Personal worsts: Carpenter
One night she locked me out of our cottage, forcing me to sleep in the bed of my old pickup.
‘So where’s your tool belt?’ he asked.
‘I don’t have one.’
‘You don’t have one,’ he repeated to himself.
Carpenter on (and off) the roof
Two days on (and off) the job
By Dell Franklin
I was living with Lauren, who actually resembled Lauren Bacall and was disappointed and frustrated with my drinking and defeatist attitude about finding a job. One night she locked me out of our cottage, forcing me to sleep in the bed of my old pickup. After not speaking to me for a few days, she cooled off and suggested I go see my friend Ethan, an accomplished and fully equipped carpenter, who’d once mentioned, jokingly that I might try “pounding nails,” since I’d tried and failed at most everything else.
I talked to Ethan, a boyish, impish guy about 18 years my junior.
Whenever repairs were needed in the cottage, Ethan, at Lauren’s urging, would come over and fix the problem before I could get to it and ruin it.
“You sure you wanna try this?” Ethan asked. “It’s hard work, especially in the beginning. Tough on the old body—like boot camp.”
“I’ve been to boot camp, boy. You haven’t.”
“This is a different kind of boot camp. You’ll be using different muscles and parts of your body. Dell, you’re almost 50 Years old.”
“I’m stronger than you are. I’m not afraid of hard work.”
He flashed an impish grin. “Oh yes you are, and you know it.”
He vowed to look around, and within a week gave me a phone number of a man named Curt who needed somebody to assist him in the hills around Paso Robles, 28 miles away from Cayucos, inland. I called Curt and he gave me directions. He’d pretty much built the structure frame-wise, was now tar-papering, preparing the roof, putting in windows, etc. His right-hand man was temporarily out with a chronic arthritic elbow from pounding nails for 30 years. I decided to drive my truck, which would lend me the aura of a laborer type. I left early in the morning and after passing through Paso Robles, wound around some verdant, oak-dotted hills before finding a few acres on a knoll, where I saw the structure. Curt drove a big white pickup truck, the bed of which was stocked with ladders, cabling, power tools, hand tools, cans of nails, screws, bolts, levels, etc.
Curt explained that the structure was to be a large art-studio-recreation room for the wife of the owner of the main house, a sort of Taco Bell mansion atop the knoll a hundred yards up a drive, where a huge a pickup, Mercedes and SUV were parked out front.
Curt appraised my battered, 1950 truck, then me. “So where’s your tool belt?” he asked.
“I don’t have one.”
“You don’t have one,” he repeated to himself. He was lean, weather-beaten, with a brush mustache. Ropey veins popped from his wrists and forearms. He wore a rubber neoprene wrap around his right elbow, was perhaps 40. “What about tools? You equipped?”
“I have no tools at this time.”
He sighed. "Jesus Christ, who recommended you?"
“OK. Follow me.” We went to the bed of his truck, where he rummaged around and tossed me a tool belt. “This was my first tool belt. Don’t lose it. You can return it when you buy your own.”
When I strapped on the belt, it hung awkwardly to my knees. Curt adjusted it. He handed me a hammer, which I stuck in the belt. I wore shorts and a sweatshirt, shivered in the morning cold, fingers already numb, Curt handed me some big nails, which I stuffed in pockets of the belt, and led me to the side of the skeletal structure, where he told me to pound nails into side boards to further strengthen the frame. I had to bend ever to pound the nails. I gnarled most of them and had to pull them out. I had a rough time, smashing a fingernail, yelping in pain. Curt walked over, issued me a long look, asked had I ever done carpentry before, and when I told him I had not he frowned and kicked at some rubble and paced around, fuming, muttering to himself.
“Bill Bright told me Ethan was sending me a goddam carpenter, not a fucking novice. I can’t train you. I got to get this fucker built, so I can go to my next job. I got mouths to feed. I got two boys eatin’ me outta house and home and a wife wantsa new car….” He came over and showed me how to hammer correctly, I watched carefully, nervous, wanting to please Curt and keep my $12-an-hour gig. He ob-served me hammer a few nails, nodded, walked off, went to work. He hammered fluidly, nails in his mouth, one after another, an effortless human assembly line, like me tending bar on a busy night. I went up and down the frame for an hour and pounded in all my nails and Curt re-turned to check my progress and threw a fit. “You pounded them on the wrong fucking side, goddammit! Don’t you listen?”
“You thought? That’s the trouble! Just do as I do, go where I go, don’t fucking THINK!” He glared at me, incredulous, then stared at the ground. He meditated a few seconds, then pointed to two huge piles of rubble off to the side and ordered me to go over and find lumber, mostly 2-by-4s and extract nails from them, then pile the wood in the wheel barrow and move it to where the lumber was stacked, Could I do that? I nodded. He warned me not to walk on any nails, glancing sourly, at my hightop sneakers and snorting.
