the true stories
Gas-fitters are bonded. I was quite proud of being bondable and strove to live up to the excellence expected of me. After the first year, my Boss told me that compared to the German gas-fitter employed by his partner in the warehouse, I was about half as fast. The good part, he said was that where the other fellow ran a 40% inspection failure rate and thus wasted the time saved by having to fix things up. Boss had never had to re-do any pipes I made.
You can tell my pipes at a glance. They are all perfect right angles and tight tolerances. They are screwed shut like a boys eyes after biting into a lemon. They are strapped tighter than a Mother Superior's panty-hose and painted with panache. If they could speak, they would speak in Swedish. Well over a thousand of my tags are yellowing as I write, from Deep Cove to Horseshoe Bay and all points in-between.
Sometimes little things went wrong, the same as they do in your job, Dear reader. Once, I filled the gas tank on my step-van early in the morning so I wouldn't have to stop for the rest of the day on the way to the other jobs. The first job was at a massive house in the British Properties of North Vancouver. For non-Vancouverites, that's the neighborhood where Oprah keeps an address.
The place was landscaped, tennis-courted, swimming-pooled and even had a cute little house in the backyard that would have served me and my wife just fine. The manse was situated on a hilltop and had one of those wonderful semi-circular driveways that was as fresh and black as a cup of Starbucks. Turns out it had been completed only a week prior. I coaxed my chariot up that impossible slope and even after setting the hand brake and putting the shifter in low, Lars and I decided we better chock the wheels to boot.
We had to use a lot of cardboard on that job to protect the white plush carpets. I had to set up the threader in the garage because of the manicured lawn. The job went well albeit, slowly due to the care and attention required in such gentile surroundings. One pool-heater, furnace, water-heater, range and fireplace later the little Dane and I were packing up.
I was coming out with a load of soiled cardboard when I heard him laugh. Lars could laugh in such a way, that had he been in boot-camp, the drill sergeant would have suggested that they all change out of those silly clothes and go home. I went to see the source of his mirth and I smelled it before I saw it.
The slope of the driveway was so extreme as to put the fill-pipe of my gas tank on a plane nearly fifteen degrees off the level. The good Mohawk gas had run out til only about half remained. The bad part was that we discovered something interesting about chemistry that day. Apparently, gasoline actually dissolves asphalt, rendering it absolutely liquid. It was the wildest thing you ever saw.
A rivulet of blackish muck had dug a bed about a foot wide that ran the length of the driveway and then veered off into the nearby drain. The ground underneath was showing through all the way down.
“M7 to M8. Over.”
“Go ahead Mick. Over.”
“Boss, I just found out that gasoline is the perfect solvent for asphalt. I also learned not to fill the gas-tank on this rig, she prefers to be half-full. Over.”
“Are you at that Properties job? The one with the steep drive? Over.”
“Get your butts to the next job and I'll swing by later today to have a look. Over”
One time Lars' curiosity got the better of him. I tried to warn him as an older brother should. We were doing a job for two nurses. Lars had to traipse through the house to access the heat runs and thus was in every room as well as the attic. My time was spent outside and in the furnace room. I told him to stay out of the fridge. He was allowed to look but not touch. He was fascinated at the crap that non-Scandinavians called food and used to horrify himself at ever opportunity.
This time he went beyond checking out the fridge. I could hear some strange sounds coming from the living room. It sounded like the TV. I was mad. I told him to turn it off and get back to work. That resulted in him turning the volume up. I yelled at him in Swedish and he replied with that laugh. A laugh that would get a turtle to come out of its shell in a room full of raccoons.
I grabbed enough cardboard to get me within striking range of the wayward imp. When I rounded the corner, I saw the cause. I recognized it because I had seen Debbie doing Dallas at a friend's stag party only that same year. Twenty minutes later I told him that was enough. I lectured him about touching other peoples stuff.
VHS was the cutting edge at that time and I didn't know how to work the equipment, so I stood sternly while the young pup took the rented tape out of the player. He swore and fiddled. He fiddled and swore. Not only could he not get the freaking tape out, he couldn't get the TV to shut off! He tried every remote in the joint and it only made it worse. I looked at my ten dollar watch. A decision had to be made.
I told him to leave it play. Hopefully it would run out. The girls would likely think that each other left it on. If not, they wouldn't have the cheek to phone and complain. I told Lars, of course he would shoulder the responsibility for this one if they did. He looked genuinely concerned for about two minutes. As we finished off the job, he began to imitate the unholy noises. No complaints ever came forward from the good nurses. I never looked at the medical professionals the same way afterwards though.
