How I Became An Eyeguy; Or, It’s All In The Wrist

Regarding the various times that I worked construction jobs while in school, there are really only two words that need to be said.

I’m sorry.

Sorry for the outlet covers that were put on upside down, sorry for the insulation that wasn’t stapled in correctly, sorry for that door that just won’t shut quite right.

In numerous subdivisions and neighborhoods throughout the Southeast United States, homeowners are starting to do a double take at some of the so-called “quality craftsmanship” of their suburban executive homes and declare: “Who the @%#$&*! put this thing together?!”

Uh, that would be me, and I like I said, I’m sorry.

But you see, that’s what you get when some jackleg contractor decides to slap together as many houses as possible in no time flat. They hire cheap, inexperienced laborers, some of them with fresh college degrees, to pick up building supplies in old, dilapidated pickup trucks with no air conditioning, huge holes in the mufflers (if there’s a muffler at all) and three speeds on the column which are really only two and half since the shifter always sticks just when you get ‘er up to about 45 mph.

And after picking up 2x4s at Lowes, the contractors task those workers with jobs which in a perfect world would only be performed by experienced, unionized master craftsmen. The result is a house which looks Southern Living-perfect from a distance but will stay that way only if you’re not too concerned about fine details like trim that reaches all the way to end of the wall and if you don’t lean too hard on the banister rail.

The first time I worked construction was in Searcy, Arkansas in the spring of 1985. I had taken a leave of absence from the PhD program in clinical psychology at Virginia Tech in order to “find myself” and figure out if I had chosen the right career path. I figured a little time getting in touch with my “inner blue collar working guy” would do the trick. Well, that, and I was engaged to be married to the future Eyegal who was finishing up her senior year at Harding.

So I found a room to rent for the spring and a job working construction for a relatively young Harding grad who was a contractor and shall remain nameless, although his last name did closely resemble that of a semiaquatic rodent known for building dams in the darnedest places. There I was, one year out of college, basically a graduate school dropout, working a $5 an hour construction job (hey, it was good money in ’85), with no immediate prospects. My future father-in-law looked on anxiously at all this, and to his credit, he didn’t say a word (to me, anyway).

That entire spring can be summed up simply by describing my first morning on the job. I was dropped off at a new house project with instructions to work with a crew of brick masons and do whatever they asked me to do. I was told to start sweeping the mortar dust from some of the sidewalks and had been doing that for just a few minutes when the entire crew decided to take a break. Since I was now an official brickmason’s assistant and a valuable member of Team Mortar, I decided to take a break as well.

That didn’t go over very well with the furry rodent, uh, I mean The Boss Man, when he stopped back by a few minutes later. He yelled at me for slacking off already and told me to get back to work. I started to protest, summoning all the rhetorical skill of my bachelor of arts degree, but then I decided to let it go. Even the mortar guys thought it was a little unfair since they were taking a break too, but nobody exactly leaped to my defense.

Later that morning, I actually got to stick a shovel in a wheelbarrow full or mortar. I was supposed to heave it up onto some scaffolding where the masons were, but nobody told me about how hard I needed to turn my wrist in order for the mortar to land where it was supposed to.

You probably know where this is going by now. Down came the entire shovelful of mortar on my head. Oh, the hoots, hollers and catcalls which followed: “Whoo Hoo, check out the COLLEGE BOY, evra’body!”

Mercifully, they came up with something else for me to do after I had cleaned off a little. As the future Eyegal helped pick the dried mortar from my hair while feeding me dinner at the threshold of the door to her apartment later that evening (I say the threshold because that’s where I was sitting since Harding rules did not allow so much as my big toenail inside the door), I knew then and there that there was no future for me in brick masonry. No siree, I was going to have to find myself a career more suited to my talents and gifts, preferably one that didn’t involve shovels.

So one afternoon I told the supervisor that I needed to find my calling in life and asked if I could knock off for the afternoon and go over to the Harding career library. By that time I had developed quite a reputation as a handyman and figured that he would say no since he couldn’t do without my help, so imagine my surprise when his face lit up and he exclaimed, “Yes! And oh, by the way, take as much time as you need.”

Once there, I had spent a few minutes thumbing through career pamphlets when I spied a slick little brochure from the American Optometric Association entitled “Your Future in Optometry.” I had never even considered becoming an optometrist before, but after a few minutes reading, I was hooked.

I decided then and there that I would become an Eyeguy and spend the rest of my life actually working on something that I could fix with my hands and be done with it rather than spinning my wheels doing psychotherapy or shoveling mortar. Not that there’s anything wrong with either of those things.

Over the years, I’ve had several third-generation optometrists as students, people who knew from the time of their earliest memories that they would carry on the family tradition. When they’ve learned that I decided on optometry as a career in about 15 minutes after reading a brochure, they usually sit there silently, their mouths agape, thinking, How could anyone have put so little time and thought into choosing their career?

I’ll tell you how. Sometimes you’re so desperate that you just have to make a decision and go with it. I bet none of them had ever picked dried mortar from their hair.

I worked with the brick masons several more times that spring. By the end they had actually grown quite fond of me, and when I told them that I had decided to become an optometrist, there was much rejoicing. They reassured me that they thought it was a very good career move.

I worked construction jobs a couple more times while in optometry school, but by then I was well on my way to a white collar, air conditioned professional career. I endured those 100 degree Birmingham summers well because I knew that the day was coming soon when I would be rid of my “scut work” jobs forever and I would finally get the respect that I deserved.

Or so I thought.

To be continued…

  1. Donna

    Love these stories…can’t wait for the next installment.

  2. Hal

    Great post. I did several home improvement jobs during my summers in college/grad school. Masonry ranks right up there as one of my least favorite jobs – along with roofing.

  3. Mike the Eyeguy

    Oh yeah, thanks for reminding me, Hal.

    Sorry for the leaky roofs, too.

  4. Brady

    You didn’t help build any of those houses out by the golf course on the east side of town, did you? There’s this door on the 17 hole that has a gap in the frame and…

  5. Mike the Eyeguy

    Nope, I can’t claim any of those. But I did mangle a few new homes over on the west side of town by The Searcy Country Club.

  6. Stoogelover

    I enjoyed this! I’ve done the construction work and spent a summer cutting lumber in and around Birmingham … not fun!

  7. Mike the Eyeguy

    At least you can rest assured that I didn’t touch that house that you’re in the process of buying out in Southern Cal.

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