On the way to Marshfield, my customer, Kevin Branley, was riding shotgun. He had come to Burlington for an appointment with his rheumatologist. I'm aware that people can develop illnesses at any age, but Kevin seemed slightly too young to be interacting with rheumatologists.
"Ya know how to get to my address?" he asked.
"Oh, yeah. I get down your way quite a bit," I replied. "Years ago, actually, I bought a dachshund from a farm family in Marshfield. It sounds unlikely, but I guess they'd been breeding the long little dogs for years. The lady of the house led me into the barn, and there were about six pups crawling around their mother. They paid me no mind, except for this one — the runt of the litter — who scurried up to me and began assaulting my ankles. Turned out to be a great dog. I still miss that pooch."
As we angled onto the highway, Kevin shifted uncomfortably in his seat. "Jeez, this arthritis is a pain in the butt," he said.
"You mean literally?"
"Yeah, I guess I do," he replied, managing a chuckle.
"Are you able to still work?"
"No, I worked for as long as I could, but now I'm drawing disability."
"What have you done as a job?"
"Well, I grew up on a farm, so that means I can do just about anything — welding, mechanics, carpentry, you name it. After high school, I joined the service for a few years. That would have been the Reagan era, when we were between wars, thank goodness. When I got out, an uncle got me a job working the granite in Barre. I stayed at that for nearly 20 years."
"Were you actually mining the stone? My older brother did that for a few months, years ago, and told me it's incredibly dangerous in the pits. He said they supply you with a hard hat and steel-reinforced boots, as if that's going to help."
"No, I was a polisher, the same job my grandfather did. I actually used the same machine he did. And I don't mean the same type of machine. I mean the same exact machine."
"That's kind of amazing. Do you think it's still in use?"
"No, they use a diamond technology now. But it still takes a lot of skill. I got where I didn't require a supervisor at all. They'd just roll in the slab, and I knew exactly what to do with it."
"Why'd you leave? Was the arthritis coming on?"
"Yeah, that was starting to be a problem. Also, the dust. On some days, it'd get so bad you couldn't see one end of the factory to the other. All the old guys had lung problems. I guess it's better now, with the newer ventilation equipment. But mostly I left because the Chinese were starting to dominate the market. The stone they ship to the U.S. is, like, 70 percent cheaper, and it's killing the industry over here. So, I read the writing on the wall and switched to a job at Green Mountain Coffee in Waterbury."
"Oh, that's a good company. How'd that suit ya?"
"It was all right, I guess. Decent pay, good benefits. The constant supervision did drive me a little nuts. I guess you could tell I'm a guy used to working on his own. Anyway, after a few years, there were layoffs. I was offered a position in the Williston facility, but I couldn't see doing the daily commute, and I sure as hell didn't want to move from Marshfield. Plus, the arthritis was getting real bad, so I hung it up."
We exited the highway in Montpelier and headed east on Route 2. To our left, the Statehouse's golden dome shone in the afternoon sun. Atop the dome, Ceres, the 15-foot-tall goddess of agriculture and fertility, smiled benignly. Sculpted from a block of mahogany in 2018, it's the third iteration of the old girl. I remembered that the carving took place in the Vermont Granite Museum in Barre, just down the road. Which made me think of the man sitting beside me.
A couple of miles further, I again thought of Kevin as we passed the mostly shuttered granite sheds on the other side of the river. I guess he did get out while the getting was good, I thought. Ironically, the Chinese didn't get him, but the arthritis did.
As we drove through Plainfield and approached Marshfield, I asked, "So, is there anything you do for fun, man? You still hunt and fish?"
Just about every rural Vermonter I've ever met — and not just the menfolk — either hunts or fishes, or both, so this question was a safe bet. Snowmobiling's another good one.
"Never been much on the hunting, but I do love fishing," he replied.
"What kinda fish do you go after?" I asked.
This was a semi-dumb question, I know, but in my defense, I am a city boy. I went fishing but once in my life: on a pond located within Brooklyn's Prospect Park back when I was a small fry. By the '60s, the fish had largely disappeared from this neglected, urban body of water, but I do recall catching something.
"What do I go after?" he indulged me, a waggish smile on his face. "Anything with fins, brother. Anything with fins."
All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.