Updated: Feb 24, 2021
Everyone should be able to do something with their hands other than eat, text or tear down monuments. It appears to me that all of the above are the current trends in 2020 but I am talking about a different set of skills using your hands. This one involves manual labor. It’s called building something.
I was a hod carrier for Charles Metcalf for a couple of years fresh out of high school. He was a professional mason by trade and a damn good one at that. Charles had attended a vocational training school in Kansas City and soon began working for one of the largest construction companies in the city. The pay was good but the work load was tough. As a union man, he was expected to lay a certain number of blocks or bricks every day if he wanted to get paid. And as far as I know he kept that work ethic with him on every job. Actually, I believe that was his attitude towards life insomuch that it takes hard work to live a good life. The only photograph I have of Charles is one where he is laying brick pavers for a walkway.
Eventually, he decided to hang his shingle out and become his own boss. His company was called Midwest Masonry, Inc. Our families lived fairly close to each other in rural Missoura and Charles had seen me putting up hay for local farmers many times. One day he asked me if I wanted to be his hod carrier for five bucks an hour. I jumped at the chance to make big money and said yes. I had no idea what a hod carrier even was.
Actually, I didn’t know much about anything to include life. But, Charles took me under his wings and classes soon began. My first lesson was loading wooden planks into his pickup. No problem, any dummy can do that and I began energetically tossing the planks into the back of the truck. After the second clang of the wood slamming against the metal, Charles stopped me and asked somewhat sharply what I was doing.
Come to find out, there is a certain technique involved for loading scaffolding planks into a pristine, immaculate and treasured green Ford pickup. He said that it took a lot of bricks to pay for and maintain his pickup. He then said “Watch me.” and proceeded to load the truck by himself. Upon finishing he faced me and simply said “Now you should know how to do it.”
A hod carrier’s job was not a walk in the park. I had to mix and supply the mud which is slang for masonry cement, build scaffolding, haul bricks and or blocks up and down the scaffolding and stay one step ahead of Charles. He had to teach me virtually every aspect about being a hod carrier. During some days in class I mixed the mud wrong or the scaffolding wasn’t safe to walk on or under. I even managed to spill a loaded wheelbarrow full of mud a few times. At the end of the day, I was usually filthy while Charlie looked much he did at the start of the day. For the record let me say that it was mandatory that I always had to sit on a towel in his pickup on the way home.
Eventually, I began to catch on and was able to observe Charles plying his trade. He taught me how to roll up the cement on the trowel from the mud board and how to butter a brick. I learned that a layer of bricks is actually called a course and the top and bottom of each brick is called the bed. Soon I was working on the mortar joints using the concave or raked jointers. I learned a lot. Both about life and building something.
I never did attend a trade school or become a professional mason as life took me in a different direction. But recently, I built a wood-fired oven here in north central Thailand at D&G using all of the knowledge that Charles taught and shared with me from years past. I wish that I could thank him personally but unfortunately, he died at the young age of 53 from a myocardial infarction. My pizza oven no doubt would have failed his exacting standards and he definitely would have complained about me making a mess, but I still think he would have been proud of my effort.
When a person learns to build something using their hands and sweat, this combination helps build character. It also allows an individual to think, something that many Americans currently are not doing.
Finally, let me say that I truly believe that if a person puts a lot of time and effort into building something, they are less likely to tear down something someone else built, like monuments or statues. America needs more manual labor, not less...
Thank you Charles.