Friday, March 28, 2014

Sun City's Original Volunteer

My Dad wasn't much of a talker, but no one could outwork him. He worked in the oil patch from the age of 18 until he was in his 50s, but he was always able to pick up a hammer and saw and build anything from a house to a chest of drawers or a set of kitchen cabinets with meticulous precision, a skill he taught both his sons.

He was tall and as lean as a greyhound and when he was working he was as focused on what he was doing as those dogs are on the rabbit when the gate springs open and they speed down the track.     

When we moved to Phoenix in 1959 he left the oil field for good, strapped on a tool belt and became a finish carpenter. Phoenix was booming and neighbourhoods were sprouting like mushrooms across the desert. Dad had no trouble finding work, when one subdivision was finished he moved on to the next.

Construction's a hard job in the summer in Phoenix. Work starts at 4:00 am and the crews quit for the day at noon. Working construction in 125 degrees F (52 C) is brutal, and the men he worked alongside were for the most part in their 20s and 30s. He was in his late 50s. They called him "The Old Man", but for all their youth they couldn't outwork him. 

Time went on and he was in his 60s and as he liked to say, he was so skinny he had to stand twice to throw a shadow. The economy was going through a bit of slow patch. A job ended as a subdivision was finished and he went looking for a new job. He'd leave about 6:00 am with his lunch box and water can, but in a couple of hours later he'd be back, having not found work. This went on for several days, and anxiety mounted in the household. My folks were ninja masters at living on very little, but they couldn't live on nothing. They worked harder than anyone I've ever known but they definitely lived paycheck to paycheck.

One morning Dad left, lunch pail and water can in hand, and he did not return until noon. As he pulled into the driveway in his little 51 Ford station wagon the anxiety my mother and I felt lifted. Dad was working again. He came in and dropped his empty lunch pail on the table with a satisfied look on his face. "I worked today," he said, matter-of-factly.

"Where?" Mother asked.

"That big new development called Sun City," he said. "They're building a thousand houses or more, it's a new deal, a whole community just for retired people."

He went off to work the next day and the next.
On Friday he came home at noon, dropped his lunch pail and a paycheck on the table and with a grin said, "Well, I got a job today, and I got a promotion too."

"What do you mean you got a job today? Mother asked. "What about the job you had before?"  

"Oh I said I was working," he said. "I didn't say I had a job."

"What does that mean?" Mother demanded.

"Well, I looked up the job foreman Tuesday morning and asked him if he needed any help. He was a smart-assed son-of-a-bitch, looked about 25. He looked me up and down with a sneer on his face and he said,  'Yeah I need a finish carpenter, but I don't hire old men.'

That made me mad, so I left and drove around there a while looking at all those hundreds of houses. All those roads go in big circles inside circles. After a while I stopped and got out and went in one of those houses. It was ready for the finish work, all the material had been delivered and was just laying there. So I got my tools out of the wagon and started to work.

Couple of hours later a guy bout my age came around, poked his head in, introduced himself, and I introduced myself, and we agreed they sure are building a lot of houses out here. We talked a little bit, while I worked. He came by the next day too, by then I was working  in the next house. He brought his lunchbox so we sat and ate lunch together, and afterwards he said he was real interested in understanding what a finish carpenter does. I showed him how I was framing in the window and door jambs, how you miter the joints of the baseboards at the angles so they all meet perfectly.

This morning he came back again, with that smart-ass of a foreman. Seems he's the supervisor of the whole building project. He went to the foreman this morning and asked him what he was paying me. The foreman didn't know who he meant, until he described me. Then the foreman said, "What does that old so-and-so think he's doing, down there working when I told him I didn't hire old men!"

The developer brought him over to the house where I was working, and said, "Okay, son, get your tool belt on and let's see if you are as good a finish carpenter as the 'Old Man'. And Charlie, you come on up to the office. I'm making you job foreman, and we'll figure out what we owe you for this week's wages."

That job lasted a long time. 

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