I was fifteen the summer I worked for Old Tom, a tall, gangly, yet extremely powerful man with seemingly limitless energy. Technically, I guess I worked for my Aunt Nancy, who hired Old Tom to build a house looking down on a small lake in Ontario. My aunt had retired from her job as a social worker in Toronto and planned to live in the house with her companion Isobel, once Old Tom finished building it.
The house should have been completed by the summer I arrived but Old Tom apparently had neglected to place a strong enough brace on one of the corners and the heavy snowfall that winter had caused that corner to give and the entire roof came crashing down inside. One might wonder why Old Tom was still working for my aunt after that, but the simple answer was it was such a remote place there was really no one else, and nobody came close to challenging Old Tom’s legendary skills as a jack-of-all-trades when it came to construction work and the like. Besides, Aunt Nancy was a trusting, forgiving person and accepted the premise that anybody can make a mistake. And, she liked Old Tom, with his mischievous Irish smile and clever blue eyes, and the fact that he was the hardest worker she had ever known.
The property the house was to be on was left by my grandfather, Gramp, to my mother and Aunt Nancy, each getting half. It was in a rather isolated area, up north from Highway 7, a two lane road, about equal distance between Toronto and Ottawa, with each city about a three hour drive away. The town where my aunt planned to live wasn’t really a town, there were no stores to speak of, only a local inn, where one could get a hamburger and a beer, and a couple postcards, if desired, and people lived down off the main road spread out in houses on dirt or gravel roads. The population was less than a hundred at the time, though there was a lodge on another lake and many who came up to the area in the summer to their cottages.
That summer, my aunt, and Isobel, and myself stayed in Old Tom’s previous house, which I actually liked better than his current house, located about a five minute walk out and across a field and up from where we were. Both Old Tom’s old house and the new one, which he had built to live in with his wife and son, didn’t have running water, though we had electricity, but Old Tom still didn’t. The watering hole was also just outside our place, which was more of a shack with hideous green shingles, while Old Tom’s son was forced to walk down across the field, a fair distance, especially while carrying heavy buckets of water, making a couple trips a day.
I was initially intimidated by Old Tom and wanted to prove that I was a hard worker. Old Tom was originally from England, where he stowed away on a ship heading for Canada when he was fourteen. His father had been a man of the sea and was killed when a mast came crashing down and he happened to be in the way. I don’t know what happened to Old Tom’s mother but I think she died from a spreading fever in a crowded neighborhood, or slum might be a better word, in Liverpool, just before Old Tom decided to get out and see the world.
Old Tom told me he had been in every jail in North America, which proved his tendency to exaggerate. One thing that was more true than not was how he got married to Nellie, a quiet woman who would be described as mentally limited in contemporary terminology, but to all at the time, was said to be retarded, but never within the hearing of Old Tom. In any case, Old Tom was the last man to be sentenced to be hanged for horse theft in Napanee County and was actually sitting on a horse with a noose around his neck when he was given the choice to marry Nellie or leave this world at the end of a rope.
So, Old Tom married Nellie, and they had four children, two sons and two daughters, with only their son, Tommy, whom I called Son of Tom, taking after his mother. The near hanging turned out to be a put up affair by Nellie’s three brothers who were desperate to marry off their sister. The horse was theirs, and never left its field, but the word and accusations of three well-known, powerful brothers, who were also related to the judge in a small rural community determined the outcome for Old Tom before he could get back home, which was about sixty miles away.
Old Tom wasn’t a complainer, he took everything in stride, accepting mishaps like he would the weather, something you might not like at the moment, but also something you couldn’t control, so you got through the bad as best you could, waiting for the arrival of better days. Old Tom also believed strongly in being self-sufficient, but he didn’t seem to recognize he was living in the latter part of the twentieth century instead of the late 1800s, where his sensibility and point of reference was still very much in tune. He was a stubborn man and didn’t suffer fools lightly, so I was relieved that he took a genuine liking to me.
We worked five days a week, arriving at the site of the house in a pickup truck, with Old Tom driving, while Son of Tom and I sat in the back. Old Tom was joined by Bob Dowdle, a friend who was working with Old Tom to pay off a favor Old Tom did by working on Bob’s farm at harvest time the year before.
Bob was a gigantic bulk of a man, his body like a perfectly proportioned concrete block, and he had one of the largest heads I’d ever seen, but it didn’t seem abnormal because of his sheer size. He was shorter than Old Tom, though I think he would have made a formidable opponent in a fight. Old Tom had told me he had only lost one fight in his life, and that was to a midget on an elevated sidewalk somewhere in Saskatchewan, which seemed somewhat hard to believe.
I have no idea why but Bob Dowdle also took a liking to me. One day he showed up with a pair of glasses, genuinely beaming as if he had just received the best toy a kid could ever want.
“Do you want to see how good I can see now?” he said to me.
I wasn’t sure what to make of that.
“Come here,” Bob Dowdle said, beckoning me over.
He handed me his glasses, “Put them on and take a look,” he said.
I took the glasses from Bob Dowdle.
“See how good I can see now?” Bob said in an excited voice.
I was tempted for a moment to explain everyone didn’t have the same eyesight so I could never know what his vision was like, but it was too complicated to expalin, and Bob Dowdle was so happy, so what would be the point?
