The Story of Robert T.
In the summer of 1978, I was working on old mass wall industrial buildings in Chicago. Across the court yard, there was a twin building also having some exterior masonry work performed. I could see from a distance, the man doing the work had a noticeable rhythm to his movements. They did not seem quick but were methodical. While some may have thought them to be slow, at the end of each day, the completed work was of a very substantial volume. One day at lunch time, I invited that man to come join us as we ate in our location. Upon taking us up on our invitation, we exchanged greetings and introductions. As the days past, we ate lunch together and before we parted for good, we exchanged contact information. I asked the gentleman if in the near future he would be available to help on a large project I was hopeful to secure. The man informed me he would definitely help if his schedule allowed for it.
Well, that October the mentioned project came to fruition and I called Robert T., luckily he was available and thus began my long working relationship with him. More importantly than the working relationship, it started a very profound and lasting friendship. Over the almost 25 years I had the pleasure to know Robert, we got to know the life stories of one another.
One day, I asked Robert how he got into the masonry line of work. He just smiled as he told his story. Being a combat veteran of WW II, and having "celebrated" his 19th birthday on Normandy beach, he returned after the war to the small family farm outside Hattiesburg Mississippi. Robert said he had no idea what he wanted to do for his life's work, yet he knew what he did not want to do, and that was farming. One evening, he spotted an announcement in the local paper, it was an invitation to join a training program to become a bricklayer. Returning veterans were to be given preferential admission. Robert readily admitted he knew nothing of masonry, however, the potential pay initially captured his attention. So, he signed up. After the very first day of class, he was happy as a lark. He said he whistled and skipped all the way home, knowing in his heart, this is what he should do for the rest of his life. He said he loved it so much he would do it for free if that was the only way he could do it.
Shortly thereafter, he acquired some brick and mortar. Every day after farm chores, he headed to the barn to lay brick. He went to school early, at times, skipped lunch, and sometimes he stayed after class. After the fifth week of schooling, the teacher approached Robert and said, “Robert, you no longer need to be here.” Being a man of color in rural Mississippi in the mid 1940s and the teacher being white, Robert got really nervous. He said to the teacher "Please let me stay, I think I can grasp this work. Plus it is supposed to be a six month class, and I have only attended five weeks. Give me a chance." The teacher laughed and said, “Robert, you do not understand, I'm not kicking you out. I'm saying, you do not need to be here. You need to be on a job site drawing full mason pay. You are ready!” Well,Robert told him, "No I'm not, let me stay.”
The next week on Monday, Robert went to school, prior to the teacher. Almost simultaneously, the teacher and a pick-up truck showed up together. The teacher called Robert to the truck, opened the passenger door, threw Robert's tools in the back and shoved Robert in. The driver let out the clutch and away they went. Robert turned to the man and asked,"Where are you taking me?" The man smiled and said, “To work.” Robert again protested and said "I'm not ready ". The man smiled and said "If Joe says your ready, you are ready".
They got to the job site where they were to build a brick foundation for a wood framed farm house. The boss directed where the men were to work and left for the day. At quitting time he came back. Walking up to the crew and in a rather gruff voice, he asked who was working here, pointing to the place Robert worked all day. Robert got nervous and thought, “Darn, I'm not ready.” However, he was raised to fess up and be honest. He raised his hand and answered,"I was boss". The boss immediately tore into the rest of the crew and said, "Look here, a six week apprentice and the back side of his wall looks better than the front side of yours!”
On the way home, the boss told Robert, "Don't ever be ashamed to get fired, but remember, make sure you are fired because your boss thinks you did not do enough work. Never get fired because your work was not of the highest quality". Well, when Robert told me that, I waited for him to tell me how many times he had been fired in all those years . I finally had to ask. Robert began to laugh until tears came to his eyes. He said "Not a once, I always gave my bosses quality work and plenty of it".
So, this is how the title of this story earned its place. Intense love for what you see as a vocation, not a job, will catapult you to learning what may take others six months to a greatly reduced time frame. It was an absolute pleasure to work with Robert and extremely talented friends of his he introduced me to for all those years. I visited Robert just a few days before he made his transition at a Veteran's hospital in Chicago in January 2003. Many a day goes by that I think of him and smile, reflecting back on the enjoyable times I had with him both on and off the job site.