Another shaving From George

“Boy!” Jack Collins shouted from his bench at the far end of the shop. I sprang to a run from a gentle saunter and George’s, “Woohoo!” encouraged me to ‘Go quick‘.

“Clean up!” His arm’s wide sweep meant the whole shop needed the shavings swept up, bagged and then burned. I was glad it was winter-cold. In summer the dust stuck to your sweat and clung to you throughout the rest of the day. Sweeping and clearing was usually an evening task but sometimes the window frame making was too intense for a half-hour evening task. The men had been pumping out dozens and dozens of complex floor-to-ceiling bay windows for days and no one had time to sweep so the long hand plane shavings had gathered to a point that everyone was wading knee-deep in shavings.

I’d often thought that if each of the ten or so men all stopped their work and swept then the job would be done in half an hour. As it was, it would take me a whole day on my own and the trouble was that the shavings just kept coming and so too the jokes. “Hey, Paul! I thought Jack told you to sweep. Do it properly if you’re going to do it then!” Then the laughing followed as each of the men said, “Yeah! Mine too.” They were continually swiping their planes across the wood and sweeping them from the bench in handfuls to the floor around their feet. No question about it. I knew my place and they knew it too. It wasn’t about helping one another, it was about hierarchy. A “boy” needed to know his place and I was getting to know mine day by day. Any time of complaining to George resulted in the same answer: “We’ve all of us done it, Paul, just get on with it and stop complaining.”

I confess the overwhelming impact sweeping and cleaning had on me when big pushes like this one came but this had been the biggest yet and there seemed to be no end in sight. I never really thought about the term over + whelmed before this time. What is it to be whelmed anyway? Being overwhelmed is a common enough term, but on the other hand, being underwhelmed in the denoting of a condition or state is rarely ever used. Usually, underwhelmed is used facetiously to describe something lacking in movement and motivation. In the workshop, there was no place for the underwhelmed. If you weren’t swamped with work you weren’t working hard enough. Someone would soon find you out, grab you by the er and pull you to task. You made sure that you were always looking for work.

In the midst of it, in the thick of it, I learned to be subservient to the tasks of serving. After a couple of years, I found myself volunteering to help and to do. The oversight saw to it that I learned to serve and with a positive spirit. Through this, I found help and support. In time, Jack partnered me with someone else when the big jobs came. The more willing I became the more he found support. What Jack had to do from the start was no different than when someone who joined the military and all of the men I worked under were of course ex-military due to the demands of a Second World War. I needed to be disabused of my thinking of myself as more worthy than being a shop-floor sweeper upper. This was to prepare me to assume the right attitude for apprenticing and to come under the authority of those who would take me under their wings and make me what I was not. Coming into an apprenticeship thinking I deserved something or that I was owed something would allow an underwhelming that would stunt my growth as an apprentice. But accompanying the pressures to accept the realities of growing and being trained there was always respect. It was a reasonable expectation for me to work diligently and humbly.

The word overwhelmed means to be deluged with too much. Think small row boat massive wave and swallowed. A fifty-gallon barrel and a thousand gallons of apples pouring in. Something like that. Whelm means to submerge completely and is also used with the sense of upturning a barrel so that the contents spill and spread uncontrollably out. Then too whelming up can address emotional fears and tears good and bad. This can happen with a fifteen-year-old working hard, not yet a man yet trying to fit in by doing a man’s work. On this day and following many days of like I suddenly felt overwhelmed by the jokes surrounding my cleaning and clearing after the men. A man I will keep nameless had a vindictive spirit. Many times he had disadvantaged me in different ways. Such can result from wars that make men mean-spirited towards their fellow men. Bigger, stronger, he provoked me as some men do I felt more angry each time I had to sweep around his bench for he had what was once known as a froward nature. A man with a froward nature will always be hard to work with. He is the man amongst men who always seems to pull off or away in the wrong direction when he works with others. When I swept his place he always complained of the dust, that I’d missed some when he’d just thrown it there, grabbed me and pulled me back to look. He’d also trip me by tapping my leg mid-stride, things like that. Things kids did and not men.

Well, there I was welling up inside and this day there were masses of shavings around his work area. I had finished one work area and was leaving his area knowing he would be ready for me when I got there. Suddenly I heard George call out. “Grab a brush lads!” Each of the men took hold of a broom and set to sweeping and picking up. George immediately muscled in on the one place I was reluctant to go. The one man who didn’t grab a broom was the one with the ‘froward‘ nature. George whipped through his space like a whirlwind whipping up everything in his path. My inner fears and tears subsided as the sweep-up ended with all the shavings bagged. Even foreman Jack had joined in.

No one ever said who orchestrated this but I knew it was George. He would have approached Jack to tell him what went on a bit too much. The rest of the day I was able to work with George who winked at me with a smile and said, “Better to gang up for a good cause, not a bad one!”

12 thoughts on “Another shaving From George”

  1. Thanks for sharing Paul.

    I did two years of work in a chemistry research lab in the UK. It was a wonderful experience that I am blessed to have had. Being the only token American in the group, I was perpetually teased. Most of the time it was good natured. At other times, it went too far. If I tried pushing back, it only got worse for me. Mostly I didn’t mind but the mean spirited stuff (like that forward man you mentioned) really was uncalled for.

    Being in my late 20s and by myself (no family at that time) made it a bit hard as well. Culturally, the USA and the UK were so different and I wasn’t prepared for that. Did you experience culture shock moving to Texas?

    1. Good question and sorry some took advantage in their arrogance. I’m never too sure if the British always see how they really appear to other countries and especially when they say things like, “Well, you know what Americans are like.” or, “They. . . insert any nation you care to name . . are all the same.” Of course, they are not. I would say my life was bullied from age 8 years old until my 18th year. Being street wise, working-class, fit, strong and so on helped to kerb the aggressors. Living in the USA and Texas transformed me and my view of the Amaricans I came to know. I never faced any kind of rejection and was always welcomed on every front. I do think that things have changed somewhat these days. It’s a very small percentage of people these days who don’t stop to reconsider ugly comments intended as some level of aggression. I see nowadays that some are are passive aggressive for a variety of reasons but this is more unusual these days and it is easily dealt with.

    1. I second this. I have long wished for a book about Paul’s early working years. A collection of stories about the experiences and men in those early shops would give insight into a way of life that is now gone. It could be titled “from boy to craftsman”.

  2. Stephen McFadyen

    So reminiscent of my time as a stone masons apprentice working on a huge cathedral with multiple trade masters giving endless instructions, my own trade master was very similar to yours, a man with endless patience, good humour and honesty, as a 15 year old you quickly learn to respect you betters.

  3. Brett Wiltshire

    The relating of this story has left me whelming up.
    And I love that phrase “Better to gang up for a good cause, not a bad one!”. We could sometimes do with a little more wisdom such as this!

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