The war ended and with it, Marcus’s engagement in the military. He took his money from the GI bill and enrolled in classes at what would later become St. Cloud State University. He took a room in a boarding house not far off of campus and worked in the summers painting railroad bridges on a moving crew. They pay was not bad, but it went much further for Marcus than many of the other men, because he neither drank, nor gambled. His mother, a staunch teetotaler instilled temperance in him from an early age, though time would soften his stance.
Knee-deep in the surety of youth, he believed water was the best thing to ingest where possible and due to his love of tea, he managed to avoid the problems that others might run in to, had they insisted from each lake and river, wherever possible.
Unlike his mother, he didn’t see drink as evil, merely unnecessary. He understood the need for the men to relax after a hard day’s work and why seeing the obliteration of drunkenness was attractive- especially the guys who’d also been “over there.” No, he did not begrudge the veterans their liquor. On one occasion, it was either the anniversary of VE day, or the Normandy invasion, he raised a glass to absent friends and lead the men in a drinking song most of the Veterans seemed to know. It was this character of being both strict with himself and knowing how to win friends that won him the loyalty of the men in his crew, just as it had won him the loyalty of the men in his squad.
Chief amongst the drunks was the crew foreman, a burly swede named Hans, he had a booming voice and had the habit of threatening work out of his men and pushing them to get his way. He’d show up late, demand to know why they weren’t further along and then threaten to dock their pay if they didn’t finish whatever they were on by the time he came back. Since he almost always went to the pub after these threats and almost never returned after going to the pub, nothing ever came out of it. Well not until the day while they were painting the Station house at some small unforgotten station that poor Stretch Gallagher had the misfortune to show up after Iron Hans (the men’s nickname for him came from one of Grimm’s Fairy Tales), had arrived on the scene. That’s how it appeared to the foreman anyway.
“Ahh, Missewer Gallagher,” he said, all false sincerity, “To what do we owe the pleasure of your presence here on your day off?”
“Sir?” Gallagher had been new and was an early target. He’d also been to the doctor after a bad fall earlier this morning. Not being much of a writer, Gallagher hadn’t thought to leave a note. Not being much of a reader, Iron Hans probably wouldn’t have read it anyway.
“Well, it must be your day off,” he continued, sweet like honey in hemlock tea, “ELSE WHY IN GOD’S NAME ARE YOU SHOWING UP SIX HOURS AFTER STARTING TIME?!?”
“I- I- I- I” Poor Stretch was terrified, he knew nothing he could do. He started to cringe and writhe under Hans’s glare wishing the earth would swallow him whole, like the preacher had talked about happening to the worshippers of the golden calf.
“YOU? Who do you think you are? Showing up to work on MY crew late?” He was now advancing on him. Gallagher was backing toward a pile of the kind of detritus that always seems to accumulate at job sites. Marcus had an idea he knew what would happen next and he dropped his brush in a nearby bucket and ran over to the event.
Just then his suspicions were correct as the foreman slapped the man- half his size once, twice and on the third time, as he raised is hand, Marcus tapped him on the shoulder and managed to connect with the corner of the man’s jaw, which cracked unpleasantly under the force of the blow. Marcus remembered then, thinking in what seemed to be slow motion, that the man was… yes, he was definitely turning but his feet were still on the ground. The force seemed to wind him up like a corkscrew one full turn before the bigger man’s eyes rolled back in his head and he fell in a boneless heap.
Marcus was not prepared for what happened next.
“What did you do?” said Stretch
“What did you DO? Shit! They’re gonna fire us. Oh shit, we’re in for it now. Why didn’t you let him just hit me. He’d have stopped eventually. Now I’m gonna be fired and I’m never gonna work again.:
Marcus was dumbfounded.
“Aww man, my old man lost his job after the war and he didn’t find work again until last year. I’ve had it!”
“Some light for the situation.” Thought Marcus.
“They’re not gonna fire us.” Said Marcus.
“No. Know why?”
“Why?” The hope that burned in the eyes of Stretch Gallagher was bright and terrible to behold.
“We’re not getting fired because none of this happened.”
“You watch. Ten to one, old glass jaw was still drunk from last night.”
“How do you think the railway owner is going to take a complaint from a drunken crew leader that he was unable to keep order from his own workers?”
“Oh yeah… that wouldn’t look good for him.”
“Right, not to mention you and I are each half his size. Guys like that put a lot of stock in how much they can rough someone up and the phrase ‘pick on someone your own size’ usually works the other way around.”
Stretch grinned his crooked grin, thinking they were in the clear.
“Besides that, I’m pretty sure no one here saw anything, so no one else will talk either, right?”
