The old man sat on the porch of his house in a large town in Texas reminiscing of his life and some of the things that had happened in it. At least the things he could recall as his memory was not quite as good as it used to be. He suffered from the bane of aging known as Senior Moments when the memory plays tricks and the flow of words can be cut off half way through a sentence as the memory goes to sleep. Now what was I writing about? Oh yeah, my early life.
I thought about the past and some of the things I would have changed if it had been possible. I thought about my early years in school in England and the opportunities I had that I let slide. The girls that I didn’t want to know because there were so many of them. The games I never played because I was young and a whole life time ahead of me. When I was fifteen, I was seriously thinking of how to drop out of school without it affecting my life in the future. I was a bright enough student with a good brain but I didn’t have the right work ethics and hated homework. Coming from a broken home, it was easy to let stuff slide as no one was checking on me.
Common sense won over in the end and I stayed long enough to graduate at age sixteen which was the normal graduation age if the student had no plans to move on to University.
I was living with my sister and her husband and a couple of kids, Jim and Sheila. I had finished school and was hanging around the house with nothing much to do except to get in my sisters way.
“You planning on getting a job” she asked
“I guess so but I don’t know what I want to do” I replied.
“I saw a notice in the big grocery store in the High Street looking for help. Why don’t you try them”? she said.
“I don’t want to work in a grocery store. They have to work on Saturday’s and I wouldn’t be able to play football” I replied.
“Well, you have got to find something. Ron won’t let you live here unless you contribute something”. Ron was her husband and a bit of a bear.”Why not try the construction company down the street. I know the owner and can ask him for you” my sister said.
True to form, the next day, my sister paid a visit to one of the owners of the company, Frank Isted and asked him if he would hire me. The company was called Thomas Rich and Sons who were the original owners. The current owners had kept the name as it was well-respected around town. The other part owner was Tommy Harman and he dealt with the Painting and Decorating side of the business.
I’ll never forget that very first job interview. I did not know what to expect so approached it with some trepidation.
“Hello, you must be Francis” said my hoped to be new boss “Sit down and make yourself comfortable. I won’t bite you”. To give him credit Frank Isted was trying very hard to make me feel at ease and to some extent, it was working. “Tell me about yourself” he said. “Why do you want to work construction”?
I thought about it and said “I want a job where I spend most of my time out-of-doors. I have always spent my free time in the woods or on the sports fields and I don’t want to be cooped up. Besides, I am good with my hands and like to make things”.
Mr Isted said “I don’t have any openings for a carpenter but I can fit you in to learn the bricklaying trade. How do you feel about that”. I knew that bricklaying was physically much harder than carpentry but decided it was worth a try and told Mr Isted so.
We talked about it some more with me doing most of the listening as Mr Isted, my new boss explained how we planned to proceed. First of all, I would be on a three-month trial period and then if things were working out for us both, I would sign the papers to become an indentured bricklaying apprentice which also included going to the local trade school one day a week to learn the theoretical side of things. If I did well, I could stay on and learn how to be a Clerk of the Works which is equivalent to a Project Manager in America.
I thanked him profusely and he said to come back on Monday ready to start work and to “please call me Frank”.
The following Monday, I showed up at the office and Frank drove me out to a job site at a place called Hellingly. Frank drove an old Blue Renault which in itself was very interesting as I believe that his was the only one of its model that I ever saw. Frank introduced me to the group working on this project which was to add identical rooms to a duplex farm laborers cottage, one on each side.
The cottage was a part of an estate that was owned by the current Lord Hogg whose family in years gone by, used to be the equivalent to the Lord of the Manor. Lord Hogg was a seated member of the House of Lords and when not in London on business, lived in the Manor House, a very old and grand building. His current estate was only about 200 acres which he farmed with a milk herd. He had several farm laborers who worked for him and all of them lived in rent free cottages like the ones we were working on, a normal custom in England. it was not unusual for entire generations of families to work for one farm with Fathers and Sons both employed as would their kids also be employed in the same way.
The work crew that I was going to spend the next month or so with consisted of two bricklayers, Harold and George and a couple of helpers, Mike and Bert. There was a young carpenter named Stanley and an old grizzled navvie who went by the name of Tiny even though he was about 6 ft 6 ins and must have weighed easily 250 lbs or in English jargon, almost 17 stone. He was indeed a big ole boy. Harold was the foreman on this job but both he and George ran jobs when they had to.
