My First Day As a 15 Year Old Man
Ducking my way through the latch gate I knew nothing of what was on the other side, nothing. Crossing the high step was my first step into work life and a radically different lifestyle than anything I had ever known or seen. It was a world of men and manliness. A world of former military men who had all known war and service. `some of it carried through to their work life. Collars and ties, black shiny boots. Yes sir, no sir.
The massive sliding door kept out the icy blasts and the latch gate gave ready access to the workshop without losing heat. Even so, it seemed colder inside than out and the steamy breath of ten men greeted me as the low sunlight filtered through the silhouetted frames of men’s legs, arms, heads and workbenches. I stomped the slush from my snow-sodden boots and looked up as someone said loudly, “Whoah! Look what the wind blew in!” The men leaned bemusedly on the benches as I broke into their chatting back and forth and they waited for the 8 o’clock start. I sensed my awkwardness flash like a beacon on my red face. I couldn’t soak everything in. I’d never been here before and I had never been so fully immersed into an adult world of work. Most of the shop was submersed in an archaic gloominess. Dusty cobwebs high in the rafters, wafted around by the warming air amidst dull and dark unlit lightbulbs. I was caught up in something revolutionary. I knew change was about to happen today. I was no longer a 15 year old boy but a 15 year old man.
There were no real pleasantries transitioning from boy to man. Not to start off with. It was when I’d stood awkwardly on the periphery for what seemed like an age that one man shifted his gangly body from a leaning slouch to full height. “I’m George.” he said as he stepped forward to welcome me. I stood silently, not knowing what I was supposed to do. Social graces were not part of my upbringing. He reached his hand forward and I remembered seeing my dad once shake another man’s hand so I did the same. “Whats, your name?” George asked.
George nudged my shoulder and took me to the wall clock with its brass lever and a pencil hanging from a thin string and tied to the clock. “Pull the lever and sign your name in the box.” he said. More awkwardness. I’d never signed my name that I could recall before. I liked George above all the rest of the men. He was the youngest. He had integrity. Little did I know then that he would become a key figure in my training and I would come to appreciate him and his input into my life for the decades to come. That first gesture opened the door to a decade of friendship. He became my mentoring support, guiding me through the complexities of woodworking, but also the complex issues of a growing teenager searching for answers. George had a kind face. His blue eyes and cleft chin matched his wide and ever grinning smile. I never saw him frustrated or angry. I learned this from him. George was clean shaven, always. There was no image to him, unlike today’s young men cloned from the same male actor, George was his own man. I like the individualism of the era I was in. It was an age where rock stars like the Beatles were emerging in my world. George knew exactly what I needed to grow into and he knew exactly the steps for me to take. I was well tucked under his wing from that day on.
My adventure began a more wholesome adventure when this day began. I could no more look into the future than anyone else could, but I felt the whole of creation making adjustments to receive me, as if it eagerly anticipated that I would become a carpenter and work with wood for the remaining days of my life all those years ago.
To say George took over from that day on would perhaps be true and not true. Just as my father taught me to work diligently and honestly, George taught me the basics of workmanship and becoming a working craftsman. His abilities in many realms became mine, even his ambitions in some measure. Whereas he left woodworking to become a woodworking teacher in schools, I went on to teach woodworking by starting my own schools, writing my own curriculum and then writing books too. I took the steps unavailable to George and started online teaching. I feel he would be proud if my work were he still alive. Who knows how many of the tens of thousands following me today will indeed stand on my shoulders as I did George’s.
Inspirational and encouraging as always. I find your stories of your apprenticing years delightfully relate-able and sincere. Thanks Paul
It made me think back to my first day at work in 1965. It was with the Central Electricity Generating Board at the local power station in Kingston upon Hull. A frightening day for a 16 year old fresh from school and O levels. I can’t remember any of those guys as I hated the job and eventually got an apprenticeship with a local tv company where I learnt the trade under some interesting characters.
