I’ve been thinking recently about some of the jobs I’ve had.

When I was 15, at the start of the summer, I wanted a new job. I’d been bagging groceries at Harding’s Friendly Market during the school year, and wanted to make more money (I’d gotten a raise from the $5.15 minimum wage to $5.45/hour).

I scanned the classified section of the Kalamazoo Gazette, and found an ad for help on a housing construction crew. I called the number, which I’d later discover was the boss’s Nextel cell phone in a thick protective case that he kept on speaker phone hanging on his hip while he yelled into it, and could barely hear well enough to make out his few questions. He told me to come meet him onsite tomorrow in a new housing development.

I didn’t have my license yet, so my mom had to drive me there. I walked up and he seemed a little baffled at how young I was. He seemed to think it weird I’d want this job, and he tried to make it sound as crappy as possible. I told him I was really excited for it, but that I’d be heading to Mexico for most of the summer, and wanted it when I got back. Again, he seem surprised I’d be trying to secure a job for the end of the summer at the beginning. He seemed skeptical, but he said, “Call me when you get back. If you really want it, we’ve got a spot for you.”

I did.

The job was amazing. It was hard work and it sucked at times – framing houses in the middle of Michigan winter, climbing the icy OSB with questionable toe-board on a third story roof at an 8/12 pitch while carrying a nail gun with the air hose wrapped around your waste for safety – but it was pretty awesome too.

I began by mostly cleaning up stuff, handing the crew tools, and getting the lumber to the right place. I had some experience with construction, as my brother and I had spent a previous summer helping my grandfather and uncles build a house from scratch. But I had a lot to learn. Next, I was upgraded to making cuts for everyone. Guys would scream down over the blaring classic rock on the radio and through the Skoal or Marlboro in their mouths, “6 foot 45 angle 45 bevel” and I’d try to understand and quickly make the right cut on the right board and hand it up. At first I screwed up a lot. Wasting lumber is frowned upon, so for the more complicated cuts (places around the roof would often have strange connecting beams with different angels and bevels on each side), they’d toss down a scrap of wood with a badly etched drawing of what they needed.

Then I got to do the sheeting. Cutting and nailing giant pieces of 4×8 foot OSB board onto the frame of the house was super fun. The roof not so much. I’d stack two of them on one shoulder and carry up the 20 foot ladder. I think if I tried that today I’d probably die.

I’ll never forget in my third week when the crew had to all head out early, but the boss left me behind to finish sheeting and clean up the tools (which all had to be put away in a very particular way). He trusted me with a lot, and I was thrilled.

I made $8/hour to start, and got a raise to $9.50 a few months in.

The guys were crazy. They told stories over lunch – I’d pack peanut butter sandwiches and tortilla chips and water pretty much every day – many of them probably untrue. They were incredibly crass. They yelled everything. “Break time” (a 15 minute stop mid-morning) sounded more like, “Baaaayeeee Tiyeeeeee” screamed out in a sing-songy way. We started early, usually 6am when it was still dark, but also finished early. Usually 4pm. I worked three weekdays (went to community college the other two, something they all were impressed by and encouraged me in) and some Saturdays if there was work.

One time one of the guys went into the portapotty and another jumped on the lift truck and slowly drove it over and pushed the forks against the door until the portapotty was leaning on a precarious angle, the door pinned shut, and the other guy screaming obscenities inside. They left him for ten minutes or so.

Another time, one of the guys who was a big deer hunter went off for his daily retreat to the woods behind the house we were working on where he had a deer lick of some sort. He took longer than normal and I swore we heard some strange noises. Then he walked out, the front of his pants and shirt streaked in dirt top to bottom, panting like a madman (maybe that was all the Mountain Dew and Skoal), and said, “I got the fucker” his eyes crazy. We were confused. He said, “I saw him there and walked up behind him as quiet as I fuckin’ could and jumped on that fuckin’ deer’s fuckin’ back. He kick me off but I held his legs. Fucker dragged me fuckin’ ten feet before he got away.” He opened his palm to reveal a large hunk of fur. I’m pretty sure he was telling the truth. (I removed several “fucks” to keep it more concise).

We’d arrive at a new house when the basement had just been poured, with a blueprint and a bunch of lumber. The boss was some kind of savant at reading blueprints, and often knew just from glancing if the lumber order was off. One time the entire basement was poured an inch too narrow, so to stick with the prints we built the house hanging over the foundation half an inch on each side.

We’d work there every day and if we were in rhythm, we’d be done in two weeks and an entire house would be standing there all framed and sheeted. To this day, I’ve never found a kind of work with so much visual feedback and tangible progress. You literally saw walls and rooms and stories go up in a day sometimes. It felt awesome.

When I called the boss to tell him I was taking a new job (installing telephone and internet cables at businesses across the state with my brother…too many stories there for today) the crusty old probably-on-speed contractor cried on the phone and told me what a great worker I was. I was shocked. They mostly razzed me, though I knew they appreciated my hard work. It felt good.

I loved that job.