“Why you wearin’ those goddam things?”
“They’re all I have. I play basketball.”
“Basketball,” he muttered. “I hate basketball. Buncha niggers jumpin’ around. I’m a stock car guy. Dale Earnhardt’s my man.”
Instead of telling him I hated stock car racing, I walked over and began rooting around in the pile. It was painstaking work. I bruised my knuckles. My hands ached, turned raw. I was inept at extracting bent nails, jerking, rooting, cursing. Soon my knuckles bled. My lower back throbbed from bending over so I knelt on my knees. Already my elbow twinged from the brief hammering. All my joints were stiff and arthritic from years of athletics. I bungled on. By lunch time I’d derailed every lost 2-by-4 and wheel barrowed them to the lumber site.
Curt wouldn’t look at me. “Bring your lunch?”
I shrugged, having only a power bar and bananas,
“Figures. You got half an hour. That ain’t enough time to go into town. Where’s your gallon of water? Gets hot in the afternoon and you need water. I don’t want you passing out on me.”
He climbed into his truck and turned away from me, opening a lunch bucket and turning on his radio to country western. I sat in my truck half an hour resisting an urge to walk off or punch out Curt. He re-fused to talk to me, except to issue orders. I was bone-weary, de-hydrated, starved, sore, dazed. After my meager lunch, he had me toting double-door sized slabs of siding to the lumber area. These slabs were a combination of plaster and paper and whatever, heavy, cumbersome, un-wieldy. As I hauled them, I had to peer down at the rocky, irregular terrain to see where I was going, so that I was like a blind man careering and lurching about with these sidings, falling down several times, scraping and gouging my arms, hands raw and bleeding because I had no gloves. Each trip to the lumber area was a tortuous, perilous ordeal. Curt, up on a ladder pounding furiously, peered at me occasionally. My sweatshirt was now torn arid filthy, my knees skinned.
The owner of the estate pulled up in his pickup with giant-sized wheels. He was broad, big-gutted, beefy-faced, wore boots, Levis, Western shirt, Stetson. He talked in a jovial, familiar manner to Curt, whose attitude turned solicitous. A school bus pulled up on the country road below and deposited two young girls who walked toward the mansion toting book bags. They were nattily dressed. A young, pretty mother met them at the door. Minutes later they all poured out of the mansion and piled into the SUV, clad in tennis outfits, carrying rackets. After the owner drove off, a rugged-looking guy in a ballcap drove up in another pickup with WALT’S ROOFING INC. on the side door. He and Curt visited, the roofer, from time to time, glancing over at me as I stumbled along with the siding, as if I were a zoo animal. As I tried to reach down and snare the belt, it slipped to my ankles and I went down landing on my back, gouging my buttocks on a sharp rock, the siding atop me like a triumphant wrestler. I quickly shed the siding and jumped to my feet and adjusted the tool belt while the roofer and Curt watched me, shaking their heads as tried to balance the siding. I made it to the pile. The roofer drove off. It took me most of the afternoon to move all the siding.
“You know how to operate power tools?” Curt asked me.
“I’m willing to try.”
“OK. Tomorrow. You look pretty beat. Let’s call it a day.” I could hardly move. Drank a six-pack on the way home. Lauren greeted me with a cup of coffee and a kiss, asked me about my day.
“I’m learning, baby.”
“Aren’t you proud?” She flashed me a rare, approving smile.
“Look at me. I really paid, honey. Boot camp.”
“Well, it’s a man’s work, and you’re a real man.”
Ethan called to ask how the day went. I said OK but for the tool belt and Curt. He said he didn’t know Curt, had gotten me hired through a contractor in the daisy chain. I told him Curt was an asshole, bossing me around, treating me like an idiot, disapproving of every move I made, hovering over me like an ogre and sapping what little confidence I had in myself. Ethan informed me carpenters were this way. Proud of their professions and disdainful of novices, an impatient, intolerant, hard-core breed. I told him I’d put up with anything, even Curt, because I was broke and needed the money.
I had trouble sleeping that night because my arms and face burnt like fire. At dawn I awakened and packed apples, oranges, bananas, power bars, and a gallon of water into my Olds Cutlass, which had rusted badly from salt air and was held together with duct-tape.
