When I was about five years old, I was pretty sure my father was God. This was because I would watch him plant pieces of dead wood in the ground that a month later had grown into a house. Then I learned that he was actually a carpenter. Since Jesus was also a carpenter, it still gave him good cred, but the magic spell was broken.
Now that my father was no longer the Almighty, I was free to start appreciating his mortal but very impressive skills. With just two swings of the hammer, he could smack down a tenpenny nail flush with the surface of a two-by-four. He flew up a ladder with the fluidity of a trapeze artist. Most of all, I marveled at his tremendous capacity and willingness to work, work, work: full days on the job Monday through Saturday and half a day on Sunday. Even God rested on the Sabbath.
With just two swings of the hammer, he could smack down a tenpenny nail flush with the surface of a two-by-four. He flew up a ladder with the fluidity of a trapeze artist. Most of all, I marveled at his tremendous capacity and willingness to work, work, work: full days on the job Monday through Saturday and half a day on Sunday.
My task was to nail down pieces of roofing in rows, sliding each new row under the one above it. My father had already placed a few pieces as a model for me. After watching him disappear from view down the ladder, I turned in a slow circle and surveyed his achievements. To the east, I could see the Farbers’ expanded kitchen and the McLeods’ closed-in porch, to the north the Schroeders’ den. He had hammered and sawed a swath through the neighborhood, a sculptor reshaping the landscape of the town. “I might not be famous,” he once said, “but there are monuments to me all over town.” Now I would help add to the legacy. I tore open the brown paper wrapping on a roofing packet and pulled out the gritty, rubbery slabs, then worked my way quickly across the roof.
Aluminum rattled behind me and I smiled; my father was on his way up. I eagerly awaited his inspection of my work. Chip off the old block, he’d say. It’s in the genes, I’d counter.
“No, no!” I heard instead, as he ran up to me. He started pointing, one by one, at the nails I had hammered into all four corners of the roofing pieces.
“Can’t you see?” he said. “You’re supposed to slide the next row under the last one. How are you going to do that when the bottom is nailed down?”
He marched across the roof and lifted up the free side of the pieces he had nailed in, slapping them down with a thwack that might as well have been a bullwhip cracking against my back.
“I just saw your row lying flat on the roof,” I said. “I assumed…two points of support.”
He gave me a disapproving glare. I had broken a commandment, and God was not pleased. He pulled the hammer from my hand and began prying up the wrongly nailed sides of my row.
I had earned my father’s respect by my willingness to bust a gut without complaint. I didn’t have his talent or instinct for construction work, but I had his work ethic.
One 90-degree day at another roofing job, my father asked me to bring some bundles of roofing material up the ladder. These things were not exactly packs of gum. Each weighed 75 pounds, and the ladder would shake as I slowly made my way up with the bundle perched on my right shoulder. After about 15 minutes, my father met me at the bottom of the ladder.
“How did you do?” he asked.
“It’s up there,” I said, sopping up the sweat with a towel.
He looked toward the driveway where the bundles had been stacked, then spun around and stared at me.
“You mean…you took all of them up there already?”
Uh-oh. Was there a different roof I was supposed to place them on? I braced to deliver an apology. But my father was smiling.
“That must have been a real bitch,” he said, smiling. “Great work, Ed.”
While my career became one of building stories and narratives out of words rather than structures out of wood and concrete, I never forgot the lessons of that summer.
While my career became one of building stories and narratives out of words rather than structures out of wood and concrete, I never forgot the lessons of that summer. My father’s been gone five years now, but I have inherited the tools of his trade. Every time I ascend his 35-foot extension ladder to paint my house, clean out gutters, or trim high branches, his words echo below me like a safety net.
“Two points of support.”