May 14, 2019

Friendship forged by fire of Rayonier’s lime kiln

            In the summer of 1967, I got a glimpse of what Hell could look like. When the door’s steel hinges squeaked open, I peeked inside the long tube. Tumbling toward me—in hellish flames—were clumps of white-hot globs. Over the deafening industrial roar was a man behind me yelling, “Look for big balls coming this way!”
            I had drawn the long straw of summer jobs, working in Rayonier’s lime kiln in Jesup. The money was good. No, it was better than good. For a college kid, I was an 18-year-old Daddy Warbucks, earning an unbelievable $2.725 an hour. Just about every dime went to Dent Buick so I could drive a five-speed, Opel Cadet Rally back to Athens for my UGA sophomore year.
The first date with my wife of soon-to-be-50 years was in that tiny, silver-gray car. Lucky for me, Pam was a flatlander, too. She didn’t laugh as I struggled with the clutch and brake on the steep Baxter Street hill by Brumby Hall.
A lot has happened since that summer.
The next year, I worked in the bleach plant with Robert Parson, Billy Burch, Stanley Hickey, Olen (Junior) Hires, Bill Price, Ronnie Cooksey and company. Colin Thorpe bought my Cadet. Billie Clanton and Pope Henry sold me a white Cornett 440 with a green vinyl roof. And the next summer, 1969, Pam and I drove that Dodge away from Hopeful Baptist Church on our honeymoon, financed by Daddy Warbucks wages at the pulp mill.
Now, let’s go back to the summer of 1967.
The other day, I got to shake the hand and hug the neck of the man who hollered, “Look for big balls coming this way!” If huge balls of hot-as-hell lime got too big, I was taught to blast them with a 10-gauge shotgun. And I was getting paid to do that.
I was just 18, but I knew that my 32-year-old supervisor was more than a good man. He was a gentleman. Fifty-two years later, Onnie Yeomans is 84, and I am not a kid anymore. Every time I see Onnie, my friend has a cheek-to-cheek grin.
After my dad died, Onnie was my Mr.-Fix-It 911. If Mother had a doorknob that needed changing or a dripping faucet, I could call Onnie. He couldn’t get from Gardi to Persimmon Street fast enough.
A dozen years ago, I wanted to build a small cookout shelter. Onnie pitched in to help. When a ladder was offered so he could climb into the rafters, he said, “Nah.” Instead, he jumped up, grabbed ahold and swung his legs over his head.
These days, Onnie’s not swinging from too many rafters, but he’s not spending much time in a rocking chair, either. His garden is serious business. He’s serious about fishing, too. If you really want to see him grin, put Onnie on a shellcracker bed with a box of Louisiana Pinks.
Rayonier helped me to buy my first two cars and my wife’s diamond ring. But what it did that money never will buy is the opportunity to gain friends like Onnie Yeomans.