Vinny, or whatever, knew little about this magazine, except he “seen it somewhere.” We wrote for management, he was a working stiff, but he told me he occasionally pulled foreman duty. That qualified him as a supervisor, so I gave him the latest edition and showed him how to fill out the subscription card. “Take some time to read it. You’ll find it interesting,” I said. He promised to “do dat’,” though I wouldn’t bet on it.
Vinny took me to Newark Airport in a roundabout route that would test the mettle of a New York cabbie. Except Vinny wasn’t trying to run up any meter. “We got lotsa time,” he said, which was half true, so we meandered through the ugliest neighborhoods in “Joisey” in order for him to show me every facility along the way that he had ever worked on. They looked to me like any other factory I had ever seen. Vinny, though, knew every detail of their mechanical guts, and explained all the difficulties that had to be overcome in putting them together. He was like a papa showing off baby pictures.
A Standing Ovation: It was a sweltering August day when I first visited the annual week-long UA Instructor Training Program at its community college home near Ann Arbor, Mich. The open air welding shop where the trainers-to-be practiced what they were to preach seemed an inkling of Hades. Just glancing at the blazing torches made sweat gush out of me. I felt sorry for the men wearing the heavy black head shields and standing just inches from the flames, though all of them seemed more absorbed with the task at hand than the climate.
I ate lunch with the students and chatted with them between classes, sometimes just eavesdropping on their conversations. Outsiders stereotype construction workers to be obsessed with sports, women and other testosteronia. Mostly I heard shop talk about the technical complexities they were mastering.
To me, it was a paid working day and a welcome respite from the office. But to most of the UA people, this was their vacation time. They’d be giving up a week of their own for five years before becoming certified UA instructors.
That night, I attended the graduation ceremony for those who were finishing their fifth stint. Family, friends and fellow students put on suits and packed a University of Michigan auditorium almost to capacity for a commencement that had to be as moving as any other that ever took place at this renowned institution. At the end, the crowd rose as one to give a standing ovation. Me, too. Not just to be polite. It was from the heart.
Righteous Indignation: The contractor checked out a homeowner’s basement to work up a job quote. He stopped in his tracks, put his hands on his hips and like some preacher encountering smut, exclaimed in disgust, “Just look at that!” I saw nothing except some copper pipes leading to the top of a water heater. Sorry, I informed him, but I’m not a plumber. Exactly what abomination was he referring to?
He pointed to the pipes I was looking at, showing me within the space of a few feet solder spills, too many bends, a code violation and two or three other imperfections. “This stuff will work, but that doesn’t make it right,” he said. “Whoever put it in was a disgrace to the trade.”
The Lesson: I could recite dozens of similar episodes if I had the space. They represent a lesson I’ve been learning continually throughout my 20-year plumbing industry career.
People say that the work ethic and pride in craftsmanship aren’t what they used to be. Maybe they’re right, although I would caution that in all of life’s endeavors, the “good old days” always seem better than they were.
All I know is that whenever I spend time in the field, I seem to meet hard-working, dedicated and skilled craftsmen who deserve more respect than they get. My hat goes off to all the Vinnies of the world who think that what they do is worth showing off to a stranger; to the UA instructors who give so much back to their craft; and to so many trade professionals who view shoddy work as a personal insult. When I started covering the plumbing industry, it was just a job — one that caused a few snickers among my fellow wordsmiths. The lesson I’ve learned ever since is to take pride in being associated with this great trade.
Correction: To my printer friends whom I startled last month with the suggestion that offset printing is going the way of blacksmithing, I apologize. I meant to say letterpress printing.