Thursday, December 18, 2014


When you grow up on a farm, you learn all sorts of useful and not-so-useful things—like how to trap salamanders, what phase of the moon is best for castration (waning crescent), and what time of the year you shouldn’t eat squirrels (summer). You also “learn” a lot of things that just aren’t so—like how possums reproduce (don't ask), why you sometimes don’t have enough dirt to refill a hole you’ve dug (it's the dark of the moon), and how a velvet ant can kill a cow. The most useful thing I learned living on a farm was how to work.

We didn’t have power tools. If we cut a tree, we did it with axes or a two-man crosscut saw. If we drilled holes, we used a brace-and-bit. Doing carpentry we used hammers, hand saws, and screwdrivers. Dad refused all our pleas to buy power tools, saying we’d just hurt ourselves with them. I validated the wisdom of his decision the summer between my junior and senior years in high school. I was working on a house renovation project for my grandfather (we called him Big Daddy), and he actually let me use a power saw which would have never passed an OSHA inspection—it had no safety guard. I hadn’t been working with the saw more than a couple of days before I stuck my hand into the spinning blade. I've always said that the fact I still have two fully functional hands is evidence that God does intervene in the affairs of men.

Despite that mishap and a few others I got to be a pretty good hammer mechanic. Some things I got very good at. Finish carpentry was not my forte, but if you weren’t too particular about how something looked, I could make it for you. I got a chance to demonstrate my ability as a carpenter one day during my sophomore year in high school.  Big Daddy was building a barn and a pen, and making some gates for the pen. He had hired a professional carpenter to work on the project and recruited me as slave labor.

Our first task was to build two gates for the pen. By that time in my life I had put up several miles of fencing and built over a dozen gates. Building gates was one of the things that I was very good at. I am positive that the carpenter had never built a gate in his life. But according to Big Daddy, I knew nothing and the carpenter was the expert. I began to get impatient as the carpenter figured, refigured, and scratched his head. He laid the boards out one way and then another. He finally settled on a design for the gate and began working on it. I tried to make a few suggestions, but they were ignored. The only job I seemed to be worthy of was to stand by and hand tools to the carpenter. The longer we went, the more frustrated I got. I knew I could finish those gates in no time at all, and I had to stand there and watch this carpenter fumble around pretending to know what he was doing.

Finally we got the first gate built. It took all morning and it was lunchtime when we finished. In the rural South there was really no such thing as lunchtime. We didn't eat lunch. We ate breakfast, dinner, and supper. Big Daddy said he was knocking off for dinner and asked if I wanted to go to dinner with him and the carpenter. I told him to just bring me a sandwich, I’d stay at the barn.
They were gone a half hour to forty five minutes, and by the time they got back, I had finished the second gate. Instead of being pleased, Big Daddy was angry. If I remember correctly, that was my last day helping with the barn.