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Learning skills he didn't know existed

John Caldwell works on a computer program at the Fort Lawn Community Center. The 74-year-old man is immersing himself in a world he didn't need to know about until May 13, 2005, when he was laid off from Springs' Elliot plant.
John Caldwell works on a computer program at the Fort Lawn Community Center. The 74-year-old man is immersing himself in a world he didn't need to know about until May 13, 2005, when he was laid off from Springs' Elliot plant.

FORT LAWN -- Inside a two-bedroom trailer in Fort Lawn, a 74-year-old man with a bad left knee sits in a plastic chair practicing a speed typing program on a Dell computer.

In John Caldwell's home are books about Microsoft Word, Excel and other programs. He's read them, studied them, trying to understand a world he didn't need to know about until May 13, 2005, when he was laid off from Springs' Elliot plant.

He worked there seven years as part of the clean-up crew, taking care of the floors and equipment.

But when his job ended, he came to the Fort Lawn Community Center, where he spends four days a week, several hours a day, trying to get the skills he needs to land a job.

"When he came to us, he had no computer skills whatsoever," said Kelly Shugart, a basic skills instructor at the center. "Now, he does Excel spreadsheets ... Diligent is a good word for him. He does not give up. If we tell them, 'OK, you might could leave a little bit early, (he says) 'No, no, no. I'm staying I'm going to get all that I can. ... I have to do this.'"

Caldwell spent his life in manual labor gigs: He'd be fine with just a Social Security check if it weren't for the debt he accumulated during his life. Now that debt devours his checks, and he still has bills to pay.

He was born in Richburg, but lived his life all along the East Coast. He worked for a city, then a county, in Florida. He worked for a railroad. He later moved to Queens, N.Y., spending 10 years in greasy diners serving home fries to hungry patrons. The most time he spent at any job was cooking for a non-profit children's home. He stayed there 25 years. Nothing but hard work.

"That's the only game I know," he said.

Caldwell moved to his mobile home in 1995. Like his life, his family is spread out. He has four children in New York and three in Florida. There are 12 grandchildren, 13 great-grandchildren and two great-great grandchildren.

He lives alone.

He knows the job market isn't in his favor. His knee won't let him work the jobs that fed him for so many years. His age raises eyebrows. But he doesn't want pity.

"It's nobody's fault but mine," he said.

People told him to save when he was younger. This day would come, they said.

"I liked to have a good time," he said. "It catches up to you after awhile."

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