cut stone upon stone, the cackle of hens
sounds with sledge blast
striking an invisible grain.
Body in full motion
sweats sun heat to reach an apex --
their cold touch speaks to him of color
hidden within split shells.
At bancum, cobble wedged on thigh,
mash hammer and carbide pitch in hand,
eyes blink away scars
of chips punched to heart, forty years
a blunt trowel skipping stiff mud.
Sons, daughters, brothers of stone,
a family emerges to ring a hard breast.
Black Velvet gallon, golden on fresh hearth
for the small fire, ritual
fertility of first flame.
First published in the Building Stone Institute Newsletter.
Where Do Stonemasons Come From?
Bull manure. Thirty plus years ago, at the age of 20, I was self-employed, selling bull manure. It was all 100% grade-A prime bull, from a cryosperm facility at Cornell University, not far from where I grew up. Mostly the lab was known as the place that had the cow with the glass stomach that school children would visit and giggle and watch as it ruminated. While dropping a load, one day I met a 62-year-old stonemason named Marshall Pruitt, and he offered me a job. It was a step up. I had a respect for and wanted to learn traditional stonework. He needed a donkey.
When I started, Marshall said that if I lasted three months I would be a stonemason forever. It would be in my blood. A few weeks later, I suppose he figured I was not wholly wore out, he offered me a choice of his educational curriculum, either to be the best cocksman in the county, a different sort of stonework... or the best stonemason. Though I might have had an interest in the former, I told him I was not sure I would survive, and chose the latter. Marshall had a reputation as a bitter, overbearing, cantankerous, irascible white racist, the most opinionated, drunken and unfriendly craftsperson in all of upper New York State. I loved the guy.
He had a ten-year waiting list for new fireplaces. It was years when streakin' was popular and set up one night at the Rogue's Harbor Inn in Lansing, NY we got somewhere after the sixth round when he challenged me to go streak with him in the parking lot. I countered him that he was an old man and should show me how to lay stone before he dropped dead and the old art was forgotten (I think there is a missed “f” in this sentence). We never did streak, leastways not that way, but he wanted his glory. For the first year Marshall would only let me cut and carry stone. It was hard for him to give up his secrets. This was not from some honorable plan of apprenticeship, whereby I had to learn the simple skills before the true craft. Instead, it was his worry that I would steal work from him. In the end, I did. I did not exactly want to, but I did. When he gave in to teach me he vowed that even in death he would sit in Heaven and tell me to get to work. We did not streak that night, or any other. He taught me to lay stone.
His fireplaces were traditional brick, not metal boxes with electric fans. In the good summer months the two of us averaged one fireplace per week, included with the chimney. It worked for me. I lasted three years at twelve-hour days, six days a week. There were a lot of days when we said nothing to each other; each of us communed solely with the stone, sand, brick, and block. It was a meditation in motion.
Occasionally the mortar mixer did the talk, it spoke in a muddled language that resembled chicken-speak. It could have been hawg speak or creole voodoo or simply the yap of a mechanical beagle, but we thought it sounded like chickens. However, if our customers heard us cluck, it was us talkin' to each other. It was our shorthand work code; we would be taken too long to say longer words. We had little idea then that we were politicians. Water was “aga.”
Damned stubborn glacial till is what we mostly worked, boulders many of them harder than granite. Split them with a 20 lb. sledge, a sledge blast. It is like with an axe you let the hammer do the work. Smack! Just as the head reaches out to the stone you turn it so the corner strikes. There is perfection to be achieved in the accuracy and the motion of the swing. The boulder is split like a Faberge egg. All of a day spent clambered around on a farmer's pile in a hedgerow; stepped from boulder to boulder, grazing they call it now. We called it nothing. No words for this work. Hot sun. Old age and mud hid the secret interiors of the boulders that would be full of color and crystals and odd shapes to keep us in wonder what would be found next with the sledge. Hammered.
One day it was hot and we must have been succumbed to heat stroke. I looked at this one flat rock; it was gray with white stuff on it. I asked Marshall what he thought it was and he said it had to be pheasant shit. From then on whenever we got to advertise ourselves with a new customer while we set up in the yard I'd tell them how Marshall had such a good eye he could tell the difference between pheasant and chicken shit at fifty yards. A stonemason needs a good eye.
