In the 90s I spent sometime deep in the North Carolina pine forests framing houses with an ex-con named Mark King. Great guy, really. But he’d robbed a few houses and gotten caught. Upon his release he’d assembled a team of carpenters who also had felony records: Pat, the lead framer, had been in prison for selling amphetamines. A redheaded laborer whose name I forget had once unlimbered his hunting rifle from the gun rack in his pickup, marched into a bar, and taken a shot at a guy he didn’t like. He missed, luckily, but spent time in prison for attempted murder. The crew of them had put an ad in the paper looking for someone to haul lumber and learn framing. I applied, not knowing their backgrounds, and started my first post-college job.
Mark had just one air gun, which he and Pat used, so the redhead and I nailed stuff by hand. There was a lot of talk about hammer weight. Pat prided himself on his 28-ounce Estwing. I reluctantly shelled out twenty bucks for a 22-ounce Estwing. I’d tried to hoist the 28 and felt the tendons in my forearm tweak.
I’ll never forget the first wall I built. Mark pointed to a pile of two-by-fours and, surprisingly, handed me the nail gun. “Why don’t you make a wall,” he said. I’d never used the gun. It was like a dumbbell. I had no idea what to do with the wood. But we were supposed to work fast. Every day we had a goal. A certain amount to complete. I chose not to ask Mark for help and instead did what seemed most logical: I stacked one two-by-four atop the other and began shooting them together into a solid mass of wood. Mark and the crew were busy elsewhere on the floor and didn’t notice. Five two-by-fours later my wall was seven-and-a-half inches high. The gun was roaring. I was slamming nails into that wall. It would be sturdy as hell, I figured. I sensed that the site had become quiet around me and looked up. Mark was staring. “What the hell are you doing?” he asked. “Building a wall,” I said, “like you asked.”
I saw the dawning realization in his eyes. A man just out of prison, doing the best he could to start his life over, presiding over a college kid with no carpentry experience doing the best he could to build a wall. I saw the anger. Just a flash. And then compassion. “Well shit,” Mark said. “Put the gun down. Everybody take a break for a minute. Then let’s teach you how to build a fuckin’ wall.” He smiled. Pat guffawed and grabbed the gun from my hand. We walked to the edge of the building, by then two stories up, and Pat held the safety back with his fingers and fired nails machine-gun-style into the trees.
From these guys I learned 16 inches on center, jack studs and carrying a ¾-inch sheet of plywood one-armed up a two-story ladder. I learned how to cut birds mouths and ledger the joists that sit beneath a floor. I learned that lunch is a time of rest, and that on a sunny fall afternoon conversation slows and the saw’s buzz, the ring of hammers on wood, becomes a lullaby.
Most of all, I learned that the alchemy of building is cathartic. The creation of a thing with one’s hands is both penance and promise, which is why I still do it every chance I get.