Note: If you’re one of my youngsters, the following is required reading. For the rest of you, it’s nearly 1,200 words so if you’re interested, grab a cup of coffee and join me in some reminiscing. I hope you find it worthwhile.

Dad is resting in peace but he was born 90 years ago today.

While digging around in old tools and other stuff I found this string line.  It has been around 40 years since Dad wound this up.  I don’t plan to ever unwind it. It’s fascinating how something so simple  --  a ball of string -- includes so many life lessons that I learned from him. If you can see the labels in the picture, they help share the lessons.

A. Efficiency

You might simply see a ball of string. It’s probably 30 feet or so, cut off of a much longer spool.  If the string is too long, it becomes a chore to keep it wound up and out of the way. Besides, as you’ll see below, it’s going to be pulled taut for measuring. Too long of a span would result in a sag so there’s no need to manage a longer strand.

Look carefully, where the arrow is pointing.  Notice how the line is wrapped at an angle so that each wrap traverses from one end of the spool to the other. Dad showed me how to wrap it that way for speed. Each hand motion winds up 8 to 10 inches of string. If I were to wrap it directly around the spool, each motion only wraps  3 or 4 inches. The traverse angle easily halves the time required to roll up the string.

When laying brick/block, Dad expected efficiency. My job, as a bricklayer’s helper, was to make sure that he never had to stop, at least until he was ready to, which was basically never.  When we were working on pace, I would keep the blocks stacked in front of him (with all the ears pointed the same way). I was also in charge of mixing the mud (mortar).  The process was simple, and non stop: Stack enough blocks to keep him busy, sling mud, “shaking” it as necessary to keep it at the right consistency. I would get ahead of him with the blocks and mud,  in order to have time to mix up the next batch of mud. I never, ever wanted to hear him holler “mud!” That meant that I had wasted motion somewhere.

All my life, I’ve tried to find the most efficient way to get things done. Each motion deserves a thought, a plan, a direction.  I can’t say that I’ve always been good at it, but it wasn’t because I didn’t try.

Trivia note: Sometimes, we had a power mixer but other times, I mixed mortar in a mortar pan (bigger than a bathtub) using a two eyed mud hoe.  Hand mixing the mortar, while keeping up with a brick magician like dad assured that I never, ever lost an arm wrestling match.  ;-)

B: Quality matters.

Notice that it’s a braided string (actually referred to as “mason’s line”). This is not cheap twisted twine. Masonry is coarse stuff so the line would be constantly subjected to abrasion. Mere twine quickly frays and becomes useless but a braided line keeps its strength much longer.  When laying brick and block, that string line has to be pulled very taut to keep it straight. If the string sags, your whole wall will sag as you lay course upon course.

When starting a wall, dad would be very meticulous about building up true corners. He would lay 4 or 5 blocks along a straight line marked on the foundation. Using a 4 foot wooden level, he would make sure those blocks lined up perfectly on all planes, keeping the bubble perfectly flat.  Then, he would lay another course on top, one block shorter, using the same careful process. Then a third course, then a fourth, according to how much he expected to get done that day.

He would move to the other end of the wall and repeat the process. Those corners would be sturdy and immovable, providing the template for all the blocks in between.  With trued corners in place, he would pull that string line taut from one corner to the other, lining it precisely along the top edge of the course of block he was laying. Importantly, the string was just about ⅛” above the edge of the blocks as they were being laid.  If anything disturbed the string, if anything pushed it aside, it would send the wall off course, causing a wide, barely perceptible bow in the wall which would reduce its strength and cause innumerable problems later on.

As you may already know, this is very much how I think. I start by defining what is true. Decisions and ideas that fill in between the corners are easy because I start with true. I’m not saying that I always get my true corners right but I’m not going to waver from them unless I find out I messed up to begin with. And, yes, if you ever thought you were arguing with a brick wall you now know why.   :D

C. Stability

That strap of galvanized metal is a wall tie.  Dad just called them ties. Standing alone, a brick wall (technically, it’s just a veneer), is not very sturdy.  Each tie is held in place by a nail through the wall sheathing, into the wooden studs at staggered locations along the wall. As the courses of brick are laid, the free end of the tie is bent across the top of the brick and embedded in the mortar, with another brick laid on top of it.

Now, I’m about to expose myself for sure.  Do you see the corrugations in that tie? That wavy shape is there for one reason: Friction.  Mortar is sturdy but not very flexible.  If the tie were simply flat metal, it could easily be pulled straight out of the dried mortar, leaving a thin slot where the tie was. The corrugations keep the ties in place, making sure they hold fast.

If you think I’m always itching for a debate, that’s because I recognize the importance of friction in keeping things together. I remember conversations with dad where he would not settle for a “yep” answer.  Why did I think the way I did? How did I come up with the answer. Why? I’m not going to blindly agree with a premise without first having a debate. I’ll debate you, or myself but there has to be thought put into a decision.  Always remember: the followers of Jim Jones didn’t question him. They popularized the term “drinking the Kool-Aid.”

We know that friction causes heat. LaVonne will tell you so.  ;-)  But that’s just part our life. And guess what, we raised our kids to be the same way. Unfortunately, for me anyway, my kids turned out smarter than me so sometimes I’m in a real pickle at debate time!

I was amazed to find out how much of my life story was told in that simple ball of string.  But there’s one more facet that it explains very well.  The fact that I can spend this much time ruminating over a ball of string explains why I can’t get rid of all the crap in my backyard!

:D