As the day wound down, I unbuckled the tool belt and studied my work, then I re-closed the belt’s clasp and hung it on what will soon be one of the corners of the shop. I took out the hammer and laid it on the joists, snapping a few pictures with my iPhone, the smell of freshly cut, treated wood mingling with aroma of fall in the late afternoon breeze.
There’s an attachment between this hammer and me, this inanimate tool made of metal and fiberglass with a rubber handle. I found it comforting to admit that and to spend a few minutes pondering that connection.
It’s not like a hammer is a musical instrument or a fishing rod. I would argue that neither of those is inanimate. The connection that happens between an accomplished musician — hell, sometimes even a practiced amateur — and the instrument can stir the deepest depths of one’s soul. Same with the person wielding the rod, a fish at the other end. There is poetry in that.
When I graduated from college in 1982, the unemployment rate in this country was 9.7 percent. We were mired in pretty solid recession. It didn’t fall below 6 percent until 1987. Prospects were not very bright for a freshly minted English major during the Reagan Recession. So, after a year of working odd jobs and traveling, I went back to college, this time planning to earn a math degree.
Come 1984, things weren’t much better, but a friend had started a construction company in Boone and recruited me to work with him and learn carpentry work. After five years of college and intellectual rigor, I jumped at the chance to become a tradesman and work with my hands.
Hence the trip to the building supply store and my purchase of the necessary tools. Over the next several months we worked at several job sites. The company grew, and more of our college friends were recruited to help.
I thought I picked things up quickly. The concept of building a house from the foundation up made sense to me. The math part came pretty easily; I could read a tape measure, use a framing and speed square to manipulate and understand the formulas for calculating roof pitches, rafter angles, hip and valley cuts.
The hands-on part was more of a challenge. I was strong enough and could tote wood, was not afraid of heights and could walk the two-by-four walls comfortably. I got adept with the skill saw, but the way the more experienced guys around me swung their hammers didn’t come naturally.
We were working on my first inside job, finishing a ceiling that had some expensive tongue-and-groove in the great room of a million dollar house. There were no nail guns at this point and I was too broke to buy a smaller, finishing hammer. Try as I might I kept missing nails and my Vaughn would strike the wood, leaving marks that shouldn’t have been there.
We came in the next morning and the contractor was there, pointing to the wood we had put up the day before: “Someone’s been boogering up my wood. That’s bullshit. It’ll have to come down.”
Tom, the friend who had recruited me, was pissed, and rightfully so. This was early in the life of his company, and he didn’t have the money to pay us to re-do a job we should have gotten right the first time. He didn’t rat me out to the contractor, but later when just our crew was around, he and some of the others started giving me a hard time.
“That was pitiful McLeod. I guess we’ll call that hammer Lightning since it never strikes the same place twice.”
They got a lot of mileage at my expense, and so the name remains. I got sent back to the framing crew, not yet ready for finish carpentry. I eventually left that job in Boone and Blowing Rock and spent another almost four years doing carpentry work, building houses and apartment buildings in Fayetteville, Raleigh and Cary. I remember driving my old Mazda truck up on job sites with my hand tools, including Lightning, my skill saw and a few extension cords and getting hired for work on the spot at what was pretty decent money at that time. “Have tools, will travel,” was my motto.
I eventually got pretty swinging that hammer, using it to build furniture, decks, additions, barns, playhouses, homes and more in the ensuing 34 years. The broken claw works fine, and it fits easily into the tool belt that’s still holding up — a few more notches let out in the waist line from when I first wore it in my mid-20s, fresh duct tape over a couple of holes to keep nails from spilling out.
And on this most recent project, there have been times when all is right, when the 16-penny nails are set with one strike, halfway in with next and smacked all the way to the hilt on the third. Again and again, settling into a rhythm. Something like poetry. Lightning strikes again.