When Joe Dickson was 12 years old, a favorite uncle passed away and the young boy struggled to recover from his sadness. His father, who worked for Catoosa County at the time, decided a good solution would be to take his son to work with him.
On Dickson’s first day of work, his dad handed him a can of gasoline and a brush, put him to cleaning tools and told him if he didn’t do a good job, he’d be eating a lot of bologna, spam and pork and beans.
"I ate a lot of pork and beans working with my dad," Dickson laughs. What his father intended as just a few days of diversion to take the boy’s mind off his sorrow turned into a regular habit and finally a career.
"When I was a teenager, I started working for the county officially during summer breaks," Dickson says. "Then I was hired on full-time when I graduated from high school."
Dickson is retiring this month, after 49 years and 11 months working mostly as a grader operator for the county.
The only time he’s spent at any other job was his four years in the Air Force. "It was the Vietnam era," he says, "and I decided to sign up before I was drafted. As it turned out, I found a draft notice in my mailbox the day I signed up."
When Dickson went to join the armed forces, he didn’t realize he’d taken a test for the Air Force when he was in high school, but the recruiter located the record of it and his branch was chosen. He was married by then – to Charlotte, a young lady he’d met at Chow Time in Ringgold – but barely. He signed up for service less than a month after tying the knot. "The first two years we were married, we spent about nine or ten months together."
After basic training in Cheyenne, Wyoming, Dickson was shipped to Thailand, which was an air base for planes flying into Vietnam. "I worked putting in communications systems on bases, maintained a lot of heavy equipment, ran a lot of convoys providing bases with the equipment they needed."
His military service completed, Dickson returned to Catoosa County and applied for work with Caterpillar, but the company was struggling and not quick to hire. County commissioner Meredith Foster contacted Dickson and asked him if he’d drive a truck for the county until he heard back from Caterpillar. Shortly later, one of the county’s grader operators, C. L. Davis, had a heart attack. Dickson was asked if he’d like to run the machine.
"I told them I’d try it. A grader is a hard machine to operate. There are a lot of levers and a lot of skill involved. There were no hydraulics back then, nothing automatic. You had to fight with the steering wheel to turn the thing."
Dickson spent two weeks watching another grader operator before he decided to take on the job. "Grading roads wasn’t bad," he says, "but it was constant work, because most of the roads then were dirt and had to be graded on a regular basis." It was also a practice of the county to grade private driveways if a citizen called and asked for it (something that’s no longer done). Dickson says it was common for him to do 15-20 driveways a day.
"The first hard job I did was building the Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School baseball field," says Dickson. "It was solid rock." Two hundred loads of top soil were hauled in and Dickson shaped them into a playing field. He went on to do all the other ball fields in Catoosa County, as well as the land for voting precincts and other places.
"There was trouble with the Ringgold High School football field after it was built," says Dickson. "It was holding water and staying too wet. One day, Houston Black, who was over maintenance at the school, and I were talking and I told him what I thought should be done about it, but I didn’t know if the school could get the money for it."
The money was secured and Dickson had dirt brought in – two rows, one on each side of the field from end zone to end zone. Then he started with his grader. "I built it like a road, with a slight crown in the middle so the water would run off." It worked. Years later, when technology became more advanced, a GIS survey was done and found a perfect one-percent grade the full length of the field.
Driving a grader has its dangers, some serious, but some with a humorous twist. "One time it had snowed and a tandem got stuck on a hill on Allen Drive," Dickson says. "I took the grader over to push the snow away, but it started snowing again, and the grader turned sideways and started slipping down the hill. I slid across the road and hit a mailbox, then I went through a picket fence and slid through someone’s yard before coming to a stop. A lady came out of the house and said, ‘Mister, I thought you were coming through the house.’ I said, ‘I don’t want to scare you, but I thought I was, too.’"
A more sobering experience occurred on Ross Lane. "I was grading a road, pulling a ditch," says Dickson. "A dam had busted and the water had made the dirt unstable. The dirt gave way and my grader went over. My feet got caught in the transmission lever."
Dickson says he got out of the grader somehow and started crawling. He crawled through a yellow jacket nest without getting stung and up onto a road where he collapsed and a man stopped to help him. "All six wheels on the grader went up," he says. "That same day a grader driver was killed working on Erlanger Hospital in Chattanooga."
Dickson says a lot has changed over his many years working for the county. "We’ve gone from mostly dirt roads to almost all paved roads and from mostly farms along roads to hundreds of houses. Graders have hydraulics and automatic transmissions now and even air conditioning."
Dickson says he and his wife don’t know what they’re going to do with their newfound freedom. For Dickson, watching NASCAR and working on the flowers in his yard are on the list. The couple has six grandchildren, one great-granddaughter and a close-knit church family.
Why 49 years and 11 months and not 50 years even? "It was just time," says Dickson. "You can stay too long somewhere." Nevertheless, Dickson says if he had it to do over, he’d do exactly the same thing. "I’ve enjoyed it and was always blessed with good bosses."