Sippican Cottage

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A Man Who Has Nothing In Particular To Recommend Him Discusses All Sorts of Subjects at Random as Though He Knew Everything

It’s Coming

I’m not that old. There’s no tapioca on my chin. But I’ve inhabited a world of lost souls, shades of a distant reality that rarely showed itself to the average person.

My children will tell their children that they used to go to parades on July Fourth, and they’d see actual WW2 veterans marching in them. They used to have the odd WW1 veteran marching when I was young. When I began working, I used to encounter people who were nearing the end of their working lives –and so their whole lives– and had a passing acquaintance with Civil War veterans.

There were things that were played out right in front of me, anachronisms then, mysteries now, really; as out of step as high button shoes. Hmm. That expression is out of date —high button shoes–I guess I should have said as out of step as 386 intel processors. I’ve spent too long in the mausoleum of words, the library, and I talk like Taft is still president, occasionally, I’m afraid.

Let me talk about construction. You think you understand construction, but you don’t. It’s not on TV. It’s not the same industry or tradition as it was only 30 years ago. It’s a different thing altogether. You just live in the the thing after, so it seems the same.

When I was very young, I worked with old-fashioned persons that were building old-fashioned things for old-fashioned customers in the old-fashioned way. And watching those men and seeing their works gave me a glimpse into the past. That window is shuttered and dark now.

I worked with men that had never used a paint roller. Their working life predated its introduction, and like the elderly and the internet now, they said they’d muddle through without its wonders because they had learned a thing a certain way and that was that. But there were still customers then that refused to let rollers be used in their house, and would pay a premium for the old man to take out his six inch brush — that was a small one– or an eight inch brush, and leave the delicate striations in the oil paint as he brushed the entire wall surface. They are all as dead as the idea now.

They’d all smoke all the time around flammable things and never cause a fire. And they’d drink themselves blind after work, but never miss the following day. They were late if they weren’t 30 minutes early, too. They always carried a newspaper. If someone brought them a phone while they were working (It’s for you.) there was someone dead on the other end of the line.

I’ve sheathed a house with boards. Not plywood. Boards. Cut with a hand saw. No, not a circular saw held in the hand; a hand saw wielded by a fellow that set and sharpened the teeth of his handsaw every week. Some guys never got used to the idea of plywood. I’ve installed wooden lath, skipspaced, so a plasterer could smash his “browncoat” through it, in preparation for the finish plaster to come. Never mind drywall; no sheet good substrate – blueboard, they call it- for the plasterer. Ask a contractor for a bid on such a job now. You’ll hear dial tone before you can finish explaining. You don’t talk to lunatics on the phone, either, do you?

We mixed paint with raw materials in a big barrel. Don’t put in too much Japan Drier, as to much drier makes the paint refuse to dry. It’s the greatest metaphor for modern life I’ve ever encountered, that. I’ve applied lead paint that the owner had saved after it was outlawed, as it was the “only thing”, the expression people long dead used to used as a two word explanation of being unamenable to substitution.

Layed block foundations with persons still hoping that poured concrete wouldn’t catch on, decades after it had? Check. Ladders with wooden rungs? Check. Don’t forget to put linseed oil on them yearly or they’ll rot and you’ll fall off and die. Remember, raw linseed oil is that fabulous stuff the Amish use in poultices and as medicine, taking a teaspoon of it regularly to keep them oiled inside too; boiled linseed oil is poison. Don’t confuse those two. You always use boiled linseed oil in the wooden gutters after you install them. Yeah, I’ve installed lots of wooden gutters, why do you ask? I make the downspouts out of rolled lead flashing. You install them in a rabbet and hold them in with copper nails, and sealed in a bed of tar. The thing you think is a downspout is actually a leader. Get the round galvanized kind if you can’t afford copper.

I could go on like this for a long time. I could be as boring and old fashioned as you’d like. In my day…

But it wasn’t my day. I was living in another man’s day. I was among people who were stuck in amber. You couldn’t always get good advice from such persons. They were flinty and iconoclastic and moody and quiet, and absolutely terrifying in a rage. I’ve seen such men wield plastering hatchets in a fight before. That is a tomahawk fight, ladies and gents. What could I learn from such persons?

Well, I learned a lot, actually. But it was rarely what they were trying to teach me. Because they very rarely could parse out the appropriate from the counterproductive. They couldn’t identify progress. Period. They were just suspicious of everyone and everything. Some still refused to put their money in a bank to the day they died. Many were interesting cranks, but no less cranky for the interesting part.

They taught me the difference between traditional and reactionary. These were men achingly laconic, and as obdurate as stone when challenged with change, but who would lovingly and patiently show any other man the way they performed their craft in the time-honored way. But you’d have to ask in the right way, it was rarely offered; and the best and wisest of them would finish their soliloquy with: “But it’s better now – you don’t need to know this anymore.”

Yes I do.

4 Responses

  1. You know, I’m not sure that my father, not so very old after all (69 next month), has used a roller to this day. It used to be a point of pride that he did it the way his dad had taught him.

    On the other hand, he and my mom have hired actual painters in very recent years, which also would have been unthinkable, not so long ago.


  2. My grandfather used to take the time to teach me the odd skill here and there. But the best lesson he ever taught was when he was showing me how to do something in the garden, and I kept talking to my friend. He stopped short and said only, “You two go on and play. Come back when you’re ready to work.” And kept to himself.

    I was ashamed. Told my friend to go home. Returned for the lesson. “Focus on your task,” he taught, but not in so many words.

  3. I have no natural ability at any of this. My immediate family wasn’t handy much. There was no long tradition of this sort of thing.

    These men were doers. I think they talked to me about themselves because they sensed I was different, and wanted to tell someone that was interested in them and their work and their life’s calling about it.

    I have many failings. Ingratitude is not one of them.

  4. I apprenticed in a millwork shop alongside one of the old ones. A sash and door man. Thanks for bringing back some good memories (wooden gutters and plaster lath? oh yes indeedy).

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