Man-talking

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Whenever I come across this Norman Rockwell painting, I always think of the times in the 1960s when my grandfather would take me with him around the holidays to visit his work friends. He was a trouble-shooter for Shell’s Fuel Oil business, and I think he knew every Jobber (Distributor) in the upper Midwest. Their offices were little more than large garages with cement floors and a desk or counter and huge fuel oil stove (about as tall as me, back then) for warmth. He’d show up with a calendar, and a gift, usually a bottle of something. The Jobber’s wife or daughter would be at the desk handling the paperwork, and a steady stream of drivers and mechanics would stop for a gab with my grandfather as they passed through. He was a natural networker, before we called it “networking”.

These men would be wearing greasy khakis or fatigue pants, Eisenhower jackets, and caps like those in the painting, or sometimes, overalls or A2 jackets with fleece collars. They’d see us, and the caps would be pushed back, chairs drug around if they were handy, and they would talk the jovial arcania of man-talk that I barely understood, but tried to absorb. At some point, one of the men would say something like,

“Well, fellers, I better git. Got 200 gallons of No.2 for Ferguson out on Redbud, then some stops in Burlington. Y’all have a Merry Christmas.”

It was a heady mixture (or maybe it was just the persistent smell of petroleum). Whatever was said is nearly inaccessible in the depths of my brain now, but the smell of fuel oil, or a glimpse of this painting, brings a lot of it back.

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