There we were, the four of us, Old Tom, Bob Dowdle, Son of Tom, and myself working to build a house for my aunt. Old Tom was amazingly limber, and he moved like a young man and certainly not someone over seventy. He was a master with tools, and despite the roof collapsing the prior winter, it was obvious Old Tom knew what he was doing.
Son of Tom and I were the hindrances on the team, though Son of Tom could at least use a hammer much better than I could. I never knew where one bought such clothes but Son of Tom was always dressed in a greenish-blue work shirt and pants, similar to what you might see a mechanic wearing in a movie from the 1940s. He had a lopsided grin, which was a goofy grin to begin with, and he was already missing most of his teeth. I knew he was thirty but if someone said he was fifty that would have been plausible given his uncomprehending face and his stubble covered chin.
Old Tom and Bob Dowdle did most of the work, and they were tolerant of me, accepting me in good fun as the “fetcher,” in which I would be called on to fetch this or that. I think because I was willing to work, and also didn’t act like I was better than anyone, which, in truth, I didn’t think I was, Old Tom eventually accepted me as part of his work crew.
One day he handed me a coffee can filled with crooked and twisted nails. Old Tom didn’t believe in waste so he had me sit on a rock with a hammer and try to straighten each nail out as best I could.
We usually worked from eight in the morning until around six. I was generally exhausted but Old Tom still had a project he worked on whenever he could find the time. He wanted running water so he was digging a large rectangular ditch by the side of his house where a septic tank could be placed.
My aunt tried to explain to Old Tom that his work would be for naught because even though the area was sparsely populated and seemed almost as if it was still in the previous century, meaning the nineteenth, there were public Provincial inspectors and such who would be required to approve anything Old Tom did.
“I know what I’m doing,” Old Tom said, while continuing to dig.
“I know you do,” my aunt said, “but that doesn’t mean the government guys will.”
“I’ve lived and worked a long time without government around and I reckon I don’t need them for something I can do myself.”
I didn’t know until my aunt told me that inspectors from the Provincial Public Works Department had already been by and given Old Tom two citations for violating certain standards. Old Tom ripped the citations up, as was expected, and nobody paid him much mind because all knew he would never complete his septic tank project. It was obvious to everyone, and maybe even deep inside to Old Tom, that he needed to hire professionals to do the job to meet all the required specifications.
Old Tom started to accept me after the first Saturday night when I showed I could almost keep up with him beer for beer. Every Saturday night was Northbrook Saloon night, a large bar with no frills, simply wooden tables and chairs, one town over. It was an old time saloon, even had a door on the side designated for “Ladies and Escorts.”
All the locals would gather at the Northbrook Saloon that one night a week. The evening would start out quiet, and then conversation would begin to get louder, and then someone might start a spontaneous sing-song, but the pitchers of beer would keep coming, and everyone would keep drinking on into night, pretty much assuring that Sunday would be a true day of rest, and a day of rest with throbbing headaches and queasy stomachs for most.
One day at the beginning of August, while working on the house, a day when I felt I was really contributing because I was pushing a wheelbarrow with load after load of cement, Old Tom and Bob Dowdle asked me what I planned to do with my future.
Of course, I had no idea.
“You should become a dentist,” Bob Dowdle said. “Dentist up in Napanee charged me eight dollars to pull a tooth.”
“Really?” I answered politely.
“You can’t beat that,” Bob Dowdle said. “That’s a lot of money for a little bit of work.”
Son of Tom interrupted. “Bullfrog croaking,” he cried.
So what? I thought, looking at him as he started packing up his tools.
Old Tom came swinging down from the rafters, blue eyes alive as he smiled at Bob Dowdle and me.
“You know what that means, don’t ya, Bob?” Old Tom said.
“Yep,” Bob Dowdle answered. “Bullfrog croaking, storm a coming, work done for the day.”
“Right you are, so let’s get moving,” Old Tom said. “We don’t want to get caught in no storm.”
I never truly figured out whether they believed a bullfrog croaking meant a storm was coming, but it did rain later, not much, but it still rained, though the rain didn’t come until after dark.
Shortly before I was to return to school, Old Tom won $600 in a lottery, which was considered a fortune for him. Most of the men in the area only worked from spring through early fall, and the only work Old Tom could find in the winter was shoveling snow off the roofs of cottages for those who were back in the city after summer vacation.
“Now maybe Tom can get that septic tank done,” my aunt said.
“How long has he been working on it?” Isobel asked.
My aunt laughed, shaking her head. “Over two years, I think.”
Aunt Nancy was very fond of Old Tom, but had to admit he was a stubborn man. I wasn’t thrilled about going to the waterhole with two buckets every morning but at least it was only about ten feet away from where we were staying.
I spotted Son of Tom coming across the field later the next evening on his usual trip to the waterhole. I greeted him and congratulated him over his father winning the lottery.
“Yep, we could sure use the money,” he said.
“What do you think you’re father will use it for?” I asked.
“Already spent,” Son of Tom said with a grin, tobacco juice staining his remaining teeth.
“On what?” I asked.
“Bought two snowmobiles.”
Unbelievable, I thought.
“Wouldn’t it have made more sense to spend the money for a septic tank that complied with government standards?” I asked.
Son of Tom shrugged.
“Don’t you get tired of walking to the waterhole everyday?” I said.
Son of Tom smiled.
“Now that we have a snowmobile I can ride it to get water in the winter,” he said.
I could see he was satisfied, and it made perfect sense to him, so since there was nothing else to say, I didn’t, and Son of Tom continued on his way to fill his buckets with water.