I got a call from Jorge, my contractor friend down the street, inviting me to his annual Memorial Day barbecue. “Lots of cow and corn and things to ward off scurvy and dehydration,” he explained. “Besides you’ll get to meet a few of my Gulf War buddies and the families of the crew.” I couldn’t turn down an invite like that.
The first thing I noticed when I moved into the neighborhood was Jorge’s yard: an acre of unfenced, industrial-grade grass providing grazing room to one or more pieces of heavy equipment; a pair of inquisitive border collies; and a seemingly ever-changing collection of kids. Other than the addition of 100 or so people on Memorial Day, there was little to suggest anything other than business as usual-right down to the motor grader that acted as a sort of centerpiece to the whole affair.
“Come meet the folks,” Jorge said, grabbing me by the arm and propelling me amidst the first of a dozen clumps of guests. Half an hour later, Jorge set me off on my own-sink, swim, or be carved into man-sized chunks of cow by Siegfried, one of Jorge’s crew I’d met before at a work site.
Siegfried is quite possibly the largest man I’ve ever met with not one ounce of fat to go with what I guess to be 400 pounds of gristle, bone, muscle, and a goodly dose of brains. “Hiya, John,” he called, waving me over to the barbecue pit where he was performing delicate surgery with a machete. “Ready for some food?” I wasn’t but wandered over, happy to see a familiar face.
“That’s your grader over there, isn’t it?” I asked, recalling the ease with which he turned what looked to me to be an impossible pile of dirt into an even roadway with subtle slopes to carry the water away. “Yup,” he responded, “that’s Mo Gator.” Then noting my blank look, he said, “Come, I’ll show you.” En route to the grader, he whistled at a clump of five-year-olds, which immediately fell apart and headed our way like a swarm of hornets. “Who’s that?” he asked them, pointing at the grader. “Mo Gator,” the swarm answered in absolute unison, resetting its course straight for the wonderful yellow machine.
“Mo.Gator.Mo.Gator,” they chanted, leaping up and down in unbridled glee just below the door to the cab. There on the side of the cab in big letters were the words “Mo Gator” stenciled neatly below a rough but compelling hand-painted picture of a fat-wheeled alligator scraping dirt with his tail. “My son Siggy named him,” he explained in a voice that told me everything there was to say about the relationship of this giant of a man with the people and things he cared most about. “He was a year old at the time and it was as close to ‘motor grader’ as he could come.” Later, Siggy’s mother, Mary, provided an even deeper insight into not only Siegfried, but Jorge and his whole crew.
“Look at them,” she said as they were engaged in a hose fight with some of the older kids. “They can be so serious and protective and yet turn right around and behave like children. They all do, and Jorge lets ’em do it.even encourages it.” Spying Siggy climbing up on the frame of Mo Gator, she looked as if she were going to call out to him to get down but then thought better of it.
“Three years ago, when things were touch-and-go with the business, Jorge called us all together-the men, wives, children-and explained the situation.” Her face took on a faraway look, then she straightened and continued. “That’s the way it is with all the decisions. Jorge doesn’t bid a job without all of the men going out and looking the site over. Nothing gets decided until they’ve all kicked the dirt and had their say.” Again she sat thinking before a satisfied smile lit her face. “You know what? We all knew we’d have to tighten our belts until more work came along, but nobody thought about cutting out.”Later, after those of us who had seen combat took a turn remembering fallen comrades, I felt a tug on my sleeve. “You hear how hard it is to keep good people?” Mary asked. “Well it isn’t. Not when people know they’re part of a team. Not if you know you’re needed just as much as anyone else.”