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Rated: ASR · Non-fiction · Biographical · #2197584
A brief reflection on giving a job its proper focus. (warning: salty language)
Before he took over the Montana ranch where I grew up, my Dad spent several years working as a carpenter in Washington State. He framed spec houses for a general contractor, built concrete forms for the Highway 520 floating bridge, and worked on the Century 21 exhibits for the 1962 World’s Fair in Seattle. He never forgot the swoopy futuristic buildings at the fair, complaining that “There wasn’t a straight line or a square corner in the whole damn place.”

Dad wasn’t a woodworker – he was more what you’d call a ‘rough’ carpenter. But he knew that the tab on the end of a tape measure often has a bit of 'slop', so that it's not exactly one inch from the tab to the '1' on the tape. If a measurement was really important he'd measure from the one inch mark and add an inch instead of trusting to the tab. He also knew the difference between cutting on the line and cutting to the line to account for the saw blade width. He taught me that cutting on the wrong side of your line will leave the board just a bit short (or too long). Dad knew how to “measure twice, cut once” to make a snug fit and he always built walls that were solid and square.

He could do more delicate work if he had to, but Dad's main goal was to get it done and move on to the next job. I was always impressed with the way he could set a nail with one tap and then drive it home with a couple of swings – and he rarely missed or bent a nail. The skill came from years of practice and the 'oomph' from his 24 ounce Estwing framing hammer (he was very proud of that hammer). His quick and efficient style clashed with my natural inclination to procrastinate and ‘fiddle’. I have a tendency to measure thrice, cut twice, and then start again to get it right.

One winter day we were fixing a 'post and pole' fence around a haystack. This particular fence was not meant to be permanent because the stack location moved from year to year. The fence actually looked more like a small corral. It was made out of small fence posts and long poles that could be knocked apart and moved out of the way in the spring and then put back up around a new haystack in the fall.

I don’t remember whether the top pole was broken or had just been knocked down by the cattle, but we were putting it back up. The pole was about 10 or 12 feet long and a bit awkward to handle. There were 'starter' holes drilled for the spikes (so the pole wouldn’t split) and now it was hammerin’ time. Dad held one end and I had the other. Whack! Whack! Two swings from the mighty Estwing and Dad’s end was done. I eyed my end carefully, lining up my swing, trying to get the pole perfectly level.

Losing patience, Dad yelled out “Nail the son of a bitch! We ain’t building a f**king piano!”

The circumstances and the way it came out made us both laugh and that phrase became a running joke between us. It may be crude, but it’s actually pretty good advice. Some things need a lot of attention to detail and some don’t. A piano might take months to build, but a 60 penny spike just needs two good whacks. A job should always get the appropriate time and attention, even if that means none at all.
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