if i were a carpenter

the-corral-at-breckenridge… not much of a lady
would you marry me anyway?
or just call me crazy?

My new friend and I needed jobs.  I’d moved to Breckenridge, Colorado and lived in a house with four men, and had been thrilled to make a girlfriend at the local Gold Pan Saloon on a night a friend was entertaining the crowd with his guitar.  Actually, right about that time I had gotten so tired of the men in the house that my then boyfriend and I bought a pre-cut 18-foot diameter tipi from a company in Ridgeway, and I sewed the sucker together on my ancient sewing machine.  We cut and skinned lodge pole pines for the frame, and the three of us made it home.  The third ‘of us’ was my parent’s brilliant black and white Springer spaniel, the Lincoln Log Dog, the handsomest and smartest dog who ever walked the earth.  He was so beloved that a few of our friends included him in the greetings in their letters to us.  His name was sometimes penned first, to say the truth.

Betsy lived a mile or so away from us, but we were both living under the shadow of Quandary Peak near the base of Hoosier Pass at close to 11,000 feet, surrounded by high peaks that could make you feel either secure or claustrophobic.  I was in the latter camp, although trekking up those peaks in what passed for summer there to see the sub-alpine flowers was a pleasure: mountain blue mountain forget-me-nots, fuscia moss campion, pale pasque flowers; but a person always had to come down from the mountains to real life.

And in real life, we needed jobs.  Betsy took us to a restaurant/bar with some goofy mining town name, and we got hired on as waitresses.  Now this was one of those towns where men outnumbered women about four to one, and a lot of the men were, shall we say…rather piggish.  Upending a plate over some man who had just made a lewd proposition was frowned upon in this particular Gold Nugget or whatever-it-was-called restaurant, so I restrained myself.  But one day some cretin pinched me in the ass while I was waiting for drinks at the bar.  I froze for a few moments while I considered my options, then glanced at the front door of the restaurant.  I untied my apron, threw it on the bar and left.; I never  went back for my last paycheck.

Betsy wasn’t hard to convince that we needed different jobs, and with her lead, we cooked up the idea of working as a construction clean-up team.  We spent a few humiliating days going to various building sites and being rejected rather obscenely, but finally happened upon The Broken Lance condominiums on the south end of town.  A new project head had just arrived to bail out a stalled project, and he just happened to be an adherent of Science of Mind discipline: Walt’s blue eyes twinkled with positivism.

He was sixty-ish with curly white hair, slightly bowed legs and a wrinkled but mobile face that grinned easily all the way to his eyes, but we soon learned that it could also storm up darkly, with lightning bolts shooting out of his eyes.  He adored us on sight, though, and adopted us in time.

Clean up after the crews we did, and what utter slobs they were, especially the dry-wallers, who left broken slabs of gypsum board everywhere, often with globs of drywall mud crapped onto it and the floor.  We’d schlep stacks of it out of the units and walk it down plank ramps to dumpsters, then head back for more.  And more.

Walt taught us how to sweep the gypsum powder off the concrete floors, demonstrating with a push broom.  “See?” he said; “just let it bounce a few inches forward, then haul it back a bit and push again, and it doesn’t raise a cloud of dust?”  He was proud that in his past he’d cleaned up after dances at the VFW or something; the man beamed with pride as he demonstrated pushing and bouncing his broom around the imaginary halls in his mind.

As women, it was clear that in order to succeed in a man’s job, we’d need to work at least twice as hard.  We did.  We put up with plenty of shit from the guys on the crew, too, but by and by they grudgingly accepted us, although sometimes when Walt would yell at some hapless screw-up, “You’d better get it together, or I’m gonna fire you and hire a girl” things would get a little dicey again for a bit.

We’d be ravenous by lunch time, and supplement our sack lunches with goodies the local mobile lunch wagon, the Mother Truckers, stopped by with.  They were three dirty fucking hippies, and sometimes didn’t show up at all, and boy, did they hear about it the next time they did!  “Fuck off, ya idiots, or you won’t get any lunch,” they’d warn.  Hardball hippies.

I can’t remember now if we’d been lobbying Walt to do other work or if the clean-up was mostly finished for this phase of the job, but one day he took us to the head carpenters and said, “Put these girls to work; they want to learn carpentry.”

Well, Merle and Earl blushed crimson, averted their eyes, and nodded their heads slightly.  They were probably in their late forties, but it was hard to say.  They were small but stocky, with faces round as moons and pink as petunias; their Can’t-Bust-Em white overalls had shiny brass fittings and always looked freshly laundered.  We later discovered they probably were: ‘the boys’, as Walt called them, still lived with their mom who packed elaborate lunches for them.

