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patterns of ink

How fruitless to be ever thinking yet never embrace a thought... to have the power to believe and believe it's all for naught. I, too, have reckoned time and truth (content to wonder if not think) in metaphors and meaning and endless patterns of ink. Perhaps a few may find their way to the world where others live, sharing not just thoughts I've gathered but those I wish to give. Tom Kapanka

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Unsettled 39: "Hitting the Nail"

In 1982, long after the story of these chapters, I was teaching in a high school in Muncie, Indiana. As an English teacher, it fell to me to also direct the school play, and that year’s production was Kaufman and Hart’s You Can’t Take it with You. It was a smaller school, and “directing” the play really meant I was doing it all—including set design and construction. This was true throughout my career at other schools as well. While it is true that I did have some college courses in dramatic production, the bulk of the skills that made me uniquely qualified for this part of my job came from the years of building with Dad. I was comfortable with tools and confident that most construction challenges can be solved with resourceful ingenuity.

This is not true of all young men, as I first experienced while building that set in ’82. A senior guy stayed after school to help me build some set pieces. I had already framed in a short stairway and needed only the four tread-boards nailed into place, three nails at each end. I assigned that simple task to my likable apprentice, and moved on to another tasks. I returned a while later to see that half of the nails were bent over and pounded flat into the wood. I watched him for a moment as he tried to drive a nail into the short 2-by-10 treads. He tapped the point of the nail into the wood and then tried hitting it with all his might. The nail pinged off to the far end of the stage. He began another nail. This time with more success but his third strike bent the nail, and rather than pull it, he began beating it flat.

“These stupid nails!” he hollered.

“The nails?” I said with a smile, “You’re blaming the nails?”

“Well, it’s got to be the nails. The hammer is brand new.”

I laughed at his simple assessment of two of the three factors involved, but rather than mention his roll as the hammer operator, I stopped and showed him how to drive a nail; how to angle the opposing nails slightly toward each other so they work like a staple in the wood; how to set the nail a good inch or so with two good raps, and then let go with the fingers for the next three solid blows; how to hold the hammer for maximum leverage; how to make sure that the head of the hammer hits flush on the head of the nail to avoid bending it; and how to ease up on the final tap so as not to leave a hammer mark in the soft wood. It was something I had learned partly by instruction but mostly by observation. After demonstrating these things on the two remaining stair treads, I told him the following story:

In this picture, you can see Jimmy, Dad, Paul, and me hamming it up for a picture Mom was taking.

In the background is the brick wall (the penny is in the other side of that wall). To the left of the photo you see another framed in wall that would eventually separate the dining room from the bathroom.

Dad and I were working alone the day he and I framed in the bathroom. This chapter is about the second stud from the end of that bathroom wall (just to the left of Dad's head in the picture).

Most of the lumber in the house was from the school building we had salvaged two years before. Eventually, we got to use some new 2-by-4s, and it was then I noticed the huge difference between the new kiln-dried lumber and those that had aged a half-century in that old school. The older lumber was darker in color with a sort of honey patina from the aging sap, and just as sap petrifies into amber, old lumber is much harder than newly harvested wood. This means it is harder to mark with a pencil for cutting; harder to cut with saw; and harder to nail into place.

The most frustrating challenge we faced with the old wood, however, was finding the occasional board with a twist or a “bow” or a “wow” in it. I don’t know if there is an official distinction between a “bow” and a “wow," but Dad called it a “bow” when the 2-by-4 curved sideways like the boards in the bow of a boat (though he pronounced it bow like bow-and-arrow), but if the board was warped on edge, he called it a “wow.” Wows render a board useless in most cases because the wowed edge protrudes slightly beyond the plane of the wall or ceiling. A bow can be straightened with a fire block, but it’s best not to use a wowed board.

On occasion, we came across a stud with a slight twist in it, and Dad would simply straighten the twist while we nailed it in place. In most cases, it was forever cured, but on the day we were building the wall between the bathroom and the dining room, we came across a particularly stubborn twist.

We were building the walls on the floor of the house and then erecting them into place. When we got to the second to the last stud (near the inside corner), we encountered our twisted nemesis.

Dad pulled one of the five nails he held in his the corner of his mouth and drove one temporarily into the side of the stud to use as a cleat for his claw hammer, which he then pulled like a torque wrench against the twist of the wood. He looked like “the old man and the sea” pulling in a marlin [except, in this case, Santiago had the young Manolin with him in the boat].

I’d seen Dad straighten twists this way before, but this time it required much more effort. So he grabbed a spare hammer, added another cleat-nail and had me push on that hammer in the same direction he was pulling. It was a tough twist, and Dad was leaning back at a 45 degree angle to the floor, and I was leaning toward him at the same angle.

“Push, Tom.”

“I am,” I grunted.

“Holy Baldy! That twist is really in there. We’ve almost got it,” he said through his teeth. It was then that he realized that in the strange contortions we were both in, he had only his left hand free and I had only my right hand free. He pulled a nail from his teeth and held it in place with the thumb and forefinger of his left hand.

