Forget About Nails
By Pat Tyler
I was privileged to be raised on Grandpa's old ranch. I was married there, raised my children there and helped raise my children's children on that same old parcel of land. It was a good life. But life often changes unexpectedly, as mine did, when financial problems forced me to sell the old place and move to town.
When body and soul resisted, I contrived a farewell ritual, hoping it would ease me through the trauma of my departure. I walked through each vacant room of my empty home, my footsteps echoing behind me, as I said my goodbyes. It did help, but not enough. Until my home became just a house I couldn't leave. When the ritual ended, I rushed outside to trudge through my old barns and outbuildings, empty now, and dust laden. I slogged along the fence lines last, inhaling the scent of hay stubble, parched adobe, and licorice weed. I knew their fragrance would linger. But I wanted more than a fragrance to keep. I needed something tangible to take with me, something transformational, to make my next house a home. It was not to be found. I walked back toward my home, empty-handed.
Then I stopped at the old granary, and thoughts of Grandpa flooded my mind. He'd taught me to use tools on these old granary steps, and suddenly, in my mind's eye, I could see him at work inside.
His workbench ran the full length of one short wall. He'd created its legs by cutting railroad ties into three-foot lengths, standing them upright, and topping this massive structural foundation with two sheets of marine plywood sandwiched together with carpenter's glue. To me, it looked like a chopping block for giants. To Grandpa, it looked like a sturdy workplace for his granary classroom, and I looked like a prime candidate for his carpenter's apprenticeship class.
"First," Grandpa said, "You need a decent place to work, a sturdy place, and solid." He'd smack his open palm on his bench top with a force that made me blink. "None a that rickety shit. You think I could have made that pretty bed for Grandma if I'd been workin’ on some piece of rickety shit?"
"No, Grandpa." I'd heard that story before. "What am I gonna learn today?"
"You're gonna learn about tools."
"Tools! But I wanna make a doll bed. A big one!”
"I see," Grandpa said, scratching the stubble on his chin. "Good idea. But first you're gonna learn about tools." He held up his first tool. "Can you tell me what this is?"
"Any moron knows what a hammer is, Grandpa."
"Yeah, smarty pants? Well, does any moron know how to use it? That's the question. Do you?"
I marched forward. "Where’s the nails?" I asked.
"Nails! Forget about nails! First, let's see how you hold a hammer." He held his hammer toward me and I grabbed it. I studied its handle. I studied its head. I studied Grandpa. I gripped one end of his hammer, and then the other. When I rolled my eyes and sighed, Grandpa chuckled.
"I thought so," he said. "Here. Give me that thing." He knelt beside me and held the hammer in front of my nose. "You gotta get some purchase on it."
"Purchase! Means getting a good grip on it. See?"
I didn't see. "Move yer hand back," Grandpa said. "It’s too close to the hammer-head. You couldn't pound a tack through a marshmallow holdin’ it like that. You'll lose your swingin’ power. You'll lose control." He stopped to show me. "See?"
I nodded, sighed, and tried again.
"There! That's more like it! Now, hammer somethin’. Really hammer it." He was looking right at me. My palms were sweaty, but I gripped my hammer and lifted it as high as I could. On its descent toward Grandpa's workbench, he yelled at me, mid swing. "Stop! What the hell are ya doin’?"
"You think I built this sturdy workbench, so's you could smash it to smithereens?"
"Um..." My hammer, still hovering overhead, grew heavier.
"Put that thing down! Have ya lost the good sense God gave ya? Don't be smashin’ holes in my workbench, girl."
"Where, then?" The hammer dropped to my side.
"The steps, remember? Practice on the steps." I looked outside. He'd stacked his longest railroad ties in horizontal rows at the entry door. Then he'd nailed them together to form three steps. He'd created a solid entry to his granary classroom and it beckoned me now. Within seconds I sat on the bottom step, waiting. And waiting.
Finally I shouted, "Grandpa! Where's the nails?"
"Forget about nails, I told ya. First, you learn to hammer."
I raised my hammer again.
"Stop!" Grandpa shouted. "You're holdin’ that hammer like a girl."
"Grandpa! I am a girl."
"Well, that makes no difference when you're hammerin’," he said. "Slide your hand back. No, not that way! Try it again. There! That's better! Don't that feel better? Now you got some purchase on that handle!"
"Yeah!" I pounded my hammer about half an inch into that old railroad tie. I had discovered purchase, all right. Soon I discovered something else. Nails. Nails everywhere.
Some nail heads had been driven so far below the surface of the railroad ties that they'd become invisible over time. But, when I smashed my hammer into the splintering wood that had once protected them, they magically popped to the surface. I gradually resurrected dozens of them from their smashed and splintered gravesites. They sparkled in the sunlight.
"Grandpa! Look! Who hammered all these nails?" I asked.
"Damned if I can remember." But he was scratching the stubble on his chin now, so I figured he was trying to recall.
"Well," he finally said, "Grandma hammered lots of em."
"Grandma can hammer?"
"You bet your Sweet Bippy," he said. "And who do you think taught her?"
I shrugged my shoulders. "Her Mama?"
Grandpa shook his head. "There you go thinkin’ again! Just keep hammerin’, would ya?"
"Grandma didn't hammer all these nails."
"True. But I taught your Mama, too, don't forget. And Aunt Linda. And Uncle Bob and his boys. I can't remember em all. But I taught em all. And one day, if I live that long, I expect I'll be teachin’ your babies, too."
