Tiger Brown and the Kingbirds


He was the meanest, toughest man I’d ever met. But did I detect a soft spot?

Tiger Brown was the meanest man I’d ever met. During the first summer after my mission I worked a highway construction job. Tiger was the foreman. He was about 60, short and stocky, with a bulldog neck and face. His eyes were small and angry, like a bear’s eyes.

My job was to follow a machine that laid down asphalt mix and to make sure the surface was clean and level. Large rocks would make their way through the machine, ending up buried in the asphalt. I would have to pick them out with a shovel and fill in the hole with hot mix from the front of the machine. Then I’d rake it smooth so it matched the rest of the road surface. We were laying a new surface on a highway in the west desert of Utah that summer. In the middle of the day the temperatures would be a hundred plus in the shade, and with the steaming hot asphalt it was nearly unbearable. The machine would often drop several big rocks at once, and I’d have to run just to keep up.

About four times a day Tiger would come by.

“Hey!” he’d growl at me above the roar of the machine. He would walk up to me with quick steps, his head down, pawing the air with his arms moving like an attacking grizzly. He always wore the same clothes—a ragged blue denim jacket, old khaki pants, a worn-out flannel shirt, and a dirty baseball hat. If you didn’t know him and saw him in downtown Salt Lake, you’d probably feel sorry for him and offer him a dollar. On the job no one ever made that mistake or even had to ask how he got his nickname.

“That’s not the way you do it,” he would mumble, grabbing the shovel out of my hand. For ten minutes he would do my work. He would attack it with a vengeance terrifying to watch. No matter how far behind I was he would catch up to the machine in a quarter of the time it would have taken me. There was nothing I could do then but stand, humiliated, watching until finally he’d hand the shovel back to me.

“I should have hired your grandma,” he’d snarl, and then after a disgusted glance he would stalk off.

He watched his crew like a red-tailed hawk watches a covey of mountain quail. If there was ever any indication of something out of order, the work moving just a little slow, or if the new road surface wasn’t perfectly level, or if the asphalt mix wasn’t just right, he would swoop down with that eagle nose and those fierce eyes, yelling, “Hey!”

I’m ashamed to admit it now, but I had bad feelings for the man, feelings that almost bordered on hate. I felt that way until about the second month of work.

We’d finished a stretch of road and were getting the equipment ready to move to a new location. The place looked like an ant bed that had been kicked. The work was moving fast, and the crew was on the run getting their equipment onto the back of trucks and large trailers. Tiger came suddenly into the middle of this scene waving his arms and yelling.

“Hey! Hey!”

He stopped all the work and grabbed the driver of a large crane by the arm and directed him toward the hot mix machine. The hot mix machine was a 50-foot long cylinder used to mix gravel and hot tar. When the crane reached the hot mix machine Tiger had the operator lower a hook that hung by cable from the crane’s arm. With the entire crew watching and wondering if he’d finally slipped his gears, Tiger put his foot in the hook and jerked his thumb upward. He rose up to about 40 feet, level with the top of the hot mix machine.

After reaching the cylinder, he carefully bent down and picked up a small bird’s nest full of bald-headed baby birds. The proud and very worried parents, two kingbirds, were hovering over the nest. Tiger jerked his thumb downward. When he reached the ground, he walked over to a small cottonwood tree and gently placed the nest in its branches. He had several of us put barricades around the tree.

“Hey! Hey!” he yelled when he turned around. “Get back at it. You think this is a spectator sport? I should have hired your grandmothers.”

Tiger still barely nodded when I said good morning to him, and he yelled at me and took my shovel when my work wasn’t up to his standards; but after the incident with the birds I saw him in a different way.

We broke the Utah record a few weeks later for the amount of asphalt laid in a day. The inspectors said it was as smooth and as good a surface as they’d ever seen. Whenever I drive over that highway I feel a sense of pride. Tiger believed in giving a good value of work for his dollar and he expected the same from his crew. I started looking past his faults to the good in the man. By the end of the summer I not only learned to respect Tiger, but I also learned to like him.

Since then I’ve found there are many people like Tiger, and I’ve had to look past their faults to see the good. Some have become very good and valued friends.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Pat Hoggan