Alex McRae

No sweat

The first signs of spring are finally here. I’ve never been so glad to see them.

After a winter that tested the heart, soul and heating budget, relief is literally in sight. Daffodils are blooming, weeds and wild onions are fighting for control of the landscape, and the backyard bunnies are busy.

There’s a downside to spring, too, like sky-high pollen counts and the realization that your sweet gum trees survived the winter. You deal with those things. It’s life.

But one sign of spring has yet to appear.

Never thought I’d say this, but I’m ready to break a sweat. To get hot, to be blanketed with beads of pure perspiration, to feel sweaty and stinky and anything but cold – and dry.

I don’t even want to be cool. Gimme heat. Gimme sweat. Gimme that old time, uh … OK, you get the idea. I hunger for hot and humid.

Hard to believe there were times when I would have sold my soul (or at least my collection of Mozart albums) for an extended dry spell.

Jobs were involved. Two in particular.

Three days after I graduated from high school, we moved back to New Orleans. Two days after that, my father surprised me with a summer job. Two days after that, I boarded a boat in Grand Isle, La., and headed out into the Gulf of Mexico to work on an oil rig called Sea Drill Seven. Some people think working on an oil rig in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico is romantic. Maybe so, if you’re a driller or a roughneck or even a roustabout. There’s nothing remotely romantic about washing dishes for a crew of 250. That’s what I did.

There was no mechanical dishwasher. Every pot, pan, plate, bowl, glass and utensil was washed by hand. My hand. My boss, a former Navy cook named Luce, insisted that the oversized sink be filled with water hot enough to blanch crawfish. There was no air-conditioning. Ten minutes into the shift, I glistened lightly. An hour later, I was soaked through to my underoos.

Between a sink that steamed like Old Faithful, four giant ovens and 12 blasting stove burners, it was impossible to cool off – or dry out. Every two hours I had a fifteen-minute break on deck where I learned the value of a good breeze.

I couldn’t imagine a more miserable workplace. Until the next summer, when Pop found me a job at the Avondale Shipyards on the Mississippi River in New Orleans. If there is a hotter, more humid place on the planet than the bowels of a ship parked in New Orleans in high summer, don’t tell me.

I spent the summer baking belowdecks with a sheet metal crew retrofitting air ducts big enough to camp in. We started by pulling tons of World War II-vintage asbestos insulation from the ducts. No one had masks or other safety equipment. Fans were forbidden because they might disperse the cloud of asbestos fibers in our area to other parts of the ship.

We got 30 minutes on deck for lunch, then it was back into the fiery furnace.

After those two jobs I swore – with apologies to Scarlett O’Hara – that I would “never go sweaty again.”

This past winter changed my mind. Right now I’d give anything to go outside and leak just a little, work up a minor sweat. I don’t want to tan or burn. I just want to feel that first salty drop slide down my brow and through my eyebrows and settle like “spring dew” on my parched lips.

I’m tired of wearing a sweater. I’m ready to be one.

(Send your email comments to alexmmcrae@gmail.com .)



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