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The Percussion of Hammers, The Memory of Summer

WHEN I was a boy, while waiting in line to enter Lincoln Tunnel, my father would say, "See this tunnel? I helped build it. The steel rods... .""Where, Dad?" "Well, you can't see them now. They're in the concrete. They're used to reinforce the wall. But I used to bend those steel rods. The foreman said I was one of the best steel-rod benders he had. It took two men to bend one rod. I used to do it alone." "How come you still don't do that?" "Because when the job was done, they laid off most of the men. But you could tell them," he said, rolling down the window to pay the toll, "your father helped build this tunnel." I never had the audacity to ask who "them" was, but he told the tunnel story with minor variations every time we went through. When roses and honeysuckle perfume the air and my teacher's manuals are all shelved away until September, the anxiety of looking for a summer job blossoms in my mind. Those summers when work was scarce and money scarcer, I took whatever I could to get through. Late one June during the year of a gas crisis, with few jobs to be had, I picked up work - thanks to my older brother. An insurance salesman who had connections with builders, he did not want to hear my mother ask one more time, "With all your influence and the people you know, you can't get your brother a job?" She had a way of bringing this up whenever he had company. Thus I entered the world of the carpenter's helper, helping to build houses at the shore. The work was hard, the pay was good. When I started I did not even know how to drive in a nail properly. The carpenter's son took me aside and showed me, with three swift strokes, how to drive a ten-penny nail into a two-by-four. With some practice I was able to swing a hammer well enough to help frame houses. That summer I picked up a new vocabulary (lintel, stud, joist), a tan, more muscles, and a raise. Here was a job that was close to nature even as we were pushing it aside with houses that swept farther and farther into the woods, meadows, and wetlands. Somewhere down the road, other developers were doing the same. What would happen when the houses met like railroads connecting east to west, north to south? Where would the deer, foxes, turtles, and possums go? After lunch on those drowsy summer afternoons, the crew would sprawl on a half-finished porch in the shade of a sassafras tree, make idle conversation about the Mets, watch bumblebees working day lilies, and half-listen to cicadas sizzling in the elms. Eventually one of the crew would pack away the remnants of his lunch, stand up, brush off his pants and say, "Well, it's that time again.' Then one lone hammer would tap, tap, tap, joined by another, until the houses resounded with the percussion of hammers. With everyone into the swing of things, I would look back to where we ate lunch. The bumblebees would be gone, the cicadas silent. Helping to build those houses, I also picked up a feeling - my father's feeling of so many years ago. Every once in a while I slow down to pass the houses I worked on that summer. I will say to my sons, "See those houses. I drove in the nails to help build them. I left a lot of my sweat and some of my blood there." The boys will look at each other with puzzlement, and my wife will say, "You told us that before. Can't you speed it up a little? The people watering their lawns are beginning to stare at us." As more buildings take the New Jersey shore, I often think of those houses that have long since been sold. Houses which have become homes where children grow up and leave, only to remember. Houses in which adults grow wiser with age and where pets live out their lives. Houses whose exteriors change with passing fashions of color or design. And I feel a strange pride to know there is a part of me - my labor, my time, a youthful summer - forever drilled into the framework of those houses. And you can't eve n see the nails.

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