In the early morning fog the other day, I heard a claw hammer’s tap, tap, bam, bam, bam, boom drive a nail into its place for who knows how many years. A moment later, another six, clear, sharp notes cut through the fog and another nail was set for, maybe, a century or more.
There were no carpenters on the southern Illinois dairy farm of my youth. The closest anyone came was my father who, in the shade of a big maple tree one summer, made several tongue-in-groove hayracks. It wasn’t fine woodworking but the racks were square and so solid that each brought good money at his retirement auction more than 40 years later.
When a real carpenter was required, my father called either Elmer N. or Buddy S. for the job. Elmer was younger, faster, more professional, and lived just 12 miles away in an old French town guarded by towering river bluffs. Buddy, whose real name I still don’t know, lived farther away, was older, slower, and loved to chat, joke, and watch the farm’s hired men, cows, and anyone else who might distract him from the task at hand.
There were other differences between the two. Elmer was a no-nonsense builder, someone who tackled the job every morning as if he had spent half the previous night choreographing the next day’s every move to make the most of his effort and your dollar.
Buddy, on the other hand, was more of a remodeler, someone whose patience—others might say slowness—gave him time to know what to do next without ever re-measuring, re-sawing or regretting.
Buddy also could be humorously absentminded. Twice, for example, I witnessed him saw through the extension cord to his circular saw while cutting plywood. Each time he simply smiled a small, resigned smile and added another lumpy, electrical tape splice to the several splices already in the cord.
Elmer’s extension cord was like Elmer; not one splice. He was a round man with a sharp, aquiline nose and a carpenter’s pencil stuck into his cap just in front of his right ear. He wore matching shirts and pants, always a workman’s tan, heavy leather work shoes, and, if chilly or cold, a matching jacket or coat.
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And he was a solo act; no gofer, apprentice or assistant helped, slowed, or learned from Elmer. When you hired him to, say, put an addition onto your house, Elmer dug the building’s foundation, set the concrete forms, then coordinated the concrete pour, before singularly completing the framing, wiring, plumbing, insulating, roofing, cabinetry, plastering, and trim work by himself. Alas, he didn’t paint.
Equally impressive, at least to my mother, was how he left his work site each day: it was as clean—maybe even cleaner—than her well-scrubbed kitchen.
Elmer had two other talents that I’ve rarely seen matched. First, he sawed nearly every board by hand. His saw was sharp, his stroke short, and his cut straight and quick.
His other unmatchable talent was sweating. He seemed to sweat from the moment he arrived in the morning until the moment he left in the evening. And, most remarkably to me, anyway, was how the sweat dripped from the tip of his elegant nose, drop by drop, exactly onto the board he was cutting with every stroke he made with his handsaw.
Buddy, by contrast, was an elfish man in overalls, a cotton shirt, and high-top work shoes. He trudged more than he walked, rarely moved so fast as to break a sweat, and wore an infectious smile from morning to quitting time. For years Buddy’s work vehicle was a 1957 Chevrolet Impala whose outside mirrors dangled baling twine like parade streamers when not holding 2x4s en route to a job site.
Despite their differences in appearance and approach, both Buddy and Elmer were well regarded in their communities and by my father. Both were board-by-board, brick-by-brick workmen who literally built their small corner of this nation. Now, like my father, both are long gone. Their work, however, endures as a lasting testament to their innate talent and quiet lives, and likely will for many decades more.