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Real Work: The Ditchman's Tale

Real Work honors and evokes the long days, muddy crafts, shrewd stoicism, and sad laughter of the ditch-digging life. In the late 1960s, while the rest of America gutted itself over social injustice and a faraway war, a graduate-school escapee nicknamed "Doc" put in a slow, illuminating year with a memorable crew of bottom-rung blue-collar workers. But after months of alternating hard work and boredom, there came a week so full of drama, slapstick, and peril, so "complete and inexhaustible in its possibilities for wonder," that suddenly his year of real work made perfect sense.

Praise for Real Work:

"Paul Schullery's tale is beautifully descriptive and humorous, with wonderfully cast characters."

--- Lisa M. Owens, author of Worth the Coming Home  and Worth the Seeing Through
"Real Work is a quietly beautiful book: honest, poignant, and exceedingly well written. It offers ample wisdom as well as humor, some wry, some belly-laugh-inducing. A thread of understated ominousness runs through the story, as workmen on a water crew in a small prairie town contend with powerful machines, collapsing ditch walls, and their own interactions as they reveal 'the real innards of civilization' when digging holes 'into the secret earth.'" The true power of the fiction emerges as the main character, known as "Doc" to his fellow laborers, gradually discovers 'the strange depth of my loyalty to these men whose world I would never fully inhabit.'" --- Charles Fergus, author of the Gideon Stoltz mystery series, including A Stranger Here Below and Nighthawk's Wing


An excerpt from Real Work--on knowing where you live

Working at the water department introduced me to the real innards of civilization. Peel away the lawns, the topsoil, the fill, and all the pavement and you find an elegant network of interwoven utility lines—water, gas, electrical, sewage, drainage—that most people never even imagine. Each street is underlain by the main lines of each utility, off which come the finer pipes to each property, and that collection of metal, plastic, and tile tubes would be enough to impress most people, but with time it takes on a richer complexity. Given a century or so, it becomes a kind of tapestry, as old lines are cut off and forgotten, new lines added, and the whole thing grows slowly deeper, like Schliemann's Troy, as new layers of fill, new buildings and additions to old buildings, and new layers of pavement gradually raise the town.
         At first I pictured it as a system of flows—tiny tube-shaped currents of water, gas, electrons, sewage, and so on, altogether an immense, whole, amoebic being, writhing along its million fine, stiff tentacles beneath me. Then it dawned on me that it was in fact a set of reservoirs. When the water plant's operators pushed some more water out into the system, it didn't automatically or steadily go somewhere. In the middle of the night, except for a few lawn sprinklers and malfunctioning toilets running quietly, the whole sprawling webwork—countless miles of line, hundreds of six-, eight-, twelve-, and even twenty-four-inch diameter horizontal columns of water, and thousands and thousands of half-inch and three-quarter inch ones—just sat there, or at least slowed to an imperceptible rate of flow.
         I also pictured it as a trail that could conceivably be followed. Barring a closed valve blocking the way, a tiny submarine (piloted in my mind by Raquel Welch wearing that magnificent wet suit) could travel from any business or house in town to any other. Willy Stiles, our water meter repairman, reinforced this fantasy by telling me that one day he answered a call from a home whose water meter was making odd noises. He could hear it clicking as he went down the basement steps, and could tell immediately it was jammed. When he took it apart, he discovered a tiny bluegill wedged in the little butterfly mechanism that cranked the gauge's needles as the water passed through ("I just put it in my pocket and didn't say nothin' to the lady"). Like most town water systems, ours also depended on a reservoir, a large body of water elevated above the town, to provide the steady pressure that would make the water come out of the faucet when you turned it on.
         As it was explained to me, the water tower and the water plant's pumps were only sufficient to force more water into the system; the reservoir did the heavy pushing. Our reservoir was a large, tile-lined pond on Lander's Hill just south of town. Exposed to the air and the whims of a sporting public, it had long ago acquired populations of stunted bluegills and snaky little bass. Though there were filters in the reservoir's outlet that connected it to the town system, and though those filters were designed to prevent such things, occasionally a tiny fish, frog, or invertebrate could go on a bizarre and winding journey in the black, convoluted, and hopeless world under the town.
         Knowing and enjoying all this made each new hole we dug something of an adventure in historical archaeology. Until you've dug a few dozen ditches around a town you have no idea how much its topography has been altered. In a mid-nineteenth century community the size of Granville, it was all but impossible to break through the turf and immediately find native soil. Fill, in all its forms, with its asphalt chunks, rusty cans, wires, nails, teacup handles, and countless other artifacts, was invariably what you saw first—either the intentional fill of previous landowners who didn't like the direction of local drainage, or the inadvertent fill of history, as when an old building is leveled, its foundation crushed in place, and a new structure or yard or driveway put on top.