When I was 12, I helped my Dad build a house on the outskirts of Colusa, Calif. It was a concrete block house on 440 acres he had bought and turned into a rice farm. Also, he was a serious duck hunter and it served the dual purpose of farm and duck club.
We’d leave San Francisco early Friday afternoons and work long hours Saturday and Sunday. My job was shoveling sand, gravel, and cement into a concrete mixer (which I still have, still working, 63 years later). We’d usally pick up a laborer early in the morning on the streets in Colusa, then drive the 8 miles out to the ranch. I found I could work harder than the guys we picked up; they’d usually been drinking heavily the night before. I liked the work. I got some rare praise from my Dad for working hard. I still like shoveling, although I always tried to hide this skill on construction jobs so I wouldn’t end up on shovel detail.
As much as I liked shoveling, it was nothing compared to hammering. One of those memorable moments in my life: the concrete slab was finished, the block walls built (by travelling masons), grout poured in the blocks, and the walls and roof framed by Pinky Smith, a cigar-chomping carpenter who was also the leader of my Cub Scout troop. I was allowed up on the roof with a hammer and canvas apron to nail down the roof sheathing. I still remember that morning, sun shining, smell of the wood, the satisfaction of hammering nails (acuracy wasn’t that important here), the thrill of creating a surface, and then walking on it. I was hooked.
My next carpentry experience was in college (’53-’54) when I got a job working summers for a shipwright on the docks in San Francisco (which used to be an actual working port instead of a tourist destination). When ships came in and the holds were loaded, we’d go in and shore up the cargo with wooden bracing so it wouldn’t shift around out at sea. I got $2.50 an hour and double-time for overtime, a fortune in those days. Some times we’d work 24 straight hours and I’d get close to $100 for the day. In down time, when no ships we’re in, we’d build pallets at the shipwright’s yard at the foot of Hyde Street, right down from the Buena Vista bar. The Ghirardelli chocolate factory was a few blocks away and when they were cooking, the smell of chocolate filled the air. Most of the other carpenters were from Oklahoma and all of them were older than me, and I loved learning the basic carpentry skills and the camaraderie.
When it came to building my own house in the early ’60s in Mill Valley, I had the basics of crude carpentry down. I never got any good at finish work, but I’ve alwyas loved working up to the time a building is framed and sheathed. To this day I love to shift gears and do something with wood. Making tables, fixing chairs, shaking a roof, the smell of wood, the satisfaction of creating something out of raw materials. You know, with all the changes going on in the world now, the art of building a home isn’t that much different. Computers can’t pour a foundation or frame a wall, or lay a floor. It’s still human hands holding the tools and making the connections to provide the roof overhead.