One day I was cutting a corner out of a stone and a chip hit my stainless steel thermos and put a dent in it. He told me then about the time he put out the eye of a kid at the school where he had been employed. The union had kicked him out because he taught boys in a reform school how to work with stone. Marshall was pissed at the union. Pissed at the school too because they had fired him after a girl accused him of rape. Marshall never had too much luck with schools.
Our long days often ended in arguments, and then in a drunken stupor. Jobs were paid for in cash and booze. Whenever we finished a fireplace, we would call the family around and start the tiny, sacramental first fire. The first flame always the sweetest, most memorable. This flicker was usually doused with a generous libation of Canadian Mist or Rheingold beer. A fireplace built in a bedroom, with its implications of fertility, would be an occasion for an extra-rowdy bash. Sometimes we did not make it out of the yard until the next day. I'll not forget the evening I came home and sat on the floor inside the door to take my boot off then woke up next day in the same spot to put it on again. Or walked two miles in the night in an ice storm where I slid in and out of the blind ditch, just so's I'd be on site on time. The time we were snowed in overnight in hills near Enfield and the fat girl of the house that was takin' after her grannie with three chins, made me cookies while Marshall coached her that I was quiet and shy but sweet on her. I wanted so much to stay outside that the mortar froze on my trowel. When I asked Marshall said it was settin' up real fast is all and to hurry it up. I got a cold in my back that year that ached me fiercely for another decade. This one job the owner had recently moved up from Brooklyn to the country and had cut down the dead elm tree right next to the house. He did not like the majestic looks of a dead tree. The roots rotted out, a year later Marshall and I was there in good weather to wonder at how the chimney leaned out about a half foot from the top of the house. We built fireplaces in rainstorms, ice storms, and blizzards. I slid off a roof in the middle of a snowstorm when I had gone up to cap out a chimney. I never did get frostbite.
Marshall became a stonemason at the age of 12. He said it was because a homely, one-eyed girl out back of a school playground seduced him on a Saturday night. He felt sorry for her. This would have been in the early1920s. The matronly principal of the school was only too happy to expel a boy who was overly energetic, and overly empathic towards the needs of one-eyed girls, and who was also Jewish. He always told me he was a Hebrew. He had to have been lost somewheres. Marshall began work as a bull. He carried double bags of Portland cement in the Sierra Nevada, the Devil’s Backbone, for two stonemasons who built wilderness cabins. He survived and began to learn this trade. I don't think he ever learned to read.
During World War II Marshall worked in the San Francisco shipyards where he chipped welds. He stood on a suspended two-by-twelve off the side of a ship, without safety harness, and held an 80-lb. air hammer. One day, hung 75 feet in the air, Marshall hit a particularly solid weld. If his partner hadn’t of grabbed him, Marshall would have gone down. When I worked with him, thirty years later, he still could not climb up a chimney scaffold more than four feet off the ground without he would shake the bolts out of it. I served as his upwardly mobile squirrel. It was me did the climbing for the two of us.
If he saw a jogger, Marshall would say that anyone with a real job did not have to run around to no place. He constantly complained, with creative curse words, that the youth of America were lazy, pea-brained, and indolent. I wanted to prove him wrong, and worked harder. One time this one house there was a black man with his son with a tractor. They worked all that day to plow the field across the road. It was their business and not his. Marshall was a bundle of perplexed agitation all day going from his bancum set up before the breast to the window to look out. There was no rest for this man with the worry of what terror a black farmer could possibly be conspired after. He would go on about how the blacks had taken over basketball and what next the world was going to fall to. Hell was a toughened lump of bile on his narrow racial horizon. My girlfriend at the time wanted to work with us but he would have none of it. I tried to explain to her that if she was around on the job that he would never go to the bathroom. She did not understand, besides, he said that she walked like a cowboy. He was always ready to give me advice on love. When I was fagged out from days and hours of pointing mortar and bored senseless from work on a stone house he told me the best way to get on with the hardship of work is to think about woo woo. We worked all winter on that house with the kerosene heaters burning to make us nauseous with headaches. In the spring I looked out past the canvas and saw the sun bright. I got up and walked out. It took him three days to find me.
Even though Marshall preached to me that universities only function as hotbeds of sex, drink, drugs and depravity, I spent what few free days I had in the Cornell architectural library where I read old books on stonemasonry. I convinced him to build Count Rumford style fireboxes. This was not accomplished by rational argument, or from me to show him the book with pictures, but by incremental misunderstandings and deliberate errors in my layout. Slowly making the masonry boxes shallower. Then showing him an improved draft. Marshall was always intrigued by the mystique of a strong draft in a well-built chimney.
