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Diary of a Drywaller: Chapter 4

The Apprentice? 1970–1974: I was just a kid. Barely 18. I didn’t have much, if any, discipline. As I’ve already admitted, a high school dropout. I didn’t do things the way they should be done, generally speaking. I had one eye on the draft lottery, and it was getting too close for comfort. Although the military would have been good for me, I had no interest. It wasn’t fashionable. You could definitely call me lazy and rebellious, indifferent to the common good. I was in for a rude awakening. Married, with a child on the way.


I remember looking at myself in the mirror. I saw a future father and felt the weight of that responsibility settling in. I wasn’t ready, but it was happening anyway. I remember precisely where I was and the specific mirror.  I stared straight into it and said to myself, “You are going to become someone’s father.”


The best cure for irresponsibility is responsibility itself. Life, at times, will give you such opportunities. It’s up to you what you do with them. My advice? Lay hold on them and take full advantage of such; the challenge they present is an impetus for growth and advancement as you mature.


In my situation, I had to support my young family. It was that simple. Nowadays, too many seek out some other means of support. They lapse into dependence instead of developing independence. Moving in with mom and dad or maybe never even leaving in the first place is all too common and sometimes completely counterproductive. This has become all too easy as parents often become enablers.


Nature itself teaches us otherwise. Many species force their young out into the world, helping only enough to give their offspring sufficient assistance to provide them the opportunity to survive and hopefully flourish.


Once the eaglet is approaching flying age, the down is removed from the nest, the remaining sticks are deliberately uncomfortable and soon they are nudged out of the nest and into flight. Though they can’t fly, they are saved from their awkward fall, but only until they are fully airborne.


A generation ago, it wasn’t an option or even a consideration to remain dependent on one’s parents. It was expected that you found a way to survive, and survive we did.


The only work experience I had at that stage in life was one summer of drywall, just some summer work I’d done in between my sophomore and junior years of high school. Finishing, or as we called it, “taping,” would ultimately become my trade, profession and a foundation for my business. In those early days, owning my own business was unimaginable.


As I look back, I realize exactly what was going on with that summer job. A foreman was sneaking me on site, paying me $1.50 an hour, telling me I had to completely first coat the nails in one house per hour. He would pay me $12 a day and turn the work in under his name and make substantial profit. I was being taken advantage of and had no idea. (Games like these have been going on forever and will continue to a greater or lesser extent.)


The opportunity arose for me to join the union apprenticeship program. It paid well, starting at five bucks an hour and then escalating to $11 incrementally as you became a journeyman four years later. It provided a provision in the present and a foundation for the future.


I imagined that the program was a well-organized systematic overview of the trade that would take me through the entire process, providing instruction from start to finish, ultimately leaving me with a full working knowledge of every aspect of the trade. However, it was anything but that. If I were to call it a pathetic disappointment, it wouldn’t be an understatement.


I honestly don’t remember anyone teaching me anything voluntarily. If I wanted to learn something, I would have to work for free on weekends to offset the journeyman’s time and make it worthwhile to teach me. I was laughed at and mocked for my feeble attempt to learn the art of finishing. Moreover, it was expected that you do the least desirable portion of whatever needed done. If it was raining, all of the journeyman on site would dump their tools near a hose bib, and I would wash them while they drank beer in a nearby garage.


Not long after enrolling, I was given a sanding pole and asked to sand the kitchens and baths in eight houses per day. Every day. When I complained of a legitimate dust allergy, I was mocked and told by the foreman, “We’re all allergic to dust. Get back to work.”


Back then, my only respirator was a wet T-shirt with the sleeves wrapped around the sides of my face and tied in a knot on the back of my head, the body draped beneath my eyes covering my nose and mouth, hanging clear down to my chest.


Juxtapose that with today’s silica concerns and OSHA regulations and by the way, the material back then was loaded with asbestos. We’ve come a long way baby!

Doug Bellamy is former president of Innovative Drywall Systems Inc. dba Alta Drywall, Escondido, Calif. Contact him at

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