Carpenter Capers

Buddy Dave Pickel and I practiced carpentry together for over ten years. Through good and bad times we shared many experiences that created a strong bond between us. Dave hung up his Estwing for the last time and left us in 2012. This piece was something I penned several years earlier for the occasion of his fiftieth birthday.

Driving With Davie

Of all the jobs that Dave and I worked on together, we rarely worked anywhere that was less than a forty-minute drive away. Apparently word-of-mouth doesn't travel much farther than that.

Consequently, Dave and I spent many hours together in the cabs of trucks, including my old '68 red Ford pick-up truck which we dubbed "the dancing bear" due to it's tendency to sidle down the road at a five degree angle.

One of our pastimes was pointing out exceptionally ugly architecture. At such times we would drag out our trusty bazooka and level the offending eyesore. If we'd had a real bazooka Canada would be an even more beautiful place today.

In all of our travels we never failed to stop at every lumber yard and hardware store along the way. We did this on the flimsy pretext of picking up some last-minute, crucial building materials, but in reality it was just so we could pore over the tool department. "Hey, look at this, a folding thing-a-ma-bob with a solid brass wing-nut - gotta have one of these!"

In the end, most carpenters give up the trade because their tool boxes become too heavy to lift.

On the road or on the job, Dave frequently burst into song. "Don't Go Bustin' My Pine" went one of Dave's perennial faves. Nearly all of Dave's ditties made references to either white pine and/or cotton panties. I could never quite figure out the connection, but the association became indelibly ingrained in my brain through frequent exposure.

Cab conversations frequently revolved around Dave's "Expenses", and my "Schedule". They say "time is money", so I think it just illustrated the complementary nature of our relationship.

When Clients Watch

You know those signs that hang in garages? Ones that read "Labor, $30 per hour, $60 if you watch"? Well, carpenters aren't so wild about being watched either - I mean, it cramps our style, man!

The true measure of a carpenter can be gauged by how he handles himself under the cold gaze of a demanding client. I remember such an occasion - the day Dave received the Bronze Estwing for level- headedness under fire.

It was at the beginning of a new job - a big, rambling lakeside house. The terrain was sloped and punctuated with outcroppings of rock even after the excavators had left. I'd set up some batter boards and we'd already shot most of our elevations when our patron showed up. Just our luck!

The owner was a gray, hulking figure with smoldering eyes and a tongue ever ready to lash out at perceived indolence, impudence, or incompetence. So there we were, staked out like tomatoes in the hot sun beneath his brooding stare: our plan to knock off a little early dashed to smithereens.

Worst of all, we had nothing in particular to do at the moment to make ourselves look busy for the benefit of the client. What to do? What to do?

Dave motions me back over to the corner of the excavation where I'd just been. I head on over and raise a stick. Dave squints through the builder's level for a several moments and then begins writing on a scrap piece of paper. Then, another squint through the glass and another left-handed scrawl on the scrap paper. Next he motions me over to the opposite corner and repeats the process.

The ruse is repeated over and over until our observer tires of our tedious charade and retreats back down the hill and out of sight.

Breathing a sigh of relief, I walk over to where Dave's standing. As I get close he holds out the paper for me to see. There, scribbled in a wobbly hand, it says:

"This is what you do when you really don't have anything to do and the client is watching and you've got to not only look busy but look like you know what the hell you're doing."

The Tartan 500

Left to our own devices (as we so often are) carpenters are widely disposed to inventing ingenious ways to more fully enjoy the work at hand.

Take the sunny October afternoon Dave and I were laying down a considerable number of sheets of t&g plywood sub-flooring.

After coaxing all the sheets into place using "beater blocks" and tacking them down, we faced the task of pounding in a few thousand two-and-half-inchers by hand. (Well, actually with our Estwings - nobody in their right mind would pound in that many nails with their bare hands).

As we surveyed the situation, we hit on a caper to get the job done and have a little fun at the same time. Thus was born the "Tartan 500".

After loading up our aprons, we set about starting five-hundred nails each. That is to say, just a "tapity-tap" to make them stand there, ready to be driven in.

All the way across the 40-foot platform we went - following our respective red chalk lines, one nail every three or four inches, alternating left to right and back where the ends of sheets butted. Then, at the far side, a u-turn and all the way back to the beginning.

Finally, after embellishing the start and finish lines with our big red carpenter crayons, we got on our marks, ready for the "get-set, go!"

"It's post time with Pickel on the pole - and they're off, ladies and gentlemen! Pickel in the lead down the first straight-away. Now coming up to the last dreaded, grueling butt joint: side-to-side they're wailing and flailing, Estwing-to-Estwing towards the finish!"

And so it went - first left-handed, then right, then back to left, and finally flailing with both arms at once. As we neared home-stretch it was hard to say what hurt more - our stomachs from the uncontrollable fits of laughter, or our arms from the brutal punishment of those S-curves!

There were no witnesses to our tomfoolery that day, and I honestly don't remember which one of us crossed the finish line first to garner the hand-rolled laurel - or, indeed, whether we made it all the way to the finish! But I'll never forget Dave, or the Tartan 500.

There we were, left to right: Jim Morrison, Bruce, Dave