by Richard Goodman
When I was sixteen, I had a summer job as a carpenter’s apprentice on a construction project. I learned more than I ever imagined I would. The year was 1961, barely free from the gray, strange 1950s. The job was in Kempsville, Virginia. The place I grew up in was Virginia Beach, in southeastern Virginia, not far from Kempsville in distance, but eons away in everything else. Virginia Beach was an intimate, somewhat delicate resort town back then, not yet pillaged by motels and gaudy souvenir shops. It was home to many prominent local families whose fathers worked in Norfolk, some thirty minutes away, but who preferred to live with the sand and sea and tall slim pines and open, sun-drenched skies at the beach. Kempsville was not like that. It was a country place.
In daily life as a boy I did not meet many country people. If you drove twenty miles southwest from Virginia Beach, though, you would find yourself deep in another world, and in another era. You would find yourself driving by rich open fields with small wooden houses on the edge of these fields perched on cinderblocks near the narrow road that passed by. In the new morning and at twilight the fields sent waves of damp earthy perfume your way and up your nostrils as you passed by in your automobile. We seldom went by these fields, except when we drove to Cape Hatteras in the summer. When we did, I was enthralled. Every so often, I would see small country stores, selling chewing tobacco, R.C. Cola, Sunbeam Bread, and shotgun shells. But we never stopped. We drove on to more ocean and beach. I was ignorant of that world and of the people who populated it, close as it was.
I was full of ignorance when I went to work for Buxbaum and Warranch at their tract housing project in rural Kempsville that summer of 1961. I could only expect what I knew. Kempsville was a true country place then, but I did not yet know what that meant. I was as ignorant about carpentry as I was about country people. I’d never hammered a nail for money. I knew nothing of any carpenter’s tools beyond the most basic items in a toolbox. How did I get the job? My father got me the job. His company supplied the wooden trusses for the houses Buxbaum and Warranch built. I reported to work in mid-June, filled out a few forms, got a punch card, and was told to report to a Mr. Mosser.
Mr. Mosser was Boyd Mosser, the head carpenter. He was a limping, bent-over, irascible, toothless, tobacco-chewing man of about sixty, though he might have been seventy. He had a raspy voice that was prone to rising two or three levels when something irritated him, which was often. He would hobble toward you and demand to know why you were doing what you were doing. Because it was usually wrong. He could never remember my name. So he called me Pee Wee. The other carpenters assumed that was my name, so that’s what they called me, too. I tried my best to get Mr. Mosser to remember my real name, because I didn’t think Pee Wee carried the vigor and manliness I was trying to acquire that summer. But it was no good. I’d remind Mr. Mosser of my actual name, but a few minutes later he’d see me doing something wrong with what I came to recognize a classic Boyd Mosser look of frustrated irritation on his face. He’d struggle for three seconds to remember my name, give up, and, a look of pure exasperation on his face, say, “Pee Wee, what in the hell you doing?”
So, I was Pee Wee. I don’t know why Pee Wee. I wasn’t short, or small. But I was young, sixteen, and all the men were a lot older than I was. When Mr. Mosser said it, he stretched it out into about nine feet with his heavy rural accent: “Pee Wee, go get me a handful of ten-penny nails from that keg there.” Boyd Mosser had seen scores of summer job kids like myself come and go, and he couldn’t have cared less who your father, mother, or great uncle was. You were the lowest of the low, and he made sure you didn’t forget it. He also made sure you worked damn hard. There were three of us that summer who worked as apprentices.
Mr. Mosser—as we called him to his face—always wore the same outfit: a pair of ancient khaki work pants and an equally ancient khaki shirt, the top two or three buttons of which were always unbuttoned. He shaved, it seemed, every three days. He wore battered brown work boots and a disheveled straw hat. His chin, parts of his chest, his shirt, his pants and his boots were stained with tobacco juice. He chewed tobacco incessantly. Because he couldn’t walk that fast—I never knew why he limped—he was constantly shouting reprimands over distances. The effect was that when he would shout, the tobacco juice would often cascade out of his open mouth finding its way down his chin and shirt in streams and tributaries flowing wherever the path of least resistance took them. He seldom bothered to wipe his mouth or chin, so there was usually dried residue on his chin, stain around stain, much like the rings of a tree.
