From the Braver Institute
“Hey Jughead! Would you be able to help me put up a billboard?” Mean Gene asked one morning, in his usual drunkensounding, slurred voice. Even though Gene owned a bar, I had never seen him drunk, and he wasn’t drunk now, that was the way he always sounded. He also called everyone Jughead. I had been working for Gene as a handyman on a part-time, asneeded basis. I was twenty-one.
“I suppose, but I don’t know anything about putting up a billboard.”
“Bring your trailer tomorrow and we’ll go put it up.” said Gene.
The next day I arrived in my parents’ Ford Bronco, pulling a trailer that was made from the bed of a 50’s model pickup truck. I had sold the box from it a couple of years earlier to my friend Mark, and now the trailer was just an open frame. It worked well for lashing on the two old telephone poles that Gene had lying in the back yard. The poles were to be the uprights for the billboard.
Down the highway at the billboard site, Gene supervised the construction project. He was advanced in age and planting telephone poles in the ground was a little too much for him. Thinking about it now, even digging the holes to drop the poles into was too much for him. Gene could do little more than give directions as to how he wanted it all built. It didn’t bother me that Gene could not help—he was my friend and I was glad to do what I could for him.
Working on a ladder once the poles were in the ground, I fastened 2x8 stringers between them to provide a surface to mount the plywood billboard panels, once they came back from the sign painter.
The following week we brought the 4 panels to the billboard site. I attached a shelf board to the poles so I could rest the panels on it while I fastened them to the stringers. Once again Gene could only supervise.
When it was all said and done the sign looked pretty good, considering it was built by a hack kid and an old man. It loudly announced that Mean Gene’s Lakeside Inn was two miles ahead. As an afterthought, Gene had me tack on a sign that read “ICE 59..” Outside of the forts and duck blinds I had built when I was younger, this was my first real construction project. It was the first one I was paid to do, anyway.
This billboard was my mark— my “I was here”. For better or for worse, it was there for all to see.
For some reason many people want to leave their mark on the world. Some want to do it in overt and obvious ways, like building great monuments to themselves. Others are more subtle in what they leave in their wake, like maybe planting a tree or writing a boring newspaper column.
At a young age I would hear my grandfather talk about how many houses he had built in my hometown. I had always thought that it was an impressive thing to be able to say, “I built that house.”
There was a somewhat large auto dealership in my hometown that, whenever I rode by it, I would announce to whoever I was with that I had helped build that building.
That I actually had anything to do with the construction of that building may have been stretching the truth—a lot. While we were in high school, my buddy Pete and I had been hired by his uncle, who was a mason, to backfill around the interior walls of the place so the concrete floor could be poured. Backfilling is just shoveling some dirt of course, but in my book that was enough work to allow me to say that I helped build it.
These days when I drive by that building I no longer think of the legacy I have left behind, but I do think about the desire to leave my mark.
In the intervening years I have had something to do with the construction of many buildings throughout the upper Midwest, but I don’t wear that as a badge like I did with the auto dealership. Besides, most of them are well out of view of the public. To me they don’t really count as testament to my existence.
Though Mean Gene’s billboard is long gone, (as is Gene and the Lakeside Inn, for that matter) the framework that supported it still stands, holding a small sign that reads “ICE 59.” It is my mark on the world. It is my monument.
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Waye Braver can be contacted on Facebook or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
Visit the Braver Institute at www.braverinsitute.com