George Reads the Signs

I didn’t have the stamina to keep up. Allan was pushing me to load faster and unload at the same time. The stacks became more uneven and the stickers fewer in between which meant there was insufficient resistance to toppling. The pallet was not like the throwaway versions used today, they were substantive and well made with steel runners running the length and up the ends to prevent damage and splitting. 30″ wide and 40″ long we often stacked them chest high but with short components like rails and stiles they must be stickered every half a dozen high, otherwise Jenga wasn’t in it. Allan was not really mean spirited but when he had an apprentice he wanted to force the issues surrounding making a man out of boys. Wielding the power of oversight he was pushing me harder and harder and every time I gained the victory over one element he added in another ingredient to trip me up. The speed of feeding wood to him and stacking on the other side of the tenoner became ever faster which can be the way of machines. It’s this side of machine work that I hate the most. The sense that you start out in the driving seat and then end up being driven by the machine. I have yet to see a machine woodworker thrive in the patience we hand tool woodworkers do. Hannah pegged it for me. She said hand tools equips you to work within your natural human speed. These are the rhythms I speak about in some of my blogs. Allan was trying to destroy my human ability and humiliate by showing up my inability in front of others. I know I said he wasn’t necessarily mean spirited, unlike others, something triggered a mechanism when it came to working with new apprentices.

George, once again, saw what was going on. Though ten years younger than Allan I was his apprentice on loan to Allan. George stepped in in his inimitable style and told me to “Sweep!” At the end of every day my job was to sweep the shavings from between all of the benches of the men and bag them ready for burning when I fired up the boiler in the morning for heat. “I’ll take over here.” Suddenly the pace slowed between Allan and George and all seemed so much more calm. George began a conversation with Allan and took the wind right out of his sail. He said to Allan that it was unfair to take advantage of the young when they were trying to please not hinder and that they had yet to develop the speed and dexterity he expected of them. I listened between the bouts of machine work and the rip of the tenoner forming the dozen or so tenons at a single pass. This calming influence was flowing into me as it was Allan. What George was inadvertently doing was teaching me about relationships. When I returned to working with Allan his manner was much less aggressive and he fed the work to me at a pace I could handle.

Thirty years later one of my sons was working with me and was struggling to keep up. I switched off the machine and said I was sorry. We slowed down and never returned to that speed. I hear people say men should never work with or train their sons. That’s rubbish. If anything there should be more people like the George’s of this world to put the breaks on for a little whole. Drop a few choice words into the ears of others and we change the world.

20 thoughts on “George Reads the Signs”

  1. Paul,
    I have been reading about George for sometime now through your journey as an apprentice back in the day, and it must have been an absolute privilege working and learning from George.
    What a character!

    Thanks Paul

  2. Paul,
    I have been reading about George for sometime now through your journey as an apprentice back in the day, and it must have been an absolute privilege working and learning from George.
    What a character!

    Thanks Paul


  3. Your story reminds me of one particular electrician that I was ‘put under’ as an apprentice electrician. Unfortunately he was not without being “mean spirited” and I had no one to rescue me from those bullying incidences/occasions.
    For example, one day we were working on a job fitting heavy cast iron switch gear to pre-installed angle iron framework that required 3/4 inch holes to be drilled in the framework. The electrician had marked out where the holes were to be drilled and it was my job to drill the holes. The electric mains powered drill that I was given to do the drilling with was an old high torque geared thing with a D handle but no additional side handle and of course when the drill snatched and the trigger was released the drill continued to turn until it eventually stopped, in the mean time the whole drilling machine had rotated a half turn that twisted one’s wrist – painfully!
    This was bad enough at ground level but some of the hole locations could only be reached by ascending step ladders, step ladders that were purposely not braced by the said electrician which meant that not only did you endure the wrist getting yanked around, you also had to keep your balance at the top a wobbly step-ladder! The electrician took great pleasure from seeing me struggle. The next day on the same job, I had drawn from the tool store a suitable screw-in drill side handle and once fitted to the drilling machine, was able to better control the snatch, even atop the unbraced step-ladder. This worked fine until after the morning tea-break when on return to the job I found the drilling machine had lost its side handle. I looked around and saw the missing handle poking out of the breast pocket of the electricians overalls. He had of course removed the handle. He refused out of hand to return the handle to me and so his entertainment by way of me struggling continued.
    Mercifully I didn’t work too much under this particular electrician, there were other electricians in the department who I was given to and who were much kinder. In those days (early 70’s) an apprentice was generally not given much heed if he (or she) complained. You just had to put up with the odd bit of bullying.