He also wasn’t reticent, in general, about chewing his tobacco with his mouth open. Being toothless, he didn’t always have the greatest control over the loose leaf tobacco he chewed, so some of it would dangle out of his mouth, like strands of steak. He would actually spit from time to time, but he spit with such little effort that the short stream of tan liquid would usually land on his pants or shoes or even on the portion of his bare chest exposed by the opened shirt buttons. This did not bother him in the least. Sometimes to vex me he would stand before me as I nailed in subflooring and spit streams of leather-colored juice directly in my path so I would have to nail around, or even into, the brown pools. I tried not to look at Mr. Mosser too carefully, but it was unavoidable sometimes, particularly since he had the habit of sticking his face close to mine to make sure I understood him fully. “Do you hear me, Pee Wee?” he’d ask, his toothless mouth open, a look on his face as if he were speaking to a cocker spaniel. Then I saw things inside his mouth I did not want to see.
Mr. Mosser knew a lot about carpentry, but the carpenters who worked for him—the real carpenters, I mean—were very independent men, and most of them hated being told what to do. Still, he told them, because that was his job. These men were the first deep country people I’d ever met. The carpenters were mostly from rural Virginia. But some were from North Carolina or Maryland and even from as far away as South Carolina and Georgia. They were men with heavy slow accents, deliberate methods, and, often, deep religion and superstitions. They were not always terribly friendly. Most were cordial enough to me, though, but, more often, they were indifferent. Some could be difficult and not come to work on time, or drink on the job, but most put in a good honest day’s work. And all of them knew what they were doing. Which I, of course, did not.
There was both a strength and a delicacy to these men that confused me and even bothered me. They had the kind of strength of some of the great rural products of the south: tar, pine gum, and tobacco. They were basic, effective, and strong. They were close to the land. Their hands and arms were powerful, and you could see that with great obviousness. Any fineness on their faces had been eroded by years in weather to a leathery bluntness. But when they changed from their overalls to their street clothes at the end of the day, which often they did next to the open trunk of their car, you could see baby-delicate skin on their upper arms and shoulders and back, skin that had never been exposed to the sun. It made them seem surprisingly tender, and feminine. This is what disturbed me. It didn’t fit.
The subdivision project was next to a swamp, and each new lot had to be reclaimed with bulldozer, ax and shovel. Even at 9:30 a.m., the temperature was already eighty-three degrees. The heat and stink ebbed and flowed during the long hot summer day. It was a mixture of rotting cypress stumps, fetid brown water, and soggy steam from the miasmic earth. The Virginia heat released its sticky wood essence into the air. Some carpenters wore shorts, but most wore bib overalls, some with shirts, some without. Nobody escaped the heat.
A carpenter’s apprentice does anything he’s asked to do, including cleaning any debris around the job site, fetching whatever a carpenter wants, hauling, pulling, lifting and sometimes even hammering, even doing some real carpentry. As I said, ignorance was my constant state and companion those first weeks. It began right away.
“Git me that there stud, Pee Wee,” a carpenter said to me in a mud-thick accent.
“What’s a stud, sir?”
“What’s a stud? Well, I’ll be godammed. Pee Wee, ain’t you never worked before?”
“Not doing this.”
“She’s a twobyfer, Pee Wee, eight feet, and git me one from that there pile.”
I went where I was told to go, worked with whoever I was told to work for. Sometimes I worked for one carpenter for just one day, other times for another carpenter for a week or more. It all depended on how pressed the men were to get the job done, and who needed an extra hand. Some of the carpenters I got to know better than others. But, regardless, I never knew what to expect.
I learned about wood that summer, and about grace. To watch a carpenter—a real carpenter—hammer nails into wood was a wonderful sight. Some of them kept the nails in a pouch that hung form their waist. Others inserted five or six nails in their mouth at a time. Somehow, with deft magic, they were able to take the nails out, one at a time, placing the next one exactly in front of the previous one they had just hammered in without missing a beat. A good carpenter never took more than three blows to nail in a nail, more often two. It looked easy. But then it always does, with experts.
