Dig It

How I’m spending my ‘summer vacation’

The author takes a break to relocate a worm snake while working on a landscape job.

There is a certain feeling that I was afraid I would never experience again.

It’s that feeling when you’re a kid on the last day of school. Suddenly, you are standing outside the building, the old year and old obligations are over and you happily confront three months (two these days) of blissful summer. Be it filled with grand adventures or simply the luxury of having time to be bored, it is a new start and a good time to say “yes” to new opportunities.

When I was laid off from the News Sentinel in 2017 after 36 years of employment, I finally felt that sense of summer again. With a full year of pay for a cushion (thank you, Knoxville Newspaper Guild), I looked forward to a long summer vacation, even if it was winter.

Of course, I was still making a little money. I’m writing for BLANK, I get a little pay for one of the WDVX radio shows I do and I’ve picked up some odd freelance writing and visual art projects here and there. I did some yard work with a friend and tried to clean up my own yard after about 20 years of neglect.

When the owner of a Maryville landscape company called and said he’d heard I might be looking for a job, I said, “Yes,” which really meant, “Let’s see if I can survive this!” With a recent car-repair bill weighing heavy on my credit card, I agreed to work a few days per week. On a Monday morning at 7 a.m., I again felt like a teenager with a sweaty summer job.

My supervisor, Travis, is 20 years younger than me and fitter than I ever was. He knows a lot about what I thought I knew a little about. For instance, I thought I knew how to shovel until I watched Travis do it more efficiently.

I had imagined that we would be doing a lot of yard mowing, trimming and such. In fact, the job generally is more what they call “installation,” which in this case means planting a few hundred plants at the base of the Smokies on hillsides into which planes might crash and from which mountain goats might topple. If mountain goats want to see how that’s done, well, they can watch me.

There’s a lot of shoveling, digging, lifting, wheelbarrow hauling and climbing involved. At the end of our first 13-hour, 89-degree day, I had muscles that had never been used before that were surely going into shock and blisters that were underneath other blisters.

Travis is understanding of my “advanced age.” He suggests I take a break when it looks as if I’m going to collapse by the roadside. If he has a secret bet on when that might happen, I wouldn’t blame him. I generally drink a quart of Gatorade in about 60 seconds during these breaks and attempt to find a few minutes of shade beside the truck. I just try not to break so long that Travis might think I have died. He likes to remind me that we’re about an hour away from a hospital in case I break a bone, cut off a body part or have some other “event.”

I get the feeling that people who pass by or from whom we get supplies might think I’m too old to do this kind of work. If someone asks my age, I plan on telling them I’m 28, work out at the gym, eat nothing but health food and that they should follow my lead if they want to look as young as I do.

After 36 years behind a desk, there is something refreshing about physical labor – coming home dirty and muscle-tired rather than just being mentally exhausted. There’s thought and creativity involved in plotting flower beds and landscapes, but I’m happy that that’s someone else’s job. Sometimes it’s nice to just help realize what another person has envisioned, especially when you’re working with someone who takes pride in doing it right. When you hush, watch and listen to people who are good at their work, you learn a lot, whether you really mean to or not.

Eventually, I’ll probably have to find a full-time job – something that utilizes some of the skills that I honed for decades. Right now, though, there’s something satisfying about hearing the same words every morning:

“Hey, you showed back up!”

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