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The Straw Man
by Dave Hovey




March, 1957: Cusseta, Georgia was a very small place. The owner of the only country store had rented me an old abandoned farm house for us to stay in a week or two. The doors and windows were pretty much intact and, after running the possums and squirrels out, we could spread our pallets on the floors. For various reasons we were not welcome at regular hotels or motels.

Fred, our boss, had sent us over from Mississippi to paint this 2000 foot tall television tower red and white alternate bands again.

The crew had to climb the tower each day to paint the tower using car wash mitts instead of paint brushes. It was sort of messy work, and of course there was no second chance if you happened to make a slip-up.

Not everyone was willing to live this type of nomadic, rather distasteful, and extremely demanding life. In fact, the few that had chosen to do so were for the most part incapable of or unsuited for any normal, rational occupation. Most had been repeatedly incarcerated, myself included. The most charitable way to describe us was as socially unconventional free spirits.

The previous day, while the crew was assembled near the bottom of the tower in their paint splattered attire, getting ready to go up the long ladder, a shiny black Lincoln car drove into the lot and parked near the transmitter building.

The station engineer, his assistant, the station owner and his heavy set wife had stepped out, as a chauffeur opened the doors one by one. This was a routine stop for them, to arrive each day about this time.

We glanced at them. Cecil and his brother-in-law Poopsie made the usual obligatory remarks about “fat cats” and "that broad is really broad," etc.

Maybe the wind carried in their direction since the whole group stopped on the sidewalk and pointedly stared at us. Poopsie was prone to drop his trousers and moon people at the slightest infraction. He had mooned nearly all of the Jackson city patrolmen and women over the years. He was 6' 5“ tall, not fat but weighed close to 300 pounds. For some reason black curly hair grew all over him. Personal hygiene and shaving was of very low priority to most tower workers. Yesterday's paint still adhered to us all, in beards and other difficult to wash places.

Sensing and anticipating another horribly embarrassing confrontation by the grins and smirks of Lamar, Cecil and Toby, I gave Poopsie a hard shove toward the ladder. He looked disappointed but started on toward the top. We all followed and the potentially bad situation was narrowly avoided. The way the high dollar lady had grimaced and tossed her head in disgust had not gone unnoticed however.

The next morning seemed to go just great. The crew got ready and went on up without the normal griping and complaining. Pleasantly surprised at their merry, playful attitude, I walked back out to the truck to unload more paint and mix and prepare it for later use.

The black Lincoln arrived around the usual time. As was customary when they all got out, they looked up at the top of the very tall tower. The upper level was turning bright and shiny with new paint.

The group had started for the front doors when a dreadful, long, loud scream filled the air. A man was falling head first, arms and legs flapping wildly. The wind carried him out away from the tower. He spun and plummeted toward the ground. He hit with a sickening thud next to and nearly on top of the barb wire fence. The fall had taken only a few seconds but seemed like a long time. The high dollar woman screamed also, especially when a huge burst of red blood swooshed up and was now dripping off the barbwire fence strands.

They had me too at first. As I watched the man fall from up high, my thoughts were “Oh, boy,” worst case scenario -- which one is it? The body just didn't look right though while falling. For one thing he had on big gloves and we never wore gloves while painting. I felt a surge of relief, followed by a rush of foreboding. I was certain of the impending trouble to follow.

The engineer and his assistant ran over to me at the truck right after the big splatter. They were babbling about calling an ambulance. The owner tried to hold up his wife with the aid of the chauffeur as they moved back toward the car.

I looked the engineer in the eye, and said loudly, “Doggone it, that's the third one this month! Don't worry about it, we have some replacements on standby.”

He got an even sicker look on his face and turned to his assistant, telling him to go on inside and make the call. I told him, “No, don't bother. We've got it all under control; it happens all the time.”

The engineer whirled back around angrily, but since I was beginning to laugh he didn't say anything.

His face turned beet colored as the prank dawned on him, and I could tell he was definitely not going to be amused. The boys had carried up a bunch of extra old rags and clothes. Cecil had worn the coveralls under his painted ones. They wired the gloves and old boots to the arms and legs of the coveralls, stuffed the dummy good and tight, wired a heavy one gallon can of red paint for his head, covered it with a knit stocking cap so it would fall head first. Poopsie did the scream.

The engineer walked fast out to the fence, looked down and went to the car with his information.

I headed toward the tower, hoping I could go on up without any further threats of disciplinary action. The assistant was on my heels, yakking about "this is not very funny" and we would be "sorry."

The car drove away as I went up. It was all my fault. I should have seen it coming. Now I could only participate in the camaraderie and glee if we expected to finish the job. Next time I would be more watchful.

Not true though -- before the summer was out they got me several more times.

A few weeks later they stole a life-sized Styrofoam figure of the Jolly Green Giant from a display in front of a grocery store. That night they hauled it up and tied it straddled legged with arms folded akimbo, to the top beacon lamp on a 500 foot tower in Marks, Mississippi. Some supposed affront or slight from a station employee caused the retaliation. The next day the station manager's phone rang off the wall from concerned people passing by on the nearby highway.

I had to go over, climb up, untie and throw the thing off the tower -- narrowly avoiding another lawsuit.

We fortunately never did suffer any serious injuries or job related accidents. The guys were mischievous but didn't intend to cause loss or harm. Thirty plus years in the trade resulted in a long list of stories of a similar nature. It was partly because of the carefree attitude and antics that these workers were able to perform the dangerous and difficult work without mishap.

The stories would take too many pages to tell, but they give me a fine amount of pleasant memories for my retirement years.

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Dave Hovey has been a Yalobusha County, Mississippi, resident forty plus years. He was born in North Dakota, a few miles south of the Canadian border.

"My folks moved back south when I was eight. Statute of Limitations had run out," Dave says.

He is married to Emma Dawkins of Coffeeville, Mississippi, and they live on and farm "the old home place." Dave has worked all over the USA and abroad, erecting oil derricks and tall communications towers.

"I've enjoyed writing about my unusual co-workers' mis-adventures and experiences over the years, and I appreciate the venue USADEEPSOUTH provides for aspiring Erskine Caldwell wannabees," writes Dave.

Read another of Dave's tales: New Boots


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