My First Mistake

My first mistake was thinking that I was smart.

Now I don’t suggest that I should have adopted the method that my father used on me. When I was a young lad and did something dumb, he would yell at me that I would lose my head if wasn’t attached. He was a confidence builder that man.

I simply thought that on this fateful day that I had it all figured out. That I could hear any train coming at me and I was ready.

I had borrowed two scaffolds from my sheet rocker, Garrett. Now Garrett was a generous guy. He was also what I would call a big drink of water, 6′ 4″ or 6′ 5″. Yet he was not imposing. He just took up a lot of the available air with his ready smile and attitude. Oh sure, he could squash me like a cherry tomato but I thought he was a good guy who had standards for his work and that meant something to me. And for a sheet rocker he was positively a thoughtful man. We would have these conversations about the old days because of what song was playing on the radio which reminded him of when he used to raise hell up in the San Juans. He had given up that drinking life.

One day Garrett talked to me about his wife who was the brains of his outfit now. Turns out she had been a code cracker in the Navy. Since he was Navy too, once upon a time down in San Diego, and since he needed to clean up his act, she was the perfect woman for him. They married and had been up in the Northwest countryside for 20 some odd years together.

Damn thing was, she was a few years older than him and starting to show signs of forgetfulness. Garrett started telling me about how she had scared him one night talking strange and nonsensical stuff and it made him worried and nervous. Like he could hear the freight train coming but there wasn’t anything he could do to stop it. Now there is nothing that can take a man’s knees out faster than watching someone that he loves get done in by illness with not a cure or a prayer in sight to help. And listening to that train in the distance is no useful activity for a man. Better to keep your head down or up in his case in your work and just stay busy.

Conversations like this between guys are shared and forgotten mostly. They don’t mean a damn thing the next day to a guy and they mean everything in the moment. Guys don’t share their feelings unless they feel comfortable and trust another guy. Usually the most trust you get out of another guy is the understanding that the next time you see this fella he’s going to insult you the best way he knows how.

He might, for instance, comment on how poorly you have always played poker or backed the wrong Philadelphia football team. Or he might walk up to you and say: Gee you walking funny these days? Or did your bladder diapers ride up on you just now? That kind of insult means he cares.

Anyways, I held this information about his wife’s diminishing capacity with honor and hope that it was just an isolated event. That train is still off there in the distance for us all, but maybe he would have some more good years with her. I hoped with my heart for that. Best I could do for a prayer right then as I am reformed catholic. Excuse the hell out of me.

Now to get back to the point of this story I want to remind you that even when you think you’re smart and you think have it all figured out, you may have to re-calibrate this stance of yours in light of the evidence that will be presented to you. This evidence may indicate that you may have just done something remarkably stupid. So back to my scaffolding story and you’ll see what I mean.

I knew I could load these two scaffolds up all by myself. But they didn’t both quite fit into the back of the bed of my pick-up truck standing up. Plus it was a curvy road to drive and they were a bit top-heavy. I disassembled the parts and laid them all out on the ground. Now all I had to do was load them up and haul them off. Easy enough. These were not imposing objects once taken apart.

I got one big panel in and then another sliding them in over the tailgate. Both stuck out over the back of it. That was fine. The smaller scaffold almost fit in lengthwise but not quite.right in that in-between kind of spot.

It was just a little cock-eyed so I gave it a final shove and it still wouldn’t go down into the bed. So I walked around the side of the truck and I had my right hand behind this panel near the front of the truck bed and my left was pulling it closer to straight as the panel rested on the back of the tailgate. All of a sudden it found its entry point and the whole panel slipped down a few inches pinning the finger next to my right pinky tight to the truck bed wall.

It hurt. That’s the first thing I noticed. The panel had slipped down just a bit but it had me locked down like a 73″ long steel wedge and I could not move my hand. It hurt. That’s the second thing I noticed. My finger was lodged in place right near where the digit met the palm of my hand and when I pulled at it, I thought I might tear or break it off. And the panel would not move and I could not lift it because it was wedged in by its fall and I could not crawl into the truck bed without moving or ripping off my finger and holy hell, I realized that I was alone and pinned against my truck and might suffer some serious finger damage because I had thought I was smart and doing everything right when something slipped on me. I never saw this train coming.

My finger took up most of my concentration now. It hurt. This was what I noticed. This situation was a reminder no doubt sent by the scaffolding gods that I had made a tactical error. I had put my hand in the wrong spot and I had gotten it pinned. How did this even happen?

Didn’t matter. Now what could I do? I mean there was no one to call. My phone rarely worked out where I was plus I would have a hell of a time reaching it with my left arm trying to reach into my right hand vest pocket and oh yeah my right finger was really starting to pain me.

Remember that movie scene in Sometimes a Great Notion where the brother has his leg trapped by the log that rolled onto him and the tidewater is rising around them and the brothers realize that there is nothing to be done because that log won’t move? I did not want to think about that scene in the movie Sometimes a Great Notion.

I tried to focus instead on my options because the pain in my finger kept reminding me about the importance of my immediate situation. I tugged at my finger again. No luck. I pulled it, I pushed it. No luck. I tried going up with it and then down with it. I tried moving the panel again. No luck. That panel was stuck in there and too heavy to lift up with my left arm alone from where I was at the front of the bed. I had no leverage on it. My leg couldn’t kick it because I couldn’t get it over the truck side wall. The dang panel wasn’t heavy. I was just stuck with it and with my hand in the wrong spot.

