I was seven years old in the Summer of ’61 and my brother Paul had just turned eleven. That was the summer that Dad tore down the old two-story brick house we’d lived in for a few years on our farm in Todd County, Kentucky. While the old house was being torn down and the new house was being built, we lived in the garage. Four-to-six kids, depending on the day, two parents, and the occasional cat, perhaps, if Dad wasn’t home at the time. It was a two-story garage and it sat less than a hundred feet away from the rubble of the demo project.
Neither wanting to use the old bricks in the new house nor throw them away, Dad figured he could sell them. If they were clean and usable. “Clean” in this case primarily meaning having all the old mortar cleaned off. Having contemplated, perhaps, cleaning them himself, he realized that he had too much more important stuff to do. Cleaning bricks makes a minimal contribution to the operation of a two-hundred-and-fifty acre dairy and row crop farm.
Right in line with that minimal contribution idea, Dad decided to offer a penny a brick to anyone willing to tackle the job. I don’t remember if Paul contemplated the prospect or not; I’m rather confident that if he did, it did not progress much beyond the contemplation phase. He’d definitely rather be riding a tractor.
My tractor riding was pretty limited in those days and besides, I was a materialistic little rascal: I wanted the money.
And so, after a minimal demonstration and warning that only whole bricks would earn any money, Dad left me alone with a rather large pile of bricks and a few tools. It didn’t take me long to figure out that the chisel tip rock hammer was my best option. Mostly using the long, curved blade with the sharp edge, I chipped away at the mortar. On many of the bricks, the mortar was soft and broke away in large chunks. Not unexpected from a house over a hundred years old. On those, I could clean the long, wide faces with just two or three whacks. A single blow often cleared each end. Those were the easy ones.
On the others, mostly ones that had been used for repairs, the mortar stuck tighter than pride and prejudice. Such bricks took forty or fifty whacks to clean each wide face. After a few blisters, I decided to skip those bricks. Occasionally, seemingly just as I was nearly done cleaning a brick, I’d give it a lick at the wrong angle and it would break. Definitely disappointing and to a lesser human, demotivating.
I was a novice at cussing back then, lacking the experience I’ve gained over nearly seven decades, but I did okay for a seven-year-old. When no one was around, of course. At the least, I’d have gotten a fresh taste of homemade soap. More likely, I’d have felt the warmth of fresh leather across my back side. Along with a growing knack for naughty language, I acquired a reasonable amount of skill in cleaning bricks.
Well before the first frost, and maybe in as little as two or three weeks, I’d cleaned over a thousand bricks. It wasn’t so much my great speed, really; I was just a determined little brat. Whatever time wasn’t spent in my required duties in the milk barn were spent on that pile of bricks.
I’d like to think that I have a deeply ingrained work ethic and sense of commitment, but it was probably nothing more than the prospect of the money. At that point in my life, I’d rarely touched paper money and had never held my own five-dollar bill. Each Sunday, Mom would give me a quarter. For the collection plate.
I’d never had my own bottle of pop or a whole pack of gum. I wore patched jeans and homemade shirts to school and watched with unpolished envy when the other kids at school brought in their treasure troves the morning after Halloween. We weren’t allowed to go trick-or-treating. I don’t think it was because of religious concerns; I think it was just considered rude to haul your kids into town so they could go around asking for candy from strangers. Even if the strangers seemed to really enjoy it.
And so it was, after I had a dozen piles of a hundred bricks each, some guy backed a truck up in the yard, loaded them up and handed Dad a wad of cash. A bit later, Dad handed me twelve bucks. It figured out to nearly a dollar a blister and I was Mister Mister in my own mind for weeks after that. Seven years old and I’d earned more money than I’d ever held before.
I’d also earned a continuing awareness that as long as you’re willing to do what others don’t want to do, you can earn money in this world. And if you’ve got some measure of skill as well… well, that just increases the options and opportunities.
As long as you don’t mind a few blisters.