Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Joints and Jointers

Hunched over my laptop,  I didn't hear her come up behind me.
But I sensed a gaze over my shoulder.
"Oh my God..."
She had seen what I was doing.  My head dropped with shame, "I'm so sorry..."
"You realize that blog entry was posted over a month ago..."
"Uh, huh."
"And that every one we know and maybe some people we don't have already read the original version..."
"I couldn't help myself."
"Plus it's 11:30 and nobody will ever read whatever it is you're doing there?"
"I know," I said miserably, "but some parts still aren't right.  Nothing I can't fix in few minutes.  I'll be done with it then."
She chuckled, either in amusement or pity, and went to bed. 

Those damn joints!
And that jointer...

The Jointer is an eight inch tool shaped like a lazy "S".  I can describe it precisely though I have not held one in over 40 years.

The bottom of the "S" is thick as a large man's thumb, the opposite end slight as toddler's pinky, able to accommodate any width.

Smooth steel, kept polished principally by the efforts of a bricklayer's helper also known as a "tender," in the eastern states known as a "hod" carrier.  It's a job I know well (though I'm still baffled by the word "hod" and unsure if I've ever carried one).

The essence of this job is simple but demanding: carry stuff to the bricklayer, the union certified tradesman who has suffered through an apprenticeship, spent time as a journeymen, and shown sufficient mastery of his craft to be regarded as a full fledged mason.  In short, a man who's paid his dues, knows his stuff, and rules without question.

You carried endless bricks to him so he never, ever has to go the pallet and pick some up for himself--that's a given.

And the wrath of God is reserved for hapless tenders who do not in a timely manner deliver endless wheelbarrows of cement mixed thusly:

22 heavy shovels of course sand
1/2 of a 94 lb. bag of moisture sucking cement
1/4 shovel of fire clay--if he is working on  the box (inner portion where the fire burns)
Adequate water to create a smooth mix, neither too runny or stiff, a precise adhesive the master bricklayer refers to as "mud."

He was never to wait upon you for its delivery because your job was to anticipate this needs.
If you were good enough, my father once said, you actually knew when the bricklayer wanted his coffee thermos and the precise moment to bring out the lunch boxes.

I was never a good tender, always moaning and too often looking forward to lunch.  Because then my father and I would relax and talk aimlessly for the duration of an hour (back when the term "lunch hour" was a literal expectation.)

But only if the morning's work had been acceptably jointed.
And quitting time or not, we never left a job until jointing the last levels of bricks.

Though a bricklayer will roughly joint his work during the course of his day, it is the tender's job to perform final touches.

He must run the aforementioned "S" shaped tool at the correct angle along the intersection of brick and mud, brushing away any excess, and impart the clean finished look of fine masonry.

Sometimes I got lazy.  Bone tired, just wanted to go home.  My father would drop his tool bag.
"Johnny, those joints are sloppy."
"Aw, Uncle Bill's fireplace is oozy and totally unjointed.  You said you liked it."
"That was his choice of style and his fireplace, not what the people who buy this house will expect."
I looked back at a few rough spots.
"They won't notice."
"I've noticed." 
"They won't even care about it."
"I care."

His eyes focused solely on the fireplace wall and I handed him the jointer.  After a few minutes and one last look, he handed it back to me.
Then came a time when he just looked at the jointer in my hand, walked to the truck, and waited.

After jointing, my last moments on the job site were always the same .  I rinsed the jointer in a water barrel, dried it on my pants and placed it carefully into my father's tool bag.  Only then was I rewarded with the sound of a battered Chevy's ignition.

Did I learn anything by working as a tender during summer vacations?  You bet.  I would NEVER go into construction--even if it meant  teaching instead.  Did all that jointing teach me anything?  Yes. A better understanding of the word Integrity.
A big word, hard to live by.

And if, through my repeated attempts and obsessive revisions, I ever learn to put down words with the same artistry and regard for quality that my father practiced daily with bricks and stones, I'll know who to credit--or maybe blame.

Lights are off underneath the bedroom door.
Time to stop thinking about joints.

Maybe she's still awake.