If being by yourself and having a clear purpose in life was the key to happiness then Charles Milner was indeed a happy and fully complete man from the very beginning. The butterfly collector called him the Comma because he said ‘if the roads of Victory Falls were like a series of interconnected thoughts then Charles was the damned comma that kept them from being a dangerously interesting run on sentence“. Indeed it was hard to travel very far on any day without passing Charles on the side of the road maintaining or improving the road surface or grassy shoulders in some way or other.
Young Charles Milner been hired onto the Victory Falls, NY road crew at age 17 and that summer of 1984 had so impressed his supervisor with his mechanical abilities and quiet,humble problem-solving nature that by September he was promoted to Assistant Chief of Highway Maintenance for the nearly 500 miles of town and county roads. Old family friends inside the Highway Dept. had no trouble dealing with the seemingly endless parade of hard hat wearing NY State safety inspectors who periodically descended on the garage with their clipboards, paperwork, manila folders and reams and reams of useless bureaucratic, overly-watermarked documents. They repeatedly inquired about Charles and more importantly his obviously young age and the status of his commercial drivers license. You had to be 18 to operate those big vehicles in the Empire State and 21 by Federal Law to drive across state lines. Victory Falls was only a few miles from the Vermont border and more than a few of the runs they sent Charles on took him over the border to the Vermont quarries for gravel, sand or slate. There was cause for worry regarding Charles’s insurability but evidently only when the inspectors insisted and that was predictable enough to be a source of humor for the boys in the garage. Charles paid the visitors no mind. He simply went about his work and happily stayed well out of earshot.
While most of his friends were returning for a surely glorious senior year of high school, Charles was perfectly comfortable in the firmly welded, yellow foam-padded seat of his Caterpillar tractor, perched high up and firmly in control of the lumbering diesel beast as if it were a mere extension of his own body. In only a few short weeks as the one man crew and commander of his tractor Charles could feel or sense in its throaty rumblings its own needs well before they made themselves known to the rest of the crew, who seemed eternally taken by surprise by every twist and turn, even those which to Charles were as predictable as the old road itself. He knew when she was low on fuel from the tinny clanging vibrations of the aluminum plate straps near the diesel tank. He could feel when the big hex bolts that held the grader blade in place began to stress or loosen from the way the metal scraped and scarred the hard packed gravely surface of the dirt roads. And there were many dirt roads still being maintained in Victory Falls, some in arguably better condition than their newer paved counterparts. He kept one eye on the puffing clouds from the rusted vertical exhaust pipe that told him how lean the engine was running or if it was idling too fast as surely as the most skilled physician might wield a stethoscope or squint into the bright light of an x-ray table looking for a hairline fracture or compression. And to the amazement of his family and friends he reveled in every moment of it, staying late in the garage most nights fussing over the small stable of iron and glass behemoths as if they were living breathing beings who required not only water, shelter and fuel but nurturing and care as well.
There was surprisingly little resistance to the idea of his not finishing high school. The sad fact was that no one really cared all that much. His mother had passed when he was 5 and his father, a retired long-haul driver himself never saw the value in higher education especially when the boy was so clearly drawn to the noble duties of the road crew. That he kept to himself and worked quietly and hard was seen as a kind of odd virtue especially in a workplace that all too often saw 4 or 5 more experienced men slacking and huddled nonchalantly over a troublesome engine telling jokes and laughing amongst themselves for hours at a time. Perhaps he was overly ambitious for his age and coveted the position of Supervisor of Highways. Some of those same men worked with Charles for months and even years before they realized that his shyness and tendency to be withdrawn into his own world had a perfectly reasonable explanation.
Charles Milner was completely deaf.