The Marks of Our Shaping

I couldn’t have been much past 18 the summer Andrew and I worked together. The summer I almost killed us both. We’d signed up as laborers, grunts for a contractor, and for the first few weeks, our days consisted of nothing more than priming endless stacks of trim. Wide poplar planks of crown and casing, first at one site, then at another. Eight hours a day, beginning in the gray, misty minutes past sunrise and continuing straight on through to the vicious heat of June afternoons in Virginia. It was good work.

I’d known him since we were 12, and we were friends, sure, but never close. We rode the bus together. We ran in the same circle of marvelous outcasts, all a little too shy or strange to fit nicely among the other groups of kids marauding the halls. That’s enough, sometimes.

Andrew’s father and brother grasped the world with their hands, made it to their liking with mind and muscle. Timber framers and machinists, a clan bent on creating. Compelled to do so. And Andrew was as brilliant as the rest of them, but in different tones. He preferred the worlds he found in games and books and graphic novels to the one swirling past his family’s farm in the green fields of the Shenandoah Valley. It gave him a broad heart and a perfect wit, his brown eyes always sharp and bright behind his glasses.

I got the feeling the job was someone else’s idea. His dad’s, maybe. An effort at getting him out of the house and into the sun. Andrew always seemed amused to find himself there among the brushes and paint cans, saw bucks and gravel. His uniform of slip-on boots, splattered khakis and an old T-shirt seemed better fitted to an eccentric gardener than a construction worker, an impression driven home by his half-painted, broad, straw hat. It was a relic from his first day on the job. He’d borrowed the thing from a mason and intended to return it, but late in the day, he tripped over a can, spilling a small lake of latex out into the driveway. When he bent to right the thing, the hat came off his head and landed crown first into the puddle. If it had been intentional, the comedy would have put Chaplin to shame. I’d barely caught my breath and dried my eyes from the laughing when the mason showed up and made him pay two bucks for the hat. Andrew wore it the rest of the summer.

He was wearing it when we’d primed the last of our boards and our boss sent us to the far north end of the county, to his farm there. It was something to keep us occupied, mostly. Moving rocks around. Digging ditches. It was gorgeous up there. The land was a long way down a narrow dirt road, steep fields rising behind barbed wire on either side. A few black cows wandered here and there, pacing paths worn into the hillside by a hundred generations long since gone to slaughter. There, back in the bones of Virginia, you can feel how old the land is. How the fence rows have stood there for four hundred years or more, since this was the ragged edge of the frontier.

Green hay swayed in the early morning breeze, and the air was sweet with it. A massive barn stood on the property, three stories tall and built into the towering ridge behind it. The beams were hand-hewn, the marks of the men that shaped them still clear on their broad flanks. That’s where our boss parked his tractor, a tidy, four-wheel drive Massey Ferguson. He met us there before work, walked us inside and gave us our duties for the day. The old barn held onto the cool night air well past dawn, and I half expected to see the man’s breath as he spoke. He wanted us to take the Massey and head up to the fence row on the north end of the property. Pick up a dual-axle trailer there, loaded with river stone, and haul it back down to the road.

I climbed into the seat and Andrew stepped onto the three-point hitch. The little diesel clamored to life, and we puttered through the empty pastures and up the rutted road towards the far end of the farm.

The trailer sat at the top of a steep hill. I backed up, lowered it onto the ball, and proceeded down the incline with Andrew on his perch. It hadn’t rained in months. The earth was dry and dusty, the hill worn in with two rutted tracks. And from the instant we started down, I knew we’d made a mistake. The trailer was too heavy for the tractor, and we began to pick up speed despite my being in low gear. At first, the engine gained RPM, whining with the struggle to keep the load in check, but there wasn’t enough traction. We gained more speed. I throttled down. We gained more. I pushed the brakes. We only went faster.

The trailer jackknifed the tractor in an instant, rolling it, and throwing me from the seat. I landed down the hill, just below the overturned implement. By some mercy, the trailer’s tongue had caught the tractor’s rear tire and stopped it from rolling over me. It sat like a beetle on its back, the engine silent, the hot metal of it plinking itself quiet. Andrew had jumped clear before everything went belly up, and came walking down the hill, wide-eyed but whole.

To his credit, our boss wasn’t upset. He was just glad we were alive. It helped that the tractor got away with little more than a busted exhaust manifold. I stayed with the company for another four years, working when I wasn’t in school, but Andrew never came back.

My last summer on the crew brought me to Andrew’s family’s farm to trim out a guest house. I spent my mornings working with a job boss to design and build cabinets for the tiny kitchen. And that’s when I saw it. Andrew’s old pickup.

It was easy to pick him out of the parking lot in high school. While the rest of us were driving family hand me downs of one shade or another, Andrew’s daily driver was a ’78 International Scout Terra. His brother had plucked it from a field and returned it to the road, and at some point in the machine’s past, it had served as a canvas for an eight-year-old girl’s birthday party. A rainbow stretched from one corner of the vast, flat hood to the other. The top displayed an array of irregular polka dots. The truck’s flanks were done up in horses and butterflies, smiley faces and hearts, all executed in various shades of house paint.

That’s where there was metal. Much of the old International had returned to the Earth, and the lower three inches of the truck were s missing in most places. It wore the vanity plate RST BKT with stubborn pride. I loved it immediately.

It was serviceable for bouncing around the county, but not for the long drives to school and his life beyond Rockbridge County. Andrew parked his old truck out past his father’s barn, and that’s where it had sat for years.

My family is full of men who spent their days with a set of International keys in their pockets. My grandfather and his brother. My father. The first machine I ever drove was a baby-blue IH, bouncing around in the back yard with dad in the passenger seat, that school bus steering wheel like a ship's tiller in front of me and the big, dull 345 churning along somewhere out past the firewall. I wanted that truck. And when I asked about it, Andrew’s mother told me he had given it to a family friend. A friend I tracked down and talked out of the title, trading two days of labor for the keys. In a way, we wouldn’t have been able to take this trip without that IH.

I spent the next 10 years restoring it. First, trading the tired three-speed and two-wheel drive axles for a more robust four-speed and four-wheel drive bits. Then replacing all the rotten metal. By the time the work was done, there were pieces from more than 14 different trucks in that one. I asked Beth to marry me on that tail gate. I drove it all over the southeast, and a month before my daughter was born, I sold it.

I let it go because it had no place in the life we were building. Because it couldn’t safely seat the three of us. Because it was cold in the winter and hot in the summer, and though in 10 long years it had never left me stranded, it was irresponsible to gamble my young family by putting them in the thing.

The cash from the sale bought the Dodge, and the Dodge has carried us farther than I could have ever imagined on the day I brought it home. It’s strange how the pieces of your life fit together. Strange how they run wide and far to bring you where you’re going, an infinite number of maybes and misses that could only have gone the way they went. And that’s what’s on my mind as we pull into Albuquerque. It’s what I’m thinking about when Andrew opens the door to his place there, tall as ever but thinner now, handsome with a well-kept beard. Confident. His new wife Melissa smiling by his side.

We spend the weekend there with them. Laugh about the years that were. How we still carry the marks of our shaping. We tell Melissa about the home we left and marvel at how far we’ve come from the day I almost killed us both.