At 5 a.m., my dad walked into my bedroom. “Wake up, we’ve got to go,” he said sharply though gently. I shook off the morning funk and pulled on my size 5 K-Mart work boots after I pulled on my Wrangler work jeans that were hand-me-downs. Stumbling into the kitchen from the dark hall, I saw my dad making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches out of an entire loaf of bread and putting it back into the bread bag, then into the lunch box. We walked outside into the moonlit morning and the frosty truck idling, waiting for the defroster to work.
We arrived at the yard to the sound of backhoes starting up and loading onto the beavertail trailers, excavator tracks screeching onto the Ziemen trailers, the low rumble of the 1976 Ford dump truck coming to life. The I-beams covered in dew glistened in the morning sunrise. I tried to lift the vibra-plate into the truck; foreman Dave gives me a gentle simile as he helped me lift in the plate. I had no concept that the tool weighed as much as I did at that age. We piled into the gang truck after the frantic gathering of tools and delineation. We were off. Put up the men-working signs, throw out the delineators and caution tape; the thunder of the partner saws cutting, and jackhammers chipping.
Growing up in a construction family this was my morning on many days I wasn’t in school. The alarm went off and I was up with the crew. My dad had started a business with a shovel and a dream. He had built it into a well-respected firm on the Central Coast of California doing concrete and heavy structure lifting. He always made sure I wasn’t given any perks as the boss’s kid. I pushed a shovel and swept and tended to the journeymen just like the other laborers. At the time I didn’t get it: why would anyone go into this business. When I was ten, all I could think about was getting my $200 weekly check and buying new cloths or lifting weights at the gym. Twenty years later I get why he had my brother and me go with him. It taught us hard work and a skill, a skill not learned in a classroom and a respect not taught in a book.
We worked along with persons of “doing,” of “creating,” and of the tangible. I learned that no matter your feelings you move on, you progress, and you meet your deadline. You stay with it until you finish whether that is 2 p.m. or midnight. My brother and I learned skills that allowed us as teens to make as much money as our high school teachers. We learned the feeling of satisfaction that could only be gleaned from failure after failure then finally success. We learned that “tired” that only comes from scrubbing concrete that you are behind on, and what perseverance is, falling with exhaustion after we broomed the concrete.
I own a construction business now and have obtained academic degrees and professional licenses. I teach construction management, construction law, and construction technology at local colleges. But I’ve learned there is no replacement for trade knowledge and doing. I meet people all the time that speak about construction, and concrete in particular, in a way that makes it seem like you end up there when you have no place else to go.
But I chose to be here. It’s in my blood. The satisfaction of building, of creating, of forwarding a thing, that I can now take my son to and say “my boy, daddy built this,” is hard to explain. I get immense satisfaction from standing in front of a classroom of architectural engineering students professing how the field crew is relying on them to design so that it can be built. What is taught in college is useful design information, it teaches you theory and the basics. What it can’t teach you is how to walk fully upright, with confidant self-respect, knowing that you, the tradesperson, did something today that will help your community: putting in a sewer lateral that keeps your community disease free, paving a section of road that cars travel over smooth as ice-skaters in a rink, pouring a section of sidewalk to allow a grandmother safe passage. You, more than almost every trade, have made everyone’s life, no matter station or status, better. You create the world that we live in, you create the people with grit and with heart.
I look back with fond memories of my younger years working with my father and his crew I had the privilege at 6 years old of sitting on the fender of my dad’s backhoe while he operated it, seeing something come into being. Today, I have three degrees, six professional licenses, and a stack of certifications. But I am proudest of my construction expertise and “doing” in the trades.
I am retained in legal matters partially because I am a lawyer, real estate broker, and have master’s degrees. But really, I am retained because I am a builder and a doer, the things I didn’t learn in college are valued the most. When you teach the next generation a trade, your contribution goes far beyond what any politician or theorist has done. You make a concrete contribution to making society a better and safer place.
We are tradespeople.