Summer, Carl Larsson (1853-1919), date unknown.
It was the summer I trafficked in Coke. The best summer ever. 1970.
I had graduated from high school and was playing baseball with a team that would make it to the state championship by summer’s end — a summer that would conclude with my entering Notre Dame. The ballgames and post-high-school summer liberties kept me up late most nights, but I got up every morning at 5. So did my dad.
We ate breakfast together, I packed a lunch, and he drove me down to the local Coca-Cola bottling plant. There I pulled on the day’s freshly laundered butterscotch jumpsuit (with pinstripes and a big Coca-Cola symbol on the back) and went out to the trucks, ready to roll at 6 a.m. — a fleet of bright red vehicles loaded full of glass-bottled Coke (along with some Sprite, Dr. Pepper and a little Fanta).
We were the only crew that took out two trucks — the biggest route in the city of 200,000. Roy Burroughs was the salesman; he drove the big truck. Lee Christor, an African-American “helper,” drove the second truck — a rarity in those days, because only white men got the routes and the trucks and the commissions. I was a summer helper with lots to learn.
The work was hard. Mostly it required only strength and stamina in the oppressive Louisiana heat and humidity. These were 8- and 10-hour days of lifting, bending, carting, stacking those 40-pound cases of classic sea-green glass bottles that came then in wooden crates, with a latticework wood grid to keep the 24 bottles in place.
My first Friday on the job — after a week of work and play — I crashed on my bed before dinner and didn’t wake up till 10 the following day.
The handcart was the helper’s helper. But at first it was an intractable foe. Six of those 40-pound cases on a handcart, a cart to be loaded, wheeled through parking lots, up and down ramps or steps, over bumps and fissures in concrete. Negotiating doorways one-handed was particularly tricky. Some of our stops were country stores with gravel parking lots and old-time boardwalk porches.
It took days to master the proper tilt — not too far back that the weight clenched the forearm muscles, not too upright to risk a dump. An art of balance and deft handling. Arriving at your destination required removing the cart from underneath a tipsy tower of pop — a maneuver mastered in time, eventually done thoughtlessly, but acquired only through persistence. Then the cases were lifted again and stacked in storerooms or shelves, or displayed in pyramids as enticement to quench the summer thirst.
Driving a handcart was an essential skill; case-tossing was another.
Not only did we deliver the full bottles of Coke, we also removed the empties from the stores — all those bottles returned to the bottling plant to be washed, refilled and reused. These were the days of nickel bottle deposits, before plastic containers and two-liter jugs. And because we began each day with our side-pocket bins stacked to the brim, there was no place to store the empties — except on the roof of the truck. So that’s where they went. We threw them up there.
Lee Christor was big and strong and spoke little, but first stop he conveyed the instructions for me to climb on top of the truck and get ready to catch the cases. I thought that — but no, he wasn’t fooling with me. I clambered to the roof of the truck.
Without further warning he heaved up the first and I caught and set it down — only to look back down and see the next case already coming my way. And the next, for as soon as I slid one case across the metal roof, I turned and saw the next one airborne, coming at me. We played such pitch and catch daily, you simply couldn’t miss. And by summer’s end I could toss those cartons of empties onto the lid of the truck and land the final two or three snug into the last remaining slots — just like Lee.
Back then, summer jobs did not advance careers; they taught us about life. And how to work and how to show up for work each day. And to appreciate work that is done but is almost never noticed. The camaraderie of the bread guys and beer men, the dairy deliverers and others whose jobs took them to stockrooms and backdoors. People with a job to do, a family to support, a living to make. All doing what they could.
Here is something else I learned.
We sometimes took a break in our days — apart from our brownbag lunch — and when we did, Roy and I went one way and Lee always went another. For a couple of weeks I didn’t give it much thought. I figured he’d found the bathroom, lingered outside for a smoke, preferred to be alone, quiet as he was. I was happy to be included in this fraternity of working men.
Then one day, a couple of weeks in, we made a delivery to a diner and Roy said, “Let’s go inside. I’ll buy you lunch.” And we sat at the counter and, when Lee didn’t come, I went looking for him. The third member of our team was sitting in the kitchen, steamy and hot, sweat in torrents on his face. I told him to come on in and he said no. And when I said, “Hey, come on, I’ll buy you lunch; it’s air-conditioned in there,” he said no again. He offered no explanation; just said no, then snarled, “Go on back.”
When I told Roy about Lee being in the kitchen where it was so hot, Roy — a good man and always good to Lee — said, “It’s OK. He can stay there with his people, and we can stay out here with ours.”
And then I got it, why he wouldn’t join us in stores and cafes. He wasn’t welcome; it wasn’t his place, to be in our company. And I was surprised again that I had somehow missed interpreting the signs of the natural order I had grown up with. I could be naïve that way, with a different sense of what seemed natural and right. But that discussion is way too big and nuanced and fraught with landmines to get into here.
But from that time on, sometimes I took breaks with Roy and sometimes with Lee. And all summer long, Roy, Lee and I worked so hard and so well together. We were a team, and then I went off to Notre Dame, and they stayed to deliver Coke.
I went looking for them the following year, having taken a different summer job — one just as hard but with better pay. They were glad to see me when I caught up with them in a Piggly Wiggly parking lot. Roy put out his hand, squeezed mine and gave me a hearty pat on the back. And Lee Christor? Lee’s face bloomed into a grin I can still see to this day, then he gave me a big hug, pulled me close to his chest and lifted me right up off the ground. Greatest hug ever.
Kerry Temple is editor of this magazine, and to this day he holds the door for cart-wheeling delivery people.