Around the age of 13, boys become useful. My oldest son Jesse was 13 when I first hired him to help me with a construction job. Now Will, my youngest, is 13 and helping me lay plywood floors at Dolly's house.
He hammers. I tell him I want a nail every 6" around the edges, every 12" in the field. It's a tedious though strenuous test. After an hour alone, I check his results with a tape measure. He never stretched, never wandered. Okay, passing grade. As a reward I let him drill holes and drive screws.
He proves to be a good worker and a good companion.
He's also illegal. The law prohibits hiring 13-year-olds. There's an exception for a family business (which of course this is) but even in a family business 13-year-olds are forbidden to operate power equipment or work in hazardous situations. Is hammering hazardous?
I'm not exploiting the kid. I'm teaching him skills. He enjoys it. Give a teenager a real job and watch him grow - it happens right before your eyes. I don't let him operate the power saw or the router. The big power drill, yes. Cordless drill/driver, yes.
When we return home, there's a package at the doorstep. Will's order of guitar parts has arrived from Stewart McDonald. As a summer project before starting eighth grade, Will is building an electric guitar. It was all his idea.
In the guitar project, the roles are reversed: he's the boss; I'm the helper. Together we've already shopped the intoxicating warehouse of a hardwood supplier and brought home a solid block of mahogany plus a sheet of walnut veneer. At school Will's shop teacher, Mikel Kovach-Long, helped him cut the body with a band saw following Will's carefully-drawn design. At home, I cut the neck with my radial arm saw. Together, we veneered walnut to the body - with insufficient clamps - and botched it. The veneer came out wrinkly. Will scraped it off.
With our package from Stewart McDonald, we're ready to move on. We cut a groove for the truss rod and glue the neck to the body.
Our two jobs done for the day, Will goes to a friend's house to play drums and spend the night. I'm alone. My daughter is in China on a tour that was sponsored by someone at her high school. Next year, she'll graduate and then leave home for college. My older son, on summer break from college, is working as a counselor at Plantation Farm Camp. With mixed emotions I'm watching my kids take wing.
My wife comes home from a staff meeting and finds me in the bathtub with a mug of tea and a portable telephone, reading and taking notes in the margin of a book while listening to a Giants game on the radio. Observing my bathing setup, she says “You’ll adjust better to life without kids than I will.”
Will and I return to Dolly’s where we spend a full day laying another floor. Dolly is making up her house plan as we work, deciding which room will be art studio, which will be study as we are lifting bookshelves and desks. To Dolly, relocating furniture means relocating memories of her husband who recently died, so we have to deal with an emotionally fraught situation. It takes patience.
At night, Will and I work on installing the truss rod inside the guitar neck. It's trickier than we expected.
The next day I take Will to San Francisco to catch a 6:30 a.m. bus to Camp Unalayee where he will trek in the Trinity Alps for a couple of weeks. An hour later, I pick up my daughter at the airport where she has just returned from China, arriving an hour earlier than she departed through the magic of time zones. Driving down the chaotic Bayshore Freeway, she remarks on how calm it is here. She sleeps for the next 22 hours.
Continuing alone at Dolly's house, I finish the floors, hang doors, build a nice little sink cabinet and hang bank after bank of shelves. The nice thing about Dolly is that unlike many clients, my standards are higher than hers, so she’s always pleased with my work.
After two weeks, Will returns from camp: tall, tan, and hungry. Meeting him at the bus in San Francisco, I tell him the news: Jerry Garcia has died. As we drive to La Honda, Will is in tears. I had no idea it would touch him this way. I tell Will about the time I sat right next to Jerry at a club called the Keystone. "I never got to see him," Will says sadly. "Now I never can."
Rummaging through my tapes, Will finds Workingman's Dead and pops it into the player. He listens, not talking, the rest of the long drive home. We all deal with loss our own way.
Will gets a big greeting from the dogs - and from his brother and sister. My older son Jesse has completed his summer job, so we'll all be home together for a week or so. My daughter has cooked fish with lots of garlic. Everyone finishes dinner and then watches Will continue to eat. After polishing off everything on the table, he goes to the refrigerator for more.
When dinner is over, Will asks if I've done any work on the guitar.
"No," I say. "I don't know what to do."
"Let's take a look," he says.
I follow Will down the stairs to the basement. I'm eager to help, eager to learn.