Inhumane Humanity

Of all the preposterous assumptions of humanity over humanity, nothing exceeds most of the criticisms made on the habits of the poor by the well-housed, well-warmed, and well-fed. --Herman Melville

Thursday, August 05, 2010

The Things I've Made

In response to an "open call" on Open Salon

To the Rex, wherever he may be.

As a youngster in rural Oklahoma, I learned many "things." I learned to rope a calf, tie it to the saddle horn until it was completely helpless, hop off the horse, tag its ear, brand and castrate him with heavy-duty rubber bands wrapped around its testicles. Then with what had to be the most painful ordeal perpetrated by a human being against a hapless animal, use an auger to remove its budding horns by simply digging into the recession where the buds were to dig them out like a rock in the dirt.

I asked the rancher "does this shit hurt them?" "No, he said. They don't feel a thing." Hmm, I suppose they're kicking and screaming like banshees because they're elated about it all! I wonder! Just how does the rancher know this doesn't hurt? Has he been in their place??? I thought he walked a little funny.

Anyway, I soon found that ranching wasn't for those who valued the lives of nature, of the animals to which we assigned the responsibility of dying for our food. So! I moved on to something more creative, more fulfilling. I moved on to framing houses.

l discovered architectural drafting, the fine art of matching angles, the art of geometry, of understanding how they applied to the sturdiness of buildings and for several years, all I equated to this industry was the pride associated with contemplating opposing forces of gravity and angles; of how angles worked in opposition to one another to strengthen homes and other buildings.

Soon, I found myself in the field, working with the gritty men of construction – the job-site supervisors. My first encounter with one of these gentlemen was with “Rex.” He was tougher than a case of 16d nails and loved to boast that if he needed dessert for breakfast - just hand him some more of those nails.

Rex would ridicule, berate, and castigate anyone simply for fun, whether you deserved it or not and that lucky soul would wish death to be rapid and painless when he was after your ass, but death never came. Every day when my girlfriend brought me lunch, he would ride my ass for hours, laughing at his own jokes that weren’t funny while throwing pieces of 2x4, rocks or anything else within his reach.

But! He was the best damned teacher I'd ever encountered and he wasn't even a teacher, but a construction company owner - Grider Construction. He was the coolest man I’d ever met. He was my friend - Rex Grider of Grider Construction in the small town of Shawnee, Oklahoma.

I loved going to work every morning just to watch this man put together gables on homes that were composed of a collection of impossible angels. Framing pencil behind his ear, he’d simply grab his power saw, framing square, nail pouch filled with 16d nails and the 32 oz framing hammer, climb the framed walls like a chimpanzee and go to work.

After a year or so of watching this man assemble houses like a whirling dervish, I began to learn both admiration and desire for his skills and we began working together on projects – he the teacher, I the student, although he wasn't all that happy about me implanting myself into his day.

We eventually became friends, I was always invited to his house for holiday dinners with his family where we had one hell of a time relishing our work over ice cold beer. I loved the fact that a master carpenter would take me under his wings to teach me, to show me the way it was truly done.

Rex taught me far more than craftsmanship, he was a stickler for detail and with the smallest of mistakes I would frequently encounter an expression of utter horror and devastation in his face. “Get that corner tighter you dumbshit!” “Set that 16d nail and drive it with one hit - we don’t have the time for you to play with your hammer like your grandmother does.”

I was never sure if there was a double meaning to that comment or not, but to this day, I can still drive a 16d nail with one strike of the hammer.

I soon learned to love building homes for people in which to live. To see houses come together during a July or August week was both hot as hell and amazingly beautiful. To see the once red clay mud transform into a massive house was awe-inspiring to me.

We could completely frame three houses every week. And then to stand on the unfinished roof of the last one framed to see row upon row of others we'd just completed was beyond satisfying, it was as though I could breathe into my lungs, the accomplishment of a team of good men and to know I was part of that team. I could see every nail driven by my hammer, every angle cut by my saw.

As the rows of houses took shape, the smell of fresh pine and redwood wafted through the air; the sound of hammers setting and driving the nails in an action of high-speed, perfect choreography - “tu THUMP, tu Thump, tu Thump – a rhythm that could literally put one to sleep on a humid Oklahoma summer day and should be exploited by the Blue Man Group.

The power saws and drills joined in, screaming like a female soprano opera singer, the table saw, the tenor of the chorus line, eating 4x12s like toothpicks. The men yelling instructions and placing walls into place like a set being moved around to the change of the play line.

A symphony of smells – sweet redwood, pungent plywood braces, fresh pine bringing mountains and streams closer to the worksite and the hot saw blades adding to the mixture completely overwhelmed the senses.

The buzzing and squawking by an occasional cicada or crow, their out of tune voices punctuating the chorus. Oh, and the lazy summer clouds, drifting by like billows of gray and white cotton creating a cool breeze chilling the sweaty bodies; all of us hoping for the shower or a downpour to relieve the sticky sweat that irritated the skin.

There is nothing like the feeling of building a house and standing on the very top of the gabled roof, walking the stud caps like a high-wire walker in a circus, breathing in the sight of accomplishment.

I jumped off of those high-wires and onto my fair share of nails, one puncturing my foot from bottom through the top. I could see the nail sticking through the top of my work boots, but oh what a charge the entire chorus was, so those nails were a minor annoyance.

Then the girlfriend would bring homemade sandwiches and two one quart jars filled with super cold iced tea. A picnic amongst 2x4 studs, 2x4 blocks, red mud, electric cords, saws hammers, nails and the occasional lizard. It just didn't get any better.

This is my story and I’m forever ssssticking to it.


  1. Mmmmm the smell of wood, I love it! You are a master Bob, you should be very proud of your skills! My brother and brother in law are builders, B-I-L builds those million dollar mansions in Cape May NJ. He built his own humble home this past year for my sister, niece and himself. It's beautiful and of course was a bargain!

    Loved your story Bob!

  2. What a neat story. I'm glad you're proud of your work and your teacher - the meanest are usually the best because they enjoy and take pride in their craft. Obviously he passed on the skills to enjoy and take pride in your work.

  3. Great story.

    We're thinking of doing some renovations. Might need your help.

  4. Sue - Thanks, I still look back at that job with great fondness, probably the most enjoyable job I've ever had and wish many times that I'd stuck with it.

    Tea, Ol Rex could be damned crotchety but if he got to know you, there wasn't a thing he wouldn't do for you. He was really upset with me when I went away to college. He said he could provide me with all the education I needed. I have to agree now.

    Magpie - I'd gladly help, but bringing large framing hammers and power saws onto airplanes likely wouldn't get me very far and I'm certain they'd brand me as a no-fly terrorist and send me to Gitmo.