It is still the summer of 1977. I am in Vermont, helping to refurbish a large, old, white-clapboard building. I am working for, and living with, Bruce and Patty Womer. Bruce is a carpenter, and a good one, but the job is big and needs to get done in a reasonable time, so various craftsmen have been hired to help. And I am helping where I can. All the while, I am learning...
I learned how to cut drywall from a laid-back, big-bearded carpenter who drove an old, faded Saab and went by the name, Bear. He had a voice so low and deep that I could feel the sound waves vibrate through my body when he talked. We started by installing a double layer of drywall on the walls and ceiling of a cramped, wire-and-pipe-infested furnace room.
“Have you ever cut drywall before?” Bear asked me as we stood in front of a stack of the stuff.
“No.” I replied.
“Well, this is a utility knife.” he said to me as he lifted it out of his leather tool belt. “You slice through the paper on one side of the drywall, where you want to cut it, like this, and then you bend it back and it breaks along where you cut it. See?”
“Wow,” I said. “That’s neat!”
He looked at me for a moment in his tired, Bear-like way, and said, “Yeah. Neat.”
I cut drywall as best as I could and helped Bear fit the pieces around ductwork and wires and pipes. It was a nasty job and he growled through the whole thing. But he was really a nice Bear and I was learning a new skill.
When it came time to insulate the attic, I was gung-ho, until Bruce casually mentioned that he thought there were bats up there—but that didn’t matter, did it?
Are you kidding? I hate bats. I’m terrified of bats. I told Bruce about the time I got bit by a bat when I was a little boy. Bees, snakes, spiders, mice, and even rats I can handle. But bats are most definitely not my cup of tea.
But somebody had to insulate that attic and I wasn’t going to let Bruce down. Suited in a protective uniform of work boots, pants (tied at the ankle), winter jacket, knit hat, ear muff hearing protectors, ski mask, and leather mittens, I said a prayer and scuttled up into the dark, cramped, hell-hole.
Sure enough, the bats were there. They started flying around and squeaking. I was half paralyzed with raw fear. But I rallied my nerves and sweated out the whole job.
Of course it did help that Bruce, his head peeking up through the access opening, coached me along with words of encouragement and sympathy, as he handed up pieces of insulation. The truly amazing part of the story, though, was that he managed to keep a straight face through the whole thing.
Bruce was always encouraging, and positive, and patient, and when I had a question (constantly), he always gave me a thoughtful answer. We had a mutual respect, and as the summer wore on, there was a tie that developed between us. It happens when men work together towards a common goal. They share in all the little challenges, and frustrations, and satisfactions, and incredible experiences that come with such projects. And out of the camaraderie comes a special bonding. Bruce became my good friend, my mentor, and to this day, an inspiration.
And then there was Harvey, a local homesteader and aspiring carpenter who had moved to Vermont from New York City. Harvey told me he was a former Hell’s Angel, and when I doubted him, he showed me a snapshot of himself on a full-dress Harley with a big chopper on the front. I was very careful around the guy after that—except for one time.
I don’t recall where we were exactly, but we were having a nice chat (old bikers have great stories), and Harvey said to me, “Hey, who do I look like?”
I said, “I don’t know. What do you mean?”
He said, “What famous person do I look like? Seriously.” And he was serious.
I looked at him for a couple of seconds, threw caution to the wind, and said the only thing that seriously came to my mind. “Bozo the clown?”
If looks could kill, you wouldn’t be reading this. “No you (expletives deleted). Don’t you think I look like Bob Dylan?”
I thought about it. I knew Bob Dylan was a singer, but I didn’t have the foggiest notion what he looked like. “Oh man, Harvey. You do look like Bob Dylan!” With my mouth agape, and an astonished look on my face, I said, “You really do!”
And so it went. The days, the people, hard work, good times, and, in time, the great feeling of satisfaction that comes with having restored a fine old building. The ex-dormitory would now be part of the Craftsbury Inn across the street (It is now known as The Inn on the Common). It was time for me to go home.
We said our good-byes one morning after breakfast. Bruce, Patty, Bear, and Harvey were there. It wasn’t sad or sentimental. We had had a good time and done a good job, and now it was time to move on to the next job. I didn’t exactly know what that job would be for me. But I knew what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to be a carpenter like Bruce.
I remember that summer of 1977 with the poignant nostalgia of a first love; fresh and new, mysterious and exciting. And sometimes I think back to those days when I was an unsure 19-year-old kid who had the good fortune to meet Bruce Womer and help him fix up an old building in a beautiful, quiet little mountain town in Vermont.... And I am refreshed by the memory.
To be continued...
One more thing:
Nineteen years after the summer of 1977, my first book was published by the Taunton Press. It was a book about making countertops. Here is what I wrote on the dedication page of that book:
This book is dedicated to my early mentor, Bruce Womer, his sweet and gracious wife Patty, Robert the mason, Bear the grizzly carpenter, Harvey the ex-biker homesteader, and that long-ago Vermont summer of ’77, when I first realized I was born to build.
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