When I was 15, I told my father I wanted to work construction. He suggested I get in touch with Kenny Horton who lived about a mile down the beach. He wasn’t certain what it was that Kenny built, but the man had a beat-up truck full of tools and lackeys that coughed by every morning.
After the last day of school, I set off down the highway on foot and walked the ways down to Kenny’s mailbox. The beat-up truck sat in the driveway, and Kenny was perched alone on the tailgate drinking a Coors. He watched me like he’d been expecting me.
I walked up to him and stood with my hands in my pockets. We watched each other for a full five seconds before he finally said, “Yeah?”
“I’m Watt Key. I was wondering if you needed somebody for a summer job.”
“I always need somebody.”
“How about me?”
“You know how to work a chainsaw?”
“Be back here at 6 o’clock on Monday morning.”
That evening, I found Dad in the living room reading a book.
“Dad, we still got a chainsaw?”
“Do you know where I can get a jet pump?”
He looked up and eyed me. “I know where you can rent one. Why?”
“I need you to show me how to work them before Monday.”
I stood before Kenny’s truck at 5:45 a.m. on Monday. At 7 a.m., he came out of his house and walked past me holding a cup of coffee. He stopped at the end of the driveway, looked both ways and came back. He shook his head and looked down at me. “I guess you’ll have to do, ” he said.
We drove down to Fly Creek Marina. Kenny didn’t say anything to me as he rubbed his temple and sipped on his coffee. I leaned against the passenger door and smelled the sweat, spilled
beer and rust of real men and their tools. I breathed in the cool, wet morning air coming through the window, and all of it swelled me with pride.
We parked in front of the Fairhope Yacht Club, and Kenny told me to get the hose to the jet pump and follow him. He lugged the pump itself, and I trailed with the accessories around the side of the restaurant and up the edge of the marina. We stopped before an older, tin-roofed section of boat stalls, and Kenny set the pump down. He walked out on the dock and stared at the black water that rainbowed with leaked fuel.
“Jump in there, ” he said.
Had it been 100 feet to a boulder pile instead of 6 feet to an oil slick, I still would have jumped. I never imagined such places with a bottom, yet as I swirled in a tannin world of water that tasted like hot seaweed and bug repellant, my feet pressed mud.
When I broke the surface, Kenny studied me. “I didn’t mean it literally, ” he said. “You want to get a rusty nail in your foot?”
“No, sir, ” I said.
He shook his head. “Alright then, take the end of this jet hose and be careful.”
We sank a piling that day, and it was the beginning of two seasons I spent with Kenny and his lackeys. I drank my first beer that summer and learned about wife problems and money problems and drinking problems and more wife problems. Kenny liked me because I was always on time, and he knew that he was my hero and I’d work myself dead for him.
The second summer, he bought a sailboat and put it on blocks in the marina. He left me to sand and refinish the wood and patch the blisters in the fiberglass. It was the most pleasant work I can remember. I arrived early when everything was beaded with dew and the crunch of clamshells under car tires was the loudest thing in the marina. I’d lie on my side, sanding and painting, and watch the morning play out in the harbor. Most times, Kenny brought me lunch and checked on my progress. Some days after lunch, I’d stretch back out on the deck of the boat and work until the sailboat masts started plinking in the late afternoon breezes. Some days he let me knock off early, and I’d ride with him to check on other projects he had going. I was his sidekick and everyone knew it, especially me.
When I finished the boat at the end of summer, Kenny and his girlfriend took me and a girl from school sailing out to Gaillard Island for an evening cruise. We listened to Jimmy Buffett and drank beer, and I’ve never been prouder than I was then. I had arrived.
text by watt key • photo by Kathy Hicks