Testing Grandpa’s Patience
Great moments in building history: My limited carpentry skills
Sixteen springs ago, after I graduated from college, I was contemplating summer jobs. I was to take a teaching job in the fall but needed some kind of work to see my wife, three cats and me through the summer. Twelve hundred miles to the north in the beautiful mountains of Wyoming, my grandfather was gathering his tools to build a log house for my aunt. My grandfather was 88 years old at the time, and my mother and aunt thought their father should have some help. I never heard Gramp’s side of the story, whether he voted yea or nay, but my summer-job situation was taken care of as I headed north to help him.
My grandfather already knew of my limited carpentry skills. He remembered the time in my youth when I borrowed his hammer—to break all the teeth from a buffalo skull he had found years before and of which he was so proud. As we started on the cabin, his first words of carpentry wisdom were, “Never pick up another man’s hammer; a good carpenter always has his own with him.”
Things progressed smoothly through setting the forms for the footings, tying rebar and getting ready for the concrete. I was learning tool names and carpenter’s lingo. The “stick with bubbles” slowly became known as the level, and the “big L thing” was called a framing square.
One day I remember as being my ultimate test of Grandpa’s patience. We began to lay out the basement steps and the bulkhead. Gramps told me to get my big L thing and handed me one end of a wad of string. He then wandered off into the field with hammer and stake ready to set his stringline. He was hard of hearing, so we shouted a lot. Grandpa told me to lay the square against the foundation and put the string next to it. I slapped big L flat against the forms but had no idea what to do with the string.
“No, no, no,” I heard, “The other way.” I turned big L over and laid it flat against the forms again as if hanging it like a picture.
I heard the shuffling of Grandpa’s Big Smith overalls and the clicking of his wooden carpenter’s rule coming my way and knew this must not be right. He calmly took the square and laid the tongue against the form, held it perpendicular and let me hold it there. Grandpa was now back in the meadow grass, hammer and stake ready, pulling on the string.
“Is it square?” he shouted.
“Is what square?” I shouted back.
“The STRING!” he yelled.
I studied the string held taut in my hand and shouted, “No, it’s round.”
The string suddenly went limp, and I believe we broke for lunch.
—George Wing, Barnstable, Mass.