Apprentices—at least at the project where I worked—start their hammering careers with subflooring. As its name implies, subflooring goes beneath the actual floor you see, and walk on, in a house. It’s usually pieces of 2 x 6 inch wood placed diagonally across the joists. Joists are heavy pieces of wood placed upright on their sides and spaced evenly from one side of the foundation to the other. The trick is to make sure the nails embed themselves into the joists. If you miss the joist, the nail will just dangle in air below. That isn’t always easy—for an apprentice, anyway—because there is far more air than joist. You can’t see the joist, but you can hear it by tapping the subflooring with your hammer. If the feel and sound is solid, there is a joist below, and that’s where you hammer.
However, assuming there was a joist directly underneath didn’t mean I could hit the nail on the head and drive it cleanly and deeply into the wood. Put the emphasis on cleanly. Nailing a nail into a resistant wood with two perfect strikes is one of the most satisfying things I’ve ever done, but it didn’t happen often, and certainly never at the beginning. It is one of the most elemental, ancient, and universal of actions. Steel into wood. Connecting wood to wood, bonding it with a simple nail. The nail penetrating into wood has a tight but not impenetrable resistance to it. When you nail a nail into most wood—though there is some incredibly hard wood—you feel the resistance of something that was once alive. It’s almost fleshy. In fact, it takes a long time for wood to feel dead. It retains its life-like properties, its vivacity, longer than almost formerly living thing I can think of. There is a wonderful sound, too, of a nail being nailed into good wood, a timpanic echo of tone that diminishes with each blow until the nail is driven its full length into the wood. A good carpenter’s hammer will only strike the nail’s head and never the wood’s surface. It’s a marvelous thing to see a carpenter raise his arm and, with one sure arc, strike the nail’s head with his hammer, fully committed, hard, finding that small surface assuredly and driving it down, down, down.
When I started nailing subflooring, I could never do this. Or anywhere near this. Not only that, I often missed the nail altogether. My hammer would dent the wood instead. I felt terrible when I did that, but this is why Mr. Mosser let me do this job: because subflooring would never been seen by the owner of the house. I still hated marring the wood’s surface, though, and I wished I could be as sure and as graceful and as powerful as those carpenters who nailed their nails like gods. Besides, when I missed the joist below, I had to nail another nail, effectively doing the same job twice.
“Pee Wee, you ain’t hit that joist but one in ten times,” Mr. Mosser would say. “C’ain’t you do anything?”
I learned. It took practice. It took concentration. It took mistakes.
I saw that the wall of a house was first assembled on its side, on the subflooring. The pieces of wood, much of it two by fours, were nailed together in an outline. Studs were nailed perpendicularly into longer two by fours, one after another. Pretty soon you had a long line of studs, from one end of the subflooring to the other, like a wood comb. Then it was time to raise this thing. Four or five men would stand at intervals and one two three we’d all lift the frame up until it was marked straight and even by a carpenter with a level. Then, as we held it upright, other carpenters would nail the bottom two by fours into the joists, and you had the beginnings of a wall. This seemed, well, primitive to me. I don’t know how I expected a wall to be built, but I guess I supposed it would be something more elegant and complicated.
The housing project, Kempsville Gardens, was being wrested from land that was difficult, fetid, and primitive. It was rank, with powerful odors emanating from mucky land studded with cypresses, their fat splaying trunks and slim bodies coming to a blunt end halfway to where they were supposed to grow. They had either died or someone had cut off their upper bodies. There were many svelte tall pine trees, too. After the land had been cleared by bulldozer—because you couldn’t do it any other way—then lots were apportioned and foundations had to be dug. This was basically a four-sided trench into which concrete was poured. It was upon this hardened concrete that the house would stand. I describe this aware that many readers will already know something so basic, but I did not. It was a revelation to me. Everything I saw was new to me about how a house was built and why it was built that way.
Foundations were dug by back hoe, a machine with a large mechanical shovel that scooped the earth out, foot by foot. Or they were dug by men. In this case, two black men. They were big, strong, and silent. They dug ditches, because that’s what a foundation was—a ditch that was to be filled with concrete. They used shovels, pickaxes and axes to do the job. It was mighty hard work. They wore work pants and no shirts. They both had incredibly strong bodies, with slick, muscled arms, the veins of which were prominent and looked like broken snakes. They were not young. Now that I look back, I think they must have been in their forties. When I was working on a house next to where they worked, I was able to watch them.
