Assabet Lumber: late August, 1980

An installment in a spiritual autobiography. For other installments, search tags for “assabet lumber“. Cast of characters here. Names have been changed, and some identifying characteristics and events have been fictionalized, to protect privacy. These are early drafts and may be a little rough; bear with me….

The next Monday, I showed up for my first day of work. All the guys who worked out in the yard — the truck drivers, and Willie Hildebrand who stayed in the yard — stood around waiting for seven-thirty to come, when the yard opened for business. Someone pointed out that I had the same first name as someone else at Assabet Lumber, so they decided to call me “Slim,” because I was tall and thin.

The truck drivers showed me how to punch the time clock — I hadn’t ever punched a time clock before, because the job I had had in high school had been piece work. I had to go in the back office to fill out some paperwork, and by the time I had done that, the yard foreman was ready to show me around the yard.

The yard foreman was called Carolina because he came from a little town in South Carolina. The name stitched over the left front pocket of his uniform shirt said “Carl,” but everyone called him Carolina. He was thin, and loose-jointed, and wore the brim of his cap low over his eyes and tipped to one side, and could swear with great inventiveness and at great length. He had a thin face, leathery and expressive, and the lines around his eyes crinkled when he smiled. I instinctively liked him.

“This here’s the number two common pine,” he said in his soft Southern drawl, walking me down the A-frame racks just inside the right front door of the warehouse. Long knotty pine boards leaned up against the racks. He showed me how the common pine was organized, starting with the one-by-twos, which were arranged by height, from sixteen footers which nearly touched the rafters down to six footers; then came one-by-threes, also arranged by height; around the corner on the other side of that rack stood the one-by-fours and one-by-fives; across a narrow aisle from them in another rack stood one-by-sixes and one-by-eights; and on the other side of that rack were the one-by-tens and one-by-twelves.

“Now a one-by-four is really three-quarters thick and a three and a half inches wide,” Carolina continued, and he told me that, unlike some lumber yards which carried number three and better, we carried number two and better common pine. I asked what the difference was between number two and number three, and Carolina told me it was the size of the knots and how many knots, and that there were grading books that explained all that. I felt a little confused.

We moved on to the next racks, which held C-select pine, which some customers wanted to call “clear pine” even though it was allowed to have a few small knots in it, and then on to the glued-up pine, and the hardwood, and the tongue-and-groove edge and center bead number three knotty pine. I was coming to find out that Carolina loved to talk, but he also knew how to keep to the task at hand, which was showing me where everything in the yard was kept, so that I could wait on customers when they came out with a yard ticket in hand. One of the first things Carolina had showed me was where the bell was: a little pushbutton in the middle of a great big painted sign that read “Ring for service.” He rang it to show me how it sounded. “When you hear that ring, you come running from wherever you are, unless you’re waitin on a customer,” he said. “Frank Peirce doesn’t like it when his customers have to wait around.”

We got to the pine mouldings, and Carolina walked me through the different kinds that we stocked. There were thirty or so different kinds of mouldings, many of which looked remarkably alike, and many of which had amazingly non-descriptive names like astragal, bed moulding, scotia, and stool cap. There were four aisles with mouldings stacked up in them. At the end of one of the aisles, someone had mounted a big poster showing cross-sections of many different types of mouldings arranged in alphabetical order; the names of the ones we stocked were underlined; I stared at it, trying to make sense out of it. By the time Carolina showed me the last of the mouldings, I had completely forgotten the names of the first ones he had showed me.

And we hadn’t even covered a fifth of the different items in the yard yet. By the end of the morning, I had to start waiting on customers. I had only a vague idea of where anything was. I still have bad dreams where somehow I’ve gone back to working at Assabet Lumber, but they’ve changed the location of everything in the yard, and I have to keep stopping the other yard man and the truck drivers and asking them where everything is, and I’ve forgotten the names of things so I don’t even know what it is I’m looking for.

In the afternoon, Willie Hildenbrand, the other yard man, took me out to help him straighten out the piles of framing lumber that stretched along the outside of the whole length of the long green warehouse. He showed me how to grab one end of the long hemlock two-bys while he grabbed the other end, and together flop it over in order to gradually level out the piles of lumber. It was easy work, and as we stood there in the sun rhythmically flopping the long planks, we talked a little bit.

“You married, Slim?” was the first question Willie asked me.

Married! I knew lots of people got married when they were 19 years old like me, but it was the first time anyone had asked me if I was married. “No,” I said.

He asked me a few other questions as we worked away, until someone rang the bell and I had to go off and wait on them. Then I went back, and spent a slow afternoon re-stacking lumber piles with Willie.

Towards the end of the afternoon, the drivers reappeared in the yard. It was getting close to five o’clock, quitting time for everyone except two people who, on a rotating basis, stayed until five-thirty. I asked one of the drivers if this had been a busy day, a slow day, or what. “About average,” he said. As I thought about it, it had been tiring, pretty boring, but not too bad, and I decided that I would make it through the end of the semester. I didn’t realize it then, but that day was probably the first time people had treated me as a full adult:– someone who could put in a full day’s work, who might be married. Nor did it really sink in that I had been given a new name:– I was no longer “Dan,” or at least not in the world of Assabet Lumber, where I was now known as “Slim.”