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Wholesale Observations: The people you meet in the wholesale business
Rafe Semmes
Rafe Semmes

One of the things about working in that warehouse, as I explained in an earlier piece, was that I got to know a variety of people who were quite outside my prior range of experience, and that was quite an education for me.

One was the warehouse superintendent, a baldhead fellow from Effingham County who had worked for our business for many years. His father had died when he was very young, and he had to drop out of school to go to work to help support his mother. So he didn’t have much education; but he was a smart fellow, and knew people.

He had a big booming voice, and if he hollered for you, he would easily be heard all over that huge warehouse. He usually only hollered for you if he had been checking an order you worked, and found a mistake. I quickly learned, you didn’t want to be on the end of that conversation. So I took care when working orders.

He was also good at making us laugh. One of his signature remarks was to call out, as we left for the weekend on Friday afternoons, “Y’all come back sober!” with a big grin on his face. And if he asked how you were doing, you learned not to reply with “pretty good,” because then he’d come back with, “No you ain’t!

You’re not pretty, and you ain’t good!”

It always took me a month or two, when I would go back to school in the fall, to learn to quit saying “ain’t.” I had never used it before then, but it was part of the “up-country lingo,” and one easily fell into the habit of using it when working there.

There were two Black brothers who had worked there a long time. One was married to a school teacher, and he always spoke “proper English,” and was a master order clerk. The other spoke mostly “Geechee,” the Georgia equivalent of the South Carolina “Gullah“ patois, a combination of English, African, and Scot. It could be very difficult to understand, until you learned the speech patterns.

I have a natural bent for languages, so I picked it up fairly easily. The only two others there who could easily understand Moses were the warehouse super, and the old man who was the shipping/ receiving clerk.

One day our truck broke down while making deliveries in Brunswick, and the General Manager came out to tell Moses to take another truck, go get the rest of the freight, and finish the day’s deliveries, then bring back the other driver. Then he told me to go along with him.

“What for?” I asked. “Because if Moses gets stopped along the way, no one will be able to understand him. I want you there in case you need to translate.”

Fortunately, we made the run without incident, and my services were not needed. But I enjoyed the ride.

Another real character was a pint-sized guy from Egypt, GA, a small community west of Springfield. He was as country as they come, and had a mouth on him that more than made up for his small size. But he was a good worker. I had never met anyone like him before, either. He was one of a kind.

One of my favorite people there was the good-natured older Black man who was the head stock clerk, who had been given the unlikely nickname of “Sara” by an older worker, many years before, and it stuck. I was assigned to him when I first went to work there, as a green-as-grass 16-year old, and it was our job to take all of the incoming merchandise and put it where it belonged.

Some of it was “floor goods,” like ladders, wheelbarrows, lengths (or coils) of pipe, etc., that took up most of the floor space in that huge warehouse. But the majority of it was the much smaller stuff, “shelf goods,” which went on these long wooden shelves or bins, in the smaller third of the warehouse. That took a lot more effort, with a lot more things to learn, as these were divided by type, size, color, and part number. I often went home exhausted, that first summer. But I put on muscles I had never had before, too.

The other thing “Sara” did each day, at closing, was to pull down all the warehouse doors to the loading docks on both sides of the building. The south side was where all the trucks pulled up, the north side was where the railroad siding was. These huge wide doors had a metal handle on the right side near the bottom, along with a heavy canvas strap, and Sara had a long wooden pole with a metal hook on the end.

He would put the hook on the metal handle, and pull the door down long enough to grab the strap, and lower it the end of the way.

When I had to close the business, years later, and sold the building, I made sure to grab that pole and take it home with me.

Partly for sentimental reasons, and partly because I found it useful in pulling the taller branches of my fig bush down, so I could pluck ripe figs from them. Very useful! I still have it. A real antique.

I will always be grateful for getting to know and work with these folks, and others, through that business. “Salt of the earth,” they were, all of them.

They taught me many things I could never learn in school.

Rafe Sammes is a graduate of the old Savannah High School and UGA. He lives in Midway with his wife and cats.

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