Derek Gentile: Why I got into journalism


PITTSFIELD - Many times, when I'm driving to work these days, I think of potholes.

I had an intimate relationship with potholes in my early 20s. I was working summers for the Adams Highway Department, and most of those summers I was on the blacktop crew.

When you spend most of your waking hours dealing with something for a few months, you get to understand it very well.

I'm not going to get into this too much, because I think most people realize that potholes are formed when water weakens the ground underneath asphalt and traffic eventually cracks and opens it. It's a progressive situation, so if you leave a pothole long enough, it gets canyon-esque.

Back to me. When I worked the ‘top crews, I was the roller. When you spread blacktop, it's loose, so the roller guy runs a metal cylinder over blacktop to compress it. The AHD had a metal cylinder that was attached to a handle.

I don't think it's done solely by hand now. It was then. And I volunteered to be the roller because I figured it would be easy to do.

Nope. It was a hot job, because it was summer, and also because the blacktop itself is really, really hot, about 300 degrees. It has to be because when it starts to harden, it gets tougher to mold into the pothole. So you get a truckful of blacktop and you have to go crazy to get it on the road before it hardens.

Anyway, it's also a smelly job, because the blacktop has an oily smell, and you have to constantly clean the roller with kerosene so the blacktop won't stick to it. The combination is pretty overpowering. It's easy to learn how to roll, but it's nasty to actually do it.

If there is only one person shoveling the blacktop off the back of the truck, rolling it gets to be pretty leisurely. But sometimes we had two guys, and that scenario was exhausting. I didn't get much of a rest during those days, except when it was time to move onto the next street. Then, I would sit in the passenger side of the truck and stick my head out the window to catch a breeze.

My most vivid memory of this job was spreading blacktop at the top of Upper East Hoosac Street.

If you don't live in Adams, let me say that Upper East, as we called it, was a road we didn't hit every year in those days. It was not well-traveled, although it may be now. But it was long, it was steep and there were a lot of big potholes up there.

The afternoon we worked on Upper East, and I know this sounds incredible, we spread eight to nine tons of blacktop and I rolled it all. At one point, there were so many potholes in the road that our driver, the very capable Timmy Sutliff, raised the bed of the truck, opened the tailgate and just spread the blacktop by letting it slide out of the truck onto the road.

The shovelers were happy, but I learned that afternoon to roll those kinds of large swaths of blacktop by going backwards, so I wouldn't step in the blacktop I rolled.

I also was pretty tired near the end of that afternoon. At one point, as I was rolling one-handed to rest the other arm, the roller pulled me onto the blacktop, all 300 degrees of it. I blistered my bare hand pretty badly. I said nothing and kept working. I wasn't smart enough to realize how badly my hands was burned. By the way, I bought gloves that night.

I think what I took away from all that, besides vowing to never volunteer for anything unless I knew what it entailed, was a healthy respect for potholes and for the guys that filled them. Sometimes, when I wonder why I got into journalism, I think about spreading blacktop all those years ago. And I get back to work.

To reach Derek Gentile:,
or (413) 496-6251.
On Twitter: @DerekGentile


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