The smell of concrete

David Epps's picture

As I made a visit to a local hospital early the other morning, a vaguely familiar scent filled my nostrils. It was the smell of concrete — fresh concrete, as in “new construction.”

Sure enough, the hospital was constructing an addition which requires lots of concrete. Sniffing the aroma, I was transported back in time.

A few days before I graduated “summa cum barely” from Dobyns-Bennett High School in 1969, my father informed me that my summer vacation days were over. Since I played football in junior high and senior high, I never felt like I had a real summer vacation since it always included lots of sweat and two-a-day practices. So, I was looking forward to a full summer vacation — swimming pools, the beach, girls, etc. — before college. It was not to be.

My dad, without my consultation or permission, arranged for me to have a general construction job with P.C. Cooper Construction Company and I became one of 15,000 employees working at the Tennessee Eastman Chemical Products Corporation in Kingsport, Tenn.

It was hard, brutal, dirty, pick-and-shovel, post-hole-digging, wheelbarrow, menial labor work. I thought I had sweated in football practice, but it was nothing compared to eight hours a day in the grueling summer sun feeling like a slave building the pyramids in ancient Egypt.

I was a very junior employee and a “college boy,” which is what I was often called by the long-term employees. I wondered how in the world these men got up and did this work day after day. One man, who had been on the job for 22 years and was 40, but looked 60, made $4.25 an hour. It was after a few weeks of this work that I decided I would, for sure, go to college.

A good deal of the work involved digging foundation trenches (by hand) for new buildings or additions. That’s where the new concrete, massive amounts of concrete, came in.

There was a smell to it that was not unpleasant — but it was distinctive. That, and the smells of the chemicals being manufactured, filled the air at “The Eastman,” as everyone called the company.

What I mostly remember about my tenure at P.C. Cooper is being tired all the time. We had an hour for lunch and two 15-minute breaks a day. I found that, if I ate my lunch in 15 minutes, I could lie under a tree and nap for 45 minutes. I also found that I could also nap briefly during the 15-minute breaks.

At 5 p.m., I would drag myself through the gate, drag myself into the car, and go home and drag myself on to the sofa and take a nap. I quickly came to understand the saying, “Thank God, it’s Friday!”

My father’s purpose, I think had several components:

1. He wanted me to do a man’s work in a man’s world. He came up the hard way and did not want to shield me from it. He wanted me to respect the “working man” and the contributions made by such men.

2. He wanted me to appreciate the value of a dollar. Or in my case, of $1.65. Suddenly, the cost of things — dates, movies, dinners — was measured, not in terms of dollars, but in how long I had brutally labored in the scorching heat to earn that movie ticket or that meal for my girlfriend or that gallon of gas.

3. He wanted me to go to college, which he never had the opportunity to do. Dad worked on a farm, left for the navy during the waning days of World War II, came home, got married, had kids, and scrambled and scratched to pay the bills until he finally completed an apprenticeship as an electrician in his mid-30s. I think that he believed that the best incentive for me to go to college was to realize that life without a degree might be far harder than life with a degree.

If those were his goals, he accomplished every one. Still, after all these decades, just a whiff of newly poured concrete brings back a ton of memories.

And, truthfully I am glad that Dad made me work that summer at The Eastman. I am also glad I went to college.

[David Epps is the pastor of the Cathedral of Christ the King, 4881 Hwy. 34 E., Sharpsburg, GA 30277. Services are held Sundays at 8:30 and 10 a.m. (www.ctkcec.org). He is also the bishop of the Diocese of the Mid-South (www.midsouthdiocese.org). He may be contacted at frepps@ctkcec.org.]