By the end of sixth grade, I decided that learning instead of working was a luxury my family just couldn’t afford. I got my first real job scraping barnacles off ships at the Norfolk shipyard. I scraped like hell, scrambling up the metal sides. “Slow down,” the guys would yell. “You’re going to work us out of a job.”
I’d come home with my hands swollen large with blisters, and Mama would have me soak them in cold water. One night as I sat with my hands in a bowl at the kitchen table, Papa asked what type of work I wanted to do. Without a word, I stood and flicked the light switch on and off. It’s the first time I remember indicating that I wanted to be an electrician.
My daddy knew a fellow who worked at a motor shop in town. The man had served on the Prohibition Board and used to warn my daddy when a liquor raid was coming his way. My father talked to him about me, told him I was a hard worker, and I moved from scraping ships to scraping floors at the motor shop for fifteen cents an hour.
The shop specialized in repairs on commercial motors for downtown plants and industrial facilities, but they worked on all kinds, some small enough to wind by hand and others so big, you could walk straight through. The mechanics wound large motors for pumps, fertilizer plants, and conveyors. There were big vats of DDT and other chemicals to soak the motors in once they had been stripped and before they were rewound. I scraped grease from the floor and stripped motors, pulling out the old winding so the mechanics could put in the new. I worked hard, did whatever they asked, and before long, I earned a raise to twenty cents an hour.
It was hard to get excited about cleaning the floor, but the motors interested me because no two were alike. The number of internal windings determined the horsepower: there were single winding, two windings, single phase, three phase. I tried to work close to the guys while they discussed problems and installations, especially when Mr. Grey stopped by to talk shop. He was a hotshot foreman over at the Naval Operating Base, and I could tell how much the guys respected him from the way they talked.
Mr. Grey turned toward me one day after I’d been at the shop for a year or so. “Man, you’re the hardest little worker I’ve ever seen,” he said. “How’d you like to go out and work on heavy construction?”
I continued scraping and told him I’d never done construction before.
“You could learn,” he said. “You could come out with me and work on the naval base.”
“I don’t know if they’d let me,” I said. “I’m only fourteen.”
“They will if I ask them. How much are they paying you here?”
“Twenty cents,” I responded, proud to have worked my way up.
He said he could get me thirty-five.
“Thirty-five?” I stopped scraping. “You’re kidding.” I told Mr. Grey that I’d sure like to have a job like that and went back to scraping grease.
Within a week, I was out working on the naval base. He made me his helper, taught me how to read blueprints, and tutored me in being an electrician. He knew the construction business inside and out. I was right there by his side, working hard and ready to learn.
I spent a lot of time on the naval base after that. I learned construction working first on the Recreation Building and then Building 143, which was the largest supply building in the Navy. I met a lot of workers and tried to learn what I could from each. Oakley Pemberton came down from Richmond to work on the base as well, and we became fast friends. Oakley was older than me with a great reputation as a conduit guy. He could run as much pipe as two electricians and was the best at bending pipes to make them fit into tight spaces. We worked together and drank together, neither knowing that, later in life, both Oakley and Mr. Grey would work for me.
After working on the base for a few years, I had real money for the first time in my life. I bought a car when I was sixteen, a ’41 Chevrolet Coupe. I went out to Princess Anne County and got me a driver’s license that said I was two years older. I became a little full of myself and started to hang out with a rougher crowd. I worked so hard for my money during the day, that I let myself get lured into a little easy money at night, let myself believe that principles my Papa had laid down were meant to be stretched if not broken.
Me and some of the guys from the base and their buddies would go to the clubs late at night in search of sailors looking for some action. Whatever the sailors wanted—drinks, gambling, girls—we could make it happen for a fee. It was dangerous business, driving through rough neighborhoods and rougher situations. We went armed, and we went often. It was a real busy life and a real departure from the way I was raised. I’d come home at four or five in the morning, take a cold shower, and head out to work. I became two different people, one during the day and another in the dark of the night. I tried my best to keep my lives separate. Mama had a good idea what I was up to, and I worried her sick. She worried about my safety, about what my father would do if he found out, about just what type of person I’d turn out to be.
One morning, I came in at daybreak. My daddy met me at the door and asked where the hell I’d been. I said nothing at first. Between my job and the after-hours hijinks, I was making more money than he was and thought I didn’t have to answer to him anymore.
“You going to work?” he asked.
Of course I was going to work. It didn’t matter what kind of trouble I got messed up in, I never missed a day on the job. “None of your damn business,” I said.
Papa had a look that went right through you, like he was seeing into your soul. I don’t know where he got it, maybe on his travels, or maybe it was just the way he was born. He gave me that look then, that soul-piercing look, and knocked me clean through the screen door.
I picked myself up off the porch, went upstairs, showered, and headed to work.
He didn’t say another word, but the message was clear: his house, his rules, as grown up as I thought myself to be, I still answered to him after all. “Money don’t make you a person,” he always said. Our early morning encounter was just another way he chose to drive that point home.