My mom’s mother and father divorced back in the late forties, which was all but unheard of then. My grandfather left my grandmother in northern Alabama, with my mom and her 7 siblings who all lived on my great-grandfathers cotton farm and went to Oak Ridge, Tennessee to seek work. Oak Ridge during the war years was a change of live for many farm families in the southeast. They went from working the farm and doing familiar tasks to doing jobs that were completely new to them and completely new to the world as well.
Oak Ridge was a sort of boomtown then, and it, like the areas around Los Alamos, NM and Hanford, WA, provided a “gold rush” of new jobs to poor people trying to eek out a meager living during a war and not that long after the depression.
Granddad applied for work at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) and at the time they were only hiring craft people and he was asked if he could do carpenter work. He said “Sure, I can do that,” all the time knowing he was not a qualified carpenter. Granddad was told to come back the next day to qualify for the craft position.
He borrowed a book from a guy he met in the barracks where he was living and stayed up all night learning how to square a building. Luckily for him, he was given that exact exam the next day. He retired 25 years later as a respected “carpenter” having learned his skill as he went.
I respected his drive, resourcefulness, and determination. Years later, while also working at the K-25 Gaseous Diffusion Plant. I applied for a “planner and estimator” position that worked with the rigger and pipe fitter crafts. I did not have to do either type of work, but I did have to issue move instructions for hoisting and lifting using the rigger codes, and order materials for pipe fitters. I knew most of the rigging work already, but knew nothing about running pipe. I got wind from a friend who interviewed the day prior to me that there was a “qualification” test during the interviews.
I stayed up all night and memorized “travel and run” formulas and things like that. I aced the exam the next day and my future boss complimented me in front of a group of co-workers. A lady who was very jealous commented that I should have done well because “my friend” had given me all the answers!
I was shocked and the perspective boss took it that I cheated on the exam. In reality, I only knew there was a test and studied. However, I did not get the position, BUT I had successfully emulated my granddad – he would have been proud.
We often visited granddad in his little apartment in the WWII barracks where his carpenter skills provided him with extra storage space, seating, and a hidden “hotplate” in the side of a cabinet he had made. The men were not allowed to cook in their rooms, but he hid this secret for the full time he lived there.
Granddad visited us on many occasions, since we only lived 20 miles away. It was then I began to notice that he made strange noises when he ate. He loved food, smacked proudly, and breathed deeply through his mouth as he ate everything on his plate. He held his knife and fork strangely too, at least to me. He would hold his fork in his left hand, tines down, and his knife in his right the entire time he was eating. Mom had started trying to get me to eat while holding the fork, tines up, in my right hand, switch with the knife when I cut food, put the knife down, and change hands with the fork to complete the bite, but I often ate like him when he visited.
When granddad was finished eating, he laid the knife perpendicular across the plate and then laid the fork across the knife. “Why do you do that granddad?” I asked one day.
“It’s the Cross son. I do that to let others know about Jesus. I don’t have to say a word, be lost for words, or anything just put the knife and fork that way and they know what you mean.” He seemed very please that I had noticed and that he got to tell me the details. He was a proud Primitive Baptist and always attended church by himself.
I would watch him all evening, looking at his snow-white hair and the little red blood vessels at the top of the skin on his cheeks, and to him telling stories of hunting on the Catoosa Wildlife Preserve. The one I always will remember is about a deer, or a bear (he never was sure) that scratched itself against the side of his truck camper in the middle of the night. It was actually a scary story to me at the time.
Often he spent the night with us and I always watched the clock carefully. Something else he did strangely to me was snore! I would always go to bed earlier than normal so I could be asleep before granddad dosed off.
For years I watched his ritual of eating and “crossing” the plate and secretly wished I had come up with that idea myself. What a simple little thing that can say so much, I thought. I often “cross” my own plate now when I am eating out, but no one has yet ask me why I do it. Maybe it is not strange enough to move most waiters and waitresses to ask, but maybe someday, or one of my grandchildren will ask me why. Then I will get to tell them the story of the other man that made the sign of the cross. That will be like witnessing about two good men in one!