George and Maturing Men

George leaned over the bench to get my attention, jerking his head to one side and slightly back to make sure I understood. “It’s brew time!” he said. The clocking in clock was wrong and I was behind time. In one minute there would be a cry from the men and I would be given a dog’s life for a week. A late brew was the unforgivable no-no. Thankfully the mugs were all washed and ready on the tray from yesterday. The water was always on the boil and ~I could move fast. I ran to the brew shed and filled all the mugs with hot water. I was three minutes late and so the tirade began. It wasn’t the older craftsmen making the noise but the juniors and the apprentices higher up the line than me. Such is the way of the trade. I took it on the chin and George defended me. It was my first time for being late with the tea. No one drank coffee back then. Not workmen anyway.

I had been given 50 oak doors to assemble, glue and clamp. We had a large scissor press clamp that operated on a treadle mechanism. It was made of cast iron with a platten and adjustable jaws that held the door stiles and clamped anything parallel up to eight feet long. Winding a mechanism adjusted the jaws  for different widths. To clamp was a question of pressing the treadle and to release the mechanism you simply lifted the spring-loaded treadle and it popped up, releasing the jaws on the frame being clamped. The work seemed to be going well and doors were stacked up on the pallet. For a young apprentice as skinny as a lath I found the weight of the doors hard work. Help wasn’t very forthcoming and I muscled and muddled through as best I could. Looking back now `i am glad for the lone work I did. I grew quickly in both strength and stature but then too in perseverance under duress. One of my apprentices called me just after Christmas to tell me of his progress to date. He said one of the things that was missing from his younger life and something he found important to him now was the camaraderie of working with mature men as he matured to adulthood. He realised that he had not had such a thing because he continued his schooling with other students. Since then he had worked in new environments where it was other men who challenged his way of working. It was more that going to university meant there was no manual working environment with mature adults governing the output of younger men. I reflected on the contrast between him and me. Made me thankful for manhood and men working together. Throughout my life I have experienced a certain type of drive that propels a project through to completion. A timber-framed structure for a home or an office, working with men as a group on a piece of furniture, a house build and so on. There is something about that that cannot be replicated in any other sphere and so I was able to say that this was truly magical. It wasn’t so much children causing other children to mature, students to students and such. It was men fulfilling their obligation to bring teen-aged workers to maturity. By the time I was 18 I was a mature man taking on the responsibilities to make 50 doors for customers. There were things about my apprenticing that were inappropriate but then there were things like men training men that has somehow become less and less. Academics mostly never saw it, knew it, truly understood it from the insider point of view. Mostly it was about developing character.


  1. I think of my training as just an introduction to worlds before me, while I think working with others has provided more opportunities for growth. Thanks again for the opportunity to reflect on this, Paul.


    1. At the risk of being accused of being shallow and missing the point of the article, I must confess that my idea of filling the mugs at “brew time” at the end of a long, satisfying day in the workshop involves a pint of a proper British ale, standing around with my friends. And then maybe another round.

  2. What you mentioned about university students not having experienced the benefits of ‘men training men’ rang a bell with me. Very true indeed, now I think about it; I had never thought about it like that before I read your post.

    During my university days (business economics) I also started flying gliders and quickly found out I enjoyed tinkering (maintaining/repairing them) even more. Soon started taking up the formal course to become a glider technician, along with the required practical apprenticeship. My mentor, who had been working for a major (and now defunct) Dutch aircraft manufacturer for his entire life (he was in his early 60s when he started apprenticing me) was very demanding. (incidentally, I bumped into him yesterday, after not having seen him for 18 years). He was very demanding and required top-notch work, and rightly so. Requiring to think ahead, plan ahead, organize the task, execute it above and beyond your capabilities, acknowledge your errors, correct them, and most importantly, learn from them and not make them again …and keep an orderly administration of all the work done. He would kindly but mercilessly show you where you did something wrong, and why. Very demanding and strict, but also open to listening your arguments for doing something like the way you did it. I’ve never found him petty or mean.

    He had a major impact on the care and diligence with which I’ve started to work since, in non-aviation related things as well. Also, it was during that apprenticeship that I realized my true calling was in engineering, not economics, so after graduation and initial job I pursued an engineering degree in evening school.

    Reading your story today it suddenly clicked with me perhaps why I enjoyed that mentor/pupil-relationship so much: because it was something missing in my university life. I’d never thought about it like this but that was probably the case; being ‘drawn’ to something that was, at the time, sorely lacking in my life.

    Mind you, my ‘apprenticeship’ wasn’t nearly as intensive as yours (only on some weekend-days and some evenings during the week), but it was certainly something that deeply shaped how I looked at doing a thing, and expected of myself above-average execution of the tasks involved. I’d go so far as calling it to be ‘life-changing’, pretentious though it may sound.

    1. I don’t think it too be pretentious at all. It was a major impact on your life, evidently. Anything that teaches respect, and that means literally to look twice, is of great value because this respect means we look and receive respectfully. Without respect we become purely arrogant with the knowledge we receive. We see it in certain professions where the qualification received seems to qualify the recipient to place both him and her above all others. Politicians, are abysmally short in respectfully working with the important issues surrounding our lives but it is a reflection of the democratic vote that put them in offices of power. Most of them never worked in the real world as is the case with many areas we somehow dub to be professionals. Oh, well!

  3. Thanks Paul for sharing. I have a hunch that men teaching younger men and teenagers worked well for millennia for many things and helped civilization evolve to where it is now.

  4. In relation to what Joe said above, I think in many spheres of work today, the opposite is true as the younger folks overpower the older folks and they therefore no longer benefit from the maturing aspect that this type of relationship can provide.

