Monday, July 17, 2006

Two Men Resolving Their Differences By Cane

If'n I Had Some Egg

I revere the speech of old men. Youth is wasted on the young but oldness is the perfect companion for the elderly. My grandfather is a gentleman of the highest order. He is confident, worldly and crafty. Tom Jones crafty, not Martha Stewart crafty. He's a self-made man who's been around the world a dozen times and if you'd like to squander a Sunday afternoon he'd love to share a few words about Korean mobsters or diamond smuggling or smashing his old Jaguar up in Hong Kong. But the real gems in his stories are the funny little aphorisms that highlight his adventures.

When a man lives a long while the pragmatic, earthly forms of reason that carried him through his decision-making better days seem to drift. Old man logic (not Old Man Logic) becomes circular and mystical. I have puzzled for years over my grandpa's saying: "If'n I had some eggs I could have some ham'n eggs if'n I had some ham."

If'n I had some eggs I could have some ham'n eggs if'n I had some ham.

I believe it to be the cleverest taunt ever uttered. That beautiful expression is a slow-burning powder keg that goes: "WHY ARE YOU SUCH A WHINER? CAN'T YOU SEE YOU'VE GOT MORE THAN YOU NEED? WHEN I WAS A BOY I WORE RABBIT SKINS!" when it goes off. And there's more. Grandpa once lamented: "I'm so unlucky. If you took the most beautiful woman in the world and split her in half, I'd get the half that eats." But I know he loves my grandma.

NPR recently aired a story about bounty-hunting fishermen. It sounds reckless and dangerous and appealing to retired, old men. Two codgers were featured at the end of the segment. The interviewer recorded them fishing predatory trout for a modest bounty. One of the guys gets his rig tangled in some reeds. For an exciting moment they wrestle with the rod until they figure it out and the other guy says: "If we catch this fish and two more, it'll make three. But we haven't caught this one yet. So I think we'll start in"

Do they make that stuff up? I know (but can't prove) that much of this wisdom is handed down from the grandfathers of grandfathers. Grandpa told me, "You can lead a horse but you can't make it water." And chuckled as he recalled his crusty father. He also warned me, "Mark, never kiss a pig they'll always squeal." I've been trying a few quips at work. A contractor asked me how long I'd been building stairs and told him, "In thirteen days it'll be about two weeks." I can pull it off but I lack that charm an old man gives a good phrase like that.

I've worked with a lot of crusty carpenters and I intend writing about those guys. They're on an accelerated course to becoming crusty old men. In the trades there is a long tradition of hateful sayings and mockery. For instance, hearing someone say of you, "He doesn't do good work but at least he doesn't do much of it." can be hurtful. And knowing some men are so full of contempt that they wouldn't, "Piss down your throat if your guts were on fire." is hardly flattering.

I saw a guy hit his finger with a hammer. Full arm swing, missed the nail splat. Flattened his thumb. He wrapped it in some painter's rags and went out and sat on a pile of lumber: red faced and grimacing with pain. My partner Jason saw him sitting on the pile and commented, "Man, he looks like a dog shittin' a peach pit."