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Why I'm Not a Brick Mason

I once asked my father how he got started as a brick mason. He responded by telling me the whole story, one I had never heard until that day.

His maternal grandmother had asked him while he was still just a teenager to build her a fireplace. He confidently agreed to do so in spite of the fact that he'd never laid a brick in his life. More surprising to me was that a fireplace isn't exactly the easiest thing one could lay, especially not as a first project. But he was confident he could do it. And he did.

But he never breathed a word about it to his parents. Had he done so, he knew that his father would have immediately shut down his project before it got started. He was too young and too inexperienced for such a task.

Shortly after Daddy had finished the fireplace, his parents were visiting his grandparents and immediately upon entering the living room noticed the finished product.

"Wow!" Daddy's father exclaimed. "Who did your fireplace for you? It looks really good!"

"Why, Ralph did that!" Momma Graybeal answered proudly.

Daddy's parents were speechless.

But Daddy's story wasn't finished. He told how years later, after I had been born, their church had erected a new building, the members doing much of the work themselves. After all, among the members were plumbers, electricians, and carpenters (including Daddy at that point). And the pastor was a brick mason. The pastor taught Daddy the finer points of laying brick. (In the accompanying photo, Daddy is on the extreme left. The pastor who taught him bricklaying is wearing the dark jacket.)

As a kid, when I was working with Daddy, carrying bricks and mortar to him, people often stopped by to talk to Daddy and watch him work. Invariably, they would ask me, "Are you going to be a brick mason like your dad when you grow up?"

Never! I knew how hard it was to lay brick, how much skill it took, and how hard it was to keep him supplied with bricks and mortar. I knew I couldn't do it well, if at all. I certainly knew I couldn't do it to Daddy's standards. Besides, I wanted to work with my brain, not my back.

Eventually, Daddy promoted me from brick-and-mortar carrying to brick laying--but only under grade where it wouldn't be seen. The landscapers would cover my work when they did backfilling. When I had laid several courses of brick under grade and there was a possibility they might be seen, Daddy took over, leveling everything out by the time it became visible. He wasn't taking any chances.

Still later, he gave me my first chance to lay something that would be visible. But he didn't assign me a short, straight piece of wall between two windows. That would be too easy. Rather, he ordered me to lay a window sill, which has to be one of the hardest of all laying tasks.

I had seen Daddy lay hundreds of window sills over the years. But seeing and doing are two very different things.

Nonetheless, I marked the window to determine the correct joint width, cut each of the necessary bricks to the correct length, applied the mortar, and began to lay them. It took me more than an hour to do what it would have taken Daddy 15 minutes to do. I walked around to the end of the house, where Daddy was laying brick on the scaffold in the gable, and announced that I had finished. I had done my best, was immensely relieved that the pressure was off, and even a little proud of my accomplishment.

Daddy climbed from the scaffold, came around the house, and looked silently upon my creation. Then he took the tip of his trowel and flipped every brick from the sill to the ground.

"Do it over," he said as he returned to his work.

"What's wrong with it?" I demanded. I needed to know what I'd done wrong so I would know how to re-do it right. He never told me.

I cleaned up the mess, cut more bricks, and laid the sill again, taking even longer than before. When I finished, Daddy inspected it and again tore it out.

"Do it over," he said, again with no explanation to correct whatever I had done wrong and no suggestion of how to improve it.

Three more times he did that. I was fuming. My frustration had turned to anger. And although I was in high school at the time, I was in tears. But I did it over again and again--and hated every minute of it. Daddy finally let the sill remain. He never did tell me what I had done wrong--or right.

Daddy wasn't a teacher. I didn't become a brick mason; I became a teacher and a writer instead.

I was reminded of these painful memories the other day when my wife was looking through a book of old photos and cried out, "Hey! Here's a picture of the hearth you built for my parents when they were still living in Pennsylvania."

It had been during a time when heating oil costs were soaring though the roof. To ease the pressure of those increasing costs, my father-in-law had decided he wanted to install a coal-burning stove, but the fireplace to which he wanted to attach the stovepipe had no hearth on which the stove could sit. And the entire area in front of the fireplace was carpeted. He wanted a sturdy, less flammable surface on which to set the stove, the coal bucket, and the utensils he needed to stoke the fire.

"Dennis, your dad's a brick mason, and you worked for him when you were a kid. How about building us a hearth for the coal stove?"

I was more than reluctant. Watching a mason work is easy enough; duplicating his work is an entirely different matter. I'm not a risktaker, and tackling such a project would be more than a risk. It would be a disaster. And that's no way to remain on good terms with one's in-laws.

But my father-in-law was insistent. "Ah, you can do it." My wife expressed her high degree of confidence, too. Neither of them knew the first thing about what it takes to lay brick.

After my in-laws and wife had twisted my arm like a Texas tornado and threatened me with perpetual doom and gloom if I refused, I undertook the task with much fear, trepidation, foreboding, and diffidence.

The hearth Dad had described he wanted wasn't a rather straightforward rectangular feature; it was a curved, semi-circular affair with an intricate crisscross design for the interior bricks.

I took a long string, attached one end at the center of the front edge of the fireplace, stretched the line to the point where the front of the future hearth was to be, and drew a semi-circular chalk line on the carpet to mark its outer perimeter.

Then, taking a deep breath and praying silently for divine guidance of my trembling hands, I began cutting away at the carpet where the hearth was to go. My nervousness was compounded by the fact that my in-laws and wife stood watching my every move.

I pulled up the red-and-black carpet and the underlying pad, exposing bare concrete.

"There you go!" my father-in-law exclaimed. "You've got this!"

He returned to his drawing board. (He was an architect working from his basement office.) My mother-in-law returned to her cooking. I think it took me the rest of the day to lay the one row of bricks that made up the outer perimeter of the hearth. It took another full day--maybe two--to fill the inner hearth and finish it. I had done it despite my utter lack of self-confidence. But my in-laws were happy, and that made me happy.

Years later, the house where we currently live had a set of wobbly wooden steps leading from the garage into the house, and I decided to build something more steady, more solid, something bugs, lizards, and snakes couldn't crawl under and scare the living daylights out of me when I entered the garage at night.

I built the steps of brick. When I finished, I stepped back to examine the finished product.

"Well," I exclaimed to my wife, "they're done. They're not pretty, but they work for the purpose I built them." Then I added, "But if Daddy were here looking at them, I know what he'd say: 'Tear 'em out and do it over!"

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