So, the Roads and Grounds crew it was. Of the ten production lines that could manufacture explosives at Holston Defense, I believe only one or two were operational during the time that I worked there. Our mission was to keep the plant looking neat and tidy. We were issued four sets of cotton coveralls, boots, socks, gloves, safety glass, ear protection and if I remember correctly, bras and underwear. The bras could not contain metal so as not to spark any explosives, but boy, that would have made for a great story. I was much shorter than anyone else and the crotch of those coveralls hung down between my knees. Somewhere along the way I was given a length of rawhide to use as a belt.
In short order, we introduced ourselves to one another and piled into a white 1990 Ford Extended Cab F-350. There were five of us all squished together in that truck. I remember thinking we looked like the cast of The Breakfast Club.
Barbara was our driver. They always stuck one full-time employee from the plant with us because as temporary college employees, we weren’t allowed to drive company trucks. Barbara was a tall, hard woman. Her face and arms were tan from years of doing the kind of that most women would look down on. It’s cliché to say, but she had a cracked, golden leather look about her. The cigarettes she smoked were two miles long, her 80’s hair was always perfectly locked into place and her long nails always red. She was single and she liked it that way. Barbara loved NASCAR and she scared the absolute hell out of me. Her voice was a low, smoker’s voice and she never repeated herself.
Our fresh-faced crew was driven to something called an “X” area. Later, I heard it called the magazine or igloo area. It was a densely wooded area that wound around on itself. You could get lost there for days. We hopped out of the truck and stood in awe before a giant, grass-covered igloo. Holston had stored explosives in these concrete igloos at one time. They were covered in grass so they were camouflaged, at least from an aerial view.
Barbara took a weed eater out of the back of the truck tossed it on the ground and said, “Pay attention.” Now, when I say weed eater, I mean a gas-powered, Stihl brush cutter with two handles and plastic blades. The kind of equipment you lock and load onto a bright orange harness, and pray to God it doesn’t get the best of you.
Barbara put one foot on the trimmer. She bent over and set the choke, punched the fuel pump bulb and ripped the cord on the trimmer without so much as breaking out in a drop of sweat. I suddenly wished like hell that I had suggested to my dad that I wait tables at the local Italian restaurant for the summer. Our crew of five would spread around the base of the igloo and “weed-eat” our way up to the top. We did this for four-tens, Monday through Thursday for the entire summer.
The regular employees would just sometimes stand back and scratch their heads at us college kids. Through the course of the summer, we had taken to taping the ankles of our coveralls shut with duct tape to keep the snakes out, a thin coat of OFF to keep the chiggers at bay and regular baths in Ivarest cream for our poison ivy. We were assigned other fun jobs in confined spaces and shoveling sun-baked shit at the on-site waste water treatment plant. You really wouldn’t believe what people flush down toilets.
After work and on the weekends, I could be found with my boyfriend two years my junior. He was 6’ 6’’, practically 300 hundred lbs. and a star on the high school football team. When we weren’t in his parent’s pool or making out in my bedroom (“We’re just playing cards!”), we were screaming down the road that ran alongside the river listening to Aerosmith. The memory runs like a sticky sweet, modern-day country love song. My legs were tan, toned and looked great in white cut-offs. When I was with him, I felt safe for the first time in my life. I would look over at him driving that old black Ford truck and dream about the day that we would marry, he would play for the NFL and life would be perfect. He had a heart of gold, that one. I would go back to college and he would continue through high school. We would leave each other and those childish dreams and it would hurt like hell. First heart breaks always do.
That summer, I learned how to change plastic blades on a brush cutter in under a minute and a half. I was educated on OSHA and the red-tape that comes along with it. I was schooled on the correct way to play Ping-Pong after lunch breaks (otherwise known as “dinner” in the South) by men with names like Kemper, Nick and Charlie. To my detriment, I learned that if I smiled at Dwight just the right way, two packs of Marlboro Lights would show up in my locker the next morning. I learned that I could do really hard work if all else failed and my college education didn’t pan out (irony?). Far and away, the most important thing I took away from that summer was how much my dad cared for me. I guess I always knew he did, but it was cemented.
Dad would remember that summer as one of the hottest on record in East Tennessee. It didn’t help matters that I was wearing long-sleeved coveralls duct-taped around the ankles and cinched off with a rawhide belt. It was akin to being a hot air balloon. After one particularly hot day of weed-eating, I came dragging in through the back door. I relayed to dad that I had gotten too hot and had suffered a bit of heat exhaustion. From that day on, Dad kept me stocked with a 36 oz. Gatorade every day for the rest of the summer. I think he probably felt guilty having had suggested that working for Holston would be a great summer gig, but it was also his way of taking care of me. To this day, I can’t drink Gatorade without thinking of Holston Defense or my Dad
I made enough money that summer to cover the cost of textbooks for the semester, and a little extra left over for spending money. Over our time at the plant, this ragamuffin roads and grounds crew, along with the full-time employees, had become a closely knit community. Nick and Charlie are both dead and gone now, and Kemper is probably somewhere holding on just for spite. It was a hell of a first job and was such torture, I signed on for the very next summer.