Thursday, June 21, 2007

Ol' Eli

It’s hard to bring a tear to the eye of a hardened old rock quarry guy. But the obit in the Batesville Guard did it to me today.

When I was a kid, my dad wanted me to get a respectable job, like sacking groceries, and work my way up to management, maybe end up with my own store someday. It might have worked out better for me than the choices I made, but it was not to be. I, along with my buddies Chris and Randy, took a job shoveling debris out of railroad cars at Midwest Lime Company. We got paid something like $2 a car – but we got it whether the thing was completely full of metal shavings or clean and empty – so it sort of worked out. We went on from there to do other jobs like operating the scales, driving dump trucks, and running the hammermills, and we got to meet a lot of interesting people.

Among those interesting people was a rough-n-tumble Grizzly bear of a welder named James Kelley – who, along with his brothers Doug and Blake, took care of all the various welding needs there at Midwest.

Like any 16 year old rookie in a rock quarry, I suppose, I was scared to death of the man when I first met him. I mean, he just looked like the kind of guy who would rip off somebody’s head and use it for a football if he wanted to. Not a fate I was seeking for myself. But, being the semi-adventurous types we were, Chris and I decided that if we were going to work there (by this time running the scale house on the night shift) we were going to have to show these men that we were “OK”; and try to bluff them into thinking we weren’t afraid of them.

Looking back, it seems now like a strange way to accomplish such a task, but it felt like the appropriate thing to do at the time. Sometimes, James’ wife would come out to Midwest and leave his lunch. On one such night we came up with a plan to “get” him. I won’t tell you what, but suffice it to say that we ate his sandwiches and replaced them with the most vile and disgusting thing you might be able to imagine. To add a touch more humor to that, we added salt and pepper.

We waited for Ol’ Eli (that’s what he liked to call himself) to come down the hill to eat, but he was running later than usual. Chris had something to do, so before he left he rode his motorcycle up the hill and tossed the brown paper bag to James, just saying “Here’s your lunch Kelley”. Then he rode off to the relative safety of anyplace that wasn’t Midwest Lime on that particular night, leaving me there alone to run the scales.

Much later, as I sat leaned back in the office chair, half asleep, with my feet up on the desk (you know, working), talking to my girlfriend on the phone, that bear came walking into the office.

I had already told Becky what we’d done, and when he walked in she wanted to hang up, but I made her stay on the phone so there might at least be a witness to my untimely demise. Kelly took the chair behind me, and he just sat there, with a cold stare directed squarely at me, as if he was impatiently waiting for me to get off the phone so he could wad me up into a ball and stuff my broken remains into the desk drawer. And he sat. And he waited.

Eventually, Becky went to sleep with the phone on her pillow, and I continued to act like I was talking to her. But after a while, running out of things to pretend to be talking about, I said goodbye and hung up the phone. With nervous faux-laughter, I spoke what might well have been my last words.

“Whatsa matter Kelley? Didn’t like your lunch?”

He didn’t say anything. He just continued to sit there and stare at me for what seemed like an eternity. Long enough for me to watch my short life pass before my eyes. Two or three times. Then, without cracking a smile, he spoke.

“To much #*&%ing pepper!”

Blew my mind. Only the first of many times to come.

I have many more James Kelley stories, and pretty much anybody who has known me for any length of time has heard at least one. I’m sure everybody that knew him has similar stories. We could fill a book with them. Shame there’s only so much space here.

The Pearly Gates probably need fixin’. By now, I figure James Kelley has St. Peter temporarily trembling in some corner somewhere, just letting him sweat a little longer before he lets him off the hook and informs him that Ol’ Eli can weld a sweet potato to a cast iron stove. And he could. If you don’t believe me, just ask me.

They don’t make guys like that anymore.

© 2007 Rick Baber


Anonymous said...

I don't have any idea what James Kelley actually looked like. I've always pictured a cross between Thor and Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke. I pictured him wearing dusty blue jeans with a work rag hanging out of the back pocket and a blue T-shirt. In my mind James Kelley defines a blue collar hero. I couldn't tell you what his voice actually sounded like. I've always imagined something similar to Nick Nolte's voice in 48 hrs. The kind of voice that rattles windows. The kind of voice that comes with a firm handshake. Steady. While I've never seen a photograph or even so much as heard his voice on an answering machine, to me he's a legend. One of my dad's heroes. I've heard as many stories about James Kelley as I have about Ben Franklin, Edison, Babe Ruth, Wyatt Earp or Jesse James. To me he belongs in that place in my mind where my Pepaw is. The place where real, bad ass, hard working men of integrity belong. I might have only known James Kelley through the stories that my dad told, but I feel a lot like I did the day Johnny Cash died. Like America lost a hero. I think tonight I'll get a few buddies together, listen to some Johnny Cash, fill my whiskey cup and tell a few of those James Kelley stories. So, I raise my glass to James Kelley...

Anonymous said...

My name is Ruth and I am writing this for a friend who has no computer.

Just wanted to let you know I appreciated the article you wrote on OL' ELI and you were right,he was a unique kind of guy and I know he could weld a sweet potato to a cast iron stove. He was my big brother and I really looked up to him and will surely miss him.
Thanks again


Rick Baber said...

I don't know what else to say, man. Our thoughts are with you and Doug, and all the rest of the family. Thanks for your note (and thank you too, Ruth).
Don't be a stranger. I hope this blog will be around for a long time. Stop by and visit!

Anonymous said...

Oh the days of teenage-hood...Ah.. It sounds like you were quite the prankster.. I've never heard of James Kelley (ol Eli) but from the sounds of things he sounds like he was a VERY interesting person to know. When I was reading this entry I felt kind of like I was meeting a new friend. Or at least someone to make life more interesting. I'm so sorry to hear he has passed. I believe people like Ol Eli are the no bull kinda people we need more of. Its good to know the Real Men are still remembered. I just hope the world is lucky enough to hear more stories of him. If you did compile his stories and make a book, It would probably (from the sounds of things) be a good seller. Everyone needs a laugh. I think todays generation feeds too much on BS. If you opened a window into the life of someone like Ol Eli and reached out to the younger generation with it, maybe they could learn something. Maybe they could learn to be more REAL...

Later Snowflake

Rick Baber said...

I gotta tell you. I've been called a lot of things in my day. But...Snowflake?
OK with me. I kinda like it.
And thanks for your comments. Please come back often.
I'll think about that Ol' Eli book, but, as one of my friends once told me "There's some things you just can't write about."

Anonymous said...

I guess I should have left a comma after Later. I AM Snowflake, I wasn't calling you snowflake. LOL You have to remember me you took pics of Erika and Noah. Anyways, I will come back often. I enjoy your writing style and stories.

Anonymous said...

Ah...HA! THAT Snowflake. (I thought it sounded familiar) Glad to have you aboard kiddo. Hope to hear more from you.

Anonymous said...

Glad to be aboard..