Working Construction Teaches You a Lot About Life
Revisiting some hard lessons.
Zach Bowman has sold everything he owns, slapped a camper to his high-mileage 2003 Dodge Ram and has taken his family on the road. His clan numbers three, counting wife, Beth, and their infant daughter. They are touring America, working and discovering, and are sending The Drive periodic dispatches from the road.
I worked construction through college. Four years' worth of summers and breaks swinging hammers and trying to get back to school with all my digits attached. I can’t drive 10 minutes in this county without pointing at a house I put hands to. Gorgeous things that employed a minor army of craftsmen, timber framers and stonemasons shaping material by blows in the front yard. Electricians and plumbers up to their elbows in the bones of the thing. Laborers and carpenters doing anything but stitching together a generic box. Painters and cabinet makers and tile men dressing it all at the end.
It was good work. Hard, bashing yourself through eight hours of crushing, heavy heat in the summer and fierce, vicious winter cold. And while I’ve forgotten or abandoned most of what I was intended to learn in class, I’ve held on to the lessons of the jobsite. More than how to hang a door or cope crown.
Before I left to pursue a life of destitution I was working as a trim carpenter, hiding the accumulated and inevitable errors of the builders that went before me. The joke is, framers count in eighths, trim guys count in sixteenths. In reality, what starts as a small issue at the foundation becomes a big one at the roof. The lesson was clear: Everything compounds, including misery. Ignoring the mistake at your feet can make your life more hateful down the road. Take the half-second to fix it while you can, or regret it in full later.
More importantly, mistakes don’t matter. Not as much as finding a solution, anyway. Whether it was mangling a $100 piece of custom trim or accidentally putting a 2x4 through a new window, everyone on the crew knew that fuck-ups happen. How or why is irrelevant in the face of making it right, so long as you don’t make a destruction a habit.
There’s no sense in hoping someone else will pull up the slack, either. It’s all work, and it all has to be done. Putting it off is just another flavor of selfishness—the hope that someone else will lift the burden before you’re told to. So pick up your mess. Sweep the floor. Coil the airline. Do what you know needs doing.
Breaks are important, too. When my father and I built the house he now calls home, we worked for six years, the two of us. We stopped working when we could no longer stand or hoist a shovel. We ate lunch by the fistful, quick to get back to whatever task we were pointed towards at the moment. My first day on a paying crew was a shock. I was on my belly in a crawl space, driving a hammer drill through a stacked limestone foundation when someone stuck their head through the door and said, “Break time.”
I thought it was a joke. We’d been on the job for just two hours. But breaks aren’t about laziness. They’re about preservation. Keep your blood sugar up and your mind sharp. The road to disaster begins at fatigue.
And finally, the day’s not done until the tools are put away and the work site’s square. Take the time to get organized. Inventory your belongings, see what’s broken, know what you need for the next day. Keep your space clean and organized; it makes tomorrow safer, the job more approachable, and the client happy.
Oh, and never eat a banana in a room full of construction workers.
It’s strange how often I find myself applying what I learned on that crew. And not just to putting up walls, either. Wrenching, writing, living out of the camper. They’re rules that have made me more productive. More capable. And I hope like hell I can pass them to my daughter.
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