The ground was not kind to them. When they thrust their shovels into the earth, sometimes the dirt came up easily, though really nothing came up easily in the aggressive Virginia heat. More often, the earth didn’t yield. They had to use a pickax to break it up. They would encounter massive ugly roots, and they had to hack through them with an ax, blow by blow. They worked deliberately. It was a slow pendulum kind of labor. They didn’t speak to each other, not a word. Once in a while, one of them would pause and take a slow drink from a Mason jar chock full of white ice cubes and water. The other would continue working steadily away. They didn’t acknowledge me, or anyone else.
Their work was admirable. At least I admired it. The sides of the trenches they hewed out of the earth had a perfect dark sleekness to them, like basalt. Those sides were militarily straight. It took them two full days to dig a foundation. It took a back hoe perhaps four or five hours. I don’t know why they had men still digging foundations when they had machines. Perhaps they didn’t have enough machines, and the project was behind. I understood the men were paid per foundation they dug. It wasn’t much, I’m sure. I, just a sixteen-year-old novice, was probably getting paid nearly as much as they were.
It made me sad to watch them, much as I admired their strength and skill. All their work would be obliterated. Every foundation they dug would be drowned in concrete. It was hard what they did, and unheralded. Day after day, they worked like slaves in the fierce Virginia sun. I only wish I could describe the ferocity, the relentlessness of a long humid hot July day. By three o’clock you had lost the battle against the heat. You had surrendered unconditionally, and there was nothing to do but to wait until five o’clock when it was time for you to go home, blurry and beaten.
Now, 45 years later, I think about them, as I have from time to time throughout my life. Did they go home to wives? And if they did, were their wives proud of them? A man needs someone to be proud of him. He needs someone to say: “Your work is good, it’s noble, it’s the best in you, and I know it, even if no one else does. What you’ve made is good. I’m proud of what you’ve done. I’m proud of you.” I want to tell these wives, “Yes! I saw their work. It was beautiful, elegant, precise. They made faultless trenches, and they were inspiring to look at. Yes, I know the trenches are gone and no one can see them, but the houses upon which they stand are the better for their work.”
Somewhere it struck me hard the unfairness of this work going unappreciated. Something inside of that sixteen-year-old boy said: “Are you a witness? Can you describe exactly what you saw?” And the boy replied, “I’ll try.”
Some of the men were spooky to me. They came from towns I never heard of. Some said they were from counties, not towns.
“From Talbot County. Maryland.”
How could you be from a county, and not a town? What did that mean? It was the same with what they ate. I’d see them eat sandwiches, like I did, but some would eat sardines out of a tin, or pigs’ feet out of a jar. I had never eaten a sardine before. One man would read the Bible during his lunchtime. Another turned on his car and played country music during his lunch hour. Some of them showed me their paychecks on Friday, mumbling and cursing.
“Look at this, Pee Wee! Where the hell the money go to? I work like a colored man all day in this heat and look what I end up with? Next to nothin’. I might as well stay home and work around the house.”
This was different from my household, where my father wouldn’t discuss his earnings and in fact reprimanded us for asking. It seemed the height of indiscretion, and even today money seems to me more of a taboo subject than almost anything else. But the men would show me their paychecks and soon I got to be as naked about it as they were. It seemed a communal thing, a sort of anti-boss, anti-Buxbaum and Warranch. Mr. Buxbaum would show up from time to time in a dark green Cadillac, dressed in a suit, and stand there talking not to Mr. Mosser, who was too lowly to be talked to, but to Mosser’s boss. He was a man whose name I don’t recall who never raised a hammer but only looked at plans and walked the site with an inspectoral eye. When the carpenters saw the green Cadillac arrive, they sneered and even hooted sometimes, as if they were prisoners and this were the warden. I soon started acting like they did, although, of course, I kept quiet about the fact that my father and Mr. Buxbaum were cut from the same cloth.
“It’s that damn Bux-whatever who takes all my hard-earned money and leaves me with hardly nothin’,” a carpenter would say. “And what the hell does he do? He don’t even know how to use a hammer, Pee Wee. I’ll be you he ain’t ever held one. Bet you five dollar.”
