I was at college, Whitworth, in Spokane. I’d locked in guaranteed tuition as a freshman, the last time it was offered. In my senior year, the school cancelled my fi-nancial aid, though I’d kept my grades up. I figured they figured I was so far along, I’d do anything to graduate.
Over his desk in the Administration Building, a crew-cut clown imperiously told me I was screwed.
I’d worked the carpentry crew the summer before. I looked up at the ceiling I’d replaced above him, schlepping sheetrock, insulation tiles and tools upstairs and down. I’d begun to learn a trade, one of several I’ve practiced, the trade of Jesus of Nazareth, born in Bethlehem, a carpenter.
To be a carpenter means to build — on this, with that, to raise a wall high or lay a basement low. There are carpenters, and then there are carpenters.
There’s been only one perfect carpenter, and that’s why the Romans crucified him. A rock from Bethlehem sits somewhere in my garden. So does a stone from Rome.
I took out a loan to finish school, lucky to have a buddy’s mom co-sign. I paid it off, $1,000 to a now-extinct Washington state bank. That $1,000 was worth a lot more than it is today.
Four years later, when I settled in Seattle after a stint training GIs, I had a different thousand bucks to grubstake six months in the next-to-last big recession. My pal’s mom learned I was into hard times again and drove down one Saturday from Issaquah to fetch me for a good dinner. I slept overnight in the basement.
The next morning, there was French toast, bacon and scrambled eggs.
“It’s time for church,” she said, turning on a fuzzy Sunday-morning evangelical television show. As I was then and still am of indeterminate beliefs, I nodded politely at this modern service.
Mom and Dad drove me back to my one-bedroom apartment north of University Village, across the street from the cemetery, next door to The Duchess Tavern.
Mom gave me a half-pint jar of
By Craig Thompson
homemade peach jam. I doled it out on crackers I scored from a restaurant.
Seattle gave way to sunshine. Now, I have a home, the first true one in 33 years.
The frozen months I struggled to stay in college and finish my bachelor’s degree were the dearest poverty I’ve known.
I slept in odd places. Over that particular January, I ended up in a 16-by-16 foot, uninsulated shack. The pipes froze, a jerk named Andy robbed me, I was studying for the GRE. I barely did well enough to get on.
I contracted mononucleosis, the so-called kissing disease, though I hadn’t been kissed in quite a while.
A hippie killer heated the shack, a 55-gallon steel drum converted into a woodstove. It’s called a hippie killer because some hippie will put in a Presto log and light it up. A Presto log will pump 20,000 BTUs into the cheap-and-wispy welds of the metal bucket, a stovepipe exits the backside, a draught sucks at the door. It’s an accident waiting to implode.
I was that stupid hippie. I put the fire in the hole out by dumping buckets of snow into the stove. The thing throbbed, gasping for air, black warps of steel reddening aglow.
The fire smothered, steaming. I dug up the wet soot, sliced the damp, smoldering sawdust-and-glue artifact into inch-thick disks and threw a couple back into the stove. I added newspaper, struck a match and kept an eye on that blaze.
I studied for the future, took the test and did well enough to get on.
My health turned worse.
It was spring quarter. I moved into a tiny room on campus. I typed term papers for other kids, made about a hundred bucks when a hundred bucks was...well, worth a hundred bucks. I still own that Sears Roebuck portable typewriter.
I stumbled over to the school’s health clinic. That’s when I learned what bad shape I was in.
There was a bathtub in the dorm. I filled it with hot water every other day, soaked to stay warm and read “Moby Dick” and “Huckleberry Finn.”
I can’t remember where I ate. I lost a lot of weight.
By the time I started recovering, I’d passed my birthday, in May. I was 22 at graduation, yet weighed less than I did as an 18-year-old, when I was in a lot better shape and half an inch shorter.
I got jobs at a taco joint and a pizzeria. A professor asked me to build a fence and paint his house — not much money, but what did I know? I learned something about cooking, cleaning, landscaping, construction, the difference between a board and a frame.
I became a carpenter.
Now, Christmas comes, again. My wife and I will exchange gifts; the cats get into the catnip, toys, bows and boxes. We’ll go downtown — park for free because it’s a holiday — and have the kind of supper more should share.
Perhaps that wandering star leads kings and queens, maybe wise men, maybe people like me. Perhaps that boy, that girl, that baby who lies in a mother’s arms, her hands cradled, husband by her side.
Perhaps today will bring tomorrow, surely as the solstice, Christmas, Hanukkah, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day.
And this new year? I’ll pick up my hammer. I have nails to drive.
CRAIG THOMPSON is a longtime community activist. To comment on this column, write to CityLivingEditor@ nwlink.com.