Union Apprenticeship, 1970–1974. Let me tell you a few more tales of woe from my past as an apprentice. I leave you these bits and pieces of history in order to document them and share some life lessons from my perspective in the hopes that you find them of interest, and lest I leave them behind all together and no one ever hears or knows what happened next. Though I have to believe my particular story is unique in its own way, I’m equally sure it is similar to many who have aspired to become tradesmen and share in our craft, both then and now.
I remember one day in particular about eight months into my first year as an apprentice. I was asked to wipe tape behind a giant of a man who had a reputation for beating his wife. He had been repeatedly arrested, and each time it took three policemen to subdue him and haul him off to jail. One might wonder how I would know these facts in such intimate detail, but it was common knowledge on the job among tradesman.
If you worked with him, you did so on tiptoes, fearing to incur his wrath. I struggled to keep up. A sense of relief came over me as he was forced to stop each time he ran out of mud. He would bend over, pumping up the bazooka (automatic taper) and the crack of his butt would show as his pants slipped down lower and lower. He grunted and snorted like a rodeo bull in the chute as he eyed me, guzzling his beer and snapping it down on the makeshift counter as if to say, “Get yourself ready” and “You’d better keep up.”
He would shake his head in pity at my feeble attempt to do my job and keep pace with him, saying “Now, Doug, if you’re gonna do it, do it right.” Those words echo in my mind. I remember similar words coming from my dad’s lips. He too stressed the importance of doing my best. My dad was a clean-freak, and he said similar things but with different words. Dad would look me squarely in the eyes and ask me a painful question: “You call that clean?” I would intuitively know the answer and continue to clean.
One might think that I carry some resentment forward from these situations, but I don’t. No, not at all. Instead, there is a sense of appreciation for the contribution these experiences made to the man I am today. Yes, I am scarred to some extent, but nonetheless grateful to everyone who hurt me. Grateful for everything, no matter what their intentions were at the time. However uncomfortable it was, all of it made a lasting, positive impression that will become more obvious as you read on.
Sometime thereafter, in perhaps six months or so, I was assigned to another division. It must have been some kind of experiment, but they were taping and spraying texture on the outsides of houses. We used exterior board, taping it with mesh tape, applying it with mud that was like bubblegum. You would work until your fingers were knotted up with strands of mesh tape that unraveled more and more the longer you continued. Evenings were spent sitting in the bathtub for hours, rolling and peeling it off of my forearms and wherever else it happened to stick. Nasty! I so wanted to stop but had no options. I needed the money to support my young family. It was a matter of survival.
Before too long and not soon enough, I was transferred back into sanding. I don’t know which was worse. By now, I was about two years into a four-year apprenticeship. I still knew very little about the trade since most of my time I was spent on grunt work that none of the journeymen wanted to do.
Things were about to abruptly change directions, but I had no idea of what would happen. I stood in the kitchen of an unfinished house. I was completely filled with frustration. Every fiber of my being screamed silently, “If this is taping, I want nothing to do with it!” I peered out the window at the construction site and then without warning or even intending to, I threw my sanding pole like a spear out that same window and into the hot afternoon. I quit, I thought to myself, my entire being shuddered and for that brief moment, I didn’t even consider the consequences. In an instant, it was the day I quit, the month I’ll never forget, and when the lie came true.
Doug Bellamy is former president of Innovative Drywall Systems Inc. dba Alta Drywall, Escondido, Calif. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.