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he spoke in colors

February 21, 2016

he spoke in colors

by Robert L Schwarz, from his memoir R L and Other Stories, used by permission.

In the summer of ’68 before going off to the army in September after being drafted, I frequently helped R L Merz load semi-trailer loads of posts – mostly big corner posts such as 10×10’s and 10×8’s and 8×8’s – in regular commercial cedar yards in Ingram and Mountain Home and Hunt and Utopia and Vanderpool and in and in independent chopper or landowner run yards scattered here and there in the Sabinal Canyon.  The independent yards were not only post yards but were also temporary living sites for the choppers and their families.  When RL and I loaded out on those yards all the men and the older kids when not in school and even some of the women most often would be out in the cedar brakes cutting posts leaving only women with small children in the tents and trailers and ramshackle huts clustered around the temporary cedar yard but occasionally the men would be in camp, too, waiting for the ground to dry out after prolonged or flooding rains or waiting for the landowner’s OK to start cutting some new area or having a group work day on the yard and/or camp.

The men all knew and respected RL and would crowd about him discussing all manner of things and wanting his input on certain points but I was new to them and they were respectful towards me but were standoffish and left my largely to myself.  The one exception was a young man about 17 years old – Ben was his name – who from our first meeting took an interest in me and wanted to know everything about me and my life – where I was from and why I was helping RL and what I did otherwise when not loading posts and where I went to school and what kind of truck I had and where I went to school and what kind of truck I had and where I cut posts and who I worked with when not with RL.  I took a liking to him immediately and talked to him openly and without hesitation in spite of RL’s warnings to be very careful with my words and actions round these self-reliant, fiercely independent, clannish, uneducated-as-far-as-formal-schooling-goes people who lived a very simple life largely isolated from the outside world.  My time with Ben was limited since I came and went with RL but I did see and talk to Ben fairly often during that summer.  On those days when the rest of the choppers were in camp just sitting in hard wooden chairs in the shade or squatting on their haunches in small groups chewing tobacco basking in the overwhelming luxury of not having to work for a half or full day, Ben would voluntarily help RL and I load out posts talking a mile a minute all the while in spite of the arduous work and if RL went out with one or more of the choppers for an hour or two to deal with some problem in the brakes or to check out some new stand of cedar timber Ben and I would ride around in his father’s old truck exploring caves and Indian mounds and springs gushing out of the canyon walls.  He always had something new and exciting he wanted to show me.

Tall at slightly over six feet; slender maybe 160 pounds, muscular with the long, thin untiring muscles of the fields and cedar brakes; sharp features; large intense brown eyes, short scissor cut brownish hair; smooth faced without even a hint of a beard; short upper body with long legs; floppy battered grey felt hat with a high crown and wide brim turned downward all around; work worn scarred calloused hands with long fingers liberally coated with the blackish tar like cedar resin; leathery skin – Ben was the archetypical cedarchopper.  He lived with his family in a roughly build corrugated tin shack with packed dirt floors divided into two rooms by blankets hung from the rafters with baling wire –  their water was carried from a nearby creek in buckets – their lights were kerosene lanterns – their cooking stove was a wood burning box heater – they slept on thin pallets on the floor – their outhouse was a rudely constructed tin and cardboard structure that sat back in the trees and was shared with others as necessity dictated – in winter they burned wood – lots of wood – to keep warm because the only thing between them and the freezing cold was a sheet of tin.

The oldest of six children – all boys – Ben had worked in the cedar brakes from the time he was old enough to follow along behind his dad.  His dad wanted Ben to have at least an elementary school education but after the third grade the necessity of making a living overshadowed everything else and Ben simply worked with the family as they moved here and there following the cedar brakes.

Bright – questioning – full of life – Ben had made the best of what formal schooling he completed.  He had learned how to add and subtract figures from school and picked up basic multiplication, operations with fractions and measurements largely through watching others and trial and error figuring cedar tickets and working as a carpenter’s helper and other outside jobs.

Above it all – what really interested him – was colors – you know – colors – like red and green and blue and white and purple and pink and black and yellow – colors – from the first paraffin wax crayons to later more sophisticated mediums – he loved colors.  Colors aroused his imagination and enlightened his drab work centered daily life and inflamed his creativity.  He was not retarded – he was not developmentally challenged – he was not a slow learner – he was not developmentally challenged – he was not a slow learner – he just loved colors – they spoke to his innermost being – everything in his post elementary life revolved around colors – he loved colors – he talked colors.  To munderstand him – to understand what he was trying to communicate – you had to listen very carefully – you had to adapt to his ever changing color associations – you had to choose the correct color interpretations given the moment and the situation in which they were used.  Many of the individual colors he spoke of had three or four possible interpretations with the ultimate meaning dependent upon the context – the surroundings – of their use at the moment.

He would say ====== which meant

“I’m purple and white: ===== he was happy and joyful with life.

“I’m green of him: ===== jealous or envious of some other guy having a certain girlfriend or having a new chain saw or driving a newer truck.

“Oh, my, is she every pink” ===== that’s one beautiful woman.

“Stand by me blue” =====stand by me in some dispute or argument or confrontation – be loyal to me.

“I’m blue goin’ on black” ===== to be depressed, down in the dumps.

“It’s a blue day” ===== it’s a cold, miserable day.

“Boy, am I glad it’s yella” ===== happy for the sun to be shining after several days of rain and dreary weather.

“Let’s do it up red” ===== go have fun – play pool – drink beer – go to the movies.

“Damn, I saw red” ===== mad about something.

“I’m white on this” ===== I’m right, about this. I’m tellin’ the truth.  I haven’t done anything wrong.  This isn’t my fault.  I’m sticking with this no matter what.

“That fella sure is orange” ===== that guy is a little off and you need to stay away from him [orange was his least favorite color]

“This is sorta gray” ===== don’t know about this. This is in some ways right – some ways wrong.

I lost touch with him when I was drafted and went off to the army but I did not forget him.  Many times in training and even in Nam my mind would drift back to his “colors” talk and I would smile inwardly and my spirits would lift up no matter how bad the situation.

When I returned from Nam in April ’70, the cedar camp where I first met Ben was no longer there.  I was again helping RL load posts in the Sabinal Canyon area and every place we went I always looked for Ben or his family or those people who had been with Ben and his family in that camp in ’68.  Cedarchoppers are notoriously nomadic beings – always moving – following the good cedar brakes and whoever is hiring choppers.  From month to month any given chopper could be found in Burnet or Johnson City or San Saba or Junction or Utopia or Mason or Sabinal or hundreds of other out of the way places.

After three or four months I one day spotted an elderly grizzled chopper in one of the yards who had been in the ’68 camp with Ben.  The chopper recognized me and we talked of various topics for several minutes and I finally had a chance to ask him, “Where’s Ben?”

“Ain’t ya heard?  After you’uns left, he whar drafted, too – he got kilt over thar in Nam – them gooks they kilt him – getting out of a hell-oh-cop-ter on one of them ah-salts – kilt him they did – shot him as he come out of the door they did – he fallen back into the hell-oh-cop-ter and they taken him back to a hospital real quick like but he whar done dead – a friend of his’n from over thar wrote his ma and tolt her about hit – his ma took hit hard she did – cain’t get it straight in her mind to this day – why her boy come home in a box – cries all the time.”

this fine young man

this cedarchopper

stood by his country blue

worked at doing what was right white

died in some LZ in Nam red

# #   # #  #  #


he spoke in colors.

From → Writing Fiction

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