“Go ahead, Tom. You’ve got to drive it in. I can’t let go.”

“You want me to pound in the nail that you’re holding?” I asked.

“Come on, Tom. I can’t keep 'er here all day.”

I tapped the nail carefully in about an inch. Dad moved his fingers away, still pulling on his hammer with his right hand, and I pounded the nail home.

“We’re not done yet,” Dad strained. “She’s still pulling. If I let go, we’ll have to start all over again. It’ll take two or three nails to hold.”

Dad pulled another nail from his teeth and held it in place about two inches from the head of the first nail. A single bead of sweat slalomed through the short hairs at the temple of his crew cut, found its way out to the smooth skin, then followed a wrinkle to the corner of his eye. He twitched his head and tried to blink it away. It was a small thing, but the damp trail made it easier for a second drip of sweat to follow the same course, making him twitch and blink again.

“Whatcha waiting for—Christmas!” he growled. “Go ahead, Tom. Drive her in.”

Have you ever noticed that when you’re in a static isometric position your body starts to tremble a little from the strain? Dave and I used to see how long we could sit against a wall pretending there was a chair under us…after twenty minutes or so our thighs would just start shaking, and we’d collapse to the floor. Well, Dad and I were in a sort of isometric pose as we untwisted and held that 2-by-4. We were using muscles that almost never get worked, and we’d now been pulling in this marlin for about five minutes.

Between the sweat in his eyes and the strain in his arms, Dad was not holding the second nail as steadily as the first. Likewise, the hammer in my right hand was trembling a little. I felt weak as I tapped the nail. Now factor in the hardness of that old wood, and I was having a dickens of a time getting that nail started so Dad could let go of it.

“Come on, Tom. Hit the thing.”

“I’m trying,” I said, with another limp tap that barely sunk the tip of the nail.

“Don’t tap it. Hit it.” Dad said, quivering.

“It doesn’t want to go in. Is there a knot in the wood?”

“No, there’s no knot. You’re just hitting it like a girl. Hit the thing!”

I hit it harder but it was still not deep enough for Dad to let go of, and his frustration boiled over.

“Hit it!” he screamed, and with that, I rose the hammer high and brought it down with all my might.

In looking back on this moment, it seems unbelievable that in a matter of minutes two intelligent human beings had been beguiled into such a predicament by a 2-by-4. Even now, more than thirty-five years later, I shake my head and wince as I write these words. My eyes are tearing up at the thought of that descending hammer and the sound that followed—not the ringing steel-on-steel sound of hammer and nail. No, the nail I hit was of a softer sort. The sound was a softer thud, followed by muffled moan, as if the scream had been swallowed down Dad's throat. It was I who screamed aloud. I had hit Dad’s thumbnail. I don’t know how he managed to keep holding the nail I missed. Whenever I hit my own thumb, it loses the strength to function. But Dad spat out the remaining nail in his mouth, bit his lower lip, and kept holding the nail.

“Hit it, Tom. I’m not letting go until you drive it.”

“But, Dad…”

“Hit it, Tom!”

This second swing hit the steel nail squarely, sank it deep allowing Dad to let go, and I quickly drove it home. This time, the twisted board remained true when we let go of the levers. He then picked up the spat-out nail and pounded it in with vengeance to be sure the twist was fixed in place for all time.

“I’m sorry, Dad!” I whimpered, still much closer to tears than he was.

“It’s not your fault,” he said sucking hard on the bleeding thumb. “I’m going to lose that nail for sure,” he said, as if it par for the course.

We didn’t speak much for a while, but for the rest of that day, every time I re-lived that moment, I winced and apologized to him again.

His thumbnail was black the next day, and just as he’d predicted, the nail came off about three weeks later. It was not the first time he’d lost a nail. Back when he was building the house on Atkins Road, he smashed his thumb good and the pressure of the pent-up blood under it go so bad that he took his hand drill and drilled a little hole through the center of the nail to let out the blood. Mom used to get a chill up her spine when she told us about it.

To his credit, Dad held no hard feelings about me smashing his thumb. I think of that moment whenever I hit my own finger with a hammer. Never has someone else’s pain been so much my own. Even now, as I type, my thumb is beginning to throb.


Anonymous quilly said...

Only when I finished reading this did it dawn on me that I was sucking my thumb nail. Thanks, Tom.

10/12/09 8:55 PM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

So good to hear from you. While you are enjoying Hawaii. We are in a blizzard in Michigan, but thanks to that blizzard, I had time to write this chapter. =)

10/12/09 9:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ouch! I'm with Quilly. I could feel it and liked the sense of dread you had in talking about it without giving it a way too soon. Clever title, too. Why not just get another board?

12/12/09 9:47 PM  
Blogger the walking man said...

Happens...That is true enough. If every hit we ever stroked were spot on how would we learn from the pain of others.

13/12/09 5:41 AM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

I imagine you busted a few knuckles in the shop, too.

13/12/09 4:35 PM  

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