I'll call him Leo. That wasn't his name, but his name isn't as important as he was.
Leo was born near Baton Rouge in the 40's. His early years in life didn't include school, but they did include long summers of helping with the bills by picking cotton. His fate in life was the fate of many others, unless he escaped, which he did.
Leo found a job with a contractor working in a refinery in Baton Rouge. It was hard labor work at first, but he wasn't content, so he patiently learned different crafts. He learned to build forms, pour concrete and finally, he learned to operate heavy equipment, which is what he was doing the first time I saw him on a project.
Leo had the touch for operating heavy equipment. I remember the first time I ever saw him suddenly stop, take a look and announce: "There's something down there". We were excavating for pipes and he felt a difference in the controls. I took a shovel and jumped in the trench.
As I carefully hand excavated, I kept expecting something large, such as a piece of concrete, or a large tree root to be uncovered. Instead, I found a telephone cable smaller than my little finger. He hadn't even skinned the insulation. Other than a small crimp, the cable was like new. I was impressed. I was, also, relieved to know I didn't have to worry about my safety, since careless operators had killed many by digging through a gas line.
Over the years, Leo and I worked many long days on different projects. Although he usually operated equipment, he wouldn't hesitate to help with anything. His skills weren't lost. He could hang with the best and work young men to the point they had to admit respect. He seemed tireless and his strength was phenomenal. He would hand tighten a fitting and I had to take a wrench to remove it.
I know Leo lost money over the years helping some of the hands through a pinch. Most would pay him back, but some left and never settled their debt. It would anger me, but he'd let it go. I felt they were abusing his kindness; he was wiser of such things and knew he would never loan money he couldn't afford.
Leo had good advice for many a young men. He'd give it to help; not to prove anything. His experiences in life weren't to be dismissed, although some would ignore what they should have paid to acquire. When he realized his advice was falling on deaf ears, he never became angry, or attempted to help any longer. He'd only shake his head and walk away. I could see the sadness on his face. He knew suffering would follow his ignored advice.
Leo wasn't a saint. He had his brush with the law. While it could be blamed on the amount of alcohol he'd drink after work, I only felt it contributed. He had good cause. I still remember when it happened:
We started that morning at daylight. We were preparing a concrete pour and were pushing hard to get the concrete poured before the rain that was forecasted. It was early winter and the high cirrus were a sign of what was to come.
We finished our preperation before noon and started pouring, which meant a sandwich, if you had it, and a long afternoon finishing concrete. It was hard work and added to the fatigue of the morning. We were finished pouring before 3:00 but there was much more time to work.
The high cirrus had long been replaced by a lowering deck of gray stratus. We could smell the moisture in the air and knew the damp cloudy weather would only slow down the curing of the concrete. Finishing the concrete would take long hours and we were only "babysitting", until we could put the final finish. We hid from the cold damp wind and waited. The cold had found the lost injuries of youth, which it pulled and twisted until they ached.
By dark, the concrete still hadn't set enough to place the light broom finish required. This meant even more long hours. We didn't finish until 10:00 pm. We'd done all we could, we covered the slab and left with the first sprinkles on the windshield.
Leo was giving me a ride to my truck in the adjoining town. I asked him to stop at a convenience store, so I could get something to drink. He suggested a Sprite and some plastic cups. I thought it was a good idea. I did what he suggested, he poured us each a half glass of Bourbon and I topped them with Sprite. We were set for the 20 minute ride. He turned the heater up and we thawed as we travelled. Leo dropped me at my truck and went home. His recollection of reaching home has stuck with me to this day.
When Leo walked in, he found his warm home full of in-laws, his family and a few visitors. The smell of home cooked meal caused his stomach to growl. As he surveyed the group of people - some he cared about; some he felt abused his kindness - he went to the kitchen to eat. He opened the covered pots, only to find they were empty. They hadn't left him anything to eat. His blood boiled.
Leo returned to the front room and told everyone to leave. He went on a tirade, told them how worthless they were, and was rewarded with disbelief and words about not having to leave. His response was to go to the bedroom, get his 380 and return. After emptying two rounds in the ceiling, they decided to leave, but the night wasn't over. The police came, brought him to jail and he didn't go home until the next morning.
Leo's wife, who he later divorced, decided not to press charges, but new laws allowed a junior District Attorney to pursue charges. Leo was given 5 years probation, AA and community service. He completed all and put that chapter of his life on a shelf.
One early Spring morning, Leo slipped from the dew-slick tracks of an excavator and injured his back. He tried to work through the pain, but was forced to leave and consult a doctor. Preliminary tests didn't find anything, so they chalked it up as a strain and the doctor started treatment. It didn't help.
The doctor decided to run more tests, which found something they weren't expecting....cancer. They made an effort, but the cancer was the type that metastasizes before it's found. Leo dropped one hundred pounds in a month, faded and was gone. I guess I was shocked. I know my heart hurt.
As I write, I realize there's still sadness from losing Leo. I can still see his big smile, which he had every morning without fail. Nothing fazed him so much as to not find a brightness in the start of each day or prevent him from whistling the same happy tune.
I don't think you can ever really put in words the admiration you have for some people. It's beyond words, so you only do the best you can. I'm thinking life gives you some treasures. Knowing Leo was one of mine.