    1. I had a similar experience during my apprentice days, only with a plumber. It was my job to operate the “Hole Hawg,” a specialized right-angle drill made for creating massive holes. That day I was drilling 4″ holes through large beams in the ceiling for the floor above. The tool was notorious for grabbing, which made wielding it a challenge and very hard on your wrists. Add a ladder and it could be dangerous. My supervisor seemed to delight in my struggles and purposely hid the handle so that I couldn’t use it.

  4. One thing I always remembered was how I was treated as a newbie to the switching room in the local telephone exchange. I was taught by 3 old timers in the maintenance and repair of the old switch machine. They took me step by step (excuse the pun) at a pace that I was able to learn the job and be productive. I made sure bthat I taught my trainees in the same manner for the remaining 40 years of my employment. I taught hundreds of people through the years from the days of pure analog communication through the digital age of split second communication and I never forgot those 3 men that helped me in the beginning, rest their souls.

    1. “They took me step by step”

      That one had me smiling. Strowger stepper relays… sheer beauties of engineering. Have always wanted a few of those to build my own simple house-exchange. And learning about relay-logic was an eye opener. A simple relay-computer is also on the to-do list (probably when I’m retired). Instead, I’ve made a simple exchange connecting two phones using three relays: pick up the horn of one phone and it automatically connects to the other. The relay circuit is brilliantly and elegantly simple, but making the ring-tone was a bit harder.

      I did once find a Strowger selector but it was missing too many parts. Still, watching one in action…. almost magical. The sort of electronics that can be repaired with a screwdriver and a bit of sandpaper.

  5. Mean? Or just doing to his ‘lad’ what was done to him? Revenge for his suffering years ago?

    Not just woodwork, this is seen in many trades. A worse one in my mind is the ‘gaffer’ who slacks and drives the lad to do both their work.

  6. I was-and still am-totally intolerant of such bullshit. If it’s there I’m gone. Lots of ways to make a living, none perfect but many can be pleasurable.

  7. Paul, you’ve mentioned that George wasn’t very much older than you, maybe 15 years or so I think? Is he still around?

      1. We lost track of one another when I was in my mid 20’s or so. It’s such a shame. He was one of about 6 people that meant so much to me. There is no trace of him now.

  8. I never understood the work someone to death and/or make the job harder than it needs to be. When I was younger I worked in a factory and trained quite a few people. I always tried to make the experience pleasant.

    There was one older man that had a hard time keeping up (he drove the box truck and they eliminated that position). He said something about being slow. I asked him was he trying his best, he said yes, then I said do not worry about it. Your best is good enough and I do not mind helping you out. He was a fun guy to work with.

  9. “The sense that you start out in the driving seat and then end up being driven by the machine.” That’s so true and hard to understand until you’ve experienced it. I operated an injection molding machine at one time. It was a relatively fast cycle. I’d get into the rhythm of pull the warm part, close the door, put the part on the table behind me, grab the last part from the table, trim it and stack it, turn back to the injector because the new cycle was ending, and repeat. It’s satisfying, at first, to figure out how to be efficient and not waste a second of time. You feel calm. You get in the rhythm. But the rhythm is numbing. You go into autopilot, habitual movement. Your mind isn’t really in it, even if you think it is. You are following the machine rather than leading the machine. You are reaching while looking rather than looking then reaching. You are only as safe as the engineered safeties. The machine is now in the driver’s seat.

    I’ve had to run thousand-part batches through the bandsaw to trim them, run vacuum thermoplastic molders, trim thousand-part batches with pneumatic router, etc. It is always the same. You always end up in that place. People say they are “in the zone,” but really your description of being driven by the machine is exactly right. You keep bringing yourself back, but honestly there’s too much time where its habitual, patterned movement based on what *usually* happens rather than responsive or directed movement guided by what is *actually* happening or by your intention.

