But alas, I could never get away with writing the actual truth on job applications because it would have required me to write just three words under the Job History section: “One of Each.”
I feel fortunate — though only in retrospect, not at the time — to have done a little bit of a multitude of different things for a living. Anybody in corporate personnel would call mine a “checkered employment history,” but I prefer to think of it as an education.
Here’s the main thing I learned, along the way: In my daily life, people in general — including the most rank of strangers—treat me, for some reason, with far more kindness than I have any reason to expect. This is not true, however, of the workplace. At every job I’ve ever held, there was one individual who took an immediate... “dislike” is too mild a word; only “hatred” fits... of me, and his/her chief objective in ensuing weeks, or years, was to get me, at the very least, run off from my job or, best case, shot at sunrise. Ideally, both. Except for one job.
In my roughly 50 years of making a living, there was one job where nobody tried to do me in. For a couple of years I was editor of a monthly newsletter for a corporation that managed a chain of a couple of dozen nursing homes around the Southeast. On average, I’d spend a week of each month on the road, which was a bonus in itself. Typically, I’d fly into an airport like Lexington, Charleston, or Memphis, rent a car, and for the next several days travel to the company’s nursing homes that were within driving distance. At each place, I’d spend the day interviewing and taking pictures of residents and staff, then hit the nearest motel for the night, and head out in the morning to the next facility on the list.
But what made the job even better is that, invariably, the person at each facility who scheduled the interviews and ushered me around to them was the facility’s activity director — a breed unto themselves, I found. They were, as might be expected, meticulously organized. But they also had a quality that doesn’t typically go with organization: a bountiful sense of humor, both light and dark as the situation required.
And they were, without exception, kind and hospitable to the guy with the notebook and camera who had parachuted in from Birmingham and intruded upon their schedule. This was especially true of a lady at a facility near Macon, Ga.
We’d had a very productive day of interviews, I had laughed at residents’ jokes and tales until my sides were sore, and as we were wrapping up the activity director said to me, “Do you have any plans for sundown?”
This was wintertime, the days were short, and judging by looking out the window, sundown was maybe 20 minutes away. I said my schedule was free, and asked what she had in mind. “Just something I think you ought to see before you leave town,” she said. “Trust me.”
She drove the facility van and I followed in my rental car, and in about 15 minutes we arrived at the edge of an old cemetery. From the road we walked a trail to its back edge, where the land began sloping down toward a river with a railroad trestle in the distance, as the sun sank lower.
By this point we were totally out of view from the road, and no person within hollering distance except those in the graveyard who had long ago lost the capacity to be hollered at. It felt a little spooky, and I reassured myself by remembering an article saying that the number of female serial killers was so small as to be statistically insignificant.
Another possibility that occurred to me was that the activity director had chosen the cemetery, at fading of day, to remind me of the fleeting nature of life and attempt to win me to Jesus. (Not knowing that I was already won.)
At that point, she stopped in front of two large white horizontal gravestones, side by side, and there was just enough daylight remaining for me to read the names on them: BERRY OAKLEY and DUANE ALLMAN. At that moment there was a faint noise from the distant woods that gradually became the whistle of a freight train. My head filled with the timeless song from the worn “Eat a Peach” LP, on a shelf of my apartment back in Birmingham: “Freight train / Each car looks the same / And no one knows the gypsy’s name...” I looked at the activity director and she was looking at her wristwatch, and smiling. “Right on time,” she said.
Dale Short is a native of Walker County. His columns, photos and radio features are available on his website, carrolldaleshort.com. His weekly radio program “Music from Home” airs each Sunday at 6 pm on Oldies 101.5 FM, streams live online at www.oldies1015fm.com, and is archived afterward on his website.