“The best preparation for good work tomorrow is to do good work today.” Elbert Hubbard
The greatest legacy from my parents was watching them do their jobs, whether that was in a formal workforce or at home. They did not raise any lazy kids. We were all blessed with a variety of humble jobs when we were young. For me, I started as a paperboy, then shoveling snow for neighborhood driveways. After caddying at the local nine-hole golf course for a summer, I had a relatively miserable weekend job bagging groceries at the grocery store in the center of our small town.
I enjoyed much more some side cash jobs cleaning dead bugs off and waxing airplanes at the local airport, splitting the per plane fee with my friend, and unloading railroad cars piecework with the same friends on weekends for a local lumber wholesaler. All cash jobs. Boxcars fully loaded with fir gutters were the hardest challenge to “break the car” (get started by sliding all the way into the car on your back at the top to kick out to your buddy the first few forty-foot pieces jammed up against the roof.) OSHA and Department of Labor enforcement and the nanny state was not as omnipresent then. We learned about planning to attack the load and how to remove splinters from various parts of our anatomy.
Next followed by a wonderful six weeks before turning sixteen on a dairy farm during haying season. A buck an hour cash in an envelope on Friday evening – never – before or after – was I richer. We would follow a relentlessly moving flat wood trailer being pulled by a slow-moving tractor, passing bales of hay from the rows on the field to the foreman, who stacked them high. When the trailer was stacked high, we hopped on the back to ride to the barn. We then reversed the process, handing the bales up to the foreman in the barn to be stacked for winter forage. Going home sunburned and covered in itchy hay dust and sweat after a day in the company of similarly tired, affable friends, I do not know if I have ever since experienced as full a sense of pride, job satisfaction, and a foretaste of manhood.
When I turned sixteen, the work rules allowed me to get an “on the books” job that my dad lined up for me through a friend at a local family-owned fence company, paying minimum wage of $1.25 an hour. A quarter more an hour than haying, but much less after taxes. It is the first job that shows still on my social security history statement. I worked there summers and weekends through the rest of high school and my first two years of college. Over the many years since, the indelible lessons learned there and on those early jobs helped form me for tree climbing arborist jobs, truck driving, newspaper reporting, and ultimately lumberyard work from the bottom up in a millwork shop to executive jobs managing multiple yards with hundreds of employees.
“We work to become, not to acquire.” Elbert Hubbard
The fence company was a small conglomerate run by a father, Vito, and three sons, Bobby, George, and Dickie (affectionately nicknamed “Space” for his cranial volume without any noticeable filler). Vito’s brother, Crazy Charlie, hung around and lived up to his name. Charlie enjoyed bossing everyone about without any defined authority to do so. Bobby ran the fence company, although his handsome visage, easy charm, and capacity to party occupied his most focused attention. He was as likeable a character as one could hope to meet. Bobby was very competent to run the place when he chose to do so. Bobby was a good friend to the Songin brothers, one of whom frequently stopped by the shop. Butch, Queey, and Harold were local sports heroes and gifted natural athletes. All of them played minor league professional hockey with the old Providence Reds. Butch was the star hockey player, although all three were very good. Butch was also the first quarterback for the old Boston Patriots before they had their own stadium.
George was the most visibly competent of the owner’s sons and built sound houses, which he framed himself; he was even tempered and a good trainer. Dicky was, well, he was Dicky, and he installed swimming pools, paved driveways, and occasionally had a contract for a tar and gravel commercial roof. While I spent most of my time at the fence company, the workflow for the family businesses sometimes moved us to framing houses with George or paving driveways with Dicky for a week or two. I especially liked nailing off spruce roof board sheathing for George and the challenge of humping bundles of roof shingles two at a time up a ladder.
“No work is insignificant. All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity.” Martin Luther King, Jr.
The fence company, though, was the incubator for many skills. My first job was dipping fence posts in the creosote bucket buried in the ground next to the wood drip drying rack. Both the rack and the buried bucket have long been EPA banned, and the stuff permanently stained blue jeans and boots in a few hours. I soon moved up to feeding the other end of the posts into one of two also now OSHA banned machines by hand. One was a high-speed router that we would spin the posts into to cap them with an eased edge all around. No guards or impediments to touching the blades should one be careless. The second post cap machine was a heavy honed blade on an eccentric wheel that turned the longer posts for picket fences into a semi sharpened rough design like a pencil sharpened with a pocketknife. The machine ran like an automated guillotine, and we would feed and turn the post until all sides were hit. I never witnessed anyone feeding an arm into the thing, but there was nothing to prevent someone from doing so.
I learned to run the press to drill properly spaced holes into the posts according to the size of the fence they were to accommodate. Different spacing for different heights with marks on the table as visual stops to position the top of the post. Small posts had two. Over four feet high had three holes or six at right angles for corner posts. Posts for the middle of the line were drilled through. End posts stopped halfway. After a week or two, I learned all the jobs and could perform them reasonably efficiently as needed to produce enough pieces a day to keep the boss happy.
