For two years during college I had a summer job at Bluebird Body Company, the well-known school bus manufacturer in Fort Valley, Georgia. My first employment was during the summer of 1971.
It was hard work but the pay was good. I worked on the assembly line where driveshafts were installed. My boss was Mr. James Dupree, a long-time Bluebird employee and a good friend of our family. He was a quiet, pleasant, hard-working man, who set a wonderful example for all of us.
The next year I signed up for another tour of duty. I expected to return to the same spot on the line. On the first morning of work, however, the fellow who greeted me called me Steve. He said that I would be working with Mr. Wiley Patterson, inspecting rivets. “It’s just you and Mr. Patterson.” he said. “You’ll be looking to see if any rivets are not properly seated. Then you mark them with chalk.”
I had really enjoyed working with Mr. James Dupree, but I figured Steve would too. Marking rivets with chalk was a lot more appealing than turning wrenches and handling heavy driveshafts. I heard that bluebird singing, and I felt like he was singing my song.
Mr. Wiley Patterson was another great boss. I was six feet five inches tall but only weighed 165 pounds. I don’t know where all the food went, but it seemed there was no limit to what I could eat. Mr. Wiley began bringing two extra biscuits for me. Inside the biscuits would be a piece of country fried steak or cured ham, or sometimes a slice of roast beef with gravy. This was a snack for our morning break. It sure beat having a pack of orange colored cheese and peanut butter crackers.
There was, however, a down side to my new job. Each bus had thousands of rivets holding the exterior sheet metal in place. The rivets were air hammered one at a time by work hardened men with sinewy muscles. The buses went down that inspection line quickly. That part was okay. The problem, however, was a wide disagreement as to what constituted a defectively installed rivet. Mr. Wiley marked anything that looked suspicious. He had been there for decades. Nobody questioned where he used the chalk.
But I was a skinny college kid who was there just for the summer. When I marked rivets, it was a whole different story. “You’re killing us!” the air hammer guys would complain. “There’s nothing wrong with those rivets!”
I would slack up a bit and the air hammer guys would start smiling again. Then Mr. Wiley would inevitably say, “Steve, are you running low on chalk? Here are several that you missed.”
Mr. Wiley was a good boss, plus he was bringing those biscuits. I didn’t want to do anything to interfere with that. But the fellows with air hammers were always hot and sweaty and barely able to keep up with the buses being rolled down the line. I sure did hate to mark something that seemed mechanically okay, something that looked a little cocksided but was probably fine.
It was like riding a seesaw but changing partners every few minutes. It’s hard to get in rhythm that way. Mr. Wiley and the air hammer guys were seldom happy at the same time. I felt like an umpire at a Little League game with parents on both sides constantly giving advice.
About halfway through the summer, a Bluebird employee named David Fullington walked by our section. David had been my good friend since Mrs. Kathryn Roberts’ first grade class at Pinehurst Elementary. He was probably thirty feet away when he shouted out my name and told me to stop loafing.
Mr. Wiley said, “What did he just call you?”
“He called me Neil,” I said.
“Why did he call you Neil?” asked Mr. Wiley.
“Because that’s my name,” I replied. I told Mr. Wiley what had happened, and that I thought there was probably a guy named Steve who was wondering why he was installing driveshafts.
Mr. Wiley shook his head and laughed. I survived the summer, and even made friends with the air hammer guys. That last day of work they told me they hoped I’d be back. They all shook my hand firmly like they meant it.
When the five o’clock whistle blew, I turned in my chalk. I heard that bluebird singing once again. This time I knew it with certainty. That bluebird was singing my song.