Digging Holes and other memories

My very first W-2 paying job was as a construction laborer for a small family construction company one very hot Virginia summer. The job, given my relative lack of skills, was doing whatever I was told to do – usually it meant picking up scraps and trash, moving dirt and cement in wheelbarrows, carrying shingles up to roofs and digging footings. All for the princely sum of $3.35 an hour – minimum wage at the time and I was probably overpaid at that. After taxes I think my checks were something like $118.00 for 40 hours of sweating in the sun.

For those of you who don’t know what a footing is — simply put it’s a hole. The size and type of building dictates the shape and size of the hole. The holes I dug that summer were 3-foot by 3-foot and 3-feet deep. I had a pick, a shovel and a measuring stick. We got to the job site at 6 am  in order to beat some of the heat although in Virginia in July it was usually 85 degrees by 7 am. By noon it would be 95 in the shade. Of course we weren’t in the shade, we were in the middle of a red clay field with nary a tree in sight. They would drop me off with my three tools  and a cooler, and my job was to dig. If you’ve seen the movie Holes, that pretty much sums up my first few weeks on the job.  http://www.netflix.com/Movie/Holes/60027593?trkid=222336&lnkctr=srchrd-sr&strkid=1244285482_0_0  Eventually I figured out why the hole had to be the exact size – too small and it wouldn’t pass the building inspector’s sharp eyes, too big and it meant extra cement which cost money. 

The monotony of digging in a bare field was only broken by the radio – this is probably where my deep extensive knowledge of classic rock was formed.  The soundtrack of that summer consisted of Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, Foreigner, Rush, Styx, Pat Benatar, Heart, Cheap Trick and Dire Straights.  Of course the highlight of the day was lunch. I’d quickly devour my two or three sandwiches, chips and some cookies before taking a short nap. Going back to the shovel after lunch was actually the hardest part of the day because having sat still for 30 minutes you felt tired and your muscles knew what was in store for the next 4-5 hours.

In addition to digging holes, I learned how to handle a wheel barrow full of cement which is a lot heavier that you would imagine. When the cement truck arrived at the job site, everything stopped in order to get the truck unloaded because the cement would start to harden if the too much time passed.  So all hands were pressed into action. You’d push your deep contractor wheel barrow under the cement trough holding it steady while cement came hurrying down in a grey slurry. Then you’d have to get moving quickly across a network of narrow boards zigging this way and zagging that way before dumping your load only to repeat the process 20-30 times. It only took a few times spilling my load before I learned how much I could handle without making a mess. It’s a skill I still get to use in the garden when spreading compost and wood chips.

As a fearless 14-year-old, the part I enjoyed the most was carrying the shingles up the ladders. Each pack weighed about 40-50 pounds and once the roofing started you couldn’t let the guys on the roof run out of shingles. There was something really fun about slapping a pack of shingles onto your shoulder and racing up a ladder without using your hands. Before that summer was over, I learned how to carry two packs of shingles up the ladder without using my hands just like the bigger, stronger guys.  However being on the roof wasn’t a lot of fun – it was usually 130 degrees or more up there with no relief from sun. Now when I need to climb up onto my 3rd story roof, I notice that the ground is a lot farther away and find myself making excuses not go up there myself….

When I think back to that summer I think about the guys I worked with. Not because we were especially good friends – we weren’t. I was mostly a curiosity and a mascot for them breaking up the monotony of their work week – they would play practical jokes on me but they also kept me out of too much trouble.  They were generally good guys, but we were very different. I was a young 14-year-old kid trying to earn a little money during summer vacation, they were guys who had dropped out of high school and had been doing this job for years knowing they’d being doing it far into their future.  At the end of every day we’d leave the job site riding in the back of the pickup with six or seven guys, they’d stop at the store buying beers for themselves and a big gulp for me.  I think about Walt, Joey and the rest of the guys and wonder where they are now and if they are still doing construction.

That was the first and only summer my mother never had to ask me to go to bed. I’d come home, shower, eat something and be in bed by 6 or 7 pm every night when the sun was still up and do it again the next day. Although it was only for about 6-8 weeks I first glimpsed what it was like to work for a living. 

Most of all, the lesson I learned that summer was that I wanted earn my living with my brain and not my back because as much as I enjoyed the physical labor, the variety of situations and problem solving that comes from working with your brain was much more interesting to me. And you know what, that’s still true for me. -t


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