Monday, September 26, 2011

365 Jobs: The Rookie - Adolf and the "Crack"

September, 1976

(This is the second part of a series that began with The Rookie: First Day.)

After my first day on the construction crew, I had a painful sunburn.  Less than a week ago I'd completed my final shift on graveyard.  I was like a miner emerging from three years underground.

In the next few weeks I did the grunt-work that a rookie was expected to do.  There were bricks and lumber to be hauled, small batches of concrete to be mixed, dirt to be shoveled.  There were impossibly heavy 4x8 foot sheets of Plexiglas to be carried to the central atrium, then lifted to the roof or tilted up to the side, caulked, and held in place.  Muscles started rippling over my body.  My sunburn peeled; then I turned bronze.  I sweated buckets.  I lost ten pounds.

Every chance I could, I watched Adolf.  He was my silent teacher.  Unfortunately I started badly with him:  Pierce gave me the assignment of chipping some concrete from the surface of the driveway.  A delivery had been sloppy; I was to clean up the hardened droppings, which looked like concrete turds.  Pierce said, "You can just bang with a hammer and it will break off from the surface.  The bond is weak.  Just don't use your good hammer.  Here."  He handed me a big old hammer that had pock marks on the hickory handle and rust on the top.  "I found this lying around.  Use it."

Pierce was right.  With a couple of blows, the hammer would break the bond and remove a turd.  I was thinking about coprolites, which are fossilized dinosaur droppings.  I'd bought one once from a rather strange store and given it as a birthday present to my brother Ed, who found it amusing.  Suddenly I was shaken by Adolf's voice shouting: "WHAT ARE YOU DOING WITH MY HAMMER?"

"It's yours?  Pierce gave it to me.  He said it was some old hammer he found lying around."

"Give me."

I handed Adolf the hammer.  Indignantly he pointed to the letters engraved in the head: STILETTO.  "This is the best hammer," Adolf said.  "Pierce is arschkriecher.  You want to be a good carpenter?  Don't listen to Pierce."

"I don't want to listen to Pierce.  Whatever you called him, it sounds about right."


"Could I listen to you?"

Adolf smiled, surprised.  "Ja," he said.  "Follow me."

"I have to finish chipping."

"Forget Pierce.  Follow me.  No foss, no moss." 

Adolf was hanging more doors today.  He had a rolling home-made box on wheels containing chisels, screwdrivers, routing jigs, hole saws, drill bits, a Bosch drill and a Bosch router.  I'd never seen anybody work so fast — or so precisely.  He'd say, "Hold the door," or "Hand me the three quarter chisel," and I'd do as told.  I felt like a nurse assisting an orthopedic surgeon.

When Adolf hung a door, he'd use one screw on each side of the hinge and leave off some of the trim.  "Finish," he'd say.  "No foss, no moss."  And he'd roll on to the next.  I'd install the remaining trim and make sure there were six screws in each hinge — no fuss, no mess.  Then I'd dash to catch up.  I had to work fast.

I soaked up skills at a rapid clip along with a few German swear words.  My favorite was schnoodle noodle which meant, as best I could gather, "dick snot."  Sort of.

Another day, Adolf was given the assignment of building a fireplace mantel.  The Architect had bought several massive slabs of black walnut, rough cut with the bark still attached.  He gave Adolf free rein to design and construct a mantel.

Adolf worked alone on this project, though I watched whenever I could.  He spent three days cutting, planing, sanding, working and reworking the wood until he was satisfied.

At last, The Architect stopped by and studied the finished mantel. 

Accompanying The Architect were his wife, his father, and his mother.  They'd been around before.  The house when completed would be occupied by the father and mother.  The Architect saw the project as an opportunity to showcase his somewhat eccentric style.  The father, a dapper little man with a white beard, was coming to see the project as yet another example of his son's overactive ego.  I was coming to see that the apple didn't fall far from the tree.  The architect's mother, meanwhile, mostly frowned and nodded.  She was in the early stages of dementia.

"The mantel is wonderful," The Architect said.  He pointed at one slit in the face of the top where the old walnut had split.  "All we have to do is fill that crack, and it's done."

Adolf jumped to attention.  "There is no crack," he said.

"It's right there," The Architect said, pointing.

Adolf studied the slit.  "THERE IS NO CRACK!" he shouted.

We all could see it.  Adolf wasn't to blame.  Long ago, the drying walnut had developed a small check.

Adolf was shaking his head.  "There.  Is.  No.  Crack."

The father said, "Whatever you call that thing, a little epoxy will fix it," and he hustled off to the garage.  There was a chest freezer out there filled with dozens of canisters the size of yogurt containers, each canister a different component of epoxy.  The father, I was told, was one of the world's leading experts on epoxies.  More than once on the job I'd already heard "Nothing a little epoxy won't fix," followed by a trip to the freezer. 

The father produced a dark gray mix that was a close match to the color of the walnut.  "I'll dab it in," the father said, turning to Adolf, "then when it's dry you can sand it down."  The father smiled.  "You're the only person I would trust with that task."

Adolf nodded solemnly.

The next day after the sanding, even knowing where it had been, I couldn't find it.  There was no crack.

(This is the second installment of a series about my first job on a construction crew.  To be continued...)

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