The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Beware of ‘The Boss’

By Mel Tharp © 1985

Issue: October, 1985

In rural cultures, nicknames are usually acquired at an early age and will frequently stick with a person for a lifetime. Sometimes the nickname implies a satirical caricature such as in the case of an elongated person being called "Shorty." My Uncle Floyd Bennett went through most of his life being called "Boss" from an incident that he brought upon himself as a young man.

At an early age Uncle Floyd indicated that he had little affinity for earning his bread by the sweat of his brow. It should not be said that Boss did not show initiative. He worked hard to educate himself and read every piece of printed matter he could find. He read everything available to him, and was constantly bringing in bundles of old discarded newspapers people would give him. It was just that he had total disdain for the idea that hard work is good for you and that everyone should be eager to put his shoulder to the wheel.

"The only man I know who's enthusiastic about hard labor is the feller you're working for," he would say. Another one of his paraphrased proverbs was, "He who puts his shoulder to the wheel, gets a dirty shirt."

Despite the fact that Granddad was a hard-working tiller of the soil himself, he was generally rather tolerant of his son's cavalier attitude toward manual labor. However, in 1926, when he heard that the state was building a stretch of road through a remote section of Hopkins and Webster Counties and paving the munificent wage of $1.50 a day, he felt that every able-bodied male member of the family should join ranks to reap the fruits of this economic boom.

So on a Monday morning in May, Grandma rousted Granddad and their home-grown labor force of Vestal, Bethel, Ernie and Floyd and set them down to a breakfast of side-meat, biscuits and meal gravy. Vestal, Bethel and Ernie ate heartily and were eager to get to work. Floyd, on the other hand, picked at his food, and it was evident that he had little relish for the prospect of swinging a sledge or gouging at the earth with a shovel.

By the time they reached the job site, the sun was a red ball of fire rising in the east. There was already a long line of men looking for employment. There was little formality about the process of hiring. There were no applications to fill out. The foreman simply looked you up and down, and if you met with his approval, he scribbled your name and entered the time you started and the time you quit.

The job site stretched for several miles and the road construction was done primarily with man-power and mule power. Floyd quickly observed that the site was a chaotic mass of men coming and going. Once his time was jotted down, he was separated from his family members and told to report to a straw boss further down the line.

Since his time had already started for pay purposes, Floyd was in no great hurry to get his hands around the handle of a shovel. Instead, he decided to scout around and get a wider perspective of the whole project.

It wasn't long before some of the laborers started to notice Floyd. "Who was this quiet feller with the clean breeches and uncalloused hands strutting around watching everybody jar earth?" one man asked. "I reckon he must be one of the high-mucky-mucks," another observed. "They's probably gonna be a lay-off and he's checking around to see who's working and who ain't." Before the day was over, Floyd was being addressed as "Boss" and there was a noticeable increase in the amount of dirt being shifted when he was present.

Floyd was not oblivious to the attention he was attracting. After a while, he started to exploit his new-found power. He was tentative at first as if testing to see how far he could go. "You need to work a little faster boys," he said coaxingly to one group of men. "We have to get this road built before cold weather sets in." By noon, he had grown bolder, and was walking up and down the right of way shouting and exhorting the workers to speed it up. "Faster boys! Let's get a little more music out of them Irish banjos!"

"Yes sir, Boss," some of the men would answer. Others would grit their teeth, hack an extra lick at the earth and wish this new tyrant had never seen the light of day.

At the end of the day, a dirt-caked, sweat-soaked Granddad, Vestal, Bethel and Ernie looked with puzzlement at Boss who looked just as fresh as he had been when they left home that morning. On the way home Boss bounced merrily along while the other four trudged wearily behind.

Boss was a firm believer in paper power. He had noticed the superintendent carrying around a sheaf of papers. He seemed to carry them like a badge of authority. The next morning, before they left the house, Boss gathered up some old school papers he had stored away in the loft and stuffed them inside his shirt.

The next morning, Boss walked up and down the right of way carrying his sheaf of papers under his arm, inspecting and criticizing the work. Up to now, he had been careful to avoid any of the real people in authority. But like the celebrity who reads his own press clippings, he was starting to believe in his own power. He was getting careless. He complimented some mule skinners on their proficiency in handling their animals and even promised them a raise in pay. It didn't take long for this rumor to work its way down the line. The superintendent soon got wind that there was a Communist stirring up trouble.

On the third morning, the foremen were keeping an eye out for this trouble-making "Bolshevik." It didn't take long to find him. The superintendent, a beefy, red-faced man, found Boss lecturing to a group of resting men. Boss had called a rest break and was standing on an overturned mule powered scoop, giving a dissertation on how the new road would bring a better quality of life to the people.

"You men get back to work!" the superintendent roared. Then he turned his attention to Boss. "You, gandy dancer, who do you think you are?"

At this point Boss figured he had little to lose and that the best defense was a good offense. Drawing himself up straight, he looked his nemesis square in the eye. "My name's Boss Bennett. I'll have you know I come here to tell you what to do."

The superintendent was taken aback, but only for a few seconds Recovering his poise, he grabbed a mattock and brandished it in a threatening manner. "You're nothing but a four-flusher, and if I catch you around here again, I'll tie you behind a mule and use you for a drag."

Boss knew it was time to beat a hasty retreat. He lit a shuck for home and it was not until quitting time that evening that Granddad learned Boss had been fired.

Granddad was a tolerant man, but it was hard for him to accept being told that his son was a fast-talking goldbrick. He had been raised to believe in the precept of an honest day's work for an honest day's pay. He admitted later, that upon learning of his son's canning, he would have cheerfully accepted chairmanship of a tar-and-feather committee had he been asked to serve.

Then, as word got around, Boss started to gain some acclaim as a kind of hero around the area. After all, people felt, he had struck a kind of blow for the working man by putting it over on the construction bosses. It certainly tagged Floyd with the nickname of "Boss" for the rest of his life.

Later on, Boss married and moved to Michigan where he got a clerical job with one of the automobile companies. He went on to work his way up to an executive position in the company.

Boss was always the first to admit that he never liked to dirty his hands. He said that he worked many a 14-hour day in his office. "However," he would add, "I never sharpened a pencil, polished a desk, changed a typewriter ribbon.”