There were nods from the other men, especially the veterans. Though, it was strange. None of them seemed to be facing or even able to hear what Marcus was saying. Now that the fun was over, they went back from being a front row audience to some prime entertainment to just workmen engaged in their tasks, as if nothing had happened before and the 6’7” 300 lbs Swede didn’t exist. The crew scrupulously avoided where he lay, even though none of them so much as glanced in his direction.
When in the fullness of time, he came to, he was groggy and all he could get from the men was that he “must’ve fallen” or similar. Hans never let on that he knew what had really gone down, but it was clear from how he started assigning tougher tasks to Marcus and dirtier tasks to Stretch, that he wasn’t likely to forget. This was no good. Marcus needed to last until September so he could get his pay at the end of the summer. If he got fired now, there was every likelihood the owners wouldn’t pay and would cite ‘wear and tear’ or other excuses for why he wasn’t getting paid and how he was ‘lucky’ they didn’t go after him too.
A few days later, the men found a huge hornet’s nest and Marcus had been assigned the task of getting them done. The stings were painful, but minimal, as Marcus used a trick he’d learned from his uncle of using smoke to get the insects drunk so they wouldn’t be able to defend themselves.
In fact, it turned out that Hans was either dumb or nearsighted (he couldn’t tell which, based on the way the man seemed to squint whenever he wasn’t shouting. It turned out they were honeybees. Marcus grabbed an old box and managed to scrape the bees into it, preserving as much of the hive as possible. He moved it to a shady spot and then kept them where they could get to water and fly about as much as possible after that.
Marcus needed and idea and quickly. The bees had been lucky and would possibly be useful to his uncle back home, but he needed something now. The idea came to him, when he was unable to sleep around 5 am, as so many ideas do. Marcus resolved to get the men in on it and put their plan into action.
The peak of summer came with 100 degree days and high humidity. Marcus used this as his reason that they should start the work just after Iron Hans passed out at the saloon, so… using lanterns and homemade torches, they painted all through the night like the cobbler’s elves and touched up any spots they missed after dawn. Each day, Hans would get on site and see all of his men taking naps and when he roused them, they pointed out that the work was done.
It wasn’t their fault if they finished before he left the saloon after all. Hell, it was what he wanted. Pride cometh before the fall as they say and Hans’s case was no different. After a few of the station managers complimented Hans’s men to Bill Jacobson, the owner of the company, he decided to make a surprise visit to see the men himself. He knew about Hans and knew that in the past he’d always done the minimum necessary to get paid and get on to the next job.
It was a Friday near to the beginning of August when the owner of the company stopped by. He’d met the men before and liked them generally, but he also knew they needed a firm hand. That’s why he’d hired Hans, finding physically imposing men with a good shouty voice had worked in the past, but he was surprised at how well it was working all of a sudden.
What he found there shocked him. Hans was nowhere to be found. Instead, the crew was working by themselves and organizing themselves. This was strange. It was 11 o’clock and the day’s work was almost done. Now, Mr. Jacobson didn’t care too much about what time the work got done, but he did care that anyone who he paid was there to do it.
Furious that his foreman wasn’t on the job before his men, he tried to demand of each of them in turn where was Hans. He couldn’t get anything out of them. The logic went something like this: Even if a guy is a rat and you can’t stand the rat, there are some things you just don’t do. And ratting out the rat to the boss would make you just as big a rat as the rat you ratted out.
Marcus offered him a cup of tea to pacify him and offered him some of the honey he’d managed to collect from his hive to sweeten it. The manager was taken aback by this and accepted the tin cup with genuine thanks. He’d never had a group of men on the job before the foreman, finished by noon and offering him tea to boot. Then Marcus went back to work and invited him to stay and see how things were running.
Bosses don’t get to be bosses, or stay them for long, if they can’t read people. He knew there was no way that Hans would have been able to arrange this, not in a million years. So, he waited. Around two or three in the afternoon, Hans stumbled in red-faced and full of steam at the men for knocking off work before the day was done. He was into the second verse of his one of his favorite harangues on the subject of “Workin’ till the day is done” when he froze. Something was wrong. A face was visible beyond one of the bridge columns, it was the big boss man, Mr Jacobson of Jacobson Paint and Construction, the man who signed his cheques. He went from red to white and he choked on his words.
Instead of looking angry, the boss looked interested. Hans wasn’t totally sober, but he knew enough to knew that no one should be too happy when the boss, the big boss, takes too much of an interest in the work they do. He had something in his hand. Something that flashed bright in the sun as Mr. Bill Jacobson stepped out from the shade. Hans started, thinking for a second that it was a gun. A moment later, he realized it wasn’t a gun, but a tin cup. The relief didn’t last long, as he soon recognized it was Marcus’s teacup and it was empty. The boss hadn’t just arrived, Hans had.
