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Posted: June 18, 2017 5:00 a.m.

Irwin: The Ditch Digger

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When I was a child my grandmother, Sallie Mae Cook, employed all those "stitch-in-time-saves-nine" sayings.  A kind but serious sort, Grandmama harbored low expectations for her wiggly, silly grandson.  The first time she ever asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I thought of my role model at the time, Maynard G. Krebs. I answered, "I wanna be a beatnik."  From that moment on, throughout my childhood, one of her sayings was:

"Even if you're nothing but a ditch-digger, be the best ditch-digger there is."

Flash forward to adulthood. My first career-type job was as a theme park comedian and songwriter in Central Florida. (Woe be to the small-town entertainer who nails his first audition.) After five years of selling out to a mouse, I returned to Georgia and a summer job brought forth to me by my dear friend, Ron of the Bees. I was to be a counselor to special needs folks at Camp Glisson in Dahlonega, a place where I had worked many happy seasons during my six years of college. As that summer cooled into autumn, I did a bit of filmflaming and finagling and convinced the camp director, Jimmy of the Lake, to allow me to live in an abandoned little cabin on the side of a ridge.  I paid my rent, not with money, but with labor as a member of the maintenance crew known as “The Slugs."

One particular day I was swinging a mattock through gravel and mud as I attempted to bust through a vein of quartz. And it hit me: I was digging a ditch! I declared it out loud. “I’m digging a ditch!”

And that became my work-song mantra with each swing of the mattock: "I'm DIG-ing... a DITCH!….I'm DIG-ing... a DITCH!

The ditch project had been assigned to me by our foreperson, Wanda of the Mountain: Wisest of the Slugs. 

• • •

Wanda, a career Army nurse, was also shortstop and manager of the famed Dahlonega United Methodist Church (DUC) Coed Softball Team. We had a particularly epic game that summer as we played The First Baptist Church of Near-to-the-Airborne-Rangers-Mountain-Training-Station. Indeed, that team was fielded by Airborne Rangers and their girlfriends.

 

Wanda’s coaching was simple: “Hit to the girls.” For you see, our team consisted of women

Friends, know you this: the strength of your coed softball team lies in the skills of your women.

Imagine the veins popping on the foreheads of these special ops soldiers as they were defeated by this ragtag team whose middle infielders and catcher were all of the fairer sex. (I played first base.)

• • •

On the day Wanda assigned me the ditch she showed me the erosion we were trying to overcome. She showed me how the ditch had to be six feet off the road, two feet deep, forty feet long. She left me to my work. 

My ditch was oozing along – at best – by three feet an hour. For all of my foreseeable days I would be a ditch digger. That first weekend off, I would return to my hometown of Covington, visit my grandmother, kneel before her and tell her of my new occupation. 

But, alas, I was not the best ditch digger there was. No.

Danny of the Mountain was the brother of Wanda, and the Mightiest of the Slugs. Danny was a man who could fix anything; he was one who could rebuild an automatic transmission without the book (by ear, as it were). Danny was the owner of Pluto, a giant, silent, stoic, Great Dane/bloodhound mix, uncropped of floppy ears and undocked of tail, a dog who rode standing, statue-like in the bed of Danny's truck. As I was shoveling my hard-wrought yet meager mineral morsels of gravel and soil into the wheelbarrow, Danny and Pluto pulled up beside me. Danny said, "Offutt, why doncha run down to the hardware store and rent a ditch witch? You know you can sign for it.” 

Pluto – always of a mind with Danny – seemed to nod in concurrence.

At this point, Gentle Reader, I want to make some clever metaphor about being in a rut and climbing out. But this is about my failure to even properly bring forth a rut. 

A trench. 

A trough. 

A sheugh. 

A gully. 

A ditch. 

I am going to go walk my dog now.

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