Cam Waller was bigger than life to me.
He finished everything with a flourish. Even eating a piece of hot buttered corn on the cob fresh out of his garden ended with a grand finale. After he had gnawed all around the cob, he let it drop from his hands, bam! onto the plate, his lips alive with butter, his hands out waiting for someone to put a napkin or dish rag in one of them.
Oh he loved the finer and simpler things in life. And he did love the show. Whether it was a barbecue, a fish fry, a dust up on the job. You name it. He made it more spectacular. Like taking Mom and Dad and Nell to the NC State at Penn State football game…by helicopter. Simple stuff like that.
He was a surrogate father figure of sorts in my life. The summer after I turned eighteen I think my dad sent me up to West Virginia to work on Cam’s road job on I-79 around Burnsville just to give me a taste of a special brand of basic training. Like a drill sergeant, Cam found the perfect job to humble me and test my mettle: the fence crew. Next time you’re riding down the interstate, look for the fence. It usually runs off in the woods. In West Virginia, it ran way up on the hillside above the job. We had to haul all of our tools and concrete up the hill.
On the farm, he included me in with his son John, like the brothers we were, ordering us around with the comfort of a father. “Hey, you boys, get over here,” he might yell from the front porch of the farm just as we finally settled down on a chair by the pool after a full day of odd jobs on the farm. “I need you two to go down to the lower barn and bring the red tractor up here.” And off we’d go on a 20 to 30 minute run that led to more work later with the tractor.
I met him sometime around 1965 to 1967 when I was 12 or 14 years old. He, like his dad, Charlie, worked for Nello L. Teer Company, and my dad was his boss. Cam and John came through Durham to pick up Dad, Lin and me to go hunting at his father’s camp at Lake Mattamuskeet. His eyebrows were as wild as they come, arching up to the sky on the outside tips. His eyes twinkled underneath them like he knew excitement few men did. I wanted to be around that. Catch some of that fire. That spirit. That energy to command other men who could move mountains with bulldozers, motor graders and scrapers.
Turns out I wasn’t much for killing. I wasn’t a bad shot. I just didn’t like the result. After we opened fire from our blind on a gaggle of Canadian geese coming in for a landing in our corn field, the barrage left a few on the ground. Cam sent John and me out to fetch them back. The bird I picked up by its feet turned out to be just stunned and came back to life as I was running back to the blind. It was damn near as big as I was and started swinging its neck around trying to bite me, honking and snapping for dear life. I’m sure it was a sight. Cam looked at me with a kind of manly disgust and grabbed the bird by the head, gave it a twirl and that was that in one pop. Goose for dinner. That cured me of hunting.
The rest is a long story of a love and sometimes not so much love affair with a man who could be as soft and gentle as they come, especially to his three daughters, and as rough and tumble as you’d ever want to meet. There really was only one way with Cam. That was his way. And he definitely had a vision of what and when he wanted some doing done. It was always an unfolding mystery to the rest of us, and not usually on the same schedule as you were thinking. He could redirect John and his buddies in ways that seemed, well, almost calculated to frustrate a bunch of young men and show them exactly, unmistakably, who was in charge, and it wasn’t any of us.
That said, he could not have been more generous a man with what he had. He shared it all with pride. He enjoyed the having, but he enjoyed sharing it even more. Just know that there was a price to pay in how he could affect your enjoyment of the moment and you just never knew when you would end up in the middle of a work crew.
Well, through all that unpredictability, I loved him and his family. So much so that, with Julie’s approval, we named our son after him and John. On February 28, 1984, Cameron Clark Riley was born into this world.
Cam, I didn’t see you enough these final years. The last really fun time together was when you and Nell drove over to visit the whole Riley clan shacked up in a cottage on the beach at Emerald Isle, NC. We put together a shrimp boil in your honor, iced down some beers, covered the table in plastic, crowded all in around it and ate us up a mess of shrimp. I can still see you sitting there, big smile on your face, telling stories and laughing at your own words, as the shrimp peelings piled higher and higher, then holding your hands out for someone to put a napkin in them. It wasn’t going to be Nell. She was wise to that move, but she loved you for and in spite of it.
Back in 2005, on your 83rd birthday, I sent you a letter. Do you remember that? I had found this photo I took of you in 1984 on the farm and it stirred me to write you and tell you just how much you mean to me. If you don’t mind, I’d like to share it now with your friends and family, as we’re all starting that very sad part of our lives, the part without you in our midst. Everything that I wrote below I mean today. You were a man among men and one of the great influences on my life. Rest in peace.
Happy Birthday a bit belatedly. And now that I think of it, Happy Father’s Day!
This is just one of many photos in my collection that captures you quite well: a man in thought, enjoying where he is at the moment, and with whom he finds himself spending that moment. And we had some moments together for sure. I learned a lot from you although I’m not completely sure you meant to be teaching me what I was learning.
There are so many things that I know how to do and how to figure out because of the years I spent around you, the jobs and The Farm. One thing that I took from the entire practical on the job experience stays with me still: witnessing common men doing uncommon things in the face of necessity. In our case, it was figuring out how to get the job done by overcoming one challenge after another.
Unknowingly I absorbed the values of working hard and then sitting back for a minute and admiring your work, relishing the time spent changing something into something else.
I witnessed the remarkable character of the men like you drawn to construction, where you applied your vision and leadership, your tenacity and almost fearless presence on the job to literally and figuratively move mountains.
The more I look at this photograph, the more I’m thinking that you’re looking out over The Farm conjuring up some work you think needs some doing. Any minute now you might say, “Steve, let’s go take a ride in the pickup. I got something I need to check into. You drive.” And off we’d go, your scotch tinkling in your glass as we bump along the back road angling up behind the house while the golden hour of the sunset purifies and confirms the glory of it all.
I love you man. Thanks for sharing all of those times with a snotty little skinny kid from the big city of Durham.
(For more on Cam’s life…)