As Billy raced along the route of his daily commute, the glow of flames
lit the horizon like a beacon of destruction. Closer to the scene, he
could see oil spewing from a tank and raining down on the
inferno--literally adding more fuel to the fire. More than thirty
volunteer firemen from Thomasville, and nearby departments in Grove
Hill and Fulton, battled the raging blaze through the night. Filthy and
exhausted, the men won the battle just in time to watch the sun rise
over a smoldering wreck of the brand new mill.
Billy managed the paperwork, insurance filings, and bill paying for
Louisiana Pacific to repair the $4 million worth of damage over the
next six months. As the mill was re-built, the national economy tanked,
and Billy began to have a gnawing feeling about his own job security.
If the housing bubble had burst and new construction had come to a
standstill, it didn't seem like there would be much demand for the
product his mill would produce.
Those instincts proved unfortunately prescient. That Fall, just
before it was scheduled to resume operations, Louisiana Pacific
announced that the mill would not re-open until the market recovered.
One hundred and thirty-eight employees were laid off until further
notice. "I'm just lucky I'd already bought my football tickets," he
says, a rare flash of mirth crossing his face as he tells me about
Auburn, where he and his wife both attended college.
Billy stayed on at Louisiana Pacific longer than most to finalize the
bookkeeping, winding up his last day on January 12. "Retirement came
early," he says with a shrug. "But I'm just not ready to stay home and
So far, the recession hasn't given him much choice. With the county
running an unemployment rate around 14%, what few jobs come available
go to the younger generations. As his six months of unemployment
benefits neared the end, Billy finally faced the inevitable and filed
for early retirement with Social Security. He expects his first check
Rumors regularly circulate that Louisiana Pacific may be thinking of
re-starting the mill, but Billy doesn't listen to them. He's too busy
looking ahead to think about glancing back. "If I could sell my house,
we'd move in a minute," he says.
Though he grew up in a town about 10 miles to the north, and has lived
in Thomasville for 30 years, Billy seeks a clean break from the area he
has called home his whole life. "My folks are dead. My wife's folks are
dead. My kids have moved away. Right now there's nothing to keep me
tied down here. Only thing I'd miss would be the fellowship of the
volunteer fire department and the church here. But I could find that
Specifically, he would like to move to the Opelika area, closer to his
beloved Auburn and one of his children. He has even been doing some
looking for part-time employment during his visits there. Under the
terms of Social Security, he can have part-time employment, as long as
it doesn't earn him more than $14,000 a year.
Billy doesn't care too much what kind of job he might get--clearing
carts from the Wal-Mart parking lot would be just fine. There are few
tasks he would consider beneath him, as long as it kept him busy. "I
ain't looking to get rich. I'm just looking to keep going."