  5. One of the things in my college experience that I’m most grateful for was discovering a service fraternity (Alpha Phi Omega) which gave me a chance every week to work with a focus on my hands rather than my mind. We may not have had old-timers to learn from — it was more a matter of apprentices teaching apprentices — but there was a semi-organized encouragement to learn and grow the”chapter skills”, which ranged from rough construction) painting/demolition (we did a lot of work for scout camps and community centers) to typesetting and letterpress operation (at the time we were making most of the event tickets and membership cards on campus, plus an ongoing stream of business cards, wedding invitations, and the like). Plus fundraisers and … well, basically whatever the community needed that we could assist with. A surprisingly large number of those skills have turned out to be useful life skills, not least the belief that I *can* do, or learn to do, almost anything at least we’ll enough to recognize and appreciate an expert, and sometimes well enough to get by without one.

    So I have some perspective from which to appreciate Paul’s experience with practical, physical learning… and I wish more students had the opportunity for that alongside the academics.

    (I’m also a bit frustrated about having lost “shop class” from the elementary schools, for similar reasons … And with the fact that vocational schools don’t get the respect they deserve.)

    I will put in one very slight quibble, though it’s probably unnecessary since I’m sure Paul agrees:

    Paul said “men”, and that was indeed his experience at the time… but these days I think a better phrasing of what he’s trying to say would be “professionals”. Even 40 years ago, when I was in APO, women were co-equal participants in our chapter, were leading many of the community service organizations we worked with, and were becoming a significant expert presence in many professions. These days, the equivalent of Paul’s apprenticeship would be very likely to involve working with and learning from both women and men. And that’s a good thing.

    1. Joe, in response to your “quibble”…you may have seen in my remarks that I often have that a gut response to that…but I check myself (usually), as I know that Paul is referring to his own past. Hell, I could say the same for my own past, with 35 years in the trades I have almost no experience of working with women. That is changing, and I think we’re in agreement that that is, indeed, a good thing.

    2. I am sorry, Joe, but make no apology for using the correct term ‘men’ in my reference. Realise that in some instances, as in mine, it would be incorrect for me to use your “better phrasing” and say “professionals” as you suggest. Even today I might still use that term if it was indeed only men I was referring to. I am always careful and conscientious about the words I choose because I do not want to harm or hurt anyone nor do I want to exclude anyone based on anything. It would be ridiculous for me to say that the men I worked with were the “professionals” I worked with. Not only would it be highly inappropriate, it would be quite misrepresentative and highly objectionable. Anyway, I strongly dislike even the term professionals…healthcare professionals, sales, professionals, sales professionals, legal professionals. Doesn’t it all smack of indoctrination? I doubt I will ever conform to politically correcting value systems as I would lose my individualism, my identity and my character. Why, your telling me what I should say and how I should say it would not be me at all but you through me. I would sound like every supermarket team leader in the end. There was nothing at all offensive or discriminatory in my choice of words.
      Oh, and in my experience shop class in schools would be a very bad idea today! Most of the teachers teaching woodworking now only ever went to school, college and university. They might have an interest but wouldn’t have the experience the men in my day had about craftsmanship.

      1. No problem. I understand that you’re just being accurate, but I felt it needed mentioning. Apologies if it didn’t.

    3. I use to work a few jobs that were manual labor. The last 20 years I have work in what would be considered a professional job. I know what Paul is saying about men and how they test and train you. I see very little of it in the professional realm.

      There are things that only men can teach boys or other men. Call me old fashion or whatever. But there is something about working with men that you will never get from working with women (I am sure women feel the same way).

      Being a man use to mean something, now it is almost a swear word.

      1. I forgot to mention. I really mis working with men. There is a camaraderie there that is grounding and real.

  6. Taking the time to reflect on my own apprentice years, I look back fondly on coming of age from 16-20+ with real men working and guiding me to produce work promtly and with accuracy. I miss the attention to detail or sense of ownership which “youngsters” of today now have.
    I am by no means long in the tooth, but see the importance of men teaching boys the right way to live and work. Shame it might be a dying art.

  7. Great point that is now lost in this world where too many young people learn too little of practical value and have little real inter-action with the older generation. The older generation in turn is alienated from the young and a cohesiveness that might develop never does.

  8. I started my RAF aircraft engineering apprenticeship 60 years ago next year aged 15. I really wanted to fly but fixing aircraft was the next best thing. The skills I learned all those years ago continue to be used today in my woodworking and DIY. It was not only hand skills but the need for maths, organisation, management, persistence and all those other things which go to make a good engineer. On reflection, woodworkers do not call themselves engineers but they truly are.

    Paul mentioned the dreaded modern word ‘inappropriate’ in his blog. This conjured up visions of bullying and initiation ceremonies. I was a skinny kid with wire framed glasses (long before Lennon made them cool). I was thus a perfect target for low level bullying but having been a scout and seen off bigger boys I always stood up for myself.

  9. As a university student I also had the benefit of working with mature men as you mentioned. I didn’t had a scholarship and my parents could not afford my schooling so, I paid my way through college by working in a butcher shop. I fondly recall those old WWII Veterans I worked with. Their stories and life lessons made a lasting impression on me. I recall George teaching me to cut pork chops on a band saw. He had 2 nub fingers that he lost on a band saw. Every day before I started he would poke me in the chest with those hard nubs and tell me to be careful. That was over 35 years ago.
    Thank you Ray, Gwen, Smitty and George!

  10. Mr. Sellers, you should write a book about your apprenticeship and George. I love your outlook on life in a time of such commercialism and instant gratification.

    We should always remember: Less is more and the journey is not forgotten.

    1. I also would also very much like to see a book about your apprenticeship. Your blog has been a great read but a book would really special.

      Just my 2 cents 🙂

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