“Hey you.” shouted a deep, course voice that demanded attention. The boy looked up with haste to see the source of the jolting sound, spotting the figures of two men walking down the driveway toward him. Step by step, the men sauntered their large, solid frames down the long stretch of pavement, and the young boy sized them up as they got closer. Their forearms were as thick as bricks, their faces hardened like they were chiseled from stone, and their overall builds presented the strength of bulls more than men. These broad figures caught the boys’ eyes with theirs when they came into visual striking distance, and it was apparent it was the boy they were addressing. These men were the young boy’s father and uncle.
Without hesitation, they approached the boy at his seat on an outdoor picnic table, a common meeting place in the backyard of the family home. There, the boy’s uncle and father laid out plans for what the boy was going to do on his summer vacation away from school. “You’re going to come to work for us this summer” stated the boy’s father, leaving no room for objection. The boy’s uncle was grinning from ear to ear as he stood by his brother’s side. He quietly observed the boys reactions, while the boy’s father continued to lay out his un-negotiable proposal. “I know you like to spend money, so you’re going to learn how to make it.” was the follow up.
They told the boy how much he was going to make and what day he was going to begin work. Though no questions were accepted, the boy had no protests to his father’s command. The boy figured at the very least, it would be great to earn some extra spending money for the summer. He was elated to have the opportunity to work, and observe first-hand what his father and uncle did to make a living. As a weedy wide-eyed 14-year-old, the young boy was yet to know how much these two men and simple masonry materials would guide the rest of his life.
The boys first day on the job was a long one, putting in 10 hours of work on a sweltering summer day at the end of June. While his friends were out having fun enjoying the warm days of summer around the neighborhood, the boys’ days would be filled up laying concrete with his uncle and learning the craft of concrete finishing. The boy was green as a blade of grass to the masonry and concrete trade, not knowing the first thing about any of the process and work to be done. He wasn’t sure how well he would take to the work and how well he would fit in with the crew. But the boy became a quiet observer, watching and soaking in every bit of the craft as he could.
He watched all the movements, all the work his uncle and the crew did, and the boy became enamored with the work and the process. He noticed that when concrete is first put down, the surface is incredibly rough, showing the rawness of the untampered, mixed material from the earth. Large trap rock settled unpleasantly on top of the concrete, leaving the look of the material course, unwelcoming, and unfinished.
But after tooling the mess of raw, wet sludge over and over again, the repetition of action from a trained hand smoothed the material out further. As the process went along, the rough, raw material turned into a beautiful product; finished, polished, refined, and almost unrecognizable to how it began. To the boy, it was beautiful to watch, and he wanted to learn how to do it for himself.
As time went on, the boy was given more opportunities to help complete new tasks on the job. With observation and practice, the boys’ skills grew. He learned how to handle the tools without fumbling them, and he was given the responsibility and freedom to finish tasks with little supervision. Since the boy’s time in the trade was still modest, more responsibility in the process also allowed more room for beginner error.
Every now and again while working to trowel and smooth out his section of concrete, the boy would get fired up and frustrated with the results of his work. The boy would compare himself to those with 10–20 years more experience and he would down his own labor. He had not yet understood that the mastering of the tools, their use, and the work, simply takes time. His uncle would observe the boy and he could see the frustration in the boys’ eyes, the stress of youthful ambition leaked from his tightened face.
Whenever the boy slipped too far in this direction, his uncle would pull the boy aside by the arm and sternly, but gently tell him, “Slow down kid, you’ll get it. Life’s, too short to get fired about this shit, don’t forget to stop and smell the roses”. At the time, the depth of those simple words his uncle spoke didn’t fully sink in. Most of the wisdom was blocked from flowing in by walls of youthful naivety, but they were soothing enough to calm the boy for the moment. The boy smiled while shaking off the negative emotion, and admired his uncle as he watched him walk away smiling from behind his shoulder.
As the years flowed on, summers curled into winter, and the years slipped quietly into one another, the boys’ skills in his craft expanded until he could use every tool and complete every task on the site. His sloppy handling of tools turned into mastery of the simple movements, utilizing every tool for every job to their fullest capacity. He grew deep understanding of what needed to be done within every step of the process and his dedication, focus, and will to learn brought him to the level of men with 10 years of experience more than he. His uncle saw the boy had gained deep knowledge of the work and knew it was time to push him on to other facets of the trade.