One of the helpers, Bert was a WWI veteran and had been gassed in the trenches. he used this repeatedly if the work was hard or he didn’t feel like doing it, as an excuse to rest. The other guys knew him and chided him to get back at it. I couldn’t tell if Bert really was suffering or just lazy.
Construction of the small addition type was usually performed by a small crew that had individual skills and classifications but worked collectively as a crew to perform all of the tasks required for this sort of work. They worked as a team doing whatever had to be done. So, I found myself digging footings alongside of the tradesmen.
Construction in England is different from in the USA. For one thing, the climate is very wet with a lot of rain and houses were built accordingly. Generally speaking, footings were dug to about three feet deep and then concreted. The exterior of nearly all buildings was of brick as were the interior walls. Concrete block was unheard of back then.These walls had a two-inch cavity with wall ties built into the layers holding the two walls together. The outside of the brick may get soaked but the moisture would not travel across the air cavity to affect the inside brick wall which were usually plastered to give an interior finish. The brick was started below ground and brought up to grade with the interior wall one layer higher than the outside and then lead flashing would be laid across to span both walls with “weep” holes allowing any accumulated water to drain to the outside. This very effectively provided a barrier to prevent accumulated water from the weather from getting to the inside of the house or structure. French drains consisting of three-inch clay pipes were laid around the outside on top of the concrete footings and then covered in stone to drain water away from the building.
If the floors were of concrete, they would be laid within the brick walls and I should mention that bricklayers were also concrete specialists except on the larger projects. Concrete was mixed by hand on the job site by shovelling endless amounts of stone, sand and Portland cement into a concrete mixer and then moving the stuff in wheelbarrows to where it had to go. Back then, there were no such things as ready mixed concrete trucks or concrete pumps to move the concrete. There were, on the other hand, no shortage of shovels and wheelbarrows and men to work them. I should add, that pushing a single wheeled wheelbarrow full of wet concrete that sloshes from side to side over scaffold boards as walkways, requires considerable strength in both legs and arms to keep from dumping the load anywhere but in the proper place.
Tiny, for whatever reason decided to take me under his wing and showed me the correct way to use a shovel and pick. None of this was easy but at least was made easier by his direction. To think that he had spent his entire life moving dirt and other heavy things as a means to provide a living for himself and family really got me thinking of the incredible resilience of man to be able to perform such menial tasks and yet be so upbeat about life. I thought it quite extraordinary and it says a lot for human kind. Of course back then, the average working person was glad to have a job and was very aware of his station in life. Class distinction was alive and well.
I spent most of my work on that project performing hard tasks digging, shovelling, pushing wheelbarrows, carrying a hodful of bricks up a ladder, mixing mortar and whatever else needed to be done. it is true to say that at no time did I lay a brick or come to that, hold a trowel in my hand except to clean it. When Frank said I would be on a three-month trial period, he wasn’t kidding. Bottom line was I had to show that not only could I perform these hard and menial tasks but that I also had the right mindset to do it.
Once the project was bricked in, Stanley the carpenter moved in and built the roof with our help. The roof was covered with clay tiles that we all helped to lay. The roof was not covered in plywood sheets as is the custom here in America. We nailed one by two-inch slats four inches apart on which to hang the tiles. The tiles, I might add, had little “hooks” on them for them to be placed over the slats followed by a nail in each tile to hold it in place. At least, the tradesmen did. Me, I was still lifting and loading but I was learning and was following along closely on how things were constructed. I was also developing muscle which I never had before.
With the project “dried in” it was time for the electricians to wire the rooms. The plasterers then covered the ceiling with a wire lath and then plastered the inside walls and ceiling to complete the room using a mix of sand and mortar cement and finished with a special gypsum mix.
While this stage of the project was going on, I had been moved off this crew and was going to be assigned to work with Ernie Baker. I still had visions of working with tools on a house or building of some sort learning my new trade but my boss had other ideas for me.
Ernie was known as an odd jobber. Not because he didn’t know what he was doing but exactly the opposite. He had so much knowledge of so many things that we spent our days working on all kinds of different projects with the next being different from the last. No two jobs were the same at least not concurrently as we moved around the small town from job to job. In those days, unless we had a lot of material that needed to be delivered, we pushed a two-wheel cart around that contained our tools, ladders, materials and anything else we would need for that day’s work. We always had our bikes piled on top of the cart so that at the end of the day, we could go home from whatever project we were working on. Very few of our jobs would last more than a half a day so we always planned for all that we were due to work on.