But I wasn't listening. I had some real purchase on my hammer and it flew.
"Watch out!" Grandpa yelled. "Pay attention to what you're doin’."
My morning passed quickly, and then ended abruptly when my stomach began growling. "I'm hungry, Grandpa," I said.
He pulled on the hemp cord hooked to the belt loop of his faded Levis. A worn pocket-watch dangled from its end. "Stop your whining, girl. Nobody likes a whiner." He pulled his glasses from the top of his head and peered at his little round watch. "Well, I'll be damned! It's lunchtime. Put your tools away."
I carried my hammer inside.
"'You did real good today, Honey. Not bad at all for your first time," he said. "Damn good, in fact. Now! Put that hammer back where it came from. No, no. Not there. In my new red toolbox. See? Good. Very good! Say. You know what? Now don't go getting’ a swell-head or nothin’, but I gotta tell ya, I think you're my best student yet." I grinned as Grandpa rubbed his leathery knuckles across the top of my head.
Despite Grandpa's grousing, summer passed quickly that year. By season's end I'd learned numerous lessons, some long forgotten. But that first lesson on power hammering was here again, haunting me. As I gazed down on these old granary steps, tears welled.
The battered steps wobbled now. Badly deteriorated, they were rotting into the earth. Nail heads by the dozen, some solidly embedded by the aggressive pounding of four generations of children, some a veiled glint beneath the sun, others rusted and barely visible, poked from beneath the protective surface of the dense, splintered redwood that surrounded them. Decades of weather had not been forgiving. They no longer resembled the steps I'd once hammered upon.
For the first time, I looked down at those steps with the eyes of a grown woman, and captured the dim memory of a growing girl: My younger self, with hammer. As I caressed the old nail heads with my fingertips the memory of Grandpa's booming voice splintered up from the weathered wood. I could almost hear his gravelly admonitions, and I asked myself how many times, since those days in his old granary classroom, had his words popped from my mouth. The number startled me.
When I sat to rest on the wobbly stairs I could almost inhale the sharp, acrid smell of his pipe smoke. It had once prickled my nose. I could nearly touch the grimy wrinkles of the denim shirt he'd worn all week, feel the weight of his arm on my shoulder, see him scratch his chin, and hear the harsh words that belied his patience and wisdom.
Wisdom, however, was not a word my younger self had understood. Back then, I'd heard mere rules and regulations for Grandpa's rigorous classes. But my older self, struggling to depart from here with grace, listened now with aging ears that yearned to hear their hidden message: Forget about nails! First, you learn to hammer. Build a sturdy workplace. Teach folks to do things right. When they do a good job, tell em. Maybe they'll do it again. Better.
Could Grandpa's simple rules from the past become words of wisdom for my future? As I thought about it, a flash of sunlight struck another nail head, ending my daydream.
I stood, turned and walked up the driveway. I pulled a toolbox from the bed of my pickup truck, opened the lid and removed my saw. Then I returned to the granary.
I knelt down, and after careful consideration, sawed one small corner off the top step.
Grandpa would have called my act thievery. But I called it entitlement. This had been my sacred place. Like chalk scraping a blackboard, my saw blade screeched against the embedded nails, cutting them in half. But I didn't care. These nails belonged to me, and to my family. And I was taking them with me!
My sawed-off corner-piece dropped into the licorice weed. I picked it up and rubbed it against my faded jeans. The severed nail heads winked at the sun as I turned the piece in my hand.
But what will I do with it, I asked myself? Then, like the nails in the railroad ties, ideas magically surfaced, shedding their light when my youngest grandson, Robert, came to visit my home in town the following summer.
Touring my new little home, he asked, "What's this, Grandma?" He was studying the sacred, sawed-off corner of the old granary steps, on proper display now, in its new shadow box home, on my living room wall.
"Something I brought from the ranch. I'll tell you about it later," I said. "Meanwhile, did you bring your hammer?"
"It's right here," he said, holding up his brand new toolbox. "I'm gonna build Max a dog house. A big one!"
"I see," I said. "Good idea." I rested my arm on his shoulder as we entered the new workshop in my single garage. "Well, how do you like it?"
"Wow, Grandma! It's cool." He walked the length of the place, peering behind the jelly jars, coffee cans and oatmeal boxes that stand like sentinels against the back wall of my sturdy workbench. Each homespun container holds nuts, bolts, hooks or hinges, and a standard supply of workshop paraphernalia.
"Grandma?" Robert's crawling beneath my workbench now, forever snooping.
"Stop crawling around in those new jeans," I say, "You're gonna wear holes in your knees and bleed to death."
"But Grandma!" He's peeking out from behind Grandpa's old red toolbox, the one I brought from the ranch. "Where's the nails?"
"Nails," I say. "Forget about nails! First, let's see how you hold a hammer."
Pat Tyler’s work has been published in Fate Magazine, Tacoma News Tribune, To Honor A Teacher (A Jeff Spoden Anthology), and Good Housekeeping Magazine. Pat won awards in Writer's Digest's Annual Competitions in 2000 and 2003. She is retired and living in the small town of Cotati, located at the hub of Sonoma County in Northern California's Wine Country.
Pat's previous work published in VerbSap was The Red Boots.
Photo courtesy of Freeimages.co.uk.
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