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Fallout The Rural Recession

Waiting for Work In the Silent Woods

Longtime independent logger Clarence "Sunnyman" Primm is struggling to keep from laying off his crew as the economic downturn continues to ripple through his industry and Alabama community.

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By Wil Haygood
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 13, 2009

CAMDEN, Ala. -- Clarence "Sunnyman" Primm figures there are more than 70 people connected with the lumber industry in these parts who know how to reach him on his two-way radio. He loves the crackling sound of the thing. Because when a call comes in, when the buzzing pierces his blue shirt, when that scratchy human voice reaches out to him, it's often a work order. And then Sunnyman circles his beefy arm in the air -- as though he were twirling an invisible rodeo rope -- and says, "Let's go." And he and his men are off, rolling through the thick woods of southwestern Alabama.

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Sunnyman has known these woods since childhood, and he wants to keep clearing them.

"But the dang thing ain't been ringing," he says of his two-way, standing in the forest with his assembled crew of five men at the beginning of a workweek.

There's gospel music humming from a radio. The morning sun has long been up. It's slicing through the trees. Sausage links are frying on a nearby grill. Food and church harmonies to bracket this idle time.

Here stand John Lee Benjamin, 55; Danny Holloway, 28; Johnny Neal, 43; Clarence Tait, 62; Paul Davis, 46; and Sunnyman, 53.

Last year, Sunnyman's company, C & C Logging, grossed $1.6 million. That's millionaire status, and Sunnyman felt mighty proud, even though, after paying wages, insurance, fuel costs and the debts on his equipment loans, he ended up with only $35,000. That year, the year before the recession fully arrived in these woods, was rough enough. "This year," he imagines, "I might make a third of that."

The recession continues to leave deep bruises on this part of Alabama, where the land is made up mostly of forests and the trees are for cutting down and distributing across the rest of the country. This is the wood that houses are built with, the wood in dining tables and chair legs. And even if economists see a turnabout approaching, Sunnyman's equipment tells him otherwise. It may as well be frozen in amber.

Here stand a crew of workmen reduced to Lilliputians in the woods. A crew with a boss with a quiet radio tucked into his shirt pocket.

"This is my property," Sunnyman says about the piece of land where his lumber-cutting equipment sits. "My uncle passed on, and I'm buying it from his wife." A second later, he's mumbling about the widow, wondering if she'll be charitable in these hard times.

Sunnyman's work site is just a small enclosure, ringed by trees and open to the sky, back off Kennedy Road on the outskirts of Camden. Just him and his men and his hulking machinery, existing for now in silence. Not the contained, sweet silence of the woods, but larger, and stretching outward, so silent it seems earsplitting.

"Started a fire this morning because it was pretty cool," says Davis, who was the first here at 5 a.m. and is seated on an old can. The sit-down furniture in this outdoors hideaway is all makeshift: tree stumps, big rusting cans, truck fenders.

Sunnyman, off to the side, has a habit of looking into his shirt pocket every few minutes or so to make sure the two-way radio is still there.


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