I think it’s maybe the glue-ups I’ve done that saved my finger. All those times when the clock was ticking, like it certainly was ticking on me now, and I had to come up with a solution or lose my piece in the simple assembly of it. No time for recriminations. No time for blame. No time for self-pity.

The only thing I could figure out to try was to make myself smaller and see if that worked. I mean my finger was also part of this whole wedge package so if I could make it smaller somehow, don’t ask me how, maybe it would move. I was willing to try anything even trying to go Zen on myself in the middle of a pick-up bed crisis. I pulled on the panel back a little with my left hand and then I told myself to relax my right hand and that finger. Relax. That’s what I said to myself: Relax, so the muscle or pad or whatever the hell it is that’s inside your finger there wasn’t so large and bulging out so much so it would shrink enough so I could move the panel just a smidgen and remove my finger.

And by golly it worked. The panel slid to the side just a bit and out popped my very red and pained finger and I went to put some ice on it. Then I thought about how such a simple job like this could have turned into such a disaster for me. Man, here I thought I was being smart, taking everything apart, and look how it turned out. How does this happen, I asked myself out loud. Now the self-pity part kicked in. Don’t you attach your head in the morning? Recrimination time. And et cetera.

Until I thought about the fact that I had just saved my finger and learned another valuable lesson. Just cuz I’ve dodged a bullet every now and then does not mean that life or the great wedge or simple physics might not bite again if I’m not thinking.

Accidents are a silent freight train but they still can hit you hard. Circumstances can change on us in a hurry. Good spots can become bad ones and seemingly right decisions can turn into very bad ones. You cannot complain about this series of events. There is no time to moan about how hard you got it. You have to figure a way out before you lose something precious. Don’t presume that you’re smart. You are probably not entirely right. You are certainly not entirely wrong. But think before you act. My daddy was certainly right about this one thing: use your head.



How many times have I walked to the other side of the shop with a goal in mind and I get there and I see something else and I get distracted and I turn around and I walk back to my bench and I try to remember what I was doing there at the bench and I recall then that I had completely forgot about my mission and my goal of my walk across the shop. Sigh.

I can’t say it was that I heard the meadowlark singing and I got distracted by its sweet song. Nope, it was my brain. Something about focus that is lacking in it these days.

And perhaps you are not facing this. I envy you. But it is an issue for me. Focus and distraction in this age of Covid and catastrophe and political upheaval. How do we deal with this lack, this dearth of focus?

Let me tell you a story about someone who did not fail in his resolve.

It was some time back when my shop was located in that old furniture factory near the railroad tracks. I held classes there for the Studio when I first opened it up. We were in class that day with a full group of folks building Craftsman style tables. It was a nice project for which we had to make mortising templates for cutting joints with a plunge router. My method was to make up a mortising template attached to a fence. You ran that fence against the fence of the router table and made a slot in your template of the right size and length. Your router’s round template guide ran in that slot, et voila! Mortise. It really took more time to make the template than to make the cuts later on.

Anyway, I had gotten hold of some extra dense 1/4″ Masonite hardboard, and we were using that to make our templates. I had told the students to go slowly when making the mortise cut for the slot. Don’t rush, do a good job, take your time feeding right to left on the router table. Work into the rotation of the bit and it would push you in tight to the router table fence. Focus on the job at hand. All was good.

One of the last students to make his template was doing everything that I had asked of him. I had turned my back to him to help out someone else. The student at the router table took his time with the cut and moved the work slowly into the bit. But the Masonite was so hard and the bit now so dull after so many cuts in this hardboard that it didn’t cut so much as it burned its way through the Masonite. And the resulting dust from the cut was sitting on top of the router table smoldering and glowing red and trying to catch itself on fire.

This one motivated student did not stop his cut however. No siree. He still carefully routed his template slot, aware as he was of the glowing Masonite dust. He could see it there smoldering in front of him, but he did not stop. No. He knew about the fire but he was not a quitter. He stayed focused. He routed the slot and instead of stopping he blew on the sawdust trying to extinguish the fire with his intrepid breath. Two jobs at once he was trying to perform. His tenacity, his focus, his single-minded determination to get the job done was masterful in its own way. I have to give him credit for this.

But when I looked to see how he was doing and noticed the situation, I marched right over to this student, who again was doing everything that I had asked of him, and I gave him the throat slash sign anyway to kill the router motor and stop his cutting. He was still routing and blowing on the red embers, but he saw me and did stop the cut. I patted out the combustibles on top of the router table and I said to him and then to everyone else in class, “You know . . . in the wood shop . . . when there’s a fire on top of the router table,” and I paused, “you know the first thing you should do is to put out the fire. Stop your work and put out the fire. Then you can continue your cut.”

It was a small piece of advice. One that I hadn’t mentioned because I didn’t think it needed mentioning. Yet it had turned out to be words of wisdom that was worth passing on now to all my students. We carefully cleaned the bit. No harm had been done. We continued on with our cutting. And we all learned a valuable lesson that day.

That was true focus. And I try in my own way these days to remind myself on my next trip across the shop to set down the tool I had in hand so I don’t set it down across the shop where I don’t need it and I remind myself to get the task done that I have set out to do. Whatever it may have been. Get that job done. But if a fire starts because of this focus, put the fire out first and then complete my task.

You are welcome for this valuable advice.


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