“I’m interested Hans,” said Mr. Jacobson, “I’m interested in your efficiency.”
“I’m interested in how you can be so efficient in leading your men, that you don’t even seem to have to be on site with them in order for the jobs to be completed. In fact, it seems that for the last few weeks, all of your jobs have been completed by lunchtime and if today is any indication they’ve all been done better and faster without your involvement.”
“I’m also interested, because no one will confirm nor will they deny whether today is typical or atypical for your schedule- though I’m sure a visit to the local saloons will be able to furnish me with any information I wish.”
Hans said nothing.
“I’m so intrigued by this method of the work getting done without the foreman, that I’m going to try it permanently.”
“What?” Asked Hans.
“You’re fired. Take your belongings and go. Your pay will be wired to the home address we have on file and I suggest you get going there immediately.”
Hans’s face darkened and he was enraged. “You did this!” he screamed at Marcus, “You did this and I’ll get you you gods-damned bastard.”
“Hans,” said Bill, “I don’t think you understand. If you don’t leave right now, or if you try to exact any sort of revenge on whomever you think is responsible for your ill fortune, I’ll have you arrested for embezzling from me. You’ve been stealing my money by charging for time you didn’t work for some time now and I’m not usually so generous. In fact you have the young man and his cup of honeyed tea to thank for why I’m feeling so… jovial.” His eyes showed a message contrary to the meaning of the words he spoke.
“Yes sir.” And Iron Hans was broken.
After he was gone, Mr. Jacobson invited Marcus to a restaurant in town and they shared a meal.
“Is it true that you got the men to start work at 4 in the morning to get things done?”
“Why on heaven’s name didn’t you strike or do something to make him look bad?”
“No need for that. Besides, he wasn’t the one paying me. You are.”
“Huh,” said Mr. Jacobson.
“And you’re telling me that your response to someone with whom you have had a dispute is to make them look good? I’m a bit confused.”
“Yes really, why did you do it?”
“What did I do?”
“Inspire the men to work at ungodly early hours to finish the work before he got there.”
How to explain. This was dangerous territory, like explaining things to officers. Something any Sergeant worth his salt is loathe to do, except when absolutely necessary. how could he explain the layers and levels of things that made him decide what to do. How on the one hand, he wanted the bad boss gone, but on the other hand he thought that giving him a good reputation might help him clean up his act, how, he didn’t want the crew fired or replaced, and that the only difference between a man or a bum is whether he has a job, or how the men in his crew (yes, he thought of it as ‘his’ crew) deserved work they could be proud of and how getting the work done by noon was the best way to ensure they’d minimize the abuses they dealt with under Iron Hans. Too complicated for the likes of officers, or owners, he decided.
“Well, it was the one idea I could think of that would have the best chance of ending well for everyone.”
“You some sort of bible-thumper?”
“No, do I sound like one?”
“No, you sound too much like Christ hisself to be a churchgoing man. You gave him every opportunity to improve himself knowing that you wouldn’t get any credit if he did.”
“If he had, he would have been the one to do the work and I wouldn’t have deserved any credit at all.”
“But why not confront him or work against him? Most men would have?”
“Why should I care if the foreman is bad or good at his job? What’s it to me? I’m hired to care about doing a good job getting bridges painted and I’m not going to let anyone get in my way. I do the work that needs doing.”
“Huh, think you can do that if I give you your own crew?”
“Well, I’d be happy to, Mr. Jacobson-”
“Please, we’re out to lunch. Call me Bill.”
“Alright. Bill. I’d be happy to, but I’m starting at the College over in Saint Cloud in the fall and I won’t have the time to spend painting bridges.”
“Well, until September then and you let me know when you’re free again, summers, winters whatever and you’ll have a job with me.”
“Thank you Sir.”
Mr. Jacobson raised an eyebrow.
“Thank you, Bill.”
“I should be thanking you. If anyone else had run across the foreman like you did, they might’ve cost you a lot of money. As it is, you didn’t lose me a thing.”
“You know, I have an idea on that and I think you might like it…”
They discussed how they could put it into the contracts that if the men finished the job early and well, a premium would be paid to the company and result in each man getting a bonus. Mr. Jacobson loved the idea and told him to try it immediately.
Later that night, Stretch leaned over and asked him how he’d done it. How he’d gotten rid of Iron Hans, become the foreman and gotten them all a raise.
Marcus looked into the fire and said, “I’ve found that whenever you have an opponent, I try and never leave the outcome of the match to the referee.”
“Oh yeah, there was a referee?” Said Stretch confused.
“There’s always a referee,” said Marcus.