Ten years old, barefoot in June and school’s out, no shirt on. Spending the weekend at Pa Estes’s farm, me and my brother and sister and a cousin or two. And I’m working in a damn garden. We could be fishing. Fuzzy okra plants sting my arms. Bumpy purple hull pea pods take too long to fill a bucket. I don’t even like vegetables.
Well. Okay, except for thick-sliced tomatoes on white bread slathered with mayonnaise and sprinkled with salt.
The old folks said if we’d just hold our mouths right (which we took to mean lose the attitude), the work would be over soon and the churn of homemade vanilla ice cream being turned by-hand in chunks of cracked ice on the front porch would taste all the better. And they were right. On both counts.
And that thing about working agreeably still serves me sixty years later. I’ve been happy to learn that any kind of manual labor, even, like, washing and vacuuming a vehicle, is a moving meditation and grounds me in the now. Slows down the flow of some of the 50,000 thoughts that flood our mind daily, of which Mark Twain said, 90 percent are pretty much useless. I’d say less than 5 percent helps in any way. The rest of our thoughts are projections into a nonexistent future, or recollections from a nonexistent past.
Only thing, I had a hard time today finding a way to hold my mouth right to ease the pain of shingle-shoveling on a hot and humid Sunday. And every one of my thoughts bobbed along drenched in sweat. Really.
My neighbor, when I got this project going and told him it would be a big job for one man, asked me did I know how to eat an elephant. I shook my head. “One bite at a time,” he said.
Even so, back in my carpenter days as a partner in Bay 98 Construction Company there were two jobs I didn’t find tasty and would always opt to hire the work done rather than do it myself. Hanging sheetrock and roofing. Especially roofing. Either nailing them down or tearing them off. But that’s where I found myself, up a ladder and standing square in the middle of the boathouse roof with a shingle shovel in my hand and my toes clinched tightly inside my heavy work shoes, mentally gripping the slope of the roof so I wouldn’t slide off. The tiny aggregate loosened from the shingles are like BB’s on the black felt paper and can send you sliding.
I saw it happen on a Bay 98 job we were doing in Daphne. We were remodeling a hundred-year-old house on the bay and removing original cedar shakes. My partner and I and two other workers—one, a girl we’d hired a week earlier—were struggling with pry bars and claw hammers to pull off the shakes. I’m sure my eyes went wide and my face got pale when the girl started a slow slide down the roof from a standing position. We weren’t tied-off with safety ropes and there was not a thing to stop her from falling. No one was going to get to her in time. Someone, and maybe even me, yelled for her to sit down. She did and her hands and feet worked like a crab, but still she slid.
And then, as if by divine intervention, the seat of her jeans caught and ripped on a protruding nail. The tearing stopped when it got to a pocket and the waist band and the nail held her frozen in place, ten feet from falling off the roof. We got to her and helped her to standing. She refused to take a break and go down the ladder. She completely ignored that her butt was mostly exposed and kept right on working after we’d rigged a safety line. We got lucky.
My uncle told me a story that I don’t believe, but it makes for good workplace mythology. He said a worker on a residential roofing job in Tuscaloosa began to slide down the black felt paper on the roof and had the presence of mind to think of his nails and hammer. According to legend, this carpenter retrieved a nail from his pouch and drove it into the plywood roof decking through the loose denim material on the leg of his jeans, and stopped himself from falling.
True or not, it’s a good argument for staying in the very present moment when you’re working. You free up you mind enough to spend one of your 50,000 thoughts on a question: Can I do this easier? Forget big words like efficiency and necessity. Easy does it is the mother of invention. During today’s work I was in the very present moment enough to see that if I scattered sand on the wooden deck around the boathouse my tarp would be easier to drag, loa
ded with the shingles I’d torn loose and pitched off the roof. I also discovered that if I used the shovel from the side of the courses of shingles, instead of downward from the ridge or upward from the eaves, they peeled loose much faster and easier. These revelations only came to me because my mind was on the job at hand, and not out in La-La Land.
When I worked on the Van Antwerp Building, my boss man Mickey told me to stack on a wooden pallet some rubble torn away from the exterior facade. It kind of pissed me off to be set upon such a project for which I saw no benefit. The rubble could be scraped up with the bucket on a front end loader.
Still, when I was in the Navy and working on the mess decks (kitchen), I was assigned to the serving line where three meals a day I’d plop some food down on the trays of sailors in line for chow. I saw some better jobs, and thought I’d give it a try. So I told my chief that I had a smoker’s cough, and I didn’t think it was sanitary for me to be working over the food. He agreed. And he put me washing dishes. In one second I saw how “this man’s Navy” worked and how it would be run. I decided I would wash pots and pans faster and better than any sailor since the invention of sailing ships. The chief let me stay in the deep sinks for two weeks. He knew I saw the light, and he gave me the best job on the mess decks. He put me in the bake shop.
Hearkening to the lesson I learned onboard the USS Intrepid, I stacked Mickey’s rubble so beautifully I was moved to take a picture of my work. Mickey was impressed, too. Was it my good stacking skills that were the reason I was later moved into management on the Van Antwerp Building job?
Maybe. And here I am eleven days into the deconstruction of the boathouse, and as of quitting time tonight, all the shingles are shoveled off the roof and loaded into the trailer, all the doors and windows and their flashing removed. With help from my pal Biff, the big boat gates are off their hinges and on the ground. The neighbor said I’d taken a big bite of the elephant.
When people who’ve read my book about Henry Stuart, and how he didn’t die in a year like the doctor said he would, I’m sometimes asked what I think kept him alive for another twenty years. “Was it something in the water in Fairhope?” “Was it because he went barefoot all the time?” Was it because he grew his own food and didn’t eat meat?”
It was because Henry worked, and held his mouth right as he did so, that he lived into his mid 80s. Like Zen Buddhist monks who sit zazen in meditation, and yet who also work at manual labor as part of their monastic practice, work works.
Best of all, work can help the faithful take no heed for the ‘morrow and limit ineffective worry about what’s to come. Possibly shave off a few thousand thoughts. And that, in itself, is healing and curative.