Sometimes, Somebody’s Gotta Know Something

Passion, conviction, diligence, fortitude, funding, support, energy, and a grand vision if not an all-together clear one is what I have been encountering of late in our work. And these are great things to have and difficult to generate when and where they are not present naturally.

But there is something about knowing. 

When I was a young man, about 16, my dad was a carpenter and I often worked with him and the men who made a living with lumber and nails, re-bar and concrete, in the sun and the rain. Of those men that he “pounded nails” with for a living was a man named Truman. He wore dungarees or Carhart overalls regularly, was not ever too pleasant, and had hands like gnarly, sun-baked oven mitts. One day on a job site, Truman told me to go fetch all the 4 x 8 sheets of cedar siding where the lumber supply truck had dropped stacks of some 30-40 pieces each on the far side of the property in which we were building a home.

“Don’t make us wait.” he said. “We’re gonna be coming up and down these ladders nailing and moving fast. I want at least 3 sheets ready to go in advance at all times laid out ahead of us. Got it?”

Like most my tasks, the work was never complex, but was usually difficult. The sheets were heavy, but being young, I carried two at a time and despite the splinters that the coarse grain introduced into my hands and shoulders as I heaved them from one side of the property to the other, I was able to get a bit of a lead and keep ahead of Truman and his partner without having to run due to the amount of time it took them to complete all the nailing by hand, while precariously holding the sheets in place, while balancing on ladders pitched on uneven ground.

Over halfway through our first stretch of wall, with two sheets balanced on my shoulder, I came around the far corner of the house to find Truman down off his ladder and standing dead in my path. “Put ’em down.” he barked. I put them down.

“Is there a reason you’re not running?” I wiped my forehead off. “I’m out in front of you aren’t I?” I asked with just enough indifference to cause him to take a step a little closer to me and raise his voice a bit more. “I don’t care how far out in front of us you are, on this job site, you’ll run.”

He turned and started back for his ladder. Being 16. I unwittingly dared another observation. “I don’t see anyone else running on this job site.” At this point, Truman’s partner, who had remained up on his ladder this whole time waiting for our conversation to end, simply dropped his head down in a disparaging manner to where I could no longer see his eyes from under the brim of his dirty, sweat-stained hat. He came down off his ladder slowly shaking his head back and forth knowing that my persistence had just afforded him a rare break from keeping pace with Truman.

What I said was accurate, yet I fully knew I was in the wrong from the look on Truman’s face. Truman, however, didn’t move menacingly back in my direction, nor did his voice escalate when he said, “Hey man. You’re right, we don’t run. That’s because we know stuff. But you don’t. For instance, I know you’ve been grabbing them sheets from the far side of the stack and then walking across them on your way back over here.”

I had been, but not within eyesight of him. And while I momentarily wondered how he knew I had, it didn’t stop me from saying, “What does that matter? They’re still getting here aren’t they?”

Truman slowly looked up at the wall and said, “Ya, doesn’t matter to me either dude.”  as he pointed up towards about 90 feet of wall that had already been nailed and secured , “‘But it should matter to you ’cause you’ll be the one up on these ladders long after we’re done today, sanding off all of your boot prints across each of these boards before they get stained tomorrow morning.” As I shaded my eyes and focused on the wall, I saw dusty, size 9, Vibram sole prints  tracked back and forth across every sheet of that cedar at both levels.

“Like I said man,” Truman concluded, “on this job site, for what you don’t know you run. And sometimes, even that ain’t gonna help much.”

Long after they left that day, with the sun going down, I stood precariously on a ladder, pitched on uneven ground and sanded away my boot prints and thought about the line, “For what you don’t know, you run. And sometimes, even that ain’t gonna help much.”

Almost 30 years later, I still recall that line. On any project, its wonderful to have people who have energy and passion, and there are plenty of motivated, excited people trying to affect education; however a little knowing goes a long way. It’s critical to have people with real knowledge and experience. And while I do appreciate people willing to run, in place of what they don’t know, it’s like Truman said, “Sometimes, even that ain’t gonna help much.”