Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Memories of Tar Heel

I have been reading many articles about the Victory for Smithfield Workers. This victory comes after a sixteen year battle against the mega-agricultural powers in this southern state of North Carolina. Although this is a labor battle for worker rights, this particular Smithfield operation in Tar Heel has been on the front pages for other atrocities which their environmental record shows.

I wish the workers well, but having been in North Carolina and currently residing in Mississippi, I'm thinking that although this battle seems won...the war is not over, and unless some state laws can be changed, it has only begun! However, my congratulations to the people for a well fought battle. A battle that has seen illegal arrests from Luter's corporate paid armed police force, unfair and undemocratic elections, public demonstrations, work lockouts, and protests. Many people have suffered physically, mentally, and financially to reach this point! I'm proud of these people and what they have accomplished, but I sincerely hope the union who is going to represent them lives up to what these people deserve.

Another reason I share this is because I worked on the initial construction of this Tarheel, N.C. plant, I believe in '87-'88, and it triggers some of my memories from the road. I think Smithfield acquired the plant back in '92 and it's my opinion that this hog processing plant was snakebit from the git-go. It was a project agreement contract which meant the contractual hourly wage scale had been compromised by actively negotiating individual contracts on any job that meets state and federal standards for the use of government funds. One of the feds requirements was that the construction project would be manned entirely with union labor. Nobody liked these agreements...they only harmed organized labor's efforts in the south. But I don't want to talk about that crap this morning...just the good stuff I remember about the Tar Heel, N.C. area while I worked/lived among the folks who called those rich coastal plains home. (Street view of Tar Heel in Google Maps.)

On my crew there were two local sprinkler fitters who lived in the nearby Penbroke area. Both were members of the contested Lumbee Tribe and I became very good friends with both. Their family names were Oxendine and Locklear. Of the two, Locklear was more like a brother than a friend and at the time of the construction at Tar Heel, he and his family were farming a small truck patch of cucumbers on a few acres outside of Penbroke. The first time I had the opportunity to talk with Brother Locklear, he and another worker were talking about religious denomination as I walked up to meet them. Locklear turned to me and asked, "What are you?" I thought for a moment and then replied, "I am a human being". This brought a big smile to his face and he said, "You're different aren't you?",to which I replied, "I try to be!". I suppose the Gawds of humanity smiled on us and the next thing I knew he was inviting me over for potatoes, pinto beans, squash, cornbread and sweet tea...and the bond between myself and the Locklear family was made. They couldn't get rid of me after that! ;-)

His son was in college at Florida State on a grant. His two girls were young teenagers and already knew they were also going to attend FSU. The girls called me Moses from the very first day I met the family...they were true jewels...a wonderful family. Ms Locklear and the girls were the members of the family who loved we got along really well and they put me on to some good bass fishing and beautiful country. Country which I would never have seen if it had not been for their willingness to share their little part of the world with a guy 800 miles away from his own home. Yeah, they welcomed me, made me feel at home, and they gave me a reason to look forward to going back to work after the short infrequent trips to my home here in Mississippi.

I was introduced to the Cape Fear and the Lumbee rivers. The Cape Fear River has been associated with such pirates as Bonnet and Blackbeard. To navigate these waters I was also introduced to a new type of one person boat I had never seen...and to this day have no idea what it is called. It was built with two identical halves that were hinged. It served for a wood storage container, but when emptied and unfolded and locked into position, it transformed into a small dinghy of sorts. Worked well, and balance was similar to a small canoe. You had to be aware of your center of gravity at all times and much care was needed less the excitement of hooking a good size largemouth bring about an unscheduled swim.

Brother Locklear had a severe case of rheumatoid arthritis which eventually was cause for an early medical retirement. He had tried all the current medical treatments without much success and was relying more on a healer by the name of Cooper. He introduced me to Cooper and on many occasions while we were out and about, we would drop by his home and bring him some staple items from town. Cooper was one of those healers whose medicine was a mix of faith based laying on of hands, herbs, and down home common sense. He was a great human being and very selfless, but eventually Brother Locklear's only relief would come from surgery that removed those baseball size growths on his elbows and ankles.

It was difficult to say goodbye once the project was finished. There were some great memories and friendships built while I was there. There are so many stories attached to my life as a construction worker on the road, and this is a summarized recollection of one of them...and it is all thanks to the victory of the workers at Smithfield Foods. Now if only the Lumbees can finally receive the federal recognition they have fought so hard for over the last 50+ years! Good luck with that folks, but regardless, just remember that recognition, like beauty and notability, is in the eye of the beholder. Thanks for the memories friends!


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