To My Compatriots

Observations From a General Contractor

By Browse Hickman
Reader Contributor

The shoulder woke up first. Tiny leaf tears in the muscles and ligaments from years of carpentry work were announcing their presence. Shoulder contacted the owner, who woke up next. I was careful maneuvering the shoulder into a new position. I had learned to do this slowly, avoiding getting joint parts improperly aligned before further movement. Great pain was to be had making that mistake. With practiced ease the shoulder joint went back to a familiar spot, one of deep dull pain, but functional.

The rest of the bed exit flowed the same way. Slow, steady, evaluate. Feet on floor, head to coffee maker. Italian roast, splash of half and half, heavy ceramic mug. Weather status was always next. A-plus today. Early September’s rays were already reaching out, long fingers of warm sunshine syrup. There would not be much time for relaxing this morning, I wanted to get to work by 7 a.m. Hat, lunch, fried egg and peanut butter breakfast sandwich, gather up the materials needed for today’s job and out the door.

The 12-mile drive to the job site on an early Sunday morning down a small creek canyon in North Idaho was church-like. Reverence for all the beauty around me on these daily drives helped bring a sense of peace and calmness, gratitude for what you had in life. That you got to live here. And that it was going to be a perfect day of work. On the Pend Oreille River, east facing gable end, with shoulder healing sun rays.

The job site was as I had hoped: vacant with no one in sight. No compressors, nail guns, saws, loud radios playing heavy metal that some of the younger subcontractors listened to. I could never understand why you would want to listen to angry guys yelling and screaming while you were trying to concentrate on your work and find peace in what you were doing. But today would be a satisfying day. Three sections of scaffolding in the air, overlooking the river, setting a window and finishing off the gable end with mostly hand tools would be a pleasure. Shaving the bevel on the window sill and roof beams would be my favorite part. I pulled grandpa’s wood plane out of the tool bag. There is nothing like an old tool. Wood handles embedded with dad-grandfather sweat and tobacco, worn smooth, experienced. A tool tested by hard times, subjected to cussing and bad weather. The planes’ blades made of American steel, solid, able to hold a good edge. No nicks in the blade of this tool. This tool had been revered, handled with honor over many generations for the fine products it produced. I have many tools like this in my possession: rakes, axes, sledge hammers, scoop shovels, pitch forks, pulaskis, hand tools. Inherited, gathered from garage sales or just plain abandoned. Wood handled tools most, with linseed oil massaged character, often crippled but reshaped and spliced to fit. Patched together with new wedges and shims, restored and ready for duty. No cheap steel either, steel with a long history to tell and the strength to carry on.

The first pass of the plane on the window sill was a high. Long fragrant curls of pine fell at my feet, ribbons of wood worthy to decorate a gift. That schluup sound of the blade passing through wood followed by that sweet smell, an offering to the universe, to good health, to Goddess Pine. Reaching down to the pile of curls I gathered a handful and held them to my nose. It is that spiritual connection with wood that has always pulled me into the world of carpentry. The texture, the strength, the beauty in its living and repurposed form, its adaptability, but mostly its fragrance are like fingers of God to me. I have often thought that they should make wood-based perfumes. I know they would attract guys like me. Women that wore pine, Douglas fir, larch or cedar scents would be my types. Women of strength and character, proud, outwardly and inwardly beautiful. The fancy ladies would probably wear oak, mahogany – the exotic wood scents. And wood tonics. I would probably drink those. Powdered Douglas fir with carbonated water to get you going in the morning. A large pick-me-up and a nice redwood liqueur at night.

