As we near the 27th anniversary of my father’s death he has been on my mind more than usual. This issue’s story highlights another of the gifts he gave me.
This past weekend I placed 3rd in the Toastmasters International District 66 Annual Conference Table Topics competition in Virginia Beach. Another reminder there’s always room for growth.
Remember: You Matter. Your Stories Matter. Tell Them Well!
The Storytellers Channel
When The Job Is Done
I was thrilled! My daddy was a bricklayer and at 10 I was finally getting to go to work with him. By noon that day if I’d never seen another construction site for the rest of my life, it would’ve been fine with me. That wasn’t to be the case. For the next 30 years until his death, off and on, I worked beside him. For years I thought those early days had been my dad’s way of making a man out of me. Then I became a father and realized it had been our family’s version of daycare. My father employed his brother, brother-in-law, nephews and cousins, as well as, folks from church, the neighborhood and men he’d known when he was going through his apprenticeship.
My cousins and I frequently complained, “When can we go home?”
To which the men would say, “When the job’s done.”
I came to see them as the men who got the job done. The dollar a day I was paid from age 10-13 was essentially charity. I’m sure I was more of a distraction, than a contributor.
But, I hadn’t known that and when you consider I probably weighed about 75 pounds in those days and a common brick weighs 7.7 pounds; every time I moved a brick I was moving 1/10 of my body weight. I felt like I was earning my way.
By fall of 1966, big changes were in the air. I must have been contributing, because my wages had been raised to a $1/ hour. Grown adults made a dollar an hour. I’ve never felt so rich since. Of greater importance, I would be attending Thomas Jefferson High School. TJ produced large-scale musical theatre productions with a full string orchestra in the pit.
When I was 10, Rowena, a sophomore at TJ, came to live with us. She performed in the musicals and the first time I saw her on stage I knew that was what I wanted to do. I’d been performing since I was 4 and going to TJ was my dream come true.
Two years later witnessed two more landmark events. First, having already performed in three musicals at TJ, I was cast in my first professional show and that August, I got my driver’s license. I was promoted to foreman with responsibilities for securing permits, ordering materials and delivering men and materials to job sites. Along with these increased responsibilities came a raise to $2.00 an hour. Sixteen dollars went a long way in the 1968 of 30 cents a gallon gas.
I was becoming one of the men who got the job done, on and off stage, for the theatre has a similar attitude: the show must go on.
Construction is back-breaking work. You earn every dollar. When my mom would tell my dad to buy me new clothes or whatever he would look at me and say, “You know how many brick I have to lay for that.”
Daddy was a very generous man.
He used to say, “Whatever I have is yours. But, if I don’t have it; I don’t have it.”
And then he’d ask, “Do you really want it?”
Daddy didn’t see life as a zero-sum game. He believed in abundance and if I said, “Yes” he’d say, “Let’s go sell a job and make the money so you can get it.”
His entrepreneurial bent rubbed off on me and my response to life became, if you want something, go out and do what’s necessary to get it.
My uncles, cousins and the other men on the job site found my being an actor amusing. Regularly, someone would mouth off, “There he is, acting like he’s working.” This witticism was enjoyed by all. Well, everyone one but me. One of my greater acting performances in those days was not letting them see they were getting to me. For if they’d known, they’d have teased me mercilessly.
By the time the Vietnam draft ended I was a semester away from getting my Bachelor’s degree. I’d been paying my way through school working construction and assorted other jobs cobbled around my classes. I told my dad,
“I’m going to take off a semester and do an acting apprenticeship in Manassas.”
Without blinking an eye, he asked, “Can you make a living at that?”
And I responded, “I don’t know. I’m gonna try.”
For the next couple of years, I worked steadily as an actor from Washington, DC down to West Palm Beach, FL. In January of ’75, I was appearing in the first professional production of Godspell in Virginia. This was a big deal and my folks, and my godparents, Helen and Jack, drove to Norfolk to see me perform.
After the show that night, everyone was being appropriately appreciative when Daddy said, “Jack and I slipped into the theater this afternoon while y’all were rehearsing.”
“I didn’t see y’all. Why didn’t you let me know you were there?”
He said, “I would have, but I didn’t want to disturb you.”
At this time, I was performing one show at night and rehearsing the next show during the day.
He said, “We sat there for a while and I thought we’d wait for a break. Y’all would do a series of steps and I thought, ‘that looked great’ and the director would say, ‘Again’ And y’all would do it again. And he’d say, ‘Again’ and y’all would do it again.”
After a while Jack and I slipped out. I asked him, ‘Could you tell any difference?’ and he said, No.” There was a pause and then my dad said, “I never knew you worked so hard to make what you do look so effortless.”
I thanked him, but frankly I was stunned. And then I realized, over the years he’d driven me to rehearsals, he’d picked me up from rehearsals, he’d seen me perform, but he’d never seen me rehearse. I don’t think he worried about my ability to make a living after that. When he suffered his second heart attack I moved back to Richmond and for years I ran jobs for him during the day and rehearsed and performed at night. Those were 7:30 AM to 2:00 AM days. The kind of hours only a young man with a passion can maintain. For a while the men on the job site continued the old joke about me acting like I was working.
Every now and then, Daddy would comment, “Almost as hard as when he’s acting.”
Eventually, almost every one of those men saw me perform at one time or another but the new refrain became, “Gayle, Wake Up!” as some afternoons I would doze off driving us home, before I would shower, change and head off to the theater for after all, the show must go on.
My career has taken me from theatre to advertising to consulting and now with The Storytellers Channel back to the world of the performing arts. Throughout out it all, I continue to remember my father and his men.
Those who have worked with me over the years have learned,
“We go home when the job is done.”
Thank you, Daddy.
I Want to Hear from You
Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org and let me know what storytelling topics you’d like me to explore.
Til next time,