They seemed to be confirmed bachelors, and the female of the species must have been terrifying and confounding to them; they seriously couldn’t look at us without blushing, and their utterances were tongue-tied at best.  Mainly they gestured.

Merle nodded his head toward a unit, toddled off, and we followed like eager puppies.  When we got inside the unit, he ordered, “Fur out this wall.”  He indicated which wall with a jut of his chin, then nodded at some plywood pieces, nails and extension ladders.

“Er…pardon me?”

He sniffed, then deigned to explain what we were to do, and the Can’t-Bust-Em boys departed, glancing at each other with slightly raised eyebrows and a hint of rolled eyes.

We did as asked, but it wasn’t much fun learning the proper use of framing hammers so high in the air, but after some false starts we got a system going: one of us held the boards and the other nailed them up.  Dents didn’t matter; it would all get dry-walled over anyway.

We must have passed the test, because the next day Walt and the boys found us and motioned us to follow them.  We went into an empty ground-floor unit still open to the air at the front.  Saw horses, tools and stacks of one-by-ten pine, boxes of screws and electric drills waited for some project.

“You’re gonna build the balconies,” said Earle.  Blink, blink.  We were?  Oh, that Walt; he figured we could do anything; we weren’t quite as convinced, but…here we were.  Once Walt had gone, we were asked, “You girls screw good?”  Hmmm; this came outta Earle the meek and mild?  There having been no right way to answer that question, we were silent.

So we drilled holes and jig-sawed diamonds and sanded decorative slats by the hundreds, then learned how to fit them and screw them into the dadoed 4X4 rails that the boys had made, and voila!  Balcony rails!

Installing the first round of them onto the little porches was both festive and scary: all hands were on deck.  Each of the three buildings were three stories high, and Walt must have been thinking this problem for days.  No block-and-tackle hoists for him, nossir: he wanted People Power to raise them!

He had some of the framers cobble together some 2 x 12 planks into three sturdy ramps that would span the distance from the ground to any of the floors.  They then placed them just inside the width of the railings we’d built, one in the center, and Walt assembled three teams.  After careful explanation of the process, we picked those suckers up, tipped them horizontal,  marched them up the ramps (don’t look down!), then tilted them up to a few guys waiting above who tacked them into place.  Later they’d bolt them securely in place.  Damn, everyone was so glad for the success.  I can’t remember how many times we repeated the process, or how many units there were, but we kept manufacturing them for weeks.

Now word must have gotten around town that some ‘girls’ were working construction at the Broken Lance condos, and sometimes cars full of gawkers would come by to cat-call to us out the windows.  We got pretty used to it, and fairly used to giving them the finger to the most obnoxious ones.

One afternoon we stood drilling and jig-sawing, and a pale yellow Oldsmobile stopped and gave the obligatory honk.  I remember looking up to see some blurry faces and waving hands, and must have given an offhand wave, then got back to work.  Lotsa screwing and gluing to complete by the finish date Walt had promised the owner/investors.

I hitch-hiked home that evening and saw a strange car in the drive.  As it turned out, it was the pale yellow Olds, and I discovered when I went into the house that it was the self-same car that had stopped by the condos earlier.   And just happened to have been full of my future goddam in-laws and my future husband.  There must have been some angel on my shoulder that had warned me me not to flip them off…  It was bad enough in their eyes that I was carpenting, but a bird-flipping girl carpenter would have been one bridge too far I think.

So Stardust and Betsy learned some woodworking, which was similar to sewing clothes: it’s all about measuring and cutting, and nailing or screwing and gluing.  We learned how to hit the saloons on Friday nights with our pay, and jive and bullshit and to give as good as we got with rough talk and insults; and I like to think they learned that women could be good at more things than they used to believe.

I just peeked online, and found that picture that might be those condos,  it’s hard to know for sure, but the Broken Lance ones did have clerestories like these do.

But here’s to Walt the Positive, and his dear wife who wanted to take us shopping in Denver because we looked so fookin’ ratty all the time in our funky jeans and work shirts.  We declined with thanks, but you guys rocked!  And thanks for blowin’ all that confidence and sunshine up our..er…skirts?

10 responses to “if i were a carpenter

  1. Thanks (you might just have to stay in those condos to visit there these days because the tipi lodgepole timbers are getting scarce [whole hillsides cleared as pine beetle food and fire hazard]; no hippie homecoming).