After years of working summers with his uncle on concrete projects, the boy finally came of appropriate age to go onto larger job sites. The boy was to begin working with his father, trading the concrete material in for brick, block and stonework. The boy felt a sense of unease having to leave the concrete trade as he had grown comfortable in the practice and process. Though nervous, the boy was grateful that he had his uncle and father guiding his work. He knew these men would send him in the right direction, and he understood he had much more to learn and observe to become the master that he wanted to be.
Much like his uncle, the young man’s father started him on the basics; jointing off, and learning how to first spread mortar on the wall. Once the young man gained fair competence in that, he then learned how to butter a brick, then finally, how to properly lay the brick and run out the wall. Step by step, the young man’s father had him repeat his processes, building upon the basics that needed to be implemented over and over again, until they sank into the subconscious. One had to understand the motion, techniques, and process of building in their bones until the subtlety in action, and all those small details of any craft required no more thought. The young man diligently continued repeating the processes, learning more of the tools, refining his skills, and tempering himself to become a master.
The young man quickly found that the skills he used to put down concrete were different than those needed to lay brick, and he needed more time to attain mastery of the tools and process. Here and there he would fumble with his trowel, spill mortar on the plank, and lay the material where it needed to be fixed, all evidence of usual growing pains. His father, as well as the experienced journeyman kept a watchful eye on the young man, making sure he was doing everything right, and correcting him when needed.
His father would watch as the young man began to lay material in the wall, making sure the brick was laid within his standards. After the young man finished his section of wall, his father would come over for an inspection, scanning the line for bump outs in the work, if any brick laid too high or too low, or if any other correction was needed. He would then take his trowel and tap the masonry material in the areas needed to correct the work. A few touches by a master were all that was needed to fix the young man’s flawed work.
This simple effort amazed the young man. He valued the idea of how quickly mistakes could be corrected in the right hands, and he aspired to one day get to that level. His father would always tell him in passing “No matter how much you fuck things up, you can always fix it”. After delivering his crass, wise words, the young man’s father continued down the line tapping and fixing the masonry wall as needed, and just like the boy’s uncle, he watched his father as he continued his walk toward the end of the wall, smiling over his shoulder.
The things in life that you don’t see coming always damage the most, like the knockout blow from a prize fighter, the movement is swift and blinding, and the pain still lingers long afterwards. In quick succession, the young man’s father, and uncle both passed away, suddenly, and unexpectedly. There was no preparation, no warning signs, no time for bracing, the divine quickly called them home. Losing them devastated the young man. He felt he had not yet learned enough. His mentors were stripped from the earth too early. He felt he wasn’t ready to take on the world.
There was still more he needed, there was more concrete that needed finishing as the surface was still rough, there was more brick that needed to be shifted into its appropriate place. All the work he had done up to this point felt like it was in vain, as now it would never be finished. There was nobody left to guide him where his work needed to go. The young man felt alone, lost, and incapable as he watched his life regress to the coarseness of how he felt.
The lessons the young man’s father and uncle tried to instill upon him were immediately buried under a contempt for the current reality. He became angry at what life had taken from him. The further education the young man would never obtain, the time he felt was robbed from him, would never be retrieved, and the cold reality of their death drove the knife of anger deeper into his heart. The raw bitterness, and resentment led the young man to drugs and alcohol, vainly trying to fill the holes left in his heart after they were gone.
The young man retreated deeper into a state of adolescence, absolving himself from any form of responsibility, duty, or efforts, leaving behind anything that reminded him of the pains of his father and uncle’s death. The boy quit the masonry field, leaving all the wisdoms and experiences from his uncle and father with it. He took his tools out to the shed behind his home, through them on the floor, and locked the door behind him. The tools he had spent years building with, forming his craft, his essence, his spirit, were now meaningless to him, he no longer saw them of any use in his life. He grew to despise the profession and the instruments that helped build the extent of his character, and the foundation of his life began to crumble.
The boy rationalized the only solution was glazing over any feelings that may arise from work, his father, his uncle, and what he left behind. Running away from life became the only solace for the boy. He replaced actions with excuses, wisdoms with ignorance, hard work for passivity, and all the fire he had to learn, and grow was extinguished under the weight of death.
