Editor's note: This is a selection from Readers Writes 2017, a collection of reader submitted material.
Most of the guys on the freight gang were nice enough to me; especially, since – as a college kid and Out of Towner – I was presumed to be rich, stuck up and a pussy. Actually, I was anything but. Home was a “cold water flat,” heated by an aging kerosene stove – the noxious fuel drawn from a 100 gallon drum in the shed, one flight down, carried up the stairs in a smaller can and poured (carefully) through a wire sieve capped port into a tank. No car. No TV. Hell, no telephone for most of my growing up years. No. It was student loans, a scholarship and my single mother’s determination that combined to make college possible. That – and work: part time during the school year. Full time summers. The first summer it had been a supermarket. This year I’d gotten lucky. International Paper was hiring college kids at their Ticonderoga Paper Mill to cover for regular employees who took vacation – to fish, work their farms, or just get away from that small Adirondack village. The tiny Hamlet had little going for it beyond its proximity to Lake George, the Fort (an historic Revolutionary War site) … and Paula Hague, the 18 year old High School senior I’d met at the local Diner -- where she worked as a waitress -- and had been seeing behind her father’s back.
Doing anything behind John Hague’s back was dangerous – especially if it had to do with his only daughter. But, at another level, it was easy. John was the size of vending machine with an IQ to match. You could hide three Paula’s, one of me and their mangy dog, Max, behind Big John’s back and have room left over for a wheelbarrow. And Paula was well worth the risk. For the past two months we’d made an art form of finding new places to meet without ever being caught.
But Big John was suspicious. That – or he just had it in for this puny, college kid who struggled to keep up with real men like him, didn’t smoke and was rumored to spend more time in the Library than at one of the local Bars. In fact, I’d spread this rumor, thinking there’d be little chance Big John Hague would visit the Library – when I was actually making out with his little Paula underneath the High School bleachers. But it just reinforced his sissy image of me. And, in his one cylinder brain, this image gave the Big guy license to harass me on a daily basis. He’d threaten and intimidate, insult and bad mouth me to our foreman. It had gone on all summer. But today was my last day, and I’d a little surprise up my sleeve for Big John. Actually, it was up his sleeve – that is, the sleeve of the dirty jacket John always left hanging in the tool shed just past the Time Clock.
Quitting time was 3PM, but the freight gang always got overtime. It was cheaper – at least this time of year – to pay overtime than add another shift. Normally, I’d have worked the extra hours. But today was my last and nobody thought anything of it when I declined the Foreman’s predictable offer an hour earlier – saying I’d managed to arrange a ride all the way to Lake George. At 2:55 PM I finished jockeying a 900# roll of paper into position in the Box car that sat between the loading dock and building No. 9, and retrieved my jacket – which, although I washed it regularly, reeked of rotten eggs, a smell, from Mill No. 3’s pulp and sulfite process, that hung over the Town like the smell of manure hangs over a Pig farm.
I returned to the dock, where most of the crew – including Big John – had taken a break, even though their regular shift was almost over. They’d work the overtime … and drink the pay tomorrow night. Each man looked up and smiled as I walked up and extended my hand -- all except Big John. Oh, he shook my hand all right – swallowing my size Large in a hand the size of a First Baseman’s Mitt … and squeezing it until tears welled up behind my eyes. “So long, kid,” he growled. I winced, as he finally released my now throbbing hand and, with a weak smile, replied “So long John,” wanting to add “I’ve really enjoyed your daughter” but not wanting to risk a broken jaw to go with my swollen hand.
Having endured the Big man’s final insult, I turned on my heel and headed for the Time Clock, managing to punch out at 3:06 PM and deposit my time card in the OUT portion of the adjacent wire rack. Then, turning to be sure Big John hadn’t left the loading dock; I crossed to the tool shed, just a few steps beyond. Unlatching the wooden door, I slipped into the small room and pulled it closed behind me. Quickly, I retrieved the hammer and nails I’d hidden under a pile of cleaning rags the day before. I crossed the few feet to where Big John’s enormous jacket hung in its usual resting place. Unzipping the jacket, I had room to nail the back of it to the wall behind.
I sang the words to “If I Had a Hammer” softly as I worked,
“… It’s the hammer of justice; it’s the bell of freedom …”
When I had finished, I zipped up the jacket and stepped back, smiling.
“Serves the bastard right,” I muttered, “hassling me the way he did – CRETAN!”
As a final gesture, I reached into the pocket of my jacket and withdrew a tiny bottle. It was an extra sample that came with the Chanel No. 5 I’d given Paula as a going away present, when we’d met for one last session behind the High School Bleachers the night before. Removing the cap, I sprinkled the contents on the collar of the coat, which was now securely nailed to the wall … but in a manner that its owner would not discover until he failed to dislodge it. Stuffing the empty bottle inside my jeans pocket, I cautiously opened the door, looked both ways and headed for the Main gate and safety.
Ten minutes later, I was at the rooming house. – where I collected my single duffel, hugged my Landlady, Mrs. Balinsky, and headed for the edge of town. Once I’d passed the last house – the small, ramshackled cottage that hugs the highway just before Rt. 9 takes a left and heads south along the Lake – I turned, stuck out my thumb, and prayed. Sometimes, the first Semi would pick you up. Other times you’d wait for an hour. Today, I wanted to be as far from Ticonderoga and Big John Hague as I could get before he punched out. An 18-wheeler, pulled by a bottle green Peterbilt Tractor, roared past and disappeared around the bend. An old Ford Station wagon with Canadian plates carrying a family of four followed … then a rusty pickup. Then nothing. Five minutes. Ten. I was beginning to worry. Five more minutes by my Timex. Then, a familiar sound. The throaty pipes of Brian Murphy’s ’55 Chevy. I couldn’t believe my eyes as the distinctive, cherry red convertible came into sight, slowed and came to a stop. “Hop in,” smiled the carrot-topped kid behind the wheel. “Headed home?
Tossing the duffel into the back seat, I climbed in beside him and pulled the car door closed … breathing a huge sigh of relief.
“How far,” he queried?
“As far as I can get,” I said.
“Roger that,” he replied, his smile widening. “Great summer, but I’ve had enough -- that damned stink from the paper mill … and those crazy locals. How about you? Are you gonna miss any of it?”
“The games,” I replied wistfully.
“Games? What games?”
“At the High School,” I said.
“High School? I didn’t think they played during summer vacation,” he said, puzzled.
“No,” I replied, grinning … “… just a little 1 on 1 pick up!”
“Oh,” he said. “Damn. You mean I was here all summer and didn’t even know people were playing games at the High School?”
“Don’t feel bad,” I said, consolingly. “Some of the locals didn’t even know we were using the facilities!”
I leaned back, closed my eyes and began humming … “it’s the hammer of justice, it’s the bell of freedom …”
A twinge of quilt whispered in my inner ear but then fell silent. This was Justice, after all. Big John had it coming. Didn’t he?