Curt was waiting when I pulled up. Right off he began teaching me how to cut lumber with the power saw, but the loud rackety saw terrified the shit out of me and after he watched me come close to sawing off a toe he took it away from me and handed me a power drill and instructed me to drill holes in the cement foundation inside the structure, and I did that as best I could, feeling my arms and shoulders vibrate while dust flew in my face, Curt asking did I have goggles and a bandana for my mouth as I sneezed and coughed. I ignored him and when I was finished drilling holes he had me assist him putting in window frames. This was touchy work and I followed his in-structions carefully, started to feel somewhat worthy and competent as we fitted in window after window. Then we climbed to a second story scaffolding to fit in more windows. The scaffold was uneasy, tilting this way and that, and at one point Curt had to reach out and grab me to keep my ass from pitching off and falling to the ground.
Later he had me downstairs and inside on a ladder, pounding nails.
The owner showed up and they talked, watching my progress. As I turned my head to observe them, the ladder tilted backwards and I lost my balance and fell hard on my butt, the ladder atop me, bruising my tailbone, but I sprung right up as the two men hurried to my aid, which I refused, insisting I took many a hard fall playing basketball. At lunch, Curt marched silently to his truck while I went to my Cutlass.
After lunch he ordered me to the roof to pound more nails. I took the ladder up, climbed on. The roof was flat, slippery wood. The roofer drove up, dropping off tiles similar to those on the hilltop mansion. The two conversed while I crawled like a bug up on the roof, afraid to look down, afraid to get up on my feet, for the roof was steeped sharply. As a kid, I ran along roofs with abandon, jumped off as if my legs were elastic, but now I was a petrified crab, stuck halfway toward the peak, clinging, unable to find anything to hold onto and gain leverage, wondering how the fuck I had ended up here after all my years of avoiding situations like this, already dreading my move DOWN the roof to the ladder.
Then I found myself sliding. I grappled for anything to dig my nails into, gaining downward momentum as I grabbed feebly for any-thing, anything, and then I was grabbing madly for the edge of the structure and plunging over the ladder and hurling through space, cushioning myself for the crash as I luckily landed sideways, cocking my shoulder in a scrap heap of rusty boards, wiring, tar paper, etc. I was not hurt! Jumped off the heap and hugged my limbs while Curt and the roofer dashed over, concern and shock written all over their faces, Curt’s eyes bulging with disbelief.
“You all right, man?” he asked.
I dusted myself off. My arm was out and bleeding. “Yeh, yeh, I’m fine. I know how to land. I’m an Army Airborne veteran.”
Curt rolled his eyes. “Looks to me like you’re scared of heights.”
“I’m not scared of shit. Fuck heights.”
“OK, calm down. Get back inside and nail some of them beams. The high ones. Be careful on that ladder, ey?”
I was ready to punch him, and the smirking roofer, a little mustachioed muscle head with an NRA sticker on his bumper. Instead, I slogged back to the structure, tool belt again at my fucking knees, hitching it up, hammer falling out, having to bend and snatch it and shove it in the belt. I climbed the ladder and commenced hammering in big, spike nails. By now I was a decent hammerer, having observed and copied Curt’s precise style. I began to feel a grinding soreness in every crevice of my body, and especially my lower back, wondering how the hell I could return for another day of this debilitating torture, wondering how the hell guys like Curt and Ethan survived such strife, deadening the mind, pulverizing the body, killing the spirit, and I had to grudgingly respect an asshole like Curt, though, if he, at this point, as much as looked at me wrong I was intent on beating him to a bloody pulp and dismembering his limbs.
Back at the cottage, I sat on my porch guzzling a six-pack. Lauren, home from work, dabbed at my cuts with cotton and peroxide. Ethan called around 7 p.m. with bad news. I was fired!
“Fuck, E-Man, I gave that prick everything I have!”
“I know. But he found somebody else. He says you’re too in-experienced.”
“What else did that lowly sonofabitch say about me?”
“You don’t want to know.”
“I’ve got a right to know. I wanna hear it.”
A pause. “He said if he gets a new man, an experienced framer, he can finish the job in two to three weeks. If he goes it alone, he can finish in a month. If he keeps you on, he said he might never finish. He doesn’t want to be responsible for you killing yourself.”
“Very fucking funny.”
He was laughing. I cursed him. “Listen," he said. "I take full blame. I should have waited, so you could work with me, and I could train you. It wasn’t fair for you to work with that guy, knowing what a demanding prick he is, and you having no experience. I tried to ex-plain that to my friend. If you want, on my next Job, I can take you aboard and train you. You’ll need tools and a belt.”
“I’m fed up with this shit. I’m thoroughly humiliated. This is the third straight job I’ve been fired. What little confidence I had is shattered. I’m suicidal.”
I hung up on him. Lauren was rubbing my stiff neck and back. “You tried,” she said soothingly. “I’m proud of you. You didn’t quit.”
It took me a week to recuperate from my ordeal in carpentry. I guess I was lucky to survive. It wasn’t boot camp, it was combat. §
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