunch I sat in the backseat of a co-worker’s Rambler American, in the parking lot, windows rolled down, the summer breeze wafting in through the leaves of the Trees of Heaven that grew between the chain link fences. When the half-hour was over, it was back to the loading dock. I switched on the conveyor belt and it chugged to the same beat as the Lee Dorsey song, “Working in a Coal Mine,” over and over again, and I began singing the refrain out loud, “Lord, I am so tired, how long can this go on?” The soldiers in Vietnam were singing the same song and asking the same question. The war was going badly. I knew, by summer’s end, I was destined to join those soldiers in battle.

I never went back on the road with my father. I moved out of my family’s home, enrolled in college for the fall. Later, when my student deferment expired and I was issued a 1-A, I waited in a college dorm room with other men my age. We listened as U.S. Rep. Alexander Pirnie stuck his hand into a fishbowl and pulled out slips of paper, read the dates, and assigned numbers; if your birth date corresponded with the first batch of numbers, you’d have to serve in the armed forces.

My birth date fetched a high number. I beat the draft. But there were many others, some of them my classmates, and they weren’t so lucky. My father believed if you were chosen, you had an obligation, it was the highest calling. I disagreed.

The night I escaped the hangman’s noose the refrain from the Lee Dorsey song raced through my mind. “Lord, I am so tired. How long can this go on?” The war went on a long time. Some of my classmates would soon find themselves standing in lines, dressed in khakis; they’d board a bus in Providence for a trip to a Georgia boot camp, and then on to Vietnam. The cadence of their feet, like the relentless clamor of the conveyor, intensified as they mounted the scaffolding.

Robert Israel is a Boston-based writer. This piece is from his collection, Another Country Heard From, to be published this fall.


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