We repaired roofs, replaced tiles and slate, we repaired brickwork and drains, concrete sidewalks, plaster inside and outside of houses and just about everything to do with that side of the business. While some of it was pretty crummy work, other stuff always made up for it like when we would rebuild a fireplace for a client or have to build a fancy curved wall out of brick. Those times made the others bearable. Because it was such a small town, we knew everyone and they knew us and as we passed them pushing our handcart, we would be greeted in the friendly way that people do when they are comfortable in their environment. I became like Ernie and from his experience, I was able to learn so much more than just being a bricklayer.
This work was different as there was so much variety that I was able to pick up so many different aspects of construction repair. Ernie knew it all and because I showed an aptitude for working hard, he often let me do some of the actual skilled work and he would stand back and smoke a cigarette and offer advice. I was beginning to get a hands on with tools and bought my own to carry with me.
We had a job repairing a brick chimney where some of the brick had worked loose because the old lime mortar had deteriorated. We placed our ladders up and over the roof to the chimney itself tying them off one to the other. This particular roof was of clay tile so we had to be careful not to step off the ladders or the tile would break. The roof itself was a very long one covering at least thirty feet. Ernie said “You want to do this one”?
I jumped at the chance “Yes, what do I have to do”?
“Take this bucket of mortar up with you and remove and then replace those loose brick. Think you can do that”?
I clambered up the ladders with the bucket and settled next to the chimney which only stuck out of the roof by a couple of feet. I carefully took down the loose brickwork and cleaned off the mortar and started to rebrick the chimney taking a lot of care. I was almost finished and was laying the last brick when I slipped enough to drop the brick. I sat back and watched in despair as it bounced down the roof breaking the tiles in at least six different places on its way to the ground.
I looked at Ernie. He was standing there with his mouth open as he surveyed the damage. “OK, finish the chimney and then we will repair the roof. Correction, you will repair the roof” he said.
I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry but did as he told me and finished up the repairing the chimney.
I worked my way back down the roof taking out and replacing the damaged tile as I went. It is not difficult to replace tile but in effect, my carelessness had turned a simple job into a more complicated one. Luckily, we had tile on our cart, enough to make the repairs. Ernie never ever chastised me or made a big deal of it figuring that I had probably learned a valuable lesson from it all and he was right. I made sure that from that point on, I was extra careful on anything I worked on.
Early on, we had another project that he and I were working on repairing brickwork on a school. Frank, Our boss stopped by to check on us and Ernie had just sent me down the ladder to get more mortar. I was ambling along in my usual slow pace not in any particular hurry and not even giving a thought to how much time I was taking. After Frank left, Ernie said “Frank is mad at you and is talking of letting you go”.
“What did I do wrong” I asked.
“You really must be more active when I send you for things especially when he is here to watch you” Ernie said “He thinks you are lazy and worthless and I had to talk long and hard to convince him differently. I told him you got a knock at the game this past weekend and was moving slow because of it”.
I thought about it and resolved that from that day on, I would be more active. it’s not that I was a lazy person, quite the opposite in fact but because I wasn’t hustling, I gave that appearance. That episode, like breaking the tiles proved to be very valuable lessons as I grew to manhood.
When Ernie and I didn’t have any small work to do, we would usually join one of the other crews at whatever project they had going on and pitch in with them. One day, we were working with the same group as I had first started work with, removing a garage floor to get it ready for replacement and the conversation turned to rockets and spaceships. Don’t ask me how it started but somehow it did. You have to remember that most of these guys were not that worldly wise and had spent most of there lives around the Hailsham area except for those who had fought in the two wars, so a man on the moon was science fiction to them, something out of comic books. Being the youngest, I was more up with that sort of thing especially as I was an avid reader with science fiction one of my favorites. Anyway, I can remember them making fun of me as I predicted that there would be a man on the moon at least in my lifetime, which as we all know, turned out to be true.
Another time, we were working on an old house removing and replacing the wood floors. These floors were all tongue and groove hardwood and we used special clamps to squeeze them together so that the tongue actually slid tightly into the groove. Back then, there were no power nailers so each nail had to be driven in with a hammer and then set with a punch. The nails were driven at an angle through the top of the tongue and into the joist and required some skill so as not to damage the tongue so it could receive the next board.
It was interesting but monotonous work.Word came through over the radio that King George VI had just died. This had just been preceded a month or so earlier by Princess Elizabeth marrying Prince Phillip and they were on an extended honeymoon in South Africa when the word reached them of his death cutting short their honeymoon. For us, it was like we had lost one of our closest relatives as that was how the majority of the British viewed their Royalty. Without much being said, we packed up our tools and went home to grieve each in our own ways. For me, it was a trip to the local pub to commiserated with my friends over a beer or two.