    It can happen with hand tools too! I’ve had it happen! But it’s rarer and usually means I’m tired, being dumb, am frustrated, or don’t care about what I’m doing, all of which mean it is time to stop.

  10. Sorry- a second comment. I worked as an electrician’s assistant once. At lunch, David described how his mentor would test for voltage with wet fingers (rolling his eyes to convey how dumb this was). Being a wise guy, I tried to joke about getting the apprentice to do it. David knew I was trying to joke, but said, “That would be a calloused soul rather than calloused fingers.”

    Even though I was just his assistant, no commitment to stay in the field, David was making sure to point out that part of the job is taking care of each other and that comes before anything else. That’s what George taught you and what passing on to us. The best way for us to thank you is observe this practice and to teach it to others.

    1. “would test for voltage with wet fingers”. Still better than using your tongue. Nearly bit mine off once as a child when testing 16Vac that way….

      “David was making sure to point out that part of the job is taking care of each other and that comes before anything else.”

      Fully agree with that, and it’s why I hate even relatively innocent pranks during work time (putting the key in the lathe chuck or drill press for example). Have no problem with a bit of foolery during lunch time but during work I want to blindly trust my colleagues. Betrayal of that trust, even with a prank, makes working with such people much harder. I recall my dad once asking me, “here, hold those two wires” of a gadget he was holding, and then cranking the handle (it was the high voltage piezo ignitor of an oil furnace, I learned later). Very unpleasant. I think he never realized how much damage he did with that one action, meant as a joke. It makes you question everything someone else asks you to do in the future, always watching your back. Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me….

      Or a Dutch proverb, translated, goes as ‘trust comes by foot but leaves on horseback’. I think that’s an accurate description.

  11. Along with hand tools the Art of The Mentor is sadly almost also lost as well.

    It seems to me the loss of the Art of The Father is being lost as well. How much time do we all spend Correcting instead of Connecting and Guiding “figuring it out”

    Challenge them to get better not faster. Faster is a byproduct of better.
    Challenge them to figure things out, not by abandonment but by not providing answers while simultaneously guiding their thought and discovery process.

    1. At one point I lived 1000 miles away from home. A friend of mine was just old enough to be my father. He was indeed a father figure to me. We were doing some machine tool work. I distinctly recall him say not to be hypnotized by the machine and feeding it faster and faster and becoming unsafe. Even in the short time we were working on this one project, I can see how that happens.

  12. I understand a little good natured ribbing/hazing for someone new. Sounds like this crossed the line. Glad to hear that George had your back. Thank you for your comment about you and your child. My daughter is 7 and I will keep this in mind and make sure I am sensitive when it really is too much expectation. For now, she loves to do whatever I am doing and trying to help. I don’t want to accidentally break her spirit.

  13. I think it would be safe to say that we could all use a ‘George’ to speak life into us all. Also, maybe we need to be a ‘George’ to others.

    Thanks for the reminder Paul

  14. Reading this I remember my dad telling me of his days as an apprentice carpenter, and seeing the foremen telling 14 and 15 year olds that they were sacked because they were to slow after an hour of doing tasks that qualified men would struggle with.

    He always found that such foremen were not much use at their actual trade themselves when push came to shove and got the job through connections.

    He had one issue in his first year, when working on a roof where the scaffold plank he moved to had not been secured correctly and it collapsed.
    He manged somehow to grab the next plank as he was falling but it also wasn’t fixed correctly, and it was only the quick reactions of Sean, the man who had taken him under his wing that prevented him from falling to his death.

    When he was back on the ground and having a cup of tea to calm his nerves, the foreman came over and tired to hand him his cards for delaying work. This individual was told by Sean that if that happened the whole site would be out on strike and “Sure Jimmy you know what scaffolding is like, you might be unlucky yourself and have an accident someday”, not exactly subtle but my dad kept his job, and finished his apprenticeship.

    He never forgot the man who saved his life, helped teach him his trade and became a good friend to him and tried as much as he could through the rest of their time together to always pay back what he seen as a debt.

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