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A Man's Life: The Men in My Family

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An ongoing conversationabout what it means to be a man in the 21st century

by Terry Tempest Williams

THE MEN IN MY FAMILY WEAR BOOTS—work boots by day, cowboy boots by night. And their tool of choice is a shovel. As my brother Dan says, "A shovel is part of my arm." How well you can shovel matters in a pipeline construction business. This is the livelihood of our family. The Tempest Company is now in its fourth generation. John Henry Tempest, Sr., gave the business to his son, John Henry Tempest Jr., who passed it on to his sons, John Henry Tempest III, and Richard Blackett Tempest, who then sold it to their sons, Stephen Dixon Tempest and Robert Laurence Tempest. It is now in the hands of Robert and David Clifton Tempest.

Boots and shovels are how the Tempest men engage the land.

A shovel is a way of getting somewhere or finding something. Joe Raso, a laborer, set the standard. He could shovel left-handed and right-handed. If you could shovel as fast as Raso then you could work for The Tempest Company. Many would leave.

My brothers say it is an art to be able to shovel well. Foot-hand-and-eye coordination. Being a girl, I never learned this art. My tool of choice was a pen. Like a shovel, it is a way of getting somewhere or finding something. A shovel opens up a piece of ground to a ditch or trench, a pen opens up a piece of paper to a story.

I remember a day in May, my brothers Steve and Hank were helping my father put in a small drainage system so when the water ran off the roof it wouldn’t pool in his garden. Steve had drawn up the plan and purchased some plastic pipe for the job. He outlined how the system was going to work. Hank began digging a small trench that would house the pipe. Behind Hank, Dad was laying the pipe in the ground. Behind Dad, Steve backfilled the trench. It ran like clockwork.

I watched how gracefully my brother shoveled dirt and how fast. The shovel’s face was swinging sideways like a dozer blade, powered by Hank’s thigh muscles. With his back straight, knees bent, his elbows rested on his thighs and acted as a fulcrum as the shovel moved back and forth. The surprise was how his body became an efficient machine, his right arm resting on his right thigh to offer maximum stability, strength, and movement. It was second nature. And they accomplished the task quickly.Within a few hours, the trench was dug, the pipe laid, then covered with the lawn tamped back into place.You would never have known mechanical surgery on the backyard had ever taken place.

"People looked down on us," Dan told me. "I don’t know how many times I heard people say, ‘I’m so glad I’m not at the end of a shovel.’" He paused. "But what they don’t realize is the deep satisfaction that comes from knowing a trade, from being able to accomplish something through the physical know-how of your body."

I remember Steve saying, "What I love about this work is seeing what a few good men can accomplish together."

TOOLS. A SHOVEL IN HAND. I have watched the men in my family perform surgery on the earth. Pipelines. Waterlines. Sewer lines. Gaslines. The men in my family keep the circulatory systems of our communities working. A shovel is a scalpel; though the earth doesn’t bleed, it can collapse, cave in, or fill with water. A contractor learns a trade like a doctor, like a mechanic. The land, the body, a car depend on the tools in hand and the trained eyes who know how to make things work.

THE MEN IN MY FAMILY WEAR BOOTS—work boots by day, cowboy boots by night. I rarely see them in anything but Levis and a long-sleeved shirt. Occasionally, they will appear with a white collarless shirt and sport coat. But that is the exception. Ties are for church and Sunday only. The men in my family are most comfortable outside on the job, walking the pipeline, imagining what the substrata is below. Inside, the men in my family are quiet, brooding, intense. But get them to tell you a story and watch silent men employ drama.

I hear my brother repeat my father’s tale about Ewald Erickson, a big, blond German, who was fearless and the fastest backhoe operator in the West. A dangerous situation arose on a job in Helper Canyon, just outside Price, Utah. The job required running a gasline down a very steep mountainside. None of the men dared to get on the machine to dig the trench. Suddenly, Ewald jumped on the backhoe, precariously perched on a sheer cliff and tied to a cable hooked to a winch on a Caterpillar sideboom. He set it in motion, digging madly, furiously, so the pipe could be laid and buried.

One story begets another.

Ewald Erickson also buried a trailer in his backyard to get away from his wife. He took a Tempest Company

backhoe and dug a hole deep enough to set his trailer inside. Then he covered it, digging an entrance to his trailer by hand that appeared like a long, dark burrow.

We lived on these stories every night at dinner or any time our extended family got together. Our grandfather

Jack, our father John, and our Uncle Rich would regale us with tales from The Tempest Company. The foremen took on mythical status for their physical prowess that allowed them to cross raging rivers with ropes in their mouths as they swam pipe from one bank to the other or jumped into unstable trenches to weld pipes together so natural gas leaks would not end in explosions. It was a life-or-death business. The mantra from the men in my family was this: "In our business, you don’t have to be an intellectual, you have to be aggressive."

I missed out on this kind of education by way of being female.What my brothers know is lodged inside their bodies—their beautiful muscular bodies that are now battered and broken, be it a neck that has been fused, a back that bears a chronic history of pain, or a mind that holds the maps of an underground landscape of labyrinths and mazes where oil and gas and water and sewage run continually to service our species.

THAT MIND OF UNDERGROUND MAPPING belonged to my brother Steve. He died from lymphoma, a young man, 47 years old. When he was buried on January 25, 2005, on a cold winter day, his body inside a traveling box built by a neighbor, he was taken to the cemetery in the back of a red flatbed truck. The men who worked for him followed the truck that carried his body in a long convoy of Tempest Company trucks. It looked like a red river moving slowly through a white landscape.

The men in my family lifted his coffin from the truck and carried it to the gravesite. Friends and family gathered. A large pile of dirt next to the grave was covered by a discreet green tarp. My brothers Hank and Dan immediately pulled off the cover, leaving the dirt that would bury Steve exposed.

Dirt has dignity.

One by one, his wife, his daughters, sister, brothers, and father picked up a fistful of earth and walked over to the coffin and let it fall where he would lay. I watched the men in my family weep. I watched the men who had worked for Steve, the tears that were streaming down their cheeks. These are tough, rugged, beautiful men weathered and weary from decades of beating their bodies against the land. Hot and cold. Day and night. Theirs is labor in the extreme.

I watched and I wondered what the men in my family know that I will never understand because of one simple thing—their tool of choice is a shovel.

When the funeral was over and everyone returned to the cars that would carry them home, I turned to say one last goodbye.What I saw was Johnny McIntosh, long-time Tempest Company foreman, backfilling my brother’s grave.

Terry Tempest Williams is a naturalist, environmental activist, and writer whose books include Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place, and The Open Space of Democracy. She is the recipient of the 2005 Wallace Stegner Award from the Center for the American West.