His alcohol and drug habits worsened until they became the only source for capturing a fleeting feeling of joy in his life. It was the easy way out for the boy, and to him, it was the only action to take as he waited around for someone to save him. He wanted someone to fix his work, to smooth over his life. He wanted his uncle or his father to grab him by the arm and show him the way. But the cold reality that they were no longer there for him was too much to handle. He felt he did not have the tools to do it himself, so the boy kept waiting.
Years had now passed since the death of the boy’s father and uncle. The boy had fallen into a deep mental purgatory, never truly getting past the loss of his father and uncle, and never finding the courage to fix his work. The drinking and the drugs compounded, and they did their job of numbing the boy’s life, as he didn’t care to feel anymore. The boy debilitated his life to a mere existence in the dark grey area between an absent sense of purpose and an absolving of work and dedicated duty he once knew. That was where he grew most comfortable.
After a long night of drinking, the boy began his walk home from his daily evening out. While trying to maintain his balance, the boy looked up on occasion, observing the brick buildings that surround him. The streetlights illuminated the work that he grew up creating, showing off jack arches, detailed quoin corners, meticulously laid solider courses that accented the building, and course after course of the material his life was once made of.
These buildings that he once admired no longer meant anything to the boy. He was no longer a builder, no longer a tradesman, no longer a creator. The passion within him for his work had long since died and all that was there to him were bland structures of clay and mortar, they meant nothing. The boy looked away with indifference as he straightened his gaze forward and continued his stumble home.
Entering the front door of his apartment, the boy tripped over an obtrusive leg of a coffee table and hit his face dead on the corner of a nearby chair, falling to the floor violently as there we no legs beneath him. The boy laid on the ground for a few moments while contemplating this may be the place where he finally quit. He didn’t feel much purpose to get up or move on.
After a few minutes, the boy finally picked up his head and looked at the chair that struck him as he felt the warm blood streaming out of his mouth. The side of his faced ached as he wiped the blood from the corner of his cracked lips and laughed, looking at the small puddle of blood on the carpet. A part of him understood it was a reminder of what his life had come to.
The boy continued his dazed walk into the bathroom as he caught eyes with the mirror. The face of the figure he saw looking back at him he no longer recognized. Blood was still leaking from the corner of his mouth, while bruises began to color in the side of his face. His eyes bloodshot and begging for nourishment from all the booze and drugs, and all of the light, the warm enthusiasm, and potential drive he once saw was now cold rigidity, hollowness of character, and an ash covered spirit, as the hole in his heart was yet to be filled.
He thought of his father uncle and what he made of their work. What would they think if they saw him now? The boy broke down and cried as tears and the blood fell desperately from his face, tattooing the bowl of the sink as the mess swirled down the drain. Maybe this was it for him he thought as he took one more look in the mirror. This was it; the work was too much to do and this was all he knew, there was nothing left anymore. He cleaned himself up the best his drunken state would allow and stumbled into his room. The thoughts fleeted quickly as he walked to his room, falling down once more, passing out on his bed.
The boy slipped into a deep sleep and after a few moments, he saw a figure appear through a vibrant light behind his eyes. A man stood from beyond the light and as the dark figure inched close, the true image of the object grew more so vivid. The figure of a man moved closer and closer until the boy was confronted with what he was waiting for, his father.
Out of his work clothes, his father wore simple slacks, a collared button up shirt, and a pair of slip-on shoes he was always fond of wearing. The boy immediately tried to talk to him, asking him question after question, but his father wouldn’t return any of his inquiries. He just stood there stoically, looking back at the boy with a blank face. After all the years that passed, the silence of his father infuriated the boy and turned him hysterical. He ran up to his father and began striking him as hard as he could in the chest, crying, yelling, and enraged from not receiving any answer of why he was left with nothing. The piece that the boy had yet to get over and had yet to understand.
The boy continued punching and hitting his father in the chest as hard as he could, but he didn’t flinch, his body was hard as stone. His strength mimicking the material he and his brother worked with, and the material they spent years of their lives teaching the boy to build with. The boy continued his attempts to punch and break everything he had learned, trying to destroy everything that made him, but his blows were absorbed with ease. The continuous onslaught was not enough to even budge his father, as though the lessons, the wisdoms, the character his father possessed were immovable, always there.
