Working for the Greatest
And remembering how things used to be.
I was only 8 years old when I got my first job in carpentry. I didn’t have to apply for the position, I was actually recruited. While some kid was being approached by a soccer scout in Europe or watched by a baseball coach here in the United States, I was confronted by a carpenter and asked to pick up my hammer and join his crew.
The offer came early one cool, summer morning as I was eating breakfast, contemplating what most 8-year-olds think about — whether to spend the day riding my bike or running around in the woods. The man standing on my front steps didn’t give me much time to make my decision. He was in a rush and his big, white truck sat idling in the driveway, the passenger door open, two figures sitting inside silhouetted by the sun. Without consultation, I laced up my sneakers, yelled to my mother that I was going to work and ran out the door before she had a chance to reply. The carpenter I nearly knocked off of the steps that morning was my father, and the figures waiting in the truck were my older brothers, Mike and Paul. Over the following years we would work on countless homes together, and build several new ones.
My responsibilities back then were among the most important on the job, so I thought. Stray nails had to be picked up, floors needed to be swept, and demo and cut off material had to be brought to the dumpster. When the dumpster wasn’t filled correctly — meaning not as efficiently as my father would have liked — I organized the material in the dumpster, so no space was wasted. Yes, I organized the dumpster.
As the years progressed, so did my responsibilities, and I eventually was able to work side by side with the rest of the crew. It didn’t seem to last long, though. As I moved up, others moved on. Paul, the oldest, left for college. Two years later, Mike was gone too. I continued working for my father throughout high school and on some weekends and vacations while in college. Though each job site felt a bit empty in the absence of my brothers, I cherished the time I got to spend working with my father. He taught me the trade, and taught me what it meant to have pride in every aspect of the job. He made me realize the distinction between a carpenter and someone who did carpentry.
Now, every so often, we get to work together. No longer for customers, but for each other: a house for my father and mother, a kitchen for myself, or a roof for Paul — our latest project. It’s when the four of us do get on site, when I begin to think of how things used to be, and how different things have become. I most often think about jobs we’ve done in the past, usually marked by some event — sometimes funny, sometimes not. I think about the time we were re-roofing a house and I tripped on a nail head, tried to recover by stepping on a scrap of loose tar paper and nearly fell off the roof. As I clung to the rake, one foot dangling below, I remember Mike pulling me to safety. I especially remember being glad that my father was out of sight over the ridge, for fear of disappointing him. I think about the time we worked on a lake front house, and got around the property with the owners’ golf cart. That was until my brother, Paul — who was stacking bags of concrete on the back of it — decided to put one too many on the pile. A bag fell over the seat and onto the gas pedal, sending the cart off of a retaining wall and into the water. My father was upset with him, but still had the ability to laugh about it later. I think back to that first summer I worked with my father, and I remember standing waist deep in a 20-yard dumpster under a scorching sun, the ground dry and dusty, watching in awe as he walked rafters as if he were walking down the driveway to get the mail, and threw sheets of plywood around as if they were playing cards. I remember thinking that he must have been the greatest builder to ever swing a hammer — the greatest man to be alive.
While I was on the roof this weekend, lost in thought, laying shingle after shingle, I was interrupted by Mike calling my name. It was late afternoon, and the sun had began it’s descent beyond the trees. We all had been silent for a while, something that rarely happens when we are together. “Hey, Rob”, he said, with a tone of trepidation often found in a man that is about to say something sincere. Had he been having the same thoughts as I had? Was he too thinking of the past? Did he too wish the day would never end? That we could all go back and work with Dad again? I stood up and looked at him. And then it hit me. Right below the left eye. The rubber band from a coil of nails. He laughed and went right back to work, as did my brother Paul. My father, standing on the ridge looking down at us, gave a smile that had a hint of pride in it, like he always used to do when his sons would joke around together. Maybe things hadn’t changed that much after all.
In a few days, it will be Father’s Day. Thank you, Dad, for all you’ve done. Even for your unorthodox ways of teaching me how to do things right the first time. I still think that you’re the greatest.