During my first year at Western Carolina Teachers College (now Western Carolina University) in 1953, I managed to offend my grandfather so severely that he banished me. “Out of my sight!” he said, and sent me to Brevard to spend the summer with Uncle Albert. Albert was the bookkeeper for the Silverstein Tannery and got me a job there. “Good,” said my grandfather. “Maybe he will develop a sense of what it means to earn a livelihood.”
I worked in the “buffing room” which was next to the “green hide room,” a place where decaying (green) flesh was stripped from hides; the hides were then hung up to season. The resulting stink hung like an evil fog over the whole place, including the Green Fly Cafe (also owned by the Silverstein Tannery) where we all ate each day. Eventually, I became inured to the smell that permeated everything near the tannery; I even reached the point where I could eat the Green Fly’s diet of collard greens, pintos and cornbread with a reasonable amount of gusto.
The buffing room was in the loft of a large, barn-like structure, and its purpose was to convert inferior hides into acceptable shoe leather. This was done by placing hides (which were spotted with holes and possessed areas that were so thin they were semi-transparent) on a great table and coating them with a nauseous, yellow gunk. Four workers stood at each table with huge brushes strapped to their forearms and alternately dipped the brushes in the yellow gunk and then spread it, like lemon cake icing, over the hide.This process was repeated several times, and then huge metal rollers beat the gunk into the hide until it was absorbed. This was repeated until the hides acquired an acceptable thickness.
A bucket of water set by each table and when the brushes became clogged, we would clean them in the bucket. The water level in the bucket was always a little over half-full, because the buffing machines actually caused the floor to shift beneath our feet, like the deck of a ship. The water sloshed n the bucket in rhythm with the buffing machines. The deafening noise of the buffers rendered conversation impossible, and we learned to communicate with a kind of “buffing room mime.”
It was mind-numbing work, and we quickly fell into a repetitive routine that lasted for two hours. We received a 15-minute break — one in the morning and one in the afternoon — between each shift (which was deducted from our pay). During break, workers would go to the toilet, go smoke on the loading dock, or sit on the floor next to their work station. One colorful fellow would climb on the idle buffing machine and preach to his fellow workers to “find Jesus.”
In addition to me, my work station consisted of Lil, a gigantic blond woman who resembled Boris Karloff; a small man named Westley who hummed country-and-western songs, and a fellow named Manard who talked constantly about hunting, fights and epic drunks. During the breaks, Lil laid on the floor and slept while Westley, Manard and I fled to the loading dock. While Westley yodeled and did a passing imitation of Eddie Arnold’s standards (“Cattle Call,” and “ A Big Bouquet of Roses”), Manard talked about his Saturday nights which he spent driving around Brevard with a bottle of John Paul Jones whiskey and a paper sack full of cherry bombs. His greatest joy in life consisted of lighting cherry bombs and pitching them out the window when he passed a crowd in front of a church or theater.
Sometimes when the buffing room was going full blast, the owner paid us a visit. He wore riding pants, carried one of those little jockey whips and was usually accompanied by two white poodles. Sometimes, he would stop and watch us spread gunk. He would say something like “Faster, faster,” and the dogs would bark at us. Then he would pop his whip against his pants’ leg and walk away.
I lasted two months at the Silverstein Tannery. When I received word my grandfather would let me return home, I collected my last check ($12) and boarded a Trailways bus to Sylva. During my last week, Manard broke the buffing room monotony by taking two days of “sick leave” and then showing up with the lower part of his face encased in adhesive tape.
During our break, I followed Manard to the dock and watched while he carefully poked a cigarette in a slit above his lip and lit up. “So what happened to you?” I said. It was a little hard to understand Manard because he had lost most of his teeth, but this is the gist of what he said:
“Well, last Saturday after drawin’ my pay, I drove down to the South Caroliny line whar I bought a fifth of JPJ and a sack of cherry bums. I come on back to Brevard, cause I knowed that there was a big church revival down on Carver Street. I set outside that church til almost midnight, sipping JPJ and listenin’ to WNOX in Knoxville. Drunk that whole fifth and it was close to midnight afore them folks come pouring out of that church. Then, I rolled a winder down, and using my cigarette, I lit one of them cherry bums, and I throwed my cigarette out the winder and put that cherry bum in my mouth.”
Recently, I read that a historical society in Brevard was soliciting personal reminisces from former employees. Suddenly, it all came back: The Green Fly, the buffing machines, the white poodles and Lil asleep by her work station. I have serious doubts as to if the historical society really wants to know how I feel about the old Silverstein Tannery. However, I will admit that every time I think of Manard with a cherry bomb in his mouth, I laugh.