The summer of 2005 was an important year for me. Certainly most important among the milestones was that I started dating my future wife. But, also that summer I went to the Cannes Film Festival, I got my first real production job, and I was going to be a college senior. 

All these things I knew were part of that list we play back in our heads. That list of landmarks in life, the things that molded us into the wet glob of clay we are today. There was one thing from that summer, however, that did not immediately make the list.

This first production job ended up having a trap door in the floor. The show was called Simple Living with Wanda Urbanska.

 

If you watch the first few seconds you will hear Wanda allude to her and her husband’s cherry orchard.  I took the job on the show in early June just as the cherry season was kicking off. Coincidentally, the production of the show was still several weeks away. Their suggestion: I work at the cherry orchard for the season which will end just before work on the show should start. Then, I would slide right into my position there.

I had never worked at a cherry orchard, how hard could it be? Also, it was my first job that seemed to be on the path toward a career. Yes ma’am! I will be your Anton Chekov, the Creative Visionary of Fancy Gap!

But, as my job responsibilities were laid out before me it seemed that there would be no lolling about, no ruminating on the beauty and mystery of life, it seems that I was in store for actual, manual labor. 

My day unfolded as follows: I woke up at 4:50 am, drove 45 minutes north to Fancy Gap. I would usually stop at a small gas and grocery just beside the cherry orchard and get a can of sardines or Vienna sausages for lunch. I would arrive at the mountain orchard at 6. The sun would usually just be starting to peak over the hill, bathing Piedmont North Carolina in morning light….To be completely honest with you I am just making this up as I write. What I actually saw were probably bolts of light and daggers shooting through my corneas as I tried to fully wake and shake myself from the remnants or the last-college-summer-poison still coursing through my veins from the night before. 

Once I got to the orchard I was greeted by Shelly. She was about 15 and she served as the greeter to the orchard. Shelly had Tourrets. Like a factory whistle her yelps and wails would echo down the mountain every hour. The owner of the orchard joked (repeatedly) that Indians were coming down out of the hills.

Shelly lived there in the mountains with her old man who parked cars at the orchard. And, by park cars I mean he yelled at city folk who got their cars stuck in the mud. He would shake his cane like it were a wet noodle and yell through the cigarette hanging from his lip, ” WHOA! GOD DAMN WHOA!” he would shout, as a freshly cleaned SUV would slide off the side of a hill and into a wet ditch. That cane would immediately stiffen and rap rap rap against the window. It would shamefully roll down: “Now, didn’t I tell’ya to god damn whoa!? Now you’re in a hell of a mess and we’ll have to get one of the Mexicans to come up here and push your ass out!” He would limp away and I suspected he limped mostly because his cane was too busy waving in the air to actually steady his walk.

After I drove past Shelly and her dad I would park. I would get out and spend the first hour or so picking cherries with the Latino workers. These cherries would be taken down to the pack house and sold to people who didn’t care to take the time to go and pick their own. Then, an hour before the orchard opened my job became to set ladders and move ladders as needed. Put the public on the cherries and just let them go at it.  These ladders were 20 foot long, solid wood ladders and it was no minor feat to move these things, up and down the side of a mountain. But, I wasn’t alone. 

I was 21 and in pretty good shape. And, my ass was beat. It was a hot North Carolina summer and who in the hell would have figured it, but there was not one spot of shade. No shade in a cherry orchard! It seemed to defy the laws of physical science but I swear there was not a square foot of shade on that whole mountain. But, as hard as it was on me I couldn’t have been in more pain than Paul.

Paul taught me the value of a smoke break when you work in the sun and sweat all day. A smoke break was about a common-accepted pause from work. If you weren’t smoking and you just stopped, well you were lazy. You stop to smoke and, well, you were taking a smoke break. Thing was though, Paul didn’t just smoke at breaks he had a cigarette in his mouth more times of the day than not. He was overweight and when he got hot he didn’t turn red or even flushed, he just turned white. He looked the picture of poor health.

But, Paul had a never-relenting smile. No matter how hot or how tired he always dawned a smile if you happened upon him out in the orchard. Maybe that’s what first opened the door to our friendship. Me, in my naive college student era, I figured I had this man sized up from the beginning. Just like I knew who Shelly and her dad were I had a pretty good idea who Paul was. But, his friendly and knowing smile didn’t fit the character I had built in my mind. The look on his face seemed to say “I’m happy to be alive, but I know this ain’t where it’s at!”

Finally, I took the time get to know him. It turns out that Paul Hodges was a graduate of Duke University where he had a degree in theater, I believe he was a double major actually, theater and English. He was once the Poet Laureate of Durham. He still wrote. He had poems published and he wrote music, essays and philosophical treatises. He was an actor and worked on the stage for some side money from time to time. And, he did it all living by himself in a small forest house outside of Mt. Airy, NC.

Paul started bringing me his essays and his poems. We used to talk about them and talk about everything else too. I think he liked having someone to talk to on a basic level, but I also realized that I looked forward to what I would learn from him.

Then, one day he gave me a vision.

I was standing at the top of a particularly steep section of the mountain orchard. We were moving the ladders up the hill to unpicked territory. Catching my breath for a moment, I looked back down the hill and saw Hank trailing—(this was a typo, but I am leaving it because it is telling)—I saw Paul trailing behind me. He was really breathing hard and struggling up the slippery bank. His face was dotted with sweat and the wrinkles on his face seemed to be weighing him down until finally he slipped and fell. Now, because he was on such a steep incline he didn’t fall so much as he lost his footing. He ended up on the ground, a short trip, sitting up right, looking off down the mountain. I went to check on him.

“You alright, Paul?” He didn’t even look at me, but that grin just crept across the side of his mouth and he took a drag off his cigarette. “Just taking a moment to admire the scenery. I don’t believe in God but somebody made a god-damned pretty picture here.”

I sat with him for a few more minutes before we got back to work.

I guess this post is getting a bit long so I won’t go into every detail of every electric current this moment sparked in the synapses of my mind. But, I will say I was struck by the image of a man, past his prime, and who must be facing this realization in his depths, but who keeps it buried, and he keeps moving. He keeps moving through the routines that make him the living being he is. Like some sort of hillbilly Sisyphus, Paul represented the person who continues on because to change or to stop would mean not to be. For me this was a moment of visual poetry that instantly recalled the story of the solitary ginseng hunter, perpetually searching for a life-giving root. The root itself was life-giving to some, but the search was what gave life to him.

Hank Colby was born. And, Harvest, the script, would begin to grow.

Paul Hodges and I became good friends and even after I left the orchard we stayed in contact. He would always send me his writings. About a year after this I graduated from college and I moved on.

We lost touch, but it wouldn’t be for good.