Willem Lange: I Remain a Devoted, Albeit Challenged, Practitioner of My Trade
If ever there was an activity designed to reveal the extent of age-related decrepitude, it’s carpentry. At the moment, bent over to work at the altitude of my ankles, holding onto a 16-foot-long clapboard with one hand, a flimsy 5-penny nail with the other, and wishing for a third hand for my hammer, the lesson is ineluctable. The head of the nail is located at a distance falling between the two ranges of my bifocals, the clapboard is twisting and flopping like a freshly landed trout, and I know that nail is just waiting for an opportunity to be struck just enough off-center to bend beyond saving. Every old injury and fracture, every tortured prosthesis, every calcified joint down in my engine room is talking to all the others; and the subject is strike and rebellion. But up here on the bridge, where the decisions are made, a still-functioning brain is reciting the second half of Newton’s First Law: “An object in motion ... .” And I can’t help thinking how much I still enjoy this stuff. Carpentry is the emperor of vocations.
It started this time with a perverse tea bag. Our kitchen here at home, one of Mother’s designs, is a marvel of convenience. But over the several years of our residence, we’ve both become a bit shorter, and the built-in microwave oven, perched above the toaster oven, has appeared to raise itself to eye level. A few weeks ago Mother dipped a tea bag into a large cup of water, set the cup in the microwave, and punched two minutes. At the beep, she reached in and picked up the cup. But the little paper tag at the end of the string snagged in the supporting grill; it pulled the bag out of the cup and sent a large dose of boiling water onto Mother’s hand. There were second-degree burns, much discomfort, and a growing realization that the height of the oven was getting dangerous to us.
Whom do you turn to with a problem like this? A carpenter, naturally. And where was the nearest (not to mention, the cheapest) one? Right there at the kitchen island. He was enjoying his lunch when she destroyed the peace. “I’ve done some measuring,” she began, “and figure that we can lower the microwave three inches. All we have to do is cut three inches off the legs of the tambour door in front of the toaster oven, lower the microwave shelf above it, and then install another shelf way up top for stuff like flat casserole dishes.”
“Can’t be done. That cabinet’s built like Fort Knox. I get fiddling with it, I’ll wreck it.” I began to muster a squad of arguments against it, and offered instead to build a 3-inch-high stool to stand on while using the oven. That one was — I knew it would be — a nonstarter.
Then destiny intervened: The microwave chose that afternoon to go on the fritz; and while it was off at the repair shop, the empty space yawned irresistibly. A few days later the cabinet, somewhat altered but still sound as a nut, received the repaired oven at a safer elevation. And instead of going to the gym or the park to exercise, I’d climbed the equivalent of the Empire State Building, going to and from the shop, up and down the cellar stairs.
Gazing at the results of my handiwork, though, I felt the way a successful plastic surgeon must feel after a really good facelift — I thought, “By golly, you haven’t lost it all yet. Maybe you could tackle the siding on the garage. It’s the perfect time of year, and there’s lots of down-low stuff you can do without help.” When I quit contracting, about six years ago, I hung onto my tools. I did give away my pump jacks and metal staging, lest I be tempted to climb far enough above the earth to do further damage to myself; but all the lovely shop and hand tools are still with me. Proper tools are the major difference between a carpenter and a dubber. A couple of my hand tools were my father’s, and one little awl belonged to my great-grandfather, who was a cobbler. They no longer ride around in the perfectly organized back of my truck, but instead fill the walls and corners of my well-organized shop. Some are superannuated; carpenters don’t use folding rules or transits anymore, but steel tapes and laser levels. I can’t work without a folding rule in my back pocket, and take pleasure in sliding out the little brass extension to see the date scribbled inside — 3/12/82.
I have a little galvanized metal gizmo that my old friend Leonard made for clapboarding alone. A work of simple genius, it holds one end of the board in place while you tack the other. Leonard and I worked together for years. At lunchtime one day, I read to him from a now-defunct magazine named New York Woman, which had conducted a survey asking sophisticated women to name the sexiest of trades. Despising used-car salesmen, ski instructors and lawyers, they had chosen carpenters, noting their leather aprons and “rippling muscles as they hone your shelves.” I’m not sure how you hone a shelf, but when I read the results to Leonard, probably the most unprepossessing of Vermonters, he was utterly unimpressed. I think he raised an eyebrow.
Carpenters spend a great amount of their working time either down on the floor or ground, or up on a ladder or staging. It’s rare they get to work at a comfortable height; and if they have in their genetic makeup any tendency to arthritis, they’re going to get it in spades. So, as I grovel around down by my ankles, striving to hit the nails squarely while almost every joint dreams of 5 o’clock bourbon and a lounge chair, I can look forward to perhaps two or three hours of working at a height between my knees and head. Then it’s up onto ever-longer ladders, far into the afternoon, holding imaginary congress with the long-dead old-timers who first taught me; the dozens of carpenters, good and not so good, I worked with over 40 years; and a legion of electricians, masons, plumbers and painters who infused life into all those busy years. I may appear to be alone, but Robert Frost says it best: “Men work together ... whether they work together or apart.”
Willem Lange’s column appears here on Wednesdays. He can be reached by email at email@example.com.