A tip of the hat to the tradesmen

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Since buying my modest home 13 years ago, I have become immodest in my praise of skilled laborers, also known as craftsmen. They can do things that I either cannot do at all, or cannot do as well so quickly. And their ranks are filled with characters so colorful as to make the Good Humor man seem dour.

One of my former neighbors, Earl, was a self-taught carpenter par excellence. He'd see me laboring away at some project, come over, and within a few minutes have the affair in order, humming along, fit to present to respectable company.

I so admired old Earl that I once asked if I could work with him one summer. For free. Just to learn his skill. But Earl gently advised me that he had never had much success with help.

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"I once took on a 16-year-old," he said, shaking his head mournfully. "It didn't work out."

I asked him what happened.

"He was a bad one," said Earl. "He'd steal the Lord's supper and come back for breakfast."

Masons are a breed apart. I have found that they are either very stout and square from the exertions of working with stone, or very thin and wiry from the stress of supervising such work.

Two years ago I hired a whole family of masons to perform the Atlantean task of raising my house. I had always felt that lifting a house was either an impossibility or an illusion. When Ike and his boys got to work with their sledgehammers and jacks I discovered that it was neither. I soon concluded that theirs was a trade I admired but had no desire to learn.

The work is fiercely demanding, although not without its moments of elegance. I watched one day as Ike, the patriarch of the company, felt along the existing cinder block wall of my house for a place to make a hole and insert a jack. He hoisted his mallet and, with a tap bordering on the gentle, knocked a hole in the concrete large enough to do the job.

"How on earth did you do that with only one stroke?" I asked him. Ike squinted and cracked a glacial smile.

"I know the sweet spots," he said, and went about his work.

I hold electricians in particular awe because, unlike carpenters and masons, they deal with invisible forces which, for me, border on the mystical. I have watched, like a 5-year-old, as electricians pulled wires out of my wall, sparked them before my eyes, and then sent them on their way, behind other walls, to other rooms, or to an entirely different floor of the house. And then, their work accomplished, I flick a switch and – voilà! – there be light.

I have tried to learn this skill, too, but have found that electricians are hesitant to impart any aspect of it to me, as if in doing so they would be divulging the hoary secrets of a cryptic fraternity.

Carpenters, masons, electricians, plumbers, appliance repairmen – I celebrate them all and greet their visits with alacrity. Of course, because they are so skilled, and because fewer graduates are being sent into their ranks, the challenge lies in getting hold of them.

More than once I have had to beg, cajole, and generally do handstands to hook a plumber, after which I have spent anxious hours hoping that he would indeed show up.

Many times these craftsmen don't; but what can one do? I call again and then resume my wait like the patient – and unskilled – man that I am.

The moral of all this is that if my son decides to go to college, that will be fine. But if he goes into training as an electrician, carpenter, or other skilled laborer, I will raise the flag. I will positively glow.

And when my neighbor tells me that his son is at Harvard, I will be tempted to ask, "Ah, but can he install a frost-free sillcock?"

Which reminds me of a joke. A nuclear physicist hired a plumber. After five minutes of work, the plumber drew up his bill and handed it over.

"Five hundred dollars!" exclaimed the physicist, absolutely shocked. "I'm a nuclear physicist, and I don't make this much for five minutes of work."

"That's why I left nuclear physics," said the plumber, and he tipped his hat.

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