Bass Mitchell: The Signs, part 1

Bass Mitchell

Editor’s note:  This the first of four parts of guest columnist Bass Mitchell’s column titled “The Signs.”  Read Part 2 in the Oct. 2 edition.

My father was a carpenter, a good one. He built houses. He did renovations. He took whatever carpentry jobs he could find. There were five kids in the family and we were always in need of something. Back in the 1960s, it wasn’t any easier to rear a family, especially a large one, than it is today. Might have been tougher. It was the time of Martin Luther King Jr., the Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam, college protests, desegregation…there was a great deal of unrest in our country. I was entering my early teens and was beginning to be exposed to the larger world about me. Little did I know that soon I would be transported back to some of the most painful times in our national history.

It began when my father got a job renovating a large, multi-storied building. He was excited because he knew it would provide work for many months, and might even lead to other jobs.

Having failed at finding reliable help, he often took me with him (which shows how desperate he was). I didn’t even know how to use a hammer, at least properly. Do you know that it’s not easy using a hammer? It takes some guidance and practice. It’s also kind-of important to not hit the wrong nail, you know, a fingernail. I learned that the hard way. Dad called it, “The sickening thud.”

I was useful in going to the truck to get a tool or something else he needed, saving him some time and energy. Yes, I sometimes brought back the wrong tool. Do you also know just how many different kinds of tools there are?

In time, and under his tutelage, I learned how to use a hammer and a lot of other tools. I confess, however, that when it came to carpentry I was not a quick study. Looking back now, there have been many times when having more carpentry knowledge and skills sure would have come in handy.

To the younger generation, I would strongly recommend that you pay attention to your parents in this (as well as other things) – for they possess knowledge and expertise that you most certainly will find some use for in your future if not the present.

I don’t know how old this particular building was, only that it had been built well before World War II. Some company had purchased it and wanted it turned into office and storage space. The whole exterior was brick, pretty old ones Dad said. The walkways leading around it were also brick. The front steps leading inside were brick in a kind of half circle with an iron railing in the middle that needed scarping and fresh black paint. The front doors were wooden, quite large, and their white paint was weathered. It felt like this had been an important place, a building where important things happened.

There were a number of unusual things that happened when we were working there. I was replacing some of the bricks used for the walkways one day. When I lifted one that was partly cracked, I saw something stuck to the bottom of it. It was covered with red soil of some kind so I couldn’t make it out at first. I pried it off the brick and began to clean it. It was a coin. An old one. I could clearly see the date of 1861. It was a Silver Cent. I could hardly believe that resting in my hand, unseen for who knows how long, was a coin that was around when Abraham Lincoln was president. The crazy thought crossed my mind that maybe he dropped it! Well, OK, but it is possible, right?

Something else happened but a bit scary. We had to go underneath the building one day. We removed a small outside door to get to the crawlspace. It was dark under there and Dad had sent me to the truck to get a flashlight. Yes, smarty, I did know what a flashlight was, except I didn’t check to see if the batteries were okay. They weren’t, so I had to make another trip.

Having finally fetched a working flashlight, I handed it to Dad who crawled in first, with me following. We had not gotten very far when he said, “Stop! Back out!” It was not a suggestion. So I did, thinking that maybe there was some animal or snake under there, motivating me to back out much faster than I had entered. He stayed for a moment and I was getting concerned. Finally, he crawled out, holding two objects in his hands…