Herb Benham

Herb Benham

The Bakersfield Californian

Last weekend I dug a hole. Men are good at digging holes. Especially when their tongue is their shovel and they confuse wagging it with making progress.

This was no metaphorical hole. I was digging out the stump in the backyard from a jacaranda tree I’d cut down several years ago. Talking about it was pointless — that stump was not coming out without brute force.

Men have this fantasy. Men who work at desks, men who sweat over keyboards, and men who don stylish headsets. Men who know that buried inside them is a bottomless pit of brute force.

These men know, that if they had to, they could make a living with their hands. They could buck hay bales, move pianos and pour cement like it was chocolate sauce.

I put on a pair of work gloves. I own two; at one time I had four, but I wore through the little fingers. Don’t let the little fingers fool you. They do more work than their spotlight-hugging brothers.

I took out my shovel with the Caltrans-orange handle, the new handsaw that flipped up like a large jagged switchblade and the loppers with an opening like the mouth of a barracuda.

I thrust in the shovel and hit a root. I expected roots. This was a jacaranda tree, not a pepper tree, which will topple over if you talk behind its back.

I uncovered my first root, and after exposing it, dropped to my knees and sawed through it like a hot knife through butter.

Then, I was up again with the shovel, down with the saw, up with the shovel and within 10 minutes, I was exhausted. I was like one of those country skiers in the Olympics who turn around because the Norwegian is on their trail.

My back hurt, my arms were quivering and that stump sat there as if it were a statue of Mussolini in pre-World War II Italy.

If I toppled over, it wouldn’t be all bad. The hole was dug. Nudge me in there with your boot. Bury me next to the stump.

I put my hand on the stump and pushed. It did not move. If this had been the Bible, I would have been Sodom and the stump would have been a pillar of salt.

Thank goodness, I had my music, but did I have enough? At the rate I was going, I’d burn through my 1,200-song playlist, listen to every podcast made in the last 20 years and then have to turn to James Michener’s “Return to Paradise.”

How do people do this kind of work? If I had to do this to eat, I wouldn’t eat very well unless there was some nutritional value from eating crow.

I took off my boots and gloves. I went inside. It was time for a break.

“Digging out a stump is about the hardest work, you’ll ever do,” I said to Sue, who was sitting at the table reading a newspaper.

Sue looked up, nodded and then continued reading. That was either an interesting article or she didn’t recognize me because I didn’t resemble the man whom she had married.

“I mean, it’s really hard work,” I said, hoping that by including the word “really,” before the word “hard,” she would realize how daunting this task was.

She didn’t, so I filled a water glass, put on my boots, gloves and picked up the orange-handled shovel.

Three hours later, with a trash can half full of roots, three feet of dirt stacked against the white fence, I put my gloved hand on the stump and pushed. You could have built the new Truxtun flyover on that stump.

I went to bed that night. I think I went to bed. The next morning I was in bed but I couldn’t remember how I had gotten there.

Sunday around noon — three days, 12 hours and 250 songs into the job — I finally worked my way underneath the stump and pushed. The stump gave up. I was relieved but sad. There was no quit in that stump. It commanded respect without having to say a word.

Herb Benham is a columnist for the Bakersfield Californian and can be reached at hbenham@bakersfield.com or 661-395-7279.

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