When you’re a carpenter’s son there are things you don’t tell your mother. The old asbestos siding Dad had you driving nails into, for instance. Or the ceiling fan he wired without first shutting off the power. Or how you close your eyes when you bring the round whirling blade of the chop saw down on a length of spouting so you won’t get any flecks of aluminum in your eyes. How it just seems safer that way.
We were on a roof in a thunderstorm once, my dad and I, two-stories up. The rain had caught us off guard, with large patches of sheeting still exposed when it started coming down. To have taken shelter then would have meant abandoning the house to massive water damage. Dad kept saying, “I’m gonna end up buying the ceiling.” He was so steeped in tunnel vision I’m not sure he could see the lightning. What I remember is the acoustics, the peculiar way the thunder seemed to roll across the roofs around us. When he sent me down for the ice-and-water shield to seal up the bare patches, I made the cuts quickly, with my back turned. I didn’t want to risk seeing my father get struck by lightning.
When we roof, we start early. We push noon back as far as we can because that’s when the roofs get hot. When we start, the summer air is still cold enough to raise the hairs on my arms. The sun is still hidden behind the Appalachians and the neighborhood streets are empty. We spread the tarps, prop the ladders, pull on our roof boots. If we tore the old shingles off the day before, we’ll uncoil the extension cords and hook up the air lines for the nail guns. I’ll lean into the trailer to switch on the air compressor and pull my head out fast because it kicks on loud. The sound of the compressor swallowing up air is a rapid thump that eclipses the calm of the morning.
By 10:30 the sun is firmly in the sky, and the surface of the roof is radiating a heat of its own. If you lay the bare skin of your arm or leg against the shingles—or the tar paper or even just the wood sheeting—you’ll be burned. We once laid a wall thermometer on the sun-warmed shingles of a shed roof, just to see, and the needle maxed out beyond 120 degrees Fahrenheit. “It must be broken,” I said, but Dad disagreed, and now I’m not sure. He likes to joke with homeowners that it’s hotter for us on the roof because we’re closer to the sun. He says, “We were six feet from the sun. I threw my tape measure up there and checked. Don’t try this at home.”
So we don’t hesitate. We go at it with pry bars and shovels. We wrench up shingles and nails and felt. We work until the roof is stripped bare to the sheeting, vulnerable to the weather, ready to submit. Then we cover it again, with ice-and-water shield and aluminum drip edge and long sheets of plastic “felt” to protect it from the constant threat of summer storms. By now it’s probably two o’clock and our day is ending. Or it’s only eleven-thirty, and Dad will decide the other side of the roof is going to get torn off too, and we’ll continue until two or three or four, until the tools are too hot to hold and the strips of ice-and-water start to scuff and smear under our boots like we’re walking on molasses.
We’ll return the next day to tack down the shingles. We work our way from the bottom to the top, my brother Ethan laying them down and me shooting or me laying and Ethan shooting, and Dad working the other side by himself. We stair-step our way up the roof, and by the time we reach the peak, we own it in a way the homeowners never will. We know it in a way they can’t—the texture of the shingles, the pull of gravity at that particular pitch, the tiny flaws they’ll never see.
I grew up in the house my great grandfather built and learned how to use a drill press before I learned to read. I am, or could be, a fourth-generation carpenter. There’s a picture of me as a child up to my belly in deck joists, plastic hammer in hand, and another of me, even younger, standing up to my thighs in my dad’s work boots. I have no memory of being taught to use the band saw, only my father standing behind me, his hands on mine, reminding me how it’s done. At his father’s viewing, my father pointed out to me the furniture stain that was still on my grandfather’s hands. The mortician had been unable to scrub it all off, and my grandfather was buried with stain caught deep in his fingerprints.
In the summer and the winter, I’m a roofer, a carpenter, a cabinetmaker, but in the fall and spring, I’m a student and a teacher. An academic. Being away from the work used to trouble me. As an undergrad, I would call my dad every morning on my way to class, and I could gauge the time of day by the tone in his voice. When I moved to Montana, two time zones away, to pursue my master’s in writing, my calls always seemed to catch him when the sun was getting hot and he had no time to talk.
Without pointing or nodding or even glancing, at work Dad will sometimes tell me things like, “Put it on that side” or “Put it over there.” When he says the tool you’re looking for is “in the back of the truck,” he could mean that the tool is on—or under—the backseat of the truck, that the tool is somewhere in the bed of the truck, or even that the tool is in the trailer attached to the truck. His ambiguity drives me crazy, but then I catch myself telling my brother things like, “I need that over there.”
Your brain works differently in the sun. Your cognitive functions melt down into simple cause-and-effect reasoning. You think in images instead of words, and you don’t waste time saying things that don’t need to be said.
