Rick Schwolsky, Editor-in-Chief
Rick Schwolsky, Editor-in-Chief

The police cars pulled up just as I was finishing the last raw hotdog. I was only 7 years old and wasn't allowed to light fires, so raw meat was a perfect outlaw dinner. And until the cops came, this construction site was a perfect hideout. I had burrowed into a big pile of topsoil, dragged in some scrap plywood and 2x4s, and propped and braced the walls and ceiling like the gold mines I'd seen on television. The cops were impressed. My parents? Let's just say my building career was put on hold for a while.

But not for long. As a kid I knew every construction site within reach of my beat-up bike. Framing fascinated me. I loved lumber. Carpenters were my heroes. I'd watch in awe and envy as every wall enclosed a room, every rafter defined a roofline, and every new house turned into somebody's new home. At first I was too shy to talk to the carpenters, so I'd wait until after hours to explore their work--their world. I knew somehow that I was born to build.

I'd have to wait eight more years until I turned 15 before I could join the ranks for real. I'll never forget that day. It's a miracle I ever wanted to see another jobsite again, let alone spend my life building as I have. I found out pretty quickly that before I could collect my first paycheck, I had to endure my first reality check.

Here's how my first day went. I missed my ride and had to ask my father to bring me to work, which made me even later because I made him drop me off about a mile away where nobody could see. My boss seemed pretty busy, so I wandered around watching guys prepare to pour a basement slab, until it became very clear that they expected me to do something. (Whatever happened to orientation day?) The good news was that all the P-stone was already in place. The bad news was that 32 yards of very wet concrete were going to slide down a chute through the only accessible window in the basement, and half of that into a single, lonely blue wheelbarrow. Can you guess the rest?

Running on shear adrenaline, I somehow managed to keep up with the crew until break time. That's when I realized I had forgotten my break food, which was still sitting on the kitchen counter right next too....my lunch. I'd also forgotten my work gloves, water, and any bail or bribery money it now seemed I might need. So, after a hearty 5-minute rest I proceeded to dump a full wheelbarrow load of concrete down my new boss's legs and into his boots. He took it pretty well though. Instead of punching me he merely pushed me face first into a nicely finished slab, which only took a couple of guys about a half hour to patch up.

Time never moved so slowly. By the time we'd finished I'd expected it to be dark, but it was only lunchtime. I collapsed onto a pile of lumber, watched everyone eat, eyed the raw open sores on my hands, and started thinking about doing better in school. My career was at a crossroads.

Fortunately, it all came together for me, and years later when my own wannabe carpenters would show up for their rookie seasons, I'd think back to my own first day and try to break them in a little easier. But I'd let them know without a doubt that there was work to do. There's nothing wrong with hard work, high expectations, commitment, and a reality check when chasing your dreams. It's how you know you're in the right place. It's how I still know I was born to build.

Were you born to build? Tell me about your first day in construction and how it shaped your career. E-mail your stories to rschwolsky@hanley-wood.com.

Rick Schwolsky