One fine morning a few months later, Lars and I were treated to Radar Love on the radio. I had to pull over the truck til we were done with our air guitars. We were headed to job high up on the hills above North Van. It was a spectacular day of turquoise sky and mother of pearl cumulus clouds. The address proved to be a grand old house with a well established garden. Lars said Yugoslavian and I said Italian. I could tell by the Pomodori tomatoes, the rosemary plants, the fig trees and the zucchini in the garden.
I was right. After we had worked studiously for awhile, the Donna della casa invited us to come to her beautiful tiled kitchen for coffee and sweets. She was a pleasant single middle-aged woman and told us the history of her beautiful house. As we munched all kinds of homemade biscotti we learned of a man who had been born in hardscrabble Calabria. He tearfully left the soil of his birth armed with only a battered suitcase and a cutting from a grape-vine, he immigrated to Canada.
He did many jobs and found a nice Italian woman to marry. After our hostess's mother was born, he got a steady job, bought the lot and built the house. His daughter married a successful businessman and gave the house to her only daughter, who had spent so many precious hours here with her beloved Nonni.
The lady called us over to the kitchen window. It was above a full height basement and it had a commanding view of the large back yard, except for the profusion of beautiful grape leaves that wreathed it. We were treated to a few grapes from the ancestral vine. It had become a mighty thing over the generations, growing up a trellis built by the old man. It ran above and around the kitchen window, so one could sample the fruit without leaving the kitchen. Lars happily polished off the remaining biscotti and we thanked the woman for everything.
Part of my duties this day were to install a gas fireplace. I had to put a tee near the gas meter and run pipe along the side wall, around the corner and along the back wall. Then according to my measurements, I had to drill into a joist-space that was behind the grapevine. From this point of entry, I would be able to run hidden pipe across and under the kitchen floor and up through the living room floor.
The location for the hole was about two feet to the left of the kitchen window on the second floor and several feet down. I had made a little x with purple magic marker earlier and after stringing an extension, setting my step-ladder and waving to the woman in the window, I was ready to use the Makita.
It was my new pride and joy. It had cost a bundle but was worth every penny. It was an exceptionally powerful electric drill with a a large end grip and two long thick handles set at right angles to the bit. My step-father had shown me how to file the auger bit into a formidable weapon. The auger was an inch and a half in diameter and about sixteen inches long. It had a screw for a point, so it pulled the main cutting surface into the wood.
I could chew its way through hundred year old fir that would have broken a good saw. If a man were to put the auger in a large vise and do a handstand, the motor would easily spin him around like a child on a merry-go-round. A week after using it I couldn't imagine how I had coped before. I plugged her in and did a few test squeezes of the trigger. She purred like a mountain lion. The torque necessitated using both hands. I waved at the woman and mounted the ladder.
I carefully parted the grape leaves and branches just enough to get the Makita lined up. I had to jam the end into my shoulder to apply enough forward pressure to keep things level. Both my hands gripped the two cross-handles. The screw bit into the aged cladding and I could smell the aroma of the wood chips voided by the drill. About when I figured I should be through the barrier, I felt that I had come in a wee bit too close to a joist.
There was a spike which had gone into the joist on an angle and protruded out the side of it in the path of my drill. The bit caught fast on it. The torque was transferred from the non-rotating bit into a rotating housing. My right fist which gripped one of the handles, delivered a hay-maker punch to my jaw and knocked me sprawling.
Just before leaving the ladder I was able to reach out and break my fall. The patriarchal vine peeled away as if in slow motion for me and set me down as gently as a kitten in a basket. The first thing I saw between the foliage when I regained my wits was the woman in the window now leaning halfway out and holding her face. The Makita hung from the bare wall at an odd angle. Several hundred pounds of grape-vine lay around the yard.
“Oh my God-da! Are you-a hurt?”
“I'm OK. Nothing broken. My jaw hurts, is all. Your grape-vine saved me. I'm so sorry for this...”
That's when I heard the laugh. Lars appeared from the basement and was more in need of medical treatment than myself due to shortness of breath. He kept chuckling for the two hours it took to re-attach the trellis to the wall and restore the vine to its former place. It was thick enough at the base that it had only bent without breaking. We had to use rope, two ladders, a roll of pipe hanger and dozens of sheet-metal screws.
When we finished the job we were treated to home-made antipasto and after a final inspection of the trellis, the woman decided that the Boss needn't be bothered with news of this incident. The vine was more securely attached than before and the fireplace was working nicely. I shall never forget that gracious woman and Lars never let me forget my self-boxing debut.
Copyright © 2015 by Michael A. Hawes. All Rights Reserved.
Michael Hawes was born in Texas, raised in Louisiana and lives in British Columbia.