My first summer in Michiana, I was part of a group of students who joined a painting business. Our boss, Luke, a fellow student, was a brilliant entrepreneur who combined possibly excessive thriftiness with student desperation in order to mold a successful enterprise. It was quite a time.
Our work truck was a dilapidated old Nissan pickup that Luke had bought from a student a year above us. Luke loved Nissan trucks because he had driven one in his time living in Central America. Well, this truck would have fit in perfectly somewhere in rural Guatemala. As I remember it, that truck had over 200,000 miles on it and had a franken-body bolted together from at least three different original trucks. We nicknamed it The Antichrist, as a nod to the Range Rover in the movie The Gods Must Be Crazy. The Antichrist worked well most of the time. But not all of the time. More than once, we returned from a paint job with the crew pushing the vehicle the last stretch while Luke steered, calling out encouragement from the cab.
That summer, the Antichrist crisscrossed Michiana. Often, Luke would drop me at one location, then head somewhere else with another worker or by himself, so that we could maximize our reach. One day we were pressure washing apartment buildings in South Bend. Another day, it was helping spray paint the roof beams of a new church in Elkhart. The country jobs involved slopping through farmyards, hauling hoses and putting up ladders against barn sides. This was crazy stuff. I will never forget the smell of the pig barn we painted. The mud from that job stuck to my feet for days. At another farm, I remember helping put a ladder on top of a small side roof in order for Luke to reach the highest peak of the side above him. Sometimes I still wake up in a cold sweat thinking of some of the things we got up to.
I thought of Luke the other night when the thunderstorms rolled through our area. It reminded me of what I believe was just about the last time I worked with Luke that whole summer. This particular job should have been low stress. We were scheduled to paint a barn that day, but the weather forecast was not good. So he and I hopped in the Antichrist and headed to Goshen for a small residential project. Imagine if you will a regular suburban house with a driveway, a two-car garage and a basketball hoop under a beautiful maple tree. Our task was simply to paint the trim around the garage, and then do some touch-up work inside. Soon after we had put our ladders up against the garage, Luke looked up and said, It looks like a storm is coming. Dark clouds were mounting up ominously and we could feel a change in the air. I think we should move indoors, he said. This was the only time all summer I heard Luke being cautious about anything. It was remarkable. So, I followed his lead and moved indoors to the family room that looked out on the driveway. Five minutes later, the rain began. And then, just as I was reaching for my paint can, there was an almighty and earsplitting bang from outside the window, as if the God of Thunder incarnate had descended with vengeance. The lights went out, and I found myself lying face down on two inches of 1970s shag carpet. Apparently, I had thrown myself to the ground – but I have no memory of doing so. Above me, Luke was gazing out the window at the tree by the basketball hoop. It looked like it had exploded. We ventured outside. The tree had been struck by lightning so forcefully that six-foot strips of bark had been peeled off and flung across the driveway. Exactly where our metal ladders had been standing just minutes before. The driveway was a disaster area, littered with broken branches, torn bark, leaves and wood shavings. In the middle of it all stood The Antichrist, completely unharmed. We grabbed our buckets and brushes, jumped in, gunned the engine and made a rusty retreat to Elkhart, laughing hysterically.
Not long after that day, I quit. The whole crew went back to school, and we remained good friends. After graduation, I never painted houses again. But I did keep a six-foot strip of bark from that fateful day, nailed up in our garage, just to remind me of my summer. As for The Antichrist, somehow it kept going. It was eventually sold for scrap – although I know I saw it back on the road again the following year with a new license plate. For all we know, It’s probably out there still, lightning scarred and covered in bark, being pushed home at the end of a long day’s work.
Music: "Shelter Me" by Tab Benoit