the rambling boy
Learning life’s lessons with the highway department, not a frat
By LONN TAYLOR
Not long ago, in connection with the news that the Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapter at the University of Oklahoma had been kicked off the campus for engaging in racist activity, I found myself in an e-mail discussion with a group of fellows about my age on the value of fraternities on college campuses. I could not contribute much to the discussion because I did not join a fraternity in college. Fraternities and sororities had only been admitted to the campus at my university a couple of years before I was a freshman, and the student body was still pretty sharply divided between Greeks and Barbarians, or, as I saw it, between conformists and non-conformists. I had a predilection for eccentrics even then, and I plumped with the Barbarians and have never regretted it.
I did have a few minutes of remorse about not becoming a frat rat after reading what some of my e-mail friends had to say about their fraternity membership and how it had benefited them as young men and later in life. One, a prominent lawyer, wrote that his fraternity experience at the University of Texas provided him with “identity, stature, camaraderie, and guiding principles that included friendship, loyalty, honor, integrity, guidance . . . and goals of success and a quest for excellence.” Another said that as a small-town West Texas boy at SMU, his fraternity membership gave him stature, a “place”, and his first bank loan (from the fraternity adviser). Nearly everyone said that fraternity membership was an important step in their transition to adulthood.
I was briefly envious. But then I reflected that my equivalent of fraternity membership was summer employment as a rodman on a Texas State Highway Department survey party while I was in college. I certainly learned more about how to be an adult working with surveyors than I did in college classrooms.
For one thing, I learned about endurance. The first four weeks of the first summer my job involved carrying a bag resembling a cotton picker’s sack full of short wooden stakes and a sledge hammer and driving one of those stakes wherever the rodman I was following told me to. The average temperatures in Fort Worth in the summer are above 100 degrees, and for part of that first four weeks we were running a line across a solid slab of limestone, which had to be punctured by driving a steel chisel through it before the stake could be set. By 11am every muscle in my back and shoulders ached, and quitting time was 5pm.
I learned about compassion. I was earning $210 a month, which was all gravy for a college kid living at home with no expenses. There was a rodman in his mid-20s in our party who was supporting a wife and three children on that salary. Our party chief, who was a preacher in some off-brand church on Sundays, let him bring a rifle along, in violation of all Highway Department rules, so that he could shoot squirrels at lunch hour and put meat on his table.
I learned to be observant. A lot of our work was in creek bottoms that were teeming with water moccasins. The snakes liked to lie along the tree limbs that overhung the creeks, from which they would twist down and strike you in the face. One of the traditions of the Highway Department was that you were not supposed to say the word “snake,” for fear that you would induce one to appear; you used the word “snook” instead. One of our party members was a little fellow called Peanut whose job was to walk in front of the party with a machete and dispose of any snooks. Peanut was pretty vigilant, but one day a moccasin dropped down from a tree and landed on his shoulders. He was so frightened he forgot about the prohibition and started twisting around and shouting, “Snake! Snake!” Fortunately he threw the snake off without getting bit, but for the rest of the summer I kept one eye on the trees above me and one on the ground in front of me.
I learned how to respond to hazing. The oldest joke on a survey party is to tell a new man that he has lost the chain-stretcher and send him back out into the field to look for it. About the second week of work our party chief, a man called Tuck, started a conversation in the station wagon on the way in from the job, asking each man if he had put the chain-stretcher back in the car. Everyone answered in the negative, and the conclusion was that I had lost it and I would have to go back to where we had been working before it got dark and recover it. When I got home I told my father that I would have to borrow the car to go back and find the chain-stretcher. My father, who was a highway engineer and had worked on survey parties himself as a young man, said, “Son, stop and think. A surveyor’s chain is a precision instrument. Why would you want to stretch it?” The next morning when I got to the office the whole crew was waiting for me. “Did you find the chain-stretcher?” they asked. “I found it,” I replied, “but it’s useless. Tuck broke it.” There was general laughter, and someone slapped me on the back. I was finally one of the guys.
Most important of all, I learned humility. At the start of the summer, I had outfitted myself with a pith helmet and a pair of lace-up boots, and I thought I was pretty hot stuff. One day we were running a line near a farm house where there was a woman with a bunch of unruly children that she was always shouting at. We were practically in her back yard when one of the children let out a wail and we all heard her shout, “If you don’t shut up I’ll give you away to the surveyors. I’ll give you to the silly looking one with the tiger hunter’s hat.” For the rest of the summer my nickname was “Tiger.”
I was never a SAE or a DKE, but TxDOT made a man out of me.
Lonn Taylor is a historian and writer who lives in Fort Davis. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.