I had a similar introduction to working life in the early 70’s (Marconi Instruments St Albans Herts). Though I had served a year in the apprentice training school first when I first entered the electricians workshop of the plant department of the company I got a very similar welcome from all of the “sparks”. My first mentor was named Ron who was a real character. It seemed to me that he couldn’t utter a single sentence without profanity but he was very patient with me and took me through techniques and practical nuances of so many aspects of electrical installation work. There were other “sparks” who I had to work with , some absolute pigs and some who were kindly but Ron was the first and years later I often asked myself whether Ron, if he was still around, would approve of the standard of my workmanship now.
In those days apprentiships were readily available with companies and businesses being subsidised by government to run apprentice schemes, all under the auspices of the EITB and City & Guilds. I now live and work in a different jurisdiction (Republic of Ireland) and don’t see any true apprentice schemes like I was lucky to have availed of. Outside of major cities like Dublin there is little if any true apprentiship training available. I suspect the U.K. is in a similar position.
Nice post, Paul. Beatiful words. George would be proud of you, I’m sure. There can’t be doubt about it.
This post has made me remember Sebastian, an old man who was the first woodworker I knew. He always let me and a friend of mine to watch him while he was working, and gave us the scraps of wood with both of us did our first “works” of woodworking. I’m always be thankful to him.
Thank you very much for sharkng this with us.
I meant “sharing”. Sorry.
It would be great to hear some more detailed stories from the early days of your training and work. Like, what happened on that first day after you punched the time clock? How were you taught? What skills came first? What mistakes did you make that you could learn from? Were there any funny incidents? Pranks in the shop?
Thanks for all the help you are to thousands of us!
It certainly sounds like you lucked out, many of us had less than an easy start and had to learn quickly the ways of adults or more so the ways of adult men … and even adult men in a work environment. I have lucked into meeting a couple of men older than I who did not treat me like their son or charge but more of an up and coming equal, for them I will always have respect! Even though George is long gone he has lived on through your work and in your heart, where all such people who changes our lives I believe, now live on and through passing these stories and your information we gain a further part of you. I am always grateful to hear more about how you came to have the outlook and ideas you have as a person and not just a woodworker – I enjoy that part of this as much if not more than learning all the wood and tool information I have gained since learning about you. Keep up the good work, I am certain George would indeed be proud of you and your work!
You ought to write a book about your early life. I really enjoy these stories and would buy it.
definitely! I’d love to read a biographical book about Paul written by Paul himself. What a read it would be!
Definitely. I’ll second that.
I’m really, really glad you have started writing about this, your early days and inspirations in the craft. I find it quite moving.
Thank you for a lovely post. Previous posts gave us snippets of information about your days as an apprentice such as your respect for your work mates and your slightly less enthusiastic opinion of the company owner. That first day is still important -not just for you but also for the rest of us who are learning from you. If George and his colleagues had been less friendly, less welcoming then, instead of inspiring, cultivating, developing your love of woodworking, they could easily have stifled your enthusiasm.
George and his workmates helped you develop your woodworking skills so you know how to make things out wood. It seems to me they also gave you many skills to help you create yourself. I am grateful to George and co for that – I suspect we all are.
As a young man from a banned country in the third world , i want to assure you that what you are doing is affecting far from your imagination maestro. Here in iran woodworking as it was before is almost forgotten and you are the only connection between me and real woodworking.
I hope one day i could show you how much you have made change in my life and hopefully lots of other young men and women around the world.
Best wishes for a person here in iran is to be healthy . So i wish you a health and peace.????
Paul, I believe I’ve asked you in the past if you’ve read Wendell Berry. Your description about creation welcoming you reminds me of a part in Berry’s remarkable novel called Jayber Crow. For some context, the narrator is recalling the how he saw his path in life when he was younger, the idea of “making something of himself”, his identity so to speak. As it turned out, he worked as a longtime barber in a small rural town, and became an important fixture to the community.
“Now I have had, most of the life I am going to have, and I can see what it has been. I can remember those early years when it seemed to me I was completely adrift, and times when, looking back at earlier times, it seemed I had been wandering in the dark woods of error. But now it looks to me as though I was following a path that was laid out for me, unbroken, and maybe even as straight as possible, from one end to the other, and I have this feeling, which never leaves me anymore, that I have been led.”
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