We were sent to install an open drain using glazed tile half pipes especially made for open drains. We were working the day before a holiday and Frank, our boss told us we could go home early once we were finished with that project. Ernie and I worked our tails off to get the job done and we managed to leave 30 minutes before our usual knock off time. So much for going home early.
One day, we were working at another school. I had been dating this pretty young thing who worked in one of the grocery stores in the High Street. As the school was just off the High Street, she and I would meet early in the morning before she went to work. The problem was that I would already be working and Ernie knew that I was meeting her as I disappeared for 15 minutes every morning at the same time. One day, Frank, our boss came swinging around the corner as I was standing and talking to this girl. I spotted him just as he turned the corner and I left in a hurry but to no avail. When Frank pulled up, he gave me a royal reaming for wasting his time when I should be working. Such are the perils of being in love at a young age. Everything is about you and it takes a knowing boss to bring you back to earth. She did have a great figure though which almost made it worth it…
Ernie began to let me do more and more of the work. I didn’t mind as for me, I was learning a lot and the best way to learn is hands on. I noticed that he seemed less energetic and tired easily as time wore on.
I spent two years working with Ernie. We did weekend work together when he had projects that required more than one man. He found the work and I was the helper. Ernie was coughing a lot and wouldn’t see a doctor until one day he started coughing up blood. They rushed him to the hospital and he was diagnosed with TB, Tuberculosis for which the only cure known in that day and age was to take out the affected lung. They had not perfected a way to get at the lung and usually permanently removed several ribs which left the affected person with a stoop to the right or left as they had lost some of their bodily support.
Ernie lived next to a farm and would walk with his kids through the fields. His TB had advanced to the other lung so any form of effort resulted in him getting short of breath and created a fluid build up which he could only relieve by spitting. The end result was that the farmer had to have all of his dairy herd destroyed as they all became infected with TB. He blamed Ernie for that as it was too much of a coincidence knowing that Ernie had TB.
Ernie died a couple of years after his surgery after the TB had affected his remaining lung and I lost a very dear friend.
With Ernie no longer pushing the cart and doing the odd jobs, I moved onto the real bricklaying crew and started to work on bricking houses and such and really began to learn the trade. The foreman on this project was the same Harold that I had worked with on my first project. Harry, an older guy really knew his stuff. He had a daughter who was a little older than me but was a bit of a wallflower. I started dating her and spent 6 months trying to convince her that I loved her when in reality, I was trying for much more. Needless to say, she saw through me and ended that romance. I think I did get as far as kissing her. She kept talking about getting engaged something I was not interested in.
On weekends, I played for the local football team of which I was one of the star players. We played our games on the local Recreational facility on a beautiful field that had stands down one side. Our team was good enough that we would get a couple of thousand people out to watch us at our home games. I remember that I was doing some work in the evenings for the local plumber helping him to concrete his driveway and I could hear the roars of the crowd from the football field. There was a game going on between a couple of other teams. he knew that my heart wasn’t in mixing and spreading concrete so we finished the bit we were working on and called it a day and both went to watch what remained of the game instead.
Working with Harry on the construction crew was as different as it could possibly be as working with Ernie. For one thing, there was never any variety in bricklaying other than what you were building. With Ernie, every job was different and none lasted more than a couple of days.
On the other hand, it was convenient to be at one place for a month at a time as we bricked houses. Remember, that bricking a house was not just putting a facade on an already constructed wood framed house as it is here. Back then, the house was constructed out of brick, both inside and outside walls so we actually built the house from the footings on up. If the house was of two stories, we set our own scaffolding which unlike todays metal scaffolding consisted of heavy long poles set in the ground with other poles roped or clamped together to provide the support. We had to leave holes in the walls for the cross members to rest on and then fill them after the scaffolds were removed.
It turns out that I was a very good bricklayer. Not only did I lay a nice brick with edges touching the course below and the line above, I was extremely fast and could put down twice as many brick as the others. Because of this, I was assigned the long walls and usually one of the older and slower guys would work with me. I usually laid three-time what he did but for me it was so effortless that I didn’t mind. The older guy would raise the corners and I would run the line. It worked perfectly.
About the time that Ernie died, the company began to run low on work and released me from my apprenticeship so that I could find work elsewhere. I found a job working on the maintenance staff of one of the local factories, Geebro that specialized in making rope and yarn. They were in the middle of expanding their operation and needed skilled help.
But that is another story…