Working like a burro, or a tale of growing up.

Most young men feel at some time in their lives that they must prove themselves; step out in their own direction and establish who they are, in their own minds if not necessarily in the minds of others.  Many young men of my age did so by joining the military during the Vietnam War and many others did so by opposing the war and the draft and possibly fleeing to Canada.  I joined the Army because I was bored and I volunteered for Vietnam because it was the only certain transfer off of my fort in Texas.  I didn’t like Texas.  Still, I was the same bubble-headed nineteen year old beach kid in ‘Nam that I was in Texas or back home in San Diego.  It wasn’t until a few years later that I found the image that I wanted to pour myself into.

My brother became a drywall hanger, or sheetrocker, or just rocker, while I was in my third year of college, and he took to it like a duck to water.  By the time that I came home for summer after my junior year Fred was an accomplished sheetrocker, or at least he was in my eyes, and he offered to turn me into a money-making drywall machine if I wanted to give it a try.  I wanted nothing more, so in very short order I was ready to begin my new and exciting life as a drywall hanger.

First a little background on drywall and drywallers.  Drywall is basically gypsum pressed between two sheets of paper into four by eight, four by twelve, and in those days four by fourteen foot sheets of varying thicknesses between one quarter and five eighths of an inch.  The sheets come in bundles of two held together by thick strips of paper on each end.  The most important thing to know about drywall is that it is heavy.  I never really knew what a sheet weighed, but when you nailed up fifty or so sheets in a day you had done some macho work, and we were proud of the tonnage that we threw around day after day.  We called ourselves ‘burros’, and there was more than a little truth in that.

Much more important to us than the physical prowess required to do our work was the image that we liked to project on a construction site.  We were the cowboys; the randy bunch that everyone thought of as a little bit crazy.  We were who their parents taught them not to grow up and be, but they wished they could be anyway.  We were the hippies, the beatniks, the guys working in a country and western world who listened to Soul Makossa and Quicksilver Messenger Service.  When the carpenters, plumbers and roofers were sitting in their trucks drinking coffee before work started in the morning we drywallers were sitting on a stack of bundles drinking Irish Coffee, and the others knew it.  This was exactly the image that I wanted and I took to it immediately.

My first few weeks were a trial, as I had to learn from the beginning how to carry a sheet, walk up on an aluminum horse and hold my end of the sheet up against the ceiling with my head while I hammered in nails upside down with a kind of hammer/axe unique to drywall.  The hammer head part of that tool has a face of small teeth designed to make a waffle-like dimple in the sheetrock over the nails so that the taping compound, or mud, that was spread over it to hide the nail heads would have a rough surface to adhere to.  After a month of missing the nails and squashing my thumb with that axe my poor digit was tenderized like a piece of country fried steak.  On one instance I stroked that inflamed thumb with home run power and let out a howl and a curse that caused our foreman, a grizzled veteran and  somewhat crazy individual who was standing right behind me to jump a good foot into the air.  He turned around and cursed me for being a useless rookie and left the house completely unable to contain his laughter.  Pain and all, it felt good to fit in.

Getting to work on that job was my first experience with union corruption.  I am not saying that all unions are corrupt or that we would be better off without them.  I am only saying that getting to work on that job was my first experience with union corruption.Most of the big tract projects in Southern California were union jobs and one had to be able to produce a union card to insure that one wouldn’t be thrown off the job (literally) and the company fined if a union agent came checking for ‘rats’.  This card was supposed to be obtained after seven years of apprenticeship and the taking of many tests.  In reality this card was obtained one day when my brother and I drove about a hundred miles north to Riverside County where we found a union hall in a semi rural area and I bought my journeyman card fair and square.  This was the place where my brother bought his, so he knew the drill.  After that I was free and clear to work any union job and, as long as I was paying dues, nobody cared how I came by my card.

Once you were in you were in, and the pranks could be creative and even dangerous.  Early on I was sent for a ‘rock stretcher’.  I doubted immediately that there was any such thing, but as I went from house to house on the construction site each team of rockers would tell me it was in the next house up the street.  When I got to the last house they told me it was back in the first house.  I was cleanly taken in by the skill with which they didn’t miss a beat as they sent me further along on my personal snipe hunt.

On another occasion a serious prankster, Charlie N________ (I love doing the blank line last name thing, it makes me feel like a Russian writer) sneaked into Andy’s unit and drove a couple of sixteen penny nails into his stack.  The unsuspecting Andy came in and attempted to lift the first sheet which, needless to say, went nowhere.  The effort cost Andy a few fingernails and left him simmering, looking for paybacks.  That opportunity came soon enough.  One afternoon Charlie unstrapped his tool belt and went into the porta potty.  This unstrapping of the tool belt was a clear sign that Charlie had in mind more than light work in the little green structure and as soon as Andy was certain that Charlie was seated upon the throne Andy threw up a ladder behind the porta potty, climbed up and dropped a lit cherry bomb down the vent pipe.  In addition to scarring the crap out of Charlie when the bomb went off, the resulting explosion caused an eruption of the evil contents of the holding tank to paint Charlie’s exposed backside.  Andy’s revenge was complete.  Charlie cleaned up as best he could, chucked his tools in the back of his truck, and retired from the site for the rest of the day.  I could go on and on about such shenanigans but I’m certain that you get the picture; we were a rank crowd who exulted in our rankness.

After a few years of this life I began to grow up and reassess my career choice.  At one point I realized that standing on my aluminum horse which was itself placed on two two-by-twelve boards laid across the safety rails of the third of three stages of scaffolding in an open stairwell with steel reinforcing bars protruding out of the concrete floor was not a great recipe for longevity.  Being a gypsy and wandering around the western states was also fun, but that too soon lost it’s charm.  Finally, at the age of twenty nine, the constant pain that I was feeling in my hip joint convinced me that it was time to find another way to make a living.  One day, after hanging eight hours with a slight cold and feeling miserable all day I took my belt off and announced to my partner that I was through.  Jeff knew me well enough to suspect that I was serious but he still came by my place the next morning at 6:30.  I had a pot of coffee ready and we sat at my table for a while, and then Jeff shook my hand and wished me luck.  Jeff must have had some kind of magic, because luck is what I have had until this day.

I don’t regret one day of my sheetrock experience.  As a rookie and then a veteran, as part owner of two companies, and as a guy who learned how to make a living with the sweat of my brow and the bending of my back (two occupations which I now respect but dislike engaging in), I gained much by the experience.  I also learned to use a porta potty with only the greatest of care.

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