Outside the window
He faces a long day
heaving heavy boards,
testing his brittle back,
Carpenter, carpenter, what do you say?
Cut wood all day,
bring home the pay:
a pocketful of sawdust.
With strange joy
he can't wait
Maybe this is a Christmas story. Back in 1982, the Reagan Recession, construction scarce, supporting three kids including an infant while trying to complete — and heat — the house in which we lived, desperate for money I took a carpentry/cabinet job beyond my experience level. For a week before it began I slept badly, imagining all the ways I could screw it up.
The frigid evening before I was to begin, I loaded my radial arm saw plus 10 sheets of birch plywood and 12 sheets of Wilsonart laminate, and I drove to a house on the Stanford campus where I was to work. The man had a Nobel Prize and an intimidating bearing. He had been, in fact, an advisor to Ronald Reagan — on economics, no less.
I'd brought my son Jesse, who was all of six years old but wanted to help. In the truck, after "If We Make It Through December," I let Jesse select the music. At the time his favorite song was "A Country Boy Can Survive." He loved the line:
I've got a shotgun rifle and a four wheel drive,Jesse knew I had a .22 rifle and a two wheel drive. Close enough. If we were starving, I could shoot a squirrel. (I never did.) (Later, all my children became vegetarians, at least for a while.)
a country boy can survive.
Jesse was small but a willing worker. We dragged the saw from the bed of the truck and set it on the driveway. The Nobel prizewinner came out in his bathrobe and said, "Can I help?" Next out the door came his daughter, a chubby cheerful college student wearing bunny slippers. Together we lifted the heavy saw and awkwardly shuffled it into the heat of the garage. Something wonderful was happening. Carrying plywood, each of us taking a corner, leaning sheets against the wall of the garage, we were humans working together.
Right then, I knew it all would end well. And I'd get paid before the holidays.
At a hardware store, cashless, with my credit card I bought a dado blade and a laminate-trimming router bit. Up to now I'd never cut a dado, never installed laminate. I was scared, but I was ready.
Driving home, wipers slapping, again I let Jesse select the music. He went for "Crazy Little Thing Called Love." Warm air blew from the vents. A wind was rising, shaking the trees as we headed to our half-built house in the mountains.
The next morning after sound sleep I woke joyful — tingly with anticipation — on a foggy, drippy day. At the Nobel laureate's house I worked 12 hours, the first of many such work days before a Christmas deadline. I cut my first dado and cautiously with contact cement laid the first sheet of laminate, trimmed with the router. Success. The laureate's son, home for the holidays from the University of Chicago, sneaked out to the garage to smoke marijuana while I worked.
A black limousine pulled into the driveway so a courier could deliver an envelope from the President. The economist read the one sheet of paper and disdainfully flipped it onto a rosewood table where, later, I read it: a condescending, badly reasoned letter written by some Treasury Department underling. Apparently the laureate had dared to publicly disagree with the President about how to push the economic levers of the planet.
At the end of the day, he wrote me a check, first payment. Tomorrow I could cash it.
On the way home, stopping at the La Honda grocery, in search of my last coin I reached into my pocket and pulled out a shower of sawdust.