Eventually we built what we imagined were close approximations of a Rumford design. The chimneys worked better. It sounded exotic when Marshall got into his sales pitch to the farmers in the rural counties. We built their decorative-masonry heat-machines based on colonial American thermodynamic science -- what he actually told them was an old American design he had learned in Ethiopia. Everywhere for Marshall seemed to be America, even when he spent a year in Saudi Arabia where he was dry. He told me about how they lay one concrete block per day like some people would speak of streets with gold pavers. It was his eye witness account.
We worked for this one farmer, a prosperous guy with a pallet mill, out north of Moravia. We had built a 6' wide firebox, a split cobble breast, and a raised hearth of bluestone. Marshall had spent a lot of time fussed up over this one fireplace. It had to be his best monument. We worked through all of the stones to pick the best and most interested of them. I spent an entire day to put a hole through the keystone so that we could fit the handle to the damper opener-spiral. Then we did a random flag floor, and then built a dry sink all in the same room. This was above their dairy room and had a hand-crank wood elevator to it. The farmer made real good apple cider that he kept cool in the dairy room below. Each day at the end of day he would give us each a cold tall glass. Pretty heady stuff it was. So when we got finished there we had to have a party and all the farm hands and neighbors around were invited. I met a guy that hunted rabbits. There were pitchers of the hard cider filled from the barrel brought up on the elevator.
It was not long before Marshall was fully animated, what with the first fire and the good draw on a tall chimney. He danced. Times like this I had learned it was smart to stand directly behind him because he had a tendency to fall over backwards like an ironing board let go all of a sudden. He jumped up on the hearth and danced like it was a jig, even without music, everyone watched. With their attention in hand he lit to tell the story of the stones that he had put into their fireplace. He pointed at the mother stone, it was yellow sandstone. Then he pointed out the father, a hell of a fat red igneous stone. Then onto the children in a row all the way down to the littlest baby. A family to ring the hearth of the breast. I was behind him; he kept going and did not fall. Then there was the moon stone, a heavy mother, a large chunk of natural iron that he had cursed because it would not cut. I had a crush on the farmer's daughter but would not tell her so.
One time we met a kid who had gone to a school in Holland to learn to be a stonemason. From the way this guy talked, I became convinced that to go to school would not produce a stonemason, only a talking imitation. I never saw him lift a stone (he probably would have herniated himself), but he sure could talk a good line. In my career I've met plenty of people with a desire to play with stones for a livelihood that would be better applied their meager talents to retail sales or as hair cutters. It was not often we worked projects where there were other trades and for the most part we avoided a whole lot of people. When you work like forever there is little left over for social life. This one project the block mason's brother was a carpenter who had cut off all the fingers to his hammer hand with a dado saw. It was a Saturday and his 10-year old son was there to watch. The lesson was don't drink beer and saw wood at the same time, leastways, not before noon. He had all his fingers wired back on but he had no insurance so he had to work with one arm hauling blocks for his brother. That should have been the interesting part of this story. Marshall was convinced that one of the family members on the crew had stolen his wristwatch. In the morning he cursed the block mason under his breath and I heard all of it. Towards noon he cursed the block mason's son who was mixing the mortar. Then after lunch it was their wives who brought their meals and had left an hour before. Then the almost fingerless carpenter with the real sore arm was blamed. They were by all estimations a shifty and devious clan of thieves. I was agitated to hear of such despicable actions on the part of tradesmen to do such an underhanded thing as steal a working man's watch. It was a terrible thing. I vowed to Marshall that I would observe them and that if there was any opportunity to make amends and retrieve his watch I would not hesitate to beat them all silly with the 4' level. I worried the entire night.
Next morning Marshall revealed that his wife had found his watch tucked down between his mattress and the headboard. There is always a thing to be said for a bit of patience. Some years later, moved on out of the area and no longer any threat of competition for my mentor, I had an opportunity to do a small amount of work on the facade at Carnegie Hall. I contacted the local hometown newspaper and talked them into doing a short article with a picture. I later learned that Marshall happened to be lain in hospital when the article appeared. A tree that he had been cutting down for firewood had hit him. His wife showed him the article. Marshall had been through a lot and could not remember which of his many helpers I was, but his wife reminded him that I was the one who wore funny hats. He remembered. I was told that he cried. I was glad the article mentioned him, because Marshall died in that bed. And sure enough, not many days go by that I do not hear him tell me to get to work.
First published in Stonexus.