His father finally reached out and grabbed the boys’ arms at the wrist to stop the barrage of punches. The boy looked up at his father, his eyes coated with layers of sadness, then the boy’s father looked down at him with the same look he gave the day he put the boy to work; stern, course, demanding attention, but this time accompanied with a divine grace, and he said ”All I want from you, is to be remember who and what you are my son. Smell the roses, you already have everything you need” He gripped the boys’ arms tightly so he couldn’t swing again as he allowed the serenity of passing time to let his words sink in.
All at once the tension, the hate, the anger, the remorse, and the contempt released from the boy’s body, as if his spirit were washed over by the divinity his father and uncle had left behind. His father felt the release from the boy’s body, and he gently loosened his grip from the boys’ arms. He then smiled his great, vibrant smile as he let the boys’ arms fall down to his side. His father then turned and began walking away as though he finally finished his piece of the wall, the last piece of his work. The boy stood there mutely as though he was watching his father walk down the scaffolding after he straightened out the boy’s work. Just as the days of the boy’s apprenticeship, he looked on as with each step, his father’s sturdy frame went from that of the man he knew to a simple silhouette of strength, vanishing into a vibrant pale light.
The boy awoke the next morning glancing around the room, trying to remember everything that happened the night before. The room seemed different, everything felt lighter. He watched the sun beam through his window and had a feeling of elation he hadn’t felt in years. The sun reminded him of his first days working on site with his uncle on those warm summer days in June. He felt the bright rays light up the inside of his chest like someone had warmed his soul. He felt the presence of his father and uncle in the divine warmth of that morning sun and it began to become clear everything the boy had been blind to.
The boy had spent years drifting after the death of his father and his uncle. Out of anger and fear, he had ruined everything that made him who he was. He attempted to destroy the character that his father and uncle tried to build within him. He tried to bury all of lesson taught through every passing word, through every swipe of a trowel, and every tap of a brick. He had ignored the strength, the gratitude, and the teachings in which they were trying to instill in him. And vainly, the boy let these traits pass along with his father and uncle.
The boy understood that though the physical of the boy’s father and uncle were gone, everything they left behind would never die; the lessons, the character, their essence, the grace, they passed on to him. Those were the materials in the boys life would always be there, they would never die. The boy sat up his bed while he continued letting the sun illuminate the room while meditating on everything his father and uncle built into his life.
During each phase of the boy’s apprenticeship his father and uncle kept a close watch on him. Giving the boy enough slack to work, but always jumping in when things weren’t right, or when he was going in the wrong direction. He understood that the years after their passing was his crooked brick, his rough surface and he thought back to the process that enamored him his first day on the job.
He understood that much like the material of concrete the boy began work with, some things in life pour out rough and you need to work harder on the material to make it right. Such is life, no matter which type of mix you get, you can learn to work with it, mastering your tools to build and place your materials, creating your final work.
And all the while you work, remember, stop and smell the roses, enjoy the process, enjoy what you’re doing and appreciate the steps along the way, as we tend to get caught up in petty frustrations and complaints, let them fall by the wayside as you enjoy the journey.
Lastly, understanding deeply that no matter how bad things get, they can always be fixed. Like taking a trowel over the coarseness and rough spots of your life, they can always be smoothed out, re-shaped, and refinished. The rough base you work with now acts as the foundation for the beautiful finish above, no matter where you are or how bad it gets, it can always be fixed.
The boy sat and reflected on his life and everything he learned, appreciating the greatness of these two men and everything they taught him. Everything they were trying to teach finally sunk in and took root. The boy made the conscious decision to always honor these men, the lessons and character they taught him, and to carry it through the rest of his life until it was his turn to pass it on. The boy made a vow to himself that he would never let that die.
After his reflection, the boy knew that there was one more thing that needed to be done. He picked himself off his bed and began the long walk outside, down the walkway to the shed. He took his time while sighting the vibrant reds of the flowers and flowing grace of the plants as he passed by. Looking at them as though he had never seen them before. The boy finally came upon the door of the shed, the lock now covered in dust and wrapped with vines working their way beyond the door.
The boy opened the lock to the shed, swinging the door open slowly, and there on the floor laid his tools, untouched, unused, un-utilized for years. The tools still marred with experience, covered in dried out brick and block dust, but gleaming with unused power and potential. The boy walked over to the bag and gripped the course leather handles firmly, pulling it off the floor. The man then took the bag that had been waiting for him all those years out of the shed, heading by the flowers once more as he continued down the long walkway smiling over his shoulder.