Larry Penkava Column: I’m the only one left
I worked on a roofing crew from the late ‘60s to the early ‘70s. There were five of us and we covered and repaired flat roofs.
Sam was the boss. A tough West Virginian, he worked hard and expected everybody else to do the same.
But he had his weak spot and it went by the name of Miguel. Only, we called him
Mike, or Michael when the situation called for swift action.
Harvey was the glue that held us all together. He was second only to Sam in experience and had a steadying hand and a countrified sense of humor.
Grover was the old man of the crew, set in his ways and a bit crotchety. But he sometimes surprised us with his generosity.
On the other hand, I was the youngest, the bachelor and least experienced in the world of work. Roofing, however, will help you grow up while teaching you the meaning of labor.
Mike was usually the center of attention. The native Puerto Rican was a natural entertainer, quick to joke or to give his rendition of a popular song in his Spanish accent.
“I been hurt, hurt, hurt in my hand,” he sang one day after a slight injury. He also latched onto a big hit with his version of “Your Cheatin’ Heart.”
One day Sam and Harvey had an on-the-job disagreement and Harvey was told to go home. The next day, when Harvey hadn’t shown up, Mike grieved, “I miss my Harvey.”
Then when Harvey returned, Mike was back to singing: “Together again, with my Harvey again.”
Mike had a motto for our crew: “No rain, no leak.”
He liked to poke fun at the serious-minded Grover by calling him Grandpa. Grover kept the tar kettle fired down on the ground and would send up hot asphalt through a long pipe to the roof when Mike needed to fill his tar spreader. “Hey Grandpa, gimme some heat,” was something I often heard from Mike.
Grover had his own peculiarities, particularly in his speech. He talked about seeing a truck pulling a load of “puffwood.” When he was skeptical about something, he would say, “I very doubt it.”
On those occasions when Grover stated an opinion, he would punctuate his declaration with the flick of his cigarette ash. That’s something Mike picked up on, often flicking his own cigarette to mimic “Grandpa.” Grover drove an early ‘50s Plymouth that he called his “Maypop — when I try to start it, it may pop and it may not.”
Harvey was a hard worker, careful to do the job right. But he also enjoyed a good story told with laughter. He also noted that Sam, who rolled out the fabric, always had Mike to run the tar spreader in front of him. “Sam likes to have Mike with him for entertainment,” Harvey would say.
Those weren’t criticisms necessarily, since all of us enjoyed Mike’s humor.
That left Harvey and me to work together much of the time. We would install flashing where walls met roof, or waterproof pipes and AC units.
Harvey enjoyed telling stories while we worked, some funny and others about his family life.
Grover normally rode to work with Harvey and one morning when he went to pick up “Grandpa,” they were looking at the cloudy sky wondering if they should go to the shop. When Grover’s wife thought they had contemplated long enough, Harvey told me, “she yelled at us, ‘Go on to work. It ain’ta gonna rain.’ So we left.”
One day we were putting a new roof on a large commercial building. The weather was clear but windy. During lunch I sat on the ground next to the building to eat. When I finished I lay down for a nap.
In my semi-consciousness I thought I heard Mike yell at me from the truck. I was about to raise my head when the sky went dark.
When I regained consciousness, I found that the ladder had been blown over by the wind and fell across my face and solar plexus. Mike had seen the ladder and yelled, to no avail.
I was lucky that it was a wooden ladder and only opened a small cut near my eye. But it was deep enough that Sam took me to a doctor to sew it up.
From then on I knew why Sam always tied his ladder to the roof. The one against the building we were working on belonged to another contractor and hadn’t been secured.
It’s been 48 years since our crew was together. Sam died at the age of 80 a few years ago. Grover was long gone at that time.
Sometime in the ‘90s, I read a newspaper article that Mike had died when someone ran into his car in South Carolina. My Puerto Rican friend had always liked convertibles, so I like to think he died with the top down.
Harvey had gone into business for himself, repairing roofs and other odd jobs. But all the materials he dealt with probably led to him contracting cancer. He died more than a decade ago.
That leaves me with just the memories of hard work but good times. And recalling Mike singing in his passionate way, “Together again, back to the roofing again. …”
Larry Penkava, who has written Now and Then since 1994, often remembers the old roofing crew.
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