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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 (Still) 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 see actual WWII veterans marching. They used to have the odd WWI veteran marching when I was young. When I began working, I encountered people who were nearing the end of their working lives –that used to mean approaching the end of their lives, period — and they had a passing acquaintance with Civil War veterans.

There were things that were played out right in front of me, anachronisms then, mysteries now, 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 That expression is out of date —high button shoes–I guess I should have said as out of step as 386 intel processors.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. 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 dealing with 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 back 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. 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 handsaws 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 too 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 use 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.

13 Responses

  1. Too many points of interest to go through individualy but its nice to know time has passed me by.I just took some of the chaps who work for me to Italy to look at some building porn!…we saw stuff x hundred years old that we instantly recognised… are not alone.Mind you I only work for myself as doing it my way just doesn’t add up for potential customers.

  2. Is it hard to paint the walls with a brush?

    I surmise that it’s slower. But is it harder?

    Mostly tangential: I bought a twin-bed headboard, the kind with a bookshelf in it, at a church rummage sale for $25 and used a small roller to primer it. It’s still sitting in the garage coated in a thick, blobby layer of primer that I suspect is too thick and blobby. I can’t put it in my son’s room until his body learns to stop falling out of bed (his mattress and box spring are on the floor until that lesson is learned) so I haven’t bothered to a) figure out what color to paint it and b) find out the hard way if the primer really is too thick and blobby. 😛

    And completely tangential: I actually dreamed the other night about the color combinations for the Mennonite table. No, I’m not kidding. Anxietize, indeed.

  3. And don’t get me going about the service economy.

    “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.”

    So the dead could talk back then? What did they have to say for themselves?;-)

  4. My better half, Dennis, built his first home in 1971 with a book on carpentry from the library, a hammer and a Skilsaw. He still does it all (albeit, with a much wider variety of tools) – foundation work, electrical, plumbing, drywall, finish carpentry, painting, flooring, tile work. You two would get along great.

  5. I brushed up against craftsmen like this as a child. Never long enough to learn from them.

    I doubt any of our children or grandchildren will ever know these men. The pace of change in every line of work makes it hard to imagine someone learning a trade slowly and doing the same kind of work, with the same tools, and in the same way over a lifetime.

  6. I am a member of a large and old society called SPAB.It has singlehandedly been responsible for the saving of all old crafts and buildings including training up younger people in thatching,pargetting etc….great stuff.

  7. two bit analysis here:

    Do you think that’s why you ended up as a cabinetmaker?

    Because it’s one of the few places such craftsmanship persists?

  8. I live in a home that was designed in 1965 by a fairly well regarded architect. I recently obtained a set of the original architectural drawings for the home from the firms archives.
    Six pages total and these are the working drawings. Most contemporary builders would look upon this like you handed them a sketch on a napkin and said “well….get busy”. Forty years ago builders and tradesmen knew stuff.

  9. anybodyinpoulsbo

    It isn’t just 1965.

    For years architectural historians have debatedthe state of architectural planning prior to the early modern period. They must have had plans, but where are they?

    I think the truth is that the plans were all in the heads of the master masons and craftsmen.

  10. This really brought back memories for me.

    I am from a decidedly untypical family. My grandfather was born in 1838 in Wales. He married at the age of 62 in 1900 to a 21-year old girl. My mother was born 2 years later. I was born when she was 38 years old. So on that side of the family my great-grandfather was born in the 18th century, my grandfather in the 19th century and my mother in the 20th century. My grandfather fought in the Civil War and was a silver miner in Colorado when he married. Before that he had been a justice of the peace in Tombstone, a cowboy and a soldier.

    My home town in Ohio was the home town of the Little Drummer Boy of Shiloh and he lived a block away from my mother when she was a little girl. She remembered him well as he used to sit on the front porch and talk to all the neighbors.

    My cousins were farmers and they used to know all the things you are talking about. Many of them built their homes by building a basement, putting a roof on it and the next season they would build the first floor and then move in there while they planned how to buld the second floor. All done with hand tools because they didn’t have electricity.

    I knew a guy in New Hampshire who restored old homes, none newer than 1850. He would move in with the family and then renovate them using the same tools as the original builder. Very demanding and very high quality work he did too. Strange buy but entertaining to talk to and to know.

  11. Travis…on the plaster floors in cathedral lofts here you can still see the scribe marks that show archi details drawn in actual size by medieaval masons.when they filled up floor they simply screeded it again for a fresh surface.

  12. Hi Thud

    Hi Anwyn- It is very physically and mentally demanding to paint with a brush. The mentally demanding part grew over the years because the solvents make you an idiot.

    You can stop dreaming about the color of your table because it’s already a color.

    Hi Fatman-You’re joshing, of course, but “On the other end of the line” is not the same as “On the line.”

    Golden West- How could I fail to like him if he is married to you?

    Hi Travis- I am not particularly a craftsman. My business is first and foremost an intellectual exercise.

    Hi Anybodyinpoulsbo- There is some variation regionally, I think. New England still has a (fading) tradition of small general contracting builders. The rest of the country has long since gone over to mass-produced housing by large builders. A decade ago six sheets of hand-drawn plans was enough to permit and build my house and another I built locally. You and Travis are correct in observing that few have very detailed knowledge of what they are doing any more. A series of subcontractors install pre-made goods into a poorly conceived box at great expense now.

    Dick said: “This really brought back memories for me.”

    Then I am a success.

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