What do you want to be when you grow up?”
When I was small, adults loved to ask kids this question because the answer would probably be pretty amusing. I’m sure adults still ask it. The boys would say, “a jet pilot” or “a cowboy” or “a fireman.” The girls would say (this was back in the 50’s) “I want to be a Mommy!”
But about the time a person is getting ready to graduate from High School, that question takes on a lot more serious tone. The human community requires a vast array of skills and talents, every member contributing their own expertise to help the commonality move forward. In Middle School and High School every student takes aptitude tests (Would you prefer sitting in an office adding up columns of numbers or working in a forest cutting down trees with a chain saw?). But eventually, every person making the leap from school to real life must choose a pigeonhole to fit themselves into.
I decided, when I was sixteen, that I wanted to be involved in Entertainment either as a Writer or a Performer. This was not a popular decision, especially with the Old Man. He felt that I would come to my senses when I got to college. A few years later I enrolled. My Adviser’s advice was that if I wanted to write, I should major in Journalism. Not long after I had declared the major, it quickly became apparent that the rules of Journalism and I would forever be at odds. A reporter is expected to write only the Truth. He can’t “make a few things up” just to make it a good story. Being a lifelong story-embroiderer, I dropped out of the Journalism school. And since I didn’t see anything else there that I wanted to learn, I dropped out of the University of Wyoming as well.
After that I spent some time trying to be a professional Cartoonist. There were only two relatively minor problems with this plan. I couldn’t draw very well and I couldn’t come up with any decent jokes. Then, for a short time, I owned and operated a health food store in Laramie called “The Good Grits Granary.” Although I didn’t make any money at this, at least I didn’t starve. I had all the brown rice and buckwheat groats I could eat. And in the end I was able to sell it for enough money to buy a pair of conga drums.
By then I had been practicing the Transcendental Meditation technique for a couple of years and I decided that what I really wanted to do was to study with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and learn to be a TM teacher. I can remember taking my cleaned-up self and newly-cut hair out to the Old Man’s house for dinner. I told him that I had finally found my purpose in life and that I was going to bring enlightenment to the State of Wyoming.
He listened to my happy babble, then said, “Tell me something, have you given any thought to becoming a useful member of society?”
I did spend the next two years traveling around the State teaching meditation courses, then passed the torch to younger and more eager TM teachers and eventually found myself in Denver. That was when I decided that while I kept up the search for What I Really Wanted to do When I Grew Up, I really ought to come up with a fairly reliable way to keep a roof over my head and food in my belly. I decided that I would learn to be a Carpenter.
There are several ways to learn the Woodbutcher trade. If your Uncle Charlie has a construction company, you can get him to hire you as a helper and then work your way up. Or if you know somebody in the Carpenters Union who can pull a few strings and get you an apprenticeship, you can start there. Or you might want to go into debt and attend a Trade School. Or you can take the knucklehead route, like I did, and lie. I read a couple of books on home construction, bought a used tool belt and filled it full of hand tools, then went to a local job site (Housing was a boom industry in Denver in those days) and gave them a short list of concocted places where I’d accumulated “experience.” After I was hired I tried to learn all I could before they fired me. When they did, I went out and applied elsewhere. By the second or third project, a foreman reluctantly decided to let me stay and for the next forty years I made a living cutting wood and pounding nails.
While I was in Denver (framing tract homes) I took some Improvisational Comedy courses and once again started jonesing for a Show Business career. Soon I was in Los Angeles trying to be a standup comedian (that nightmarish journey needs a blog post all its own*). My day job during that time was constructing redwood decks. A few years later I was living in Chicago, writing book and lyrics for Musical Theater productions while I built fireplace surrounds and wooden staircases for a gay-owned construction company. Not long after that I was back in LA, now married, installing whole kitchens full of factory-made cabinets and writing screenplays that nobody wanted to take the time to read. Looking back, my life story seems to be one of me chasing one rainbow after another, always leaving a trail of sawdust behind me.
Whenever a Contractor gets a remodeling job, it almost invariably requires some demolition. Whether you are removing a wall to make one big room out of two small ones, insulating and re-siding a house, or adding an addition to an existing structure, you will have to do some, or a lot of, demolition.
Demo is hard, grubby work that no skilled Carpenter likes to do. But, to make sure it’s done right, he usually ends up doing it himself. The only way to make it fun is to pretend that you might find some kind of hidden treasure within the walls or under the floor. For more than thirty years I pulled chunks of plaster down on my head, pried old cabinets off the wall, and cleaned wooden lath from old, hairy studs with a sledgehammer, always looking carefully at the formerly hidden spaces to see if they held any secrets. Over the years I found various coins, several empty whiskey bottles, a pair of long, black women’s stockings, lots of old newspapers, and even an 80 year-old bill of construction materials. In short, a lot of semi-interesting stuff, but never anything that would qualify as “buried treasure.”
Then in the Spring of 2007 I began a full kitchen remodel job. It was in a condo in Playa Del Rey, one of LA’s string of beach communities. The client was a single man, the classic introverted software engineer, who had bought the place almost 20 years before and had done very little to it. He had recently replaced the refrigerator when it broke down, but the stove and dishwasher were the Avocado Green originals. My contract was to remove and dispose of everything except the new refrigerator, including the floor tile, then install all the new things he had picked out and ordered – cabinets, countertops, tile, sink, appliances, and backsplash.
The first job was to haul out the old appliances, but the stove would not move. Sometime in the past, someone had put a new layer of ceramic tile on the floor and instead of removing the stove, they had run the tile an inch or so under the appliance and called it good. By doing so, they had covered the feet of the stove with adhesive, tile, and grout. Over the years it had hardened up and firmly attached the stove to the floor. So I removed all the cabinets, then started tearing up the tile. When I had finally freed the feet of the stove, I used a crowbar to pop it up off the floor, then I picked it up and set it back down a few feet away. There on the floor were three heavy muslin cloth bags. They had been sitting underneath that stove for a long time.
I made a little table out of a scrap of plywood and two sawhorses, hefted the weighty bags up onto it, and unloaded them. They contained sixteen rolls of Mexican Silver Onzas, twenty coins in a roll. Each of these solid silver coins, i found out later, was worth about $13.00. I had just pulled more than four thousand dollars out from under that old stove.
Now the proverbial angel on one shoulder and the proverbial devil on the other began a full-on donnybrook that left my conscience bruised and my stomach queasy. On the one hand, I could just carry the whole lot out to my truck and never mention it to my client. That he had not himself removed them before I began the demo made it clear that he had no idea that they were there. But could I live with myself if I did that? But on the other hand, could I just say, “Look what I found. They’re in your house, so they must be yours. Congratulations!” Could I do that and not sneer at myself in the mirror, “You milktoast weenie. What the Hell is wrong with you?”
That evening, when my client got home from work, I was waiting for him. The piles of Onzas were still on the little makeshift table. I described to him where they had been and how I had found them. Then I said, “If you want all of them, I won’t argue. But I’m proposing that we split them down the middle, half for you and half for me.” He agreed and we shook hands on it.
As we were counting out the split, he told me that he had bought the condo from the family of an old man who had died there. All the silver coins were dated 1987 and he’d bought the place in 1988. We decided that the old man must have purchased the coins and squirreled them away against some emergency. Either out of forgetfulness or spite he then neglected to tell his family.
Even now I haven’t yet figured out what I really ought to be when I grow up, but I also haven’t given up trying to find out. Now and then I toy with the thought that what Nature intended for me all along was to be a “Treasure Hunter.” And in that one afternoon in 2007, I shot my bolt.