Grandpa Was a Carpenter

[Author’s Note: Be sure to check out the link. This is a great song.]

The title of this essay is taken from a great song by John Prine. And that song always reminds me of my maternal grandfather, Grandpa Yazell. Grandpa had numerous occupations over the course his life, but the one I always think of when he comes to mind is that of a carpenter. His skill with saws and hammers and nails and measuring devices used in the construction of a wood structure was unparalleled.

My father, an industrial engineer, was also highly skilled in the woodworking crafts. He built three houses from scratch during my lifetime and a goodly portion of our community church. And, under his tutelage, I remember the joy of discovering that my two-by-four fit perfectly in place below where the kitchen window would eventually be installed (measure twice, cut once…), all the while inhaling the sweet smell of fresh cut lumber and sawdust with the hustle-bustle noise of power saws and hammering in the background.

My father could build practically anything out of wood: he built bookcases and cabinets, not to mention a dog house that exactly matched our adjacent people house. And he built a complete set of toy kitchen appliances for my sister when she was a little girl: a stove, sink and refrigerator, all in perfect miniature.

I have often thought that had I not taken the various career directions I chose while stumbling through my life, I could have been perfectly happy waking up every morning knowing that, after coffee, I was going to go out there and build a house with my own hands.

The point of my reminiscing here is that there seems to be an almost universal assumption these days that no one could possibly enjoy a happy and fruitful life without having earned a college degree. Aspiring to such achievement is generally a good idea, since we know that, on average, those with college degrees have higher incomes than those with only high school diplomas. But, in 2008, only 28% of the population had actually earned a college degree.

I admire those in our educational system who seem to try their best to encourage all kids to go to college. But the truth is, some of us, maybe many of us, just aren’t cut out for college or, for that matter, the types of careers that might be expected to come from earning a degree. But this most certainly does not mean these kids must exist as second-class citizens upon reaching adulthood. I can think of at least one fireman who, upon graduating from high school, turned down the opportunity to attend college in pursuit of a career in architecture, a field in which he could easily have excelled, because he couldn’t fathom being cooped up in an office all day.

Overall, there just seems to be an unfortunate bias against any career that involves manual labor. I hear little chatter from the media about the virtues of having learned the skills of creating fine cabinetry, or installing an electrical panel or HVAC system in a home or commercial building. And what about those kids that, at the urgings of teachers and family, feel compelled to take a stab at higher learning, only to fail. A recent study tells us that 40% of freshman in college never finish.

Wouldn’t it be better for some of these young people to be guided toward a career in which they can live useful and fulfilling lives, even if it doesn’t include a sheepskin? Have these kids been made aware of the pride that comes from being considered a master pipefitter or plumber or welder or aircraft mechanic? These are honorable occupations that require substantial skill, training and experience.

College is not the only ticket to a happy life. I can only hope that those who provide guidance to our younger generations do not fail to actually help these youngsters each pursue a career that is right for them and not just assume the once-size-fits-all goal of going to college.

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2 comments

    The fragrance of freshly cut lumber still evokes, for me, those halcyon summer days of yesteryear when my own father did the same as yours, exercising his passion for building us yet another house, or crafting an addition onto the old one. Earning his competence under his father-in-law’s careful instruction he came to love this above all else. Walking the scaffolding and watching him work in the long, low, yellow-orange light of those late afternoons are some of my favorite memories of our days together.
    But better still I, myself, have since discovered the same joy that he surely must have felt when I built my studio. Hammer, saw, ruler and nail; carefully joining rafter and beam, hefting lumber with its thick sweet scent into my own dying late afternoon light. What a joy. What a treat; to both spend and lose oneself in such a utilitarian and creative endeavor.
    A treat to read your piece. Thanks for the memory.

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