“Both my knees are shot,” he said. “I been laying floor since I was nineteen.”
Well, nineteen was a long time ago. He’s anything but a teenager now. He’s got gray hair, bony shoulders, and a smoker’s cough that comes out whenever he laughs.
Ask him about the flooring he’s laid. He’s more than happy to let you see pictures on his cellphone. Sprawling wood entryways, ceramic tile, cork, travertine, carpet, and even mosaics.
He showed me a tiled mosaic of a sailboat in someone’s kitchen. He said it took ten days to finish. The next photo: himself, smiling, on a pontoon boat.
And then, a picture of his son, holding a baby.
“That’s my son and grandson,” he said. “I wouldn’t let my boy go into construction, like a lotta roughneck daddies do. Ain’t the life I wanted for him, breaks your body down.”
As it happens, I know what he means. My father was in construction, his father was in construction, my uncles, cousins, and yours truly.
In fact, I spent two summers laying floors. It took me one summer to develop a lower back problem. One more to realize I hated floors.
“’Course at nineteen,” he went on. “I didn’t have no choice but to work. My girl got pregnant, and back in them days, the right thing to do was marry her. Folks don’t do that anymore.”
He followed up his last thought with a cough, then hung his head. “She died when my son was only six, he hardly remembers her.”
After she passed, he resolved to push his son in school. He made him study, read books. He wanted him to have more opportunities than dropout roughnecks have. But above all, he wanted to preserve his son’s knees.
“Promised myself I’d get him to college, that was my only goal.”
After saving money in shoeboxes—like men from his generation did—his son attended the University of Georgia. It took nine shoeboxes.
“I paid for almost all four years,” he said. “Cash money. My boy was a good student. Worked hard.”
He paused to wipe moisture from his eyes.
So did I.
Allergies are bad this time of year.
“That ornery little brat,” he said with a four-toothed grin. “After all that college, he STILL went into construction. He’s my boss now, owns this whole flooring business. I’m very proud of him. He’s a real good man.”
I’m sure he is.
It must run in the family, sir.