My Night at the Lumber Mill
By Russ Towne
I was bored and sleepy. The night was not what I expected. Earlier that day, my grandfather asked me if I wanted to go to work with him. He was the graveyard shift night watchman at a lumber mill near Murphy Creek, Oregon. I didn’t know what a graveyard shift was or what a night watchman did, but it sounded exciting and a little scary so I said, “Sure!”
I was a scrawny nine-year-old California city kid visiting my grandparents in the country. I felt honored to go to work with him. As the oldest of five children, I believed that being invited could start a traditional rite of passage for all my siblings. It turns out, I was the first and last to be invited because of what happened that night.
The hours ticked by. It was dark by the time Grandma made dinner for us to take to work and a thermos of coffee for him. Watching Grandpa get ready, I was disappointed that he wore regular clothes. I expected him to have a uniform and badge.
Then, he strapped on a holster and gun. “Oh boy! “He needs a gun to do his job! Cool! This is going to be great! He must really trust me to invite me to a dangerous job where he needs to use a gun!”
I yelled “Shotgun” to myself as I sat in the front seat next to him in his old pickup. I was his sidekick, ready to back him up if things got rough. Maybe we’d even catch some robbers or something.
The workers had gone home. We were all alone to protect this huge mysterious lumber mill. A howling wind chilled my bones, sent shivers up my spine, and quickly blew away puffy clouds of mist that appeared when we spoke. The whole place smelled like sawdust and freshly-cut wood. The night was cloudy and as black as our cat Tiffany. I missed her. A full moon added flickering light when fast-moving clouds thinned out in places, a potent mix of magic and spookiness.
We went into the guard shack. Grandpa rarely said much. I learned from my dad that men who say little are often the ones you want to listen to the most. They think a lot before saying anything. Unlike me; I often chatter nervously. It was almost as if I was afraid of the silence. My incessant talking must have driven my grandpa nuts, but he never mentioned it.
We sat together in the guard shack trying to keep warm. After what seemed like hours, he said it was time to do our rounds. I didn’t know what he meant, but I followed him out the door. On the way out, he grabbed the strap of something black and hung it from his shoulder. Whenever a beam of light fell on it, I stole a glance at it trying to figure out what it was. The mysterious item was the shape of a thick solid wheel made of metal encased in leather. It had what looked like a small clock in the center and something that looked like a big keyhole.
As we walked around the lumber mill, few bright lights pierced small holes in the darkness. I guessed those were the most important places for us to protect. In the full-dark places, Grandpa used a flashlight to keep us from crashing into things. Occasionally, Grandpa stopped to lift a metal lid from a small box that held a key on a chain. He inserted and twisted the key into the mysterious round leather-encased object, then put the key back where he found it. Near as I could tell, the key never opened anything. I asked him what he was doing. He said it was how he showed that he was doing his rounds when and where he was supposed to. It seemed like magic to me.
Walking around empty buildings and in the dark was scary, but I had my grandpa with me and he had his gun. Besides, we were doing an important job. No telling when someone might try to rob the place.
When our rounds were done, we went back to the guard shack. He offered some coffee to me. “Wow! Adults drink coffee and he just offered me some. He must think I’m grownup enough to handle it.” I proudly accepted a cup. It was bitter compared to hot chocolate, but it was hot. I’d have finished it even if it tasted like mud. I didn’t want him thinking his grandson was a wimp.
I got bored. Then drowsy. The hours dragged on in the guard shack. I wished something exciting would hurry up and happen. I didn’t want to waste the night. I tried real hard to stay awake, trying not to wimp out; and sidekicks need to stay awake when on duty. I fell asleep.
I don’t know how long I was out. The next thing I knew, Grandpa was shaking my arm.
I jerked my head off the table. It took me a second to get my eyes to focus and realize where I was.
He whispered, “I hear something out there. Stay here. I’ll be back shortly.” He grabbed his flashlight and was gone.
I felt excited, then scared. “What if something bad happens to Grandpa? He might need my help.” I didn’t want to admit even to myself that I was afraid of being in that guard shack alone, in a big saw mill, in the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere. I wanted to be with him. I quietly slipped out the door. I didn’t have a flashlight and couldn’t see a thing. I was even more afraid.