“Give me the pliers,” I once told my dad while a friend of mine was watching us work.
“Shouldn’t you say please?” she asked.
“There’s no time for ‘please’ when you’re working,” I told her, and Dad nodded as he passed me the tool.
It’s no coincidence that the tools we use tend to be named either for what they look like or for what they do (in the case of the pipe clamp, both). On the one hand you’ve got claw hammers, needle-nosed pliers, the “Turbo Pancake” air compressor in the trailer. On the other hand you’ve got the pry bar, the digging bar, and the wrecking bar, which are all the same thing. The name changes depending on how you’re using it, like conjugations of a verb. The names are short and staccato, words your tongue can grab hold of even as the sun pares down your vocabulary.
Before I wanted to be a writer, I wanted to be a meter reader. I wanted to wear the boots, the hat, the Maglite. This was when I was in preschool and my father was working for the borough in the mornings, reading utility meters and delivering late notices to provide us with health insurance while my mother stayed home with me and my siblings. After work, he’d come home and head to the garage, where he built furniture with his father and worked on getting his business up and running. When I told my father I wanted to read meters, he ruffled my hair and said, “No you don’t.”
I’ve always wanted to be like my father, to embody his work ethic, his humor, his grace. I feel good when I answer the phone and people mistake me for him. I was once told we eat the same, both of us hunched over our plates, and I took it as a compliment. I’ve also been told we look the same, and it’s true: we’ve got the same nose, the same cowlicks, the same smile. We both look like his father and—I’m certain—like his grandfather. I don’t know what he looked like, but I’m certain I could pick him from a lineup.
The sound of my father heaving a bundle of shingles up onto his shoulders is a growl you might mistake for anger. It amazes me the things he lifts without asking for help—whole lengths of kitchen cabinets, the dump trailer’s thick metal tailgate, the box trailer itself when the ball hasn’t quite lined up with the hitch. He’s past fifty, but he can still lift more than me or my brother and he runs rings around the guys he used to play basketball with when he goes to their annual reunion game each summer. At the job site he snatches bundles of shingles out of my arms when he sees me trying to lug them up the ladder. It’s been almost nine years since my grandfather died, and Dad has gotten used to working alone.
When two or three people are working together, though, the sound of the machinery can be almost like music. Not because it’s pleasant to listen to—it isn’t—but because every sound is purposeful and distinct. When we lift things together, Dad always says, “On three. Three!” and we lift. There is no “One, two.” We move things like it’s an Olympic sport, gracefully lifting and rotating couches and tables without speaking, maneuvering through narrow doorways and into new rooms, never banging a finished side against the walls, not once.
He reads my stuff, the fiction and the nonfiction, all of it. He likes when our shared experiences show up in the stories, likes when he can recognize that floor we refinished in Hamilton Heights, that know-it-all customer who wouldn’t let us be. “You can’t make that shit up,” he says, a phrase he’s picked up from one of my fiction professors.
Sometimes he’ll ask what I’ve been up to, and I’ll say, “Just finished a book,” and he’ll say, “Reading or writing?” as if neither would surprise him, as if writing a book is something I could do on a rainy afternoon, and I love that I have a father who believes in me that much. I often wish writing were more like carpentry so I could better share it with him. He asks me questions about process—How do I know what direction to take a story? Where do I get my ideas? When did I know this character would do that? He talks about my stories as if they’re solid things that have been assembled and sanded, although for me, writing them often feels a lot more like roaming around in the dark, armed only with the Maglite of hope and intuition.
Here’s a story: Once in the workshop, while he was lying flat on his back draining the dirty water that had condensed inside the big air compressor tank, my dad told me about my great grandfather, Paul Rickrode. He was an engineer who travelled around the world repairing massive industrial hammers, to Germany, Japan, and Saudi Arabia. In this story Paul was at a factory in England. Picture him in a white button-down shirt and a hard hat, an official representative of the Chambersburg Engineering Co.—the company where my grandfather would work for years as a shop superintendent, where my dad would work as a draftsman until the place shut down in the 90s. Paul was inspecting a broken impactor and quickly identified the cause of the problem, a broken piston rod or rocker arm—maybe a hydraulic leak—Dad doesn’t remember. What he knows is that Paul had two options: have the impactor dismantled, the part replaced, and the machine put back together—a painstaking and expensive process that would hold up production for days—or slide under the machine and repair it himself. When Paul emerged from underneath the impactor, his clean white shirt was streaked with grease.
My dad paused here and sat up so we could exchange drip pans, a full one for an empty one, and then, before lying back down, said, “I’d like to think I’d do the same.”
Ryan Rickrode studied creative writing and religion at Susquehanna University and earned his MFA in creative writing from the University of Montana.
Photo by Flickr Creative Commons user Samuel Belknap