A pleasant surprise at Chatham
by Stephen Harris
I got passed over for finger painting in first grade, and since then I’ve taken out my still unresolved frustration whenever I take paintbrush in hand.
Only once did my hometown teacher haul out the finger-paint and paper for us, and she must not have had enough to go around that day. I got picked for a lot of things in school, but on finger painting day I did not get picked.
After more than 50 years I still don’t know why. And after more than 50 years I’m still waiting for my first chance to finger paint. If you’ve got some plans, call me up.
So, some time later I jumped at the chance when Dad said I could paint the trees. That’s right, the trees.
Dad took a notion one time to whitewash the trees in the yard. Back in the old days folks would paint the trunks of their trees with the cheap, watery paint substitute called whitewash. That was the paint made famous by Tom Sawyer and his fence in the classic Mark Twain story.
Surely I couldn’t mess up whitewashing trees, Dad figured. And I didn’t. I did a beautiful job. Any mess simply fell harmlessly onto the grass.
I whitewashed up to the first limb, as per Dad’s instructions. It was supposed to keep insects off the trees. But later I noticed ants climbing the whitewashed trees just as before.
I had thought the notion of whitewashing trees had long fallen out of favor, but then I spotted a handful of trees in a yard along Klondike Road with some whitewash just around the base. If this is the start of a trend, remember you heard it here first.
So after my first-grade disappointment and my whitewashing trees experience I put painting out of mind for many years until I went to the old Chatham mill on the east end of Elkin for a summer job. Guess where they sent me.
Dad was a long-time hand at the textile mill, and I grew up hearing stories from there. But I was shocked when Tracy Walker, the personnel man at the mill, sent me to the painting crew. I didn’t know the mill had a painting crew.
With experience only in not finger painting and in whitewashing I entered the painters’ lounge on the east end of the mill. I found about a half-dozen men there who plied their trade at the plant.
For two summers I apprenticed with the old hands who were kept surprisingly busy 40 hours a week on projects throughout the massive Chatham mill complex.
The men introduced me not only to their vocation but to the culture of the mill. I found the Chatham painters open and friendly and, for the most part, surprisingly accommodating to the college boys, as they called us.
The camaraderie at the mill surprised and pleased me. I have never seen anything like it at work before or since with the possible exception of a small group of social workers with whom I once worked.
Thousands worked at the Chatham mill, and most seemed to know and like each other. It was very much like one big family.
The painters, who traveled the confines of the mill, were goodwill ambassadors. As they moved from place to place with various projects, they got to meet and know many of the mill hands.
The men would stop and check on the other workers, asking about family, ensuring everyone was in good spirits.
And they loved to tease us college boys. For example, one of the painters one time challenged us with this trick question: if eggs are 12 cents a dozen, how much are 100 eggs? Do you have a snap answer? When we didn’t, we heard about it from the painters.
I took more pretense than skill in painting with me from the mill. I’ve tried to draw on my Chatham experience since when I’ve tackled a painting project or two at home.
My late father-in-law was a painter, and one time after I had stained the house he came over and started looking around. Stain is much more difficult to apply than paint because it runs so freely. I became unnerved when I realized he was checking out my work.
“Pretty good,” he mumbled. It was the only compliment I ever got from the old man. I’ll take it.
My own father, a machine fixer at the old Chatham mill, was not a painter. I learned that one summer when I took down some old shutters he had once painted. I found a line of white paint outlined on the red brick left by Dad. He didn’t take the shutters down to paint them.
Now that white paint will not come off the brick. I call it a reminder of dear ol’ Dad.
So now I’ve started repainting the trim on the house. It’s been 15 years and the paint job is showing its age. I’ll try to get restarted on it this spring.
And I’ll try to make the ol’ Chatham painters proud.
Stephen Harris returned home to live in State Road.
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