Making the fence panels was a step up. I learned to properly crown the rails with the flat side up and fit their doweled ends into a slotted metal table with the proper spacing for each panel height. We placed the cedar pickets and hand nailed them on with six penny galvanized nails. Twenty-two-ounce framing hammer. One stroke to set the nail, and one to put it away flush. The key to speed was the left hand feeding the nails, a skill that was also essential to nailing off George’s roof boards later. One to set, one to put the nail flush without dinging the picket. Spin and set up the next nail between your fingers with the head ready while the right hand swung with power. Six nails to a picket to fix it to all three rails. Each picket was about three inches wide, so an eight-foot fence panel needed about thirty leaving small spaces between them and the doweled end of the rail left unpicketed to slide into the posts during installation.
Spread the pickets a bit at the top because there was a slight taper from the bottom to the top of the picket so that they stayed plumb. A hundred and eighty nails approximately a panel. One to set, one to put it away. Spin the nail. Tap, bang. Spin the nail. Tap, bang. Tap, bang. Four or five panels an hour. Feed smooth with the left-hand fingers. Tap, bang. Tap, bang. Arm strength builds up until there is no more soreness at the end of the day. Find the rhythm. Keep focused and the day goes by with concentration, not distraction. Eye hand coordination developed to perform the work without destroying your feed hand. Immediate gratification when I pulled a finished panel off the table and stacked it ready for the job site trucks. Find the rhythm. Spin, tap, bang. Spin, tap, bang.
The next summer I was the second man on a field crew working for Elmer, the most experienced and talented crew chief. You were lucky to get one outing with Elmer. If he perceived any laziness, you never got a second. I was fortunate to work the whole summer for him and weekends after school started again. I learned to dig post holes narrow and thirty inches deep through New England rocky clay soil with a sharpened bar, shovel, and post hole hand scoop digger. Secure the posts in plumb and true with a homemade welded tamper. Nail in the panels. Hang the gates. When I turned eighteen, I ran my own crew and drove the truck to the sites. We were paid by the foot installed with a varying rate for type of fence and extra for gates. A hundred and fifty feet a day, and I made an adult’s weekly wage in the summer, a wage capable, if full time, of supporting a small family or paying fall tuition with a summer’s work. Not minimum wage anymore and never again in my life. I could install a fence today without a hitch, albeit a lot slower.
In those early jobs I learned to wield framing hammers and sledgehammers, five or six different kinds of power saws and handsaws, hatchets, wrenches, shovels, picks, a welding torch, and various types of drills – power and hand bit braces, even a machete and many more. But the more important skills were even more transferrable to becoming an adult: how to get up in the morning every day and get to work on time. How to cooperate and get along with co-workers of all personality types, intelligence levels, and moods. What it is like to work for a great mentor and boss. What it is like to work for an unreasonable, volatile, self-important tyrant, who sometimes throws hammers. How to persevere through occasional twelve-hour days and sixty-hour, six-day weeks in reasonably good spirits, resolute. How to solve a hundred problems a week. How to satisfy unhappy customers, even when they are clearly in the wrong. How to supervise and motivate, encourage, train, discipline, and praise authentically. And maybe most importantly to value and respect the work and those who do the work. So many lessons.
There is no substitute for what we learn in those early jobs.
“The beginning is the most important part of the work.” Plato
4 responses to “Maximum Benefit, Minimum Wage (Part One)”
Thanks Jack, really enjoyed this one. I always felt that although my intelligence was sometimes fleeting, I could outwork most folks in the business (except you) to more than make up for it. Those early years doing farm work starting in 4th grade did lay the foundation for me too. I’m a Maine potato picker from way back and proud of it.
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Long time, Kevin. So good to hear from you. I didn’t know (or forgot) that you were a native potato picker. Hard work. I remember when I used to go up five or six times a year to Aroostook County to see customers, the schools would shut down for two weeks or so later in the fall so the kids could help in the harvest. Those days are long gone I’m sure.
You and I share some good (and some funny) work memories. Remember Gator? We had many a good lunch up in Exeter when I’d come up to go over jobs and bids with you all. You and our much missed Hoppy, along with Sharon, ran an amazing business out of that second floor office. Such an unassuming presence to help build projects all over the East Coast, framing millions of dollars worth of large multifamily jobs. What a great team you were!
Are you coming up to Round Pond this summer from your winter hideout?
Maybe this year we can come by. We’re hoping to go to the lake in Weld late in August when my daughter, husband and five kids will be in an adjacent camp.
Best always, j
So interesting and such good life lessons. So appreciate reading this post!
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Jack, what an interesting read!! I so admire your work ethic and do believe it comes from good role models like your parents. Thanks for sharing!!
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