“Tricks of the Trade”
© 2015 John C. Merino
When my father returned from World War II in 1945, he picked up where he had left off.
He was a “Brickie”………having done his apprenticeship as a stone mason with Scrufari Construction in Niagara Falls in the late 1930’s, before being drafted. It was his father’s trade, too.
He formed a small construction company, sub contracting for work with home builders and families…..building gorgeous backyard brick fire places and skinning the exteriors of dozens of ranch homes being built in the first post WWII subdivisions from 90th to 103rd streets off what was then Pine Avenue.
His fire places were extraordinary. Brick set at angles creating a herringbone affect, their mantles double coursed………no joint un-raked……not a drop of mortar spilled. They were truly mini works of art.
I would go with him on occasion when I was 5 or 6 years old……..usually Saturday mornings. He would pull his scaffolding out of the bed of his 1946 Chevy pickup, assemble it and sit me next to him as he laid course after course of brick, skinning a sidewall or building the chimney.
I would be strapped to the scaffold with his thick leather belt, a pile of brick to my right, the mortar to his left. My job was to hand him the bricks………one after another as he “buttered” them and put them in place. He would call me a “working man” and on the way home we’d stop by Greenwalds’ for a burger and the best vanilla shakes I’ve ever had.
One developer contracted my father to build the fireplaces and skin the houses in his new subdivision. If memory serves, there were 10 or 12 homes. It was a big contract for the time and my uncle Austy would sometimes work with Pa………..just the two of them………mixing the troughs of mortar, piling the brick on the scaffold, skinning an exterior wall in a day. The quicker they moved, the more they made.
There was, however, one problem. This developer never paid on time. My father would wait………sometimes months………….to get his money. Like most sub contractors, he was at the mercy of the developer who promised to pay as soon as the purchase closings were complete.
The work lasted well in to the autumn, some years. The new owners moving in typically just before the onset of winter…………and even then, my father couldn’t get the money he was owed.
The winter came, and several of the homes were now occupied…………the families thrilled with their new knotty pine kitchen cupboards and Marlite counter tops. The fireplaces ready to be burned with the half chord of wood gifted to each family by the developer.
On Christmas Eve morning of 1957, the developer called. “John”, he said, “we’ve got a problem”. Several of the families had stoked their fires, having opened the flews checking for a clear chimney and then looking to celebrate the holiday in style….lit their fires.
“The problem” as defined on the phone, was that the smoke filled the living rooms. It wouldn’t go up the chimney and people were opening doors and windows, turning on fans, trying to put the fires out and de-smoke their freshly painted new homes.
“I can go over and see what the problem is”, my father told him, “but you owe me $4,000.00 dollars and I’ve been waiting for months to get paid”.
“Come by the office” the developer told him, “and I’ll give you a check”. “I don’t think so”, Pa said. The checks he’d received in the past bounced……….another developer trick for which the excuse was, “the whole thing is the banks fault”.
“Well where am I supposed to get that much cash on Christmas Eve, for Christ’s sake”?
“Not my problem”, Pa told him. The developer called back twenty minutes later. He had the cash and I went with my father to pick it up. They had some words………..mostly in Italian, but none sounded like Merry Christmas to me.
Pa assured him he would immediately go the homes and correct the problem………his pocket bulging with twenty dollar bills.
We drove over in the 1946 Chevy pickup. A ladder, clothes line and 1 brick was the only equipment he brought.
He crawled up on the roofs, hovering over the chimneys and tying the single brick to the clothes line, dropped it down the chimney. He had mortared a single pane of glass mid way up the chimney. When you looked for obstructions from either the top or bottom, all you saw was light.
The brick, tied to the clothes line, would be dropped down the chimney, crashing through the glass, and low and behold, the problem was resolved.
Pa wouldn’t take work from him again and his “Christmas Chimney” trick became the stuff of legend at the Brick Layers union hall…………told and told again.
While visiting with family during my father’s wake, his carpenter friend Frank Forgoine told the story to a group of old Italian tradesmen standing at the rear of the funeral parlor. The laughs drew everyone’s attention and Frank had to tell it to the entire room, taking the sadness of that afternoon and wrapping it in chortles and guffaws……….telling everyone that when he asked my father where he got that idea, Pa responded……”It’s the tricks of the trade”.
I’m John Merino and this is American Chronicles.
American Chronicles is a bi-weekly locally produced feature on WRFA written and produced by retired Gebbie Foundation CEO, John C. Merino. Currently, John is an Adjunct Professor of Micro-Economics, Organizational Management, and 20th Century World History at Mercyhurst University. American Chronicles airs twice monthly, Friday mornings at 7:15 and Friday Afternoons at 4:35. American Chronicles features original stories (partly fact and partly fiction), commentary on local, state , national, world conditions and more.
Find past episodes at www.wrfalp.com/tag/american-chronicles/