One of the kids asked me the other day, seeing something on my arm, “Where did you get that scar?” I looked down at it. Sometimes, I still can’t believe it hasn’t gone away after all these years. “I got that at the cabinet shop when I was younger.”
“Cabinets shop, what’s that?”
“Get your butt down the rail and chamber that leg!” I said with a smile. Awesome kid. His side kick needs work….
Then I looked down at the scar again. It is actually more noticeable when I am tanned for some reason. Whenever I look at it, like a flash, I am there again. The smell of sawdust, the heat of summer, the smell of sweat, the laughter of a good joke, the buzz of saws, the roar of the sander, the constant drone of the dust collector, Sleepy coming in to get the scrap wood, my first egg sandwich, my first taste of real corn liquor, the smell of the different woods when they hit the saw, running to get a frozen coke across the street at break, Papoo looking at every new hard wood shipment as we took them off the truck grading each plank, accidentally backing into one of the protective poles the first time I drove the installation truck, the lunches with Nanna and Dad as Papoo took his half hour power nap …
Then I am back. I laugh, tell the kids to try hard. Do their best. You can do it. I did, you can too. And they do. I have awesome kids. They are great. So so great.
But that night, when I got home, I went to my tool box. I picked up my hammer. Let me say that again…MY HAMMER.
I look back on all the gifts given to me in my youth, I remember most of them. Evil Knievel this, GI Joe that, Star Trek this, and all kinds of other things. And trust me, I thought they were all super cool at the time… Yet, of all those gifts over all those years, two only remain in my possession to this day.
My most treasured item, of all else, is my hammer. And no, I am not Thor. It is a real life 13oz hammer, a cabinet man’s hammer. Not a framing hammer for big jobs. A 13oz hammer for fine, delicate work for fine hardwoods that require precision so as not to leave any marks whatsoever on the wood. A cabinet man’s hammer. Back when things were personally measured, produced and installed. Not the Ikea crap of today. Real cabinetry, custom made, with precision and craftsmanship.
I was 15 when went to Nanna’s and Papoo’s house for Christmas. Yeah, down south, you didn’t use their last names until you were over 16 and then, only in polite company. Anything other than their “loving name” was a sin of the highest order. I look back on it now and realize, how loving and endearing it was. That’s why I absolutely hate being called “Master Perdue.” Yeah, that is my official title, but Mr. Due, well, that’s who I really am. A name given to me by the 3 and 4 year old siblings of my students that couldn’t say Mr. PERdue. They tried hard. For a while, I was Mr. Adoo. Then it became Mr. Due. At that moment, I knew, that is really who I was. I wasn’t “Master” whatever. I was Mr. Due; their crazy uncle who was always there, no matter what. I was always saying the same things at their parents told them, just a different way. (To me that was Uncle Richard, different story, for another time. But I had the coolest uncle ever.)
The scary part of this little side track to the story is that the first person to call me Mr. Due, is now a Doctor practicing medicine. Yeah, I am that old. Anyway, back to an old man’s story. We old dude’s do that, add a little, and then go back. I could edit or embrace it. Too old to edit, so…
I was 15 and there was this big box under the Christmas tree. Now, these were my practical grandparents. They always gave us what they didn’t have as children growing up in the Great Depression. Yep, if you are my age you guessed what our present was every year; socks, underwear, pajamas, a savings bond, maybe a book, and a little toy. And while I say little, I mean a little toy. When I look back, they knew real hunger, pain and doubt as children. What they gave us, every year, was more than they ever had as children. Back then, an Orange was a great gift. But I grew up in the burbs. And as a kid that grew up in the prosperity that their generation provided, I thought they were just cheap. Now, I get it. Gifts are a matter of perspective. They always gave us what they really wanted as a child. What better gift is that?
But on this day, for me, and just for me, was a huge box. I mean HUGE. I could barely contain my excitement. When it was finally my turn to open it up, I ripped off the paper to find…. a tool box. Confused, I opened the lid, inside were an array of tools. I am talking TOOLS! I am talking, you can’t buy for for $300 today. But I was oblivious of course, because I was a 15 year old who had no idea the value of the treasure chest before me. At that time, I didn’t know what most of the tools ever were. To me, it might as well been more socks.
On top of the tools was a note, “Show up for work Monday.” I didn’t get it then. I get it now. The tools weren’t the gift. That is what I needed for the gift. The gift was a JOB. A real freaking JOB. We are talking real work, with your hands, all the time, every day. No more allowance, no more cash for grades, if you want money, show up for work. Real work, with real pay, punch the clock, be there at 7am when you are out of school, reality check. Something when my grandfather grew up was in very short supply but he would be more than happy to have. At the time I thought it was a curse. (Private note for my brother.. Robert, shut up and stop laughing.) Again, perspective is everything. Now, I realize the wisdom and the blessing he gave me.
I showed up on Monday, I was the worst employee, at least at first, probably later too, and then well… yeah, I was the worst employee the cabinet shop ever had. (Maybe other than Robert, mention above.) I wasn’t treated any better than anyone else, and frankly, many times I was treated worse. (OK, I am so old I thought a 10 cent raise was awesome.) But neither my grandfather nor my father ever gave a harsh word that wasn’t deserve. In fact, I am sure they wanted to fire me more times they can count. But they pushed me to get OUT of THERE.
What my Grandfather wanted most was for me to prevail and have a life better than what he perceived he had. (He built a mini empire on pragmatic investing in real estate. The man was way ahead of his time.) He saved for my college tuition from the day I was born. He socked it away, as my dad did for my kids, and between him and my dad, I graduated from college debt free. His love was providing. I am proud to say, in my father’s family line, I am the first to graduate from college. (My mother’s side had some smart cookies. Different story for another day,) But it is less my achievement than my grandfathers, my fathers and my mothers. In a time, far different than today, when a college education equaled automatic success, whenever my grades slipped, my mother would always say…. “You can always work at the shop…” Boom, atom bomb dropped. C’s became A’s!
Papoo made that happen. Almost everything I am flowed from that gift, a tool box with a 13oz hammer. Now, just like me, it is beaten, old, rusted, worn, tired, tested, scared and beautiful in its imperfections. This is my hammer, given to me from my grandfather, tested by my father, a handle tempered with glue,paint, sweat, blood and abuse. When I pick it up, it is a part of me. When in my hand, there is no division of tool or man. We just are.
This is my hammer. It I didn’t forge it. It forged me.