  2. yah, colorado conifers have been ravaged by both pine and spruce beetles. most of them are still standing as brown forests, and will until they drop their needles after a few years.

    iirc, we got our poles above dillon reservoir. they lasted us for two tipis, lol.

    the infestations started on the front range, so the thinking was that environmental pollutants, mainly from cars, had weakened the trees. as the bugs spread, new theories arose. might be a combination of factors, including drought; i dunno. the pinons here in our canyon were hit hard.

  3. These pieces are wonderful, wendye, and as to our books conversation and my readings therein, I want to say you run rings around a certain novelist whose prowess you mentioned in envy – I enjoy your writings so much more, because like Plato you so skilfully sketch real persons within the essays to bring them to immortality – while telling us of times and enterprises we might possibly return to if matters devolve – reclaiming forests, for one.

    There’s a tree farm I’ve loved to look at on my excursions southward. Now, that’s an enterprise! More of us should become such, tree farmers. I love all things wood.

  4. well, that’s too kind of you, juliania, but to paraphrase bigchin on my comparing him to caruso favorably, i couldn’t carry her…luggage. ;~)

    after your fires and ours, boy, howdy do we need more trees planted. trouble with the farms, is that they’re usually raised to cut them down, aren’t they? better for christmas trees, at any rate.

    i love wood, too, and really, given the right tools, carpentry is as straightforward as sewing, at least finish carpentry. when i look around our house, i often wish i’d had this or that too that would have made my work better. did you know there’s actually a curve duplicator for reproducing wooden beam shapes? now there’s a specialty too for ya!

    but you would have been so tickled my merle and earle and their moon faces scrubbed to shining pink perfection! never had seen can’t bust ’em overalls before, either. mine were always denim blue… lol.

    i knew i’d reached the pinnacle of not-gurl-ness when i learned how to cold chisel paving rocks, though.

  5. The tree farm I referenced has ’em all in big pots – I think they furnish for highway beautification projects maybe. It’s on the way to Albuquerque at the turnoff to Algodones the bus takes, down in a hollow next to the highway. And yes, boy do we need trees hereabouts!

    When the boys want to clear our cluttered garage I always tell them, okay but not anything made of wood!

    Love Merle and Earle. My farm uncles and elder cousins were a bit that sort, though down there they were more often clad in shorts and a black sleeveless undershirt, gumboots and a sorry looking hat. Very stylish. We ate late, after the cows got milked, but afternoon tea was scones and cakes and hot tea in billies we kids carried out as the cows were being herded in. And between times we sat on the cowshed rail dangling our toes in the waterbutts whilst the milking went on.

  6. Loved this story, 40 years of doing this type of work, I argued that the construction crews and not just the realtors and developers should have gotten a percentage of the sale price each time, when these properties were flipped in numerous speculative cycles.

    Fog is lifting slowly this morning, next week our temps a bit more like autumn, nights still decently warm though. Not comparable to your photos by any stretch, this birdie bumped the window last evening and was resting in the chrysanthemums, corralled the cat (she protested a bit, but was more curious than hungry). ;-)

    Bird in hand, priceless

  7. sorry, capitalism doesn’t work that way, nonquixote. the rule is ‘the harder ya work, the less you earn (are worth)’, lol

    aw, is that a little wren? it’s a fantastic photo! so glad puddytat wasn’t hungry.

    the peaks here are pretty white, oh, boy. freezing temps, but i won’t go check the sheet-covered tomatoes until it (hopefully) warms up a bit.

    the sweetest looking little red fox trotted by just outside the bedroom door while i was eating my toast. so nice to see them back after having been a vanished-by-trapping species for so many decades.

    and just so folks here can know, your wood-working is very fine.

  8. I’m pretty sure it is a wren, and Mcat was speaking with mild grumbling and in full sentences when I picked her up and set her inside. Quite hilarious at the time. Being of the human tribe (she thinks), she just wanted to hang around and watch. Kitteh posed no danger but I didn’t want the bird to be frightened. There are two bird pictures posted as you likely may have noticed. Good progress today and several people have stopped by to get excess produce that needed to be shared and needed to be harvested.

  9. ah, i hadn’t seen the other photos, including the handsome cat. it has to be a wren with that tail lifted into the air. the mums are purdy, too. good on you for sharing your extra produce. good neighbors can make a lot of difference.

  10. Lovely photos, nonquixote! I’ve noticed we have wrens about also – we seem to get them in the spring and fall, migrating?

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