Buddy N.

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ThereTurmoil

One summer job in college I worked as an apprentice to an independent carpenter - general contractor (Mr. Buddy N) building a custom-designed house on the shores of the Potomac River, south of Alexandria, Virginia. Our responsibility went from cleared lot to finished house. Mr. N was the carpenter and general contractor, and I was the manual labor.

One of my early tasks was manning the shovel, squaring the excavation for the sub floor, getting it ready for the cinder-block contractors. We measured and measured again, to make sure the foundation was square and level. The rest of the house depended on it. The owner of the property came out almost every day after work to check on our progress.

The concrete was poured and the cinder-block foundation was laid. We pulled out the measuring tape. Huh? The house foundation was 1 foot wider at one end of the house than the other. How could that have happened? We had measured and remeasured. Maybe the crew laying the cinder-blocks had slightly erred over the length of the house?

Don’t worry, we can cover it up with the sub flooring.

We worked feverishly that day to put in the sub flooring (joists and plywood floor) to cover up the cinderblock foundation. The owner showed up. ‘How’s it going?’ ‘We had a bit of a problem with the cinder-block foundation. That end was off by a foot, but we were able to straighten it when we put in the sub flooring.’ The owner looked at me and I just shrugged. The owner went apoplectic, pulled out his own tape measure and demanded we rip up the sub flooring, cinder-blocks and rebuild the foundation from the dirt up. He was livid. But to my surprise all the measurements were perfectly to spec, including the cinderblocks (which, of course, we could only measure from the outside)!

I was perplexed. You couldn’t see any sign of a 1-foot error anywhere. I could never figure out how Mr. N had pulled this off. You can’t rebuild a cinder-block wall overnight. It wasn’t until I wrote this article, 30 years later, that I finally figured it out. Mr. N had used me as a dupe to get the owner off his back. He held back a foot on his end of the tape when I helped him with the original measurement of the cinder-block wall. Later I was to realize that was one of the most important roles of the general contractor: keep the owner out of the way of the tradesmen.

It was my job to shovel fill dirt into the gap between the cinder-block foundation and ground. It was an immense task.

Why not use a bulldozer?

Too risky, we might push over the cinder-block foundation. It was getting late. Mr. N agreed to let me finish the job next morning.

Next morning we showed up at the work site and the gap was filled in! ‘I was restless last night and came back to do some shoveling.’ I was impressed, and then I noticed some tread marks in the dirt back from the house’s foundation. ‘Wait a minute!’ In the dark of night Mr. N had snuck in a mini-dozer to finish the job and had covered up most of his tracks.

Gotcha!

One more Buddy N. story.

When we finished the second floor on the house, we needed to cut a large hole in the sub flooring for the circular staircase. Mr. N nonchalantly walked over and picked up a long thin strip of wood. He nailed one end down to the sub floor, measured out a length on the strip of wood, held his pencil to the measured point and drew out a large circle on the floor. ‘Okay, bring out the circular saw.’ ‘But shouldn’t we measure this like a hundred times before we cut a hole in the sub floor?’ ‘No, it’ll be fine.’ He cut the hole, and with the help of others we lifted the staircase into position. It fit perfectly! There was even a quarter inch gap for the drywall. How’d he do that! I checked out the plywood cutout and noticed the cut didn’t quite follow the pencil mark. Rather it precisely followed a series of small barely perceptible dots. Mr. N got me again.

I learned a valuable lesson that summer: make it look easy. No matter how difficult the task, you can always make it look easy, even if you have to come out the night before. There was nothing I wouldn’t do for Mr. N and of course I was always on high alert for his next high jinks. By the end of the summer, no small detail escaped my notice. Mr. N had gotten both his owner and his laborers just where he wanted them.