MAXWELL:  A human machine and a giant among men

6/20/1999 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


For the first time since I was a small child, I did not buy a Father’s Day gift. My father died eight weeks ago.

He was one of the last of a group of black men who were “human machines,” as they called themselves, and they had nicknames to match _ Iron Man, Steelhead, Hammer, Tree, Dolomite, Dredge. My father was known as Big Man and Big Willie. He was 6 foot 6 and, in his prime, weighed 250 pounds.

Before farming, lumbering and other harvesting fields mechanized, men like him literally did all of the heavy lifting.

They were the loaders.

They were muscular and as hard as metal, not from workouts in the gym but from years of backbreaking toil in groves, fields and woods. Not one was fat, each sporting broad shoulders, a massive chest, chiseled arms and a slim waist.

To growers and crew chiefs, men like my father were the most important link in the process that took produce from the field to the table. These giants were so highly valued by some owners that they would give them vacations, loans and pocket money. One of my father’s bosses at Minute Maid co-signed for him to buy a new 1956 green-and-white Ford.

Theirs was a world of machismo, where physical strength meant everything. Intellect, of the academic kind, meant little, if anything, to them. I will never forget my father’s words, for example, after I announced in 1963 that I was going to college: “What the hell are you going to college for? Get a man’s job.”

He never openly forgave my “going off to college to be a damned sissy.”

Even so, I have mostly fond memories of him, some of the fondest being those of him and other black men loading Florida citrus in the 1950s and early 1960s for McBride Fruit Co. in Seville and Clark Fruit Co. in Crescent City. Saturdays during the school term and weekdays during the summer, I accompanied my grandfather to the groves. My father was always one of our loaders.

McBride always used two to four trucks in each grove to transport the fruit to the packinghouse. Each truck had three loaders, one driver, one stacker on the truck bed and a goat on the ground. My father was the quintessential goat _ the strongest man in the crew who, each day, lifted hundreds of 3-foot-long wooden field boxes onto the truck. Filled to capacity, each box weighed at least 300 pounds.

With gnats swarming around him, my father bent, grabbed the two end handles, straightened his back and heaved at the same time. The boxes, swung at least 5 feet into the air, landed on the truck bed where the stacker arranged them neatly in four 6-foot-high rows to be secured with cables for transport.

Sweat poured from the men’s bodies, but they worked until the load was complete. As a boy, I marveled at how the men’s arms and chests strained under the weight, withstood the repetition and endured the long hours. Everything was done with precision.

Competition among the crews was fierce. The men would bet big sums on which truck would be the first to load, reach the packing house and return to the grove to repeat the cycle. If my father had a good stacker and driver, his truck, a wide-fender International, never lost a bet.

For their efforts, my father and his crew always received bonuses. Everybody wanted to vanquish Big Willie. Iron Man, a jet black, bald-headed South Carolina Geechie, was the only other goat who regularly gave my father a serious challenge.

And these men played the way they worked: hard and rough. They arm-wrestled constantly, tussled and boxed with bare knuckles. Amazingly, they rarely fought. Even when they punched one another savagely, they stopped at the first sign of blood. Apparently, they knew that their bodies were valuable property.

During the years that I followed my father up and down the East Coast to harvest crops, I admired his physical strength and wanted to emulate him. When I was in 11th grade, he became a crew chief for a potato farmer in Exmore, Va. I, along with four of my schoolmates, joined him there in the summer and, to my surprise, he hired us as loaders. For two months, my buddies and I loaded thousands of bags of potatoes.

The other boys admired us, and the girls flirted. We could feel our muscles getting bigger and our backs growing stronger. We had become men _ human machines like our fathers. Indeed, hard, outdoor physical labor was the litmus test for manhood in those days.

The week before my father died, I visited him in his hospital room in Fort Pierce. A tube had been shoved down his nose and others pierced his arms. Having languished in this state for more than a month, he was no longer Big Man. Staring down at him, I recalled his glory days, when he could lift his own weight without blinking, how other awe-struck men wondered how he could out-muscle them day after day.

When he whispered, “Don’t let me die like this. I want to die like a man,” I knew exactly what he meant. I spoke with his doctor.

Big Man died two days later _ having held onto some of his dignity and manhood to the very end.