The maintenance man at any camp is a rare and fascinating creature. For reasons known only to him a camp career is chosen, rather than a more profitable job in carpentry, utilities, or construction. Perhaps he simply isn’t a very good carpenter, utility worker, or builder. Perhaps he’s bad with money, or has a criminal record. Perhaps he is friendly with or related to the old director’s son’s girlfriend’s cousin. Maybe there is even a noble reason, such as he loves the outdoors, working and living in a beautiful, natural place, and with interesting people from around the world. Whatever the reason, he is usually happy with his position and rarely leaves it. Compared to his fellow tradesmen, he doesn’t seem to work all that hard. He delegates menial responsibilities like changing light bulbs, plunging toilets, or mowing to his young assistants – high school kids, smelly Russian backpackers, or convicts on work detail. Then he seems to make trips to Home Depot and stand around drinking coffee and occasionally chatting with the electrician or the excavator. His headquarters, “The Shop”, is packed with tools, lawnmowers, light bulbs, ladders, plumbing parts, various metal bits from farming equipment and other vehicles, lengths of scrap lumber, and the smell of sawdust and gasoline. He rises early, up before the proverbial “sparrow’s fart” and has his coffee in hand by 7 am, but is rarely seen outside The Shop until mid-morning. He will happily enlighten you with his tool expertise, and his opinions are steadfast. Ryobi for drills, but DeWalt produces better saws, harrumph! Don’t buy Behr paint! It’s crap! Etc. Etc.
In my experiences I have encountered two types of maintenance men. The first, described above, relishes his Shop and tools rarely, if ever, trusts anyone to enter unsupervised or borrow anything. To ensure this, he usually locks up with a doorknob, two deadbolts, and a padlock on every door, and hides keys in bizarre and untraceable spots. He is more like the diligent librarian, convinced that the only way to not lose everything you have, since you are grudgingly obligated to lend out the things you supervise, is to threaten borrowers with slow, agonizing death if they don’t promptly return the hammer and three ¼ inch spiral nails to the correspondingly labeled box on the north wall. Red hot pokers inserted into an available orifice are often the dispatch described in lurid detail.
The other maintenance man type is the opposite of organized. His Shop is a hodgepodge of everything from very old plumbing parts (usually from models of sinks or toilets no longer produced) to duct tape, leather straps or bits of rope left over from old horse bridles. He generally has piles of scrap he is more than willing to let anyone paw through in their search for the quick fix. This lovable type is best exemplified by my one and only Bodhisattva, Charlie, the Camp Montvale Maintenance man of 35 years. As a fresh-faced college student running my first barn, I reported to Charlie on any issues involving horses, the barn, or the surrounding grounds. And issues aplenty there were. The first time I went to visit Charlie at his Shop, I was amazed by the height of the piles of the aforementioned odds and ends. Unlike hoarders, who refuse to throw anything away, I don’t think Charlie would have minded if someone else were to clean out his Shop. But after thirty years, he knew exactly what lay in wait in each of those jagged mounds, and wasn’t going to bother cleaning when he could just gesture with a grunt to the pile he was positive must hold the item in question, and the interested party must dig for him or herself.
Charlie was a Tennessee native, in his mid-60’s, with a grizzled gray beard and protruding pot belly. He looked like a cross between Santa Claus and ZZ Top. He spoke (usually with a Winston cigarette hanging out one side of his mouth) in a confusing mix of Southern drawl and muffled hillbilly twang, but he was in general quiet, kind, and slow-moving. His most common post was atop an old Massey Ferguson tractor that he used to haul luggage as well as pull the hay wagon around camp. I took pride in being able to correctly decipher his speech, rarely having to ask for a repetition, and took it upon myself to translate for my European friends, who were used to hearing the Queen’s English. They would often look at Charlie with bewildered expressions, as if he spoke in some kind of weird religious tongue. At one point, I was asking him about the possibility of cleaning out the two old tractor stalls on the left side of the barn:
His response, “Wheel, I ain’t never done with no over yhunder, them horses don’t seem to pay no nevermind. I s’pose I’ll have ona boys take up thar with yuh n’ pullin out.”
Translation: He’d never really thought about that part of the barn because it didn’t seem to endanger the welfare of the horses, as they ignored it. But if I was concerned, he’d have his boys come help me clean it out.
Camp Montvale, like many small non-profit camps of the day, was often short on funds, so Charlie was forced to compensate by filling his assistant posts with inmates from the local pokey. These were never scary violent criminals, but usually those forced into community service for DUIs, minor drug convictions, or the like. Most mornings, as I was bringing the horses in for the day, I would see Charlie coming into camp with that day’s group of “Charlie’s Angels,” ready for a day of free labor. Sometimes there were regulars, like “John the Con”, who amazingly possessed some maintenance skills and could be trusted to actually finish a job. In between John’s DUI convictions when he was out on bail, Charlie was often forced to employ somewhat less trustworthy fellows. Some would try to impress me with jail stories. Others simply stood around and smoked. I once asked Charlie if he ever worried that they might try to escape, running off through the backwoods to freedom. His response? “If they do, they best hope the law get too ‘um ‘fore I do.” Awesome!
After a few summers (and random weekends in the spring and fall) of running this bedraggled barn and its motley crew of crazy horses, Charlie got kind of used to me being around, and started to tell me stories. Some were true ghost stories of lights going on and off in many of the abandoned buildings on camp, typical of a place that had once served as a 19th century hotel for the elite of the South. I had heard some version or another of many of these stories as a camper, but suddenly they were all verified when told by Charlie. Other times he regaled me the trials and tribulations of horses past, such as those of Nevada, a mustang Charlie collected as a foal on a roundup in Nevada in 1966, and drove back to Tennessee in the back of a station wagon. Nevada had been quite sick the previous winter, and Charlie sat with his 30-year-old horse, who lay on the floor of his stall, for four days, in a barn with no heat or electricity. With his gun under his arm, Charlie found he had trouble putting his old pal down, even though all the logic and mountain man grit inside him said he should. He waited longer than he normally would, he told me, and at the moment he finally told himself he was ready to do the deed, Nevada stood up. Anyone who knows horses can imagine how miraculous such an event feels, and Charlie, as tough as he was, was no exception. Nevada lived on two more years.
I left Camp Montvale in 1998 and since heard that Charlie had retired, bought an RV with his wife Brenda (whom he referred to as “Brender”, a bleached blond lass who sported a muumuu like no one else I’ve ever known) and set off to see America. I do feel sympathy for whomever had to clean out Charlie’s shop when he left, as it probably took that person an equal amount of time to haul out the piles of whatnot as it took Charlie to collect them. I’ve since lost touch with Charlie but I hope he and “Brender” have taken the Grand Canyon, Niagra Falls, or wherever else they had planned to go by storm. I hope the Winstons haven’t caught up with him, although something tells me Charlie was simply too grizzled to let a mere trifle like lung cancer inconvenience him. I have a feeling if he ever did get bad news involving his lungs, he may say as John Wayne reportedly did, when his doctor told him he had to have one lung removed, “Take ‘em both, doc. I don’t fuckin’ need ‘em.”