Yeah, I thought. I’ll bet you he never has. Mr. Buxbaum would stay around for fifteen or twenty minutes then climb back into his Cadillac and drive off. Some of the carpenters would hoot and holler as he drove away. And I would think: Does he need all that money? Does he need that big a car? And I would wonder what he did to earn this money. Whatever it was, I wished I could jump in the back seat and run away from all this heat and sweat and this long, long day.
The carpenters were men who I simply had no context with which to understand, or to communicate. Many of them had probably never even been to a beach, never stepped foot in an ocean, may never have finished high school, or even gone to high school, had never been to a prom, or any kind of restaurant more sophisticated than a Shoney’s Big Boy—had never done any of the things that defined my young life. They lived differently than I did, thought differently, wanted different things. This was new to me, and it threatened me, and excited me.
One carpenter, scrawny, with a syrup-thick country accent, continually wanted to talk to me about Jesus. “He is your King, Pee Wee. This earth ain’t nothin’. Heaven is our eternal home.” He had a lascivious grin and used to tell me things about his wife I didn’t want to hear. He scared me. I didn’t know what to say to him.
“Because He is our Savior.”
I felt uneasy talking about my religion with a stranger, especially this scrawny man.
“I do believe in Jesus.”
“Because if you don’t accept Him as our King and Savior, you will never enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.”
His look was fierce, nearly predatory.
“You do accept Him?”
“I guess so, yes.”
“This ain’t no joke, Pee Wee. Your college education ain’t gonna help you here.”
“I haven’t been to college yet.”
“Don’t you think ‘cause you got more education than me you’re better’n me.”
“I don’t th—”
“You ain’t gotta say nothin’. I know what you’re thinkin’.”
Why had he turned on me? What had I done to him?
“You just watch your step, Pee Wee.”
“Okay,” I said stupidly against the bitter look on his face.
That summer I watched as one house, and then another, and then another went up. They were all pretty much the same. The houses on my block in Virginia Beach were all different. Houses were supposed to be different, because that was what I knew. When I saw these houses go up, different only perhaps in color and with the addition of an extra bedroom, but still looking so similar, something in me was troubled. Isn’t your house supposed to be different than my house, I wondered. It seemed to me wrong to build a house exactly the same as the next one, but my mind wasn’t able to process the argument well enough to figure it out. As the houses went up, the untamed land was diminished. I can’t say I noted that specifically. I was having a hard enough time learning and trying not to foul things up. But somewhere I was absorbing the disappearance of pines and cypresses and all the unruly land to be replaced by one home that looked like the next one. I hadn’t had enough experience to understand what I was seeing. I just went home that summer, having learned some things about hammers and men and houses and land that have stayed with me and troubled me ever since.
I was sixteen and in great shape, but at the end of the day, I was so tired I could hardly finish my supper, even though I was famished. I’d come home and take a long shower to wash away the grime. My body felt as if it had been in a kiln all day, that the dirt and sweat had settled into my skin and been fired by the sun and become part of my body. It took great effort to wash it off. After dinner I would sit on the porch in the waning evening and listen to the nocturnal sounds of the Virginia summer, hardly able to move. Then I would limp up the stairs and instantly fall to sleep.
The smell of wood being cut, the high whine of the buzz saw, sawdust on my sweaty arms and hair—the sounds of work. Concrete being poured into foundation trenches and then smoothed out like cake icing. Men driving bulldozers all day. All in the extreme heat. This was my first experience of what work was, as men do it, day after day. The men did it not because they wanted to, but because they had to. They worked a very long day in a hot climate, wearying themselves, because if they didn’t, they wouldn’t receive a paycheck, and they couldn’t support their families. I had never experienced this. I don’t think I met a single man that summer in Kempsville who loved what he was doing. The men simply did it. When it was time to quit, they packed their tools into their toolboxes, closed their car trunks, and drove off. They vanished into the late afternoon, relieved of their indentured hours. For that’s how I began to see it: as indentured labor. The men had promised themselves to their masters for a certain number of hours every day, every week, every year. They had to fulfill that obligation, and they did, but when it was over each day they left that obligation with no sense of regret or pleasure.
If I learned one thing that summer, I learned this was not the way I wanted to live.
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