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….

That first week, Carolina had to show me how to do nearly everything.

“These here are lally columns,” he said, on the first day of work. I had no idea what a lally column was, but at least I knew where to find the rack where they were kept. One morning later that week, I got a ticket that read something like this:

   1 — 6’6″ lally
   1 — cut to 6’2-1/2″
   2 — plates

I had to go find Carolina, because I didn’t know how to cut lally columns. He was in the middle of making up a load of lumber when I found him. He pulled the fork lift off to one side of the yard, set the load down, turned off the engine, and stalked down the warehouse to where the lally columns were kept. He cut the lally column as fast as he could, initialed the yard ticket, and let me load the customer’s truck while he hurried back to the fork lift.

Later, in the afternoon when it was quiet in the yard, Carolina took me down to the lally column rack. He explained that a lally column went in the basement of a house where you needed a support in the middle of a long carrying beam. “See,” he said, “It’s a metal pipe that they fill up with concrete.” I asked, Why didn’t they just use a wood post, wouldn’t that be easier? but Carolina told me that a lally column would bear more load than wood — though for the life of me, I couldn’t understand why. He continued his explanation: Most everyone needed top and bottom plates for lally columns — the salesmen would sometimes forget to ask a customer if he needed plates, especially Jeff who made lots of mistakes, and then you had to send them back inside to pay for the plates, unless they were charge customers when you could just make the change on the ticket, and Dave in the back room would charge their account — so you had to subtract the thickness of the plates from the total length that the customer wanted the lally column cut to. Using a cut-off stub of lally column, Carolina showed me how it fit into the plate, and how the customer would nail through the holes in the plate so the lally column wouldn’t shift out of place. This much of the explanation took half an hour.

Then Carolina showed me how to cut a lally column: pull the column out, put it on the narrow shelf that extended alongside the lally column rack, measure it with your tape measure and mark it with the permanent magic marker that lay on the lally column rack, wrap the chain vise around it, and pull out the big heavy pipe cutter. You tighten up the pipe cutter so that cutting wheel digs in to the outside, and then you pull the long handle of the pipe cutter so that it scores a groove all the way around the lally column. If you tighten the pipe cutter up too much you can’t budge it, and if you don’t tighten it enough it would make such a shallow groove that you’d be there forever. Anyway, you make one pass all the way around with the pipe cutter, then tighten it again so that it scores that groove a little bit deeper, and keep doing that until suddenly the loose end of the lally column falls off:

Bam! Even though I was expecting it, I was surprised when the end did fall off the lally column he was cutting. Carolina chuckled. “Just make sure yore foot isn’t under it when it falls,” he said. “That’ll make your foot hurt like a son-of-a-bitch.” He paused. “And watch out you don’t drop the pipe cutter either.”

He made me try cutting a lally column. I managed to imitate what he had done, and not drop anything on my foot; although when the stub end finally fell off I had a loose hold on the pipe cutter and almost let it get out of my hand. I still had almost no idea what I was doing, or why I was doing it. But he told me what I was supposed to do, so I did it. At least when Carolina was telling me how to do something, or explaining something to me, it was something to do, and Carolina was always willing to show me something or explain something when he wasn’t making up loads or unloading deliveries. Not many customers came in most afternoons, and those long afternoons could stretch on and on into boredom.


That first week, whenever I had to wait on a customer it felt like I was always stopping and asking the other guys where such-and-such was. But by the end of the week, I had learned where most of the most common things were kept, and I could generally fill out a customer’s order without having to ask anyone else a question — except for the mouldings. I dreaded the mouldings. I’d walk down to the moulding rack, followed by a customer, stare at the yard ticket, stare at the poster with all the pictures of mouldings on it, and try to figure out what the hell I was supposed to get. On Saturday, I asked Fred Johanson, one of the less intimidating truck drivers, how long it took him to figure out the mouldings. “Oh, about a month,” he told me.

A month! a month before I knew what the hell I was doing! it seemed like an eternity.

One thought on “Assabet Lumber: late August, 1980

  1. Jean

    I love these entries.

    Brings back the feeling of working those jobs where you have NO idea what the jargon means, where things are, the way to hold your hands to make the task at hand happen, or most fundamentally: how things work. Or how to make them work. It is a feeling of complete ignorance. Everyone, especially white collar workers with a sense of ease and entitlement, should have one of these jobs for one or two or three months. Or more. It makes you appreciate when someone comes to you — the expert in whatever it is you do — and asks a simple question. Like the student who asks me, now: How do semi-colons work? They don’t know. So be it. There’s no crime or stupidity in it. They simply don’t know. Semi-colons. Lally columns. Same difference. Like Carolina, you explain, you show how, you watch while someone tries it out. And then go on.

    Nice entries, Dan.

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