The window sill is finished, the gable end window is set. Window trim and cedar lap siding is next. Measure, cut, establish the right reveal on the trim and nail. Determine the roof angle cut on the lap siding, layout the stud spacing, level and determine the amount of lap and nail. Hand nailing is an art, especially on exterior trim. Each variety of wood requiring a different blow of the hammer so as to set the nail but not to dimple the wood. Sometimes you need to blunt the end of the nail so you don’t split the wood, especially on the ends. It is these small and large acts of profession that I treasure. The ability to build things that are square, plumb, level and flush. To possess the knowledge and skills necessary to bring surfaces of unequal thicknesses to the same plane and to rip a straight line of eight feet with a Skil-Saw without a guide. To visualize a building in 3D, to see the future and anticipate the consequences of each step in the construction process, and to be able to interpret the architect’s vision and marry them with the owners’ dreams.

The world of construction is addictive. Full of freedom, never boring – but at a price. Hard physical labor, working in all kinds of weather, stressful, full of uncertainty, long hours without much security. I run into many of my generations’ construction workers in my daily world. The walking wounded most of us. Arms in slings from surgery, bad knees, backs, ankles. The knowledge of our skills is still there, but not the physical ability. We paid a price. But there is reward there too, but often not recognized. The reward is satisfaction at seeing your efforts in a physical form: the custom home, the restaurant, the commercial building, the remodel that turned a dump or ‘50s ranch house into a piece of art. I savor the experience of being a general contractor and being part of the grand symphony of a large construction project. Dozens of subcontractors showing up, often several on the same day, putting their heads down and going to work. Working around each other, making a thousand right decisions a day, working with pride, fixing problems. And all of those support people that you count on daily to make it all work. The guy at the concrete batch plant that manages to get your pour scheduled even though they are swamped. The driver who jumps out of his truck to give an extra hand with the difficult job. The lumber-yard crews who rush out materials when needed, back you up on warranty issues, always going the extra mile to make your job successful. 

I have a lot of pride in my life’s work. I also have a great appreciation and respect for all of those craftsmen that worked for me, the subcontractors and material suppliers that worked with me, and all of the various support people that made the construction world possible. It’s impressive to me that close to 100 percent of them were good at their jobs, honest and hard working. And that’s part of the reward too. To have been able to work with such fine people, to still have them be your friends and laugh with them as you remember the on-the-job stories. I salute you all. There is still one final reward – a special one. That is the client who becomes your friend, who appreciates your work, who is glad to see you in the grocery store, who calls you back and back over the years to do other projects.

I reminisce over a beer sometimes with people I worked with who are my age telling stories about the old days. But occasionally I meet some of the young construction workers, and we talk shop. They bitch about the same things we used to bitch about, but it is comforting to see that they have a great sense of pride in what they do. I think we will be in good hands.

While we have you ...

... if you appreciate that access to the news, opinion, humor, entertainment and cultural reporting in the Sandpoint Reader is freely available in our print newspaper as well as here on our website, we have a favor to ask. The Reader is locally owned and free of the large corporate, big-money influence that affects so much of the media today. We're supported entirely by our valued advertisers and readers. We're committed to continued free access to our paper and our website here with NO PAYWALL - period. But of course, it does cost money to produce the Reader. If you're a reader who appreciates the value of an independent, local news source, we hope you'll consider a voluntary contribution. You can help support the Reader for as little as $1.

You can contribute at either Paypal or Patreon.

Contribute at Patreon Contribute at Paypal

You may also like...

Close [x]

Want to support independent local journalism?

The Sandpoint Reader is our town's local, independent weekly newspaper. "Independent" means that the Reader is locally owned, in a partnership between Publisher Ben Olson and Keokee Co. Publishing, the media company owned by Chris Bessler that also publishes Sandpoint Magazine and Sandpoint Online. Sandpoint Reader LLC is a completely independent business unit; no big newspaper group or corporate conglomerate or billionaire owner dictates our editorial policy. And we want the news, opinion and lifestyle stories we report to be freely available to all interested readers - so unlike many other newspapers and media websites, we have NO PAYWALL on our website. The Reader relies wholly on the support of our valued advertisers, as well as readers who voluntarily contribute. Want to ensure that local, independent journalism survives in our town? You can help support the Reader for as little as $1.