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Johnny was a mason and a Lithuanian nationalist and the first man I worked for after I left baseball (the phrase I always use). I was a $45,000 bonus baby, a pitcher with the Milwaukee Braves in 1959, and after three years of uncomprehending failure, I was given my unconditional release. I was 21 years old.
As a mason he dealt in bricks and stone and concrete. He did not like athletes, he said. Not even ex-athletes. They were too soft. And compared to him, I guess I was. At 48, he had the smooth, muscular body of a man who has worked hard all his life. He was small, with not an ounce of fat on him, although his leathery skin was a bit slack, like a shrinking man's. He had a high-cheekboned Slavic face with narrow blue eyes and short reddish brown hair. His grandfather had been a mason in Lithuania; his father had been a mason in Lithuania, and, after fleeing the Russians, became a mason in America. Now Johnny, too, was a mason, known for the fastidiousness of his work.
Occasionally he poured foundations for office buildings or built walls of concrete blocks, but mostly he built fireplaces and chimneys for expensive homes in Fairfield County, Conn. To build a fireplace and chimney of used brick, alternating the different shades to be esthetically pleasing, was an art, he said. And Johnny considered himself an artist. Technically, I guess, he was a craftsman, but in his mind, he equated neatness, a sense of design and the ability to work quickly—and without a plumb—with art, not craft. By extension, he considered his laborer an artist, too. He was always telling me about some Italian or Slovak immigrant who had kept him supplied with bricks and mortar as he worked up the side of a house building his chimney.
"And he always left the job spotless," Johnny would say as he walked off.
At the time I thought he was crazy and that all a laborer did was sweat like a mule. I had been working for him for only two days, and by my own admission, I was a lousy mason's laborer. We were building a chimney on a $200,000 colonial, and with each hour I fell further and further behind with the bricks and mortar. It was partly because I had no enthusiasm for the job, partly because it was more physically demanding than any job I had ever had and partly because I was terrified of climbing the maze of rusted pipes and brackets Johnny called his scaffold. Often he settled it on uneven ground so that it wobbled. Sometimes it toppled over. He liked to tell me about the "trips" he had taken over the years and seemed actually proud of them as if they were proof of his courage. His most recent trip—three stories—had shattered bones in his right leg and required an enormous white cast that went up to his hip. That was why he was so desperate for a laborer, he said, even one as worthless as myself.
On this day he had built his scaffold to the second floor, but by midafternoon a strong breeze had come up. From the ground I could see the top of the scaffold swaying left and right past the half-completed chimney. Johnny stood on its rotted planks with a brick in one hand and a trowel in the other, waiting for the wind to blow him past the chimney so he could slap down his mud and brick. Then he waited for the wind to blow him back so he could level the brick with a tap of his trowel. He worked steadily like this all afternoon, taking on a rhythm with the wind. I was terrified. Whenever I had to climb the ladder resting against the scaffold, I wrapped my arms completely around it as if it were a bony lover. I carried a bucket of mud or some bricks in one hand and slowly worked my way up that ladder a step at a time. When I reached the top, I dumped my mud or bricks in a heap and hurried back to solid ground.
But it wasn't just the difficulty of the work or my fear of heights that caused me to fall behind on those first few days. In the process of mixing mortar, my thoughts would drift and for long moments I would lean, motionless on my shovel, lost on some distant pitcher's mound in Palatka or McCook or Way-cross, trying to discover just where and how I had misplaced such a promising career. I would rummage through my past, reliving each season, each game, each pitch, expecting to come to a point where I could say, "There! Right there! That's where I lost it!" Then I would be able to trace my failure to where I was now. A mason's laborer. A bad one at that. I had been out of baseball only a few weeks and I still harbored fantasies of making a comeback if I could locate the point where it had all begun to slide away.
In the midst of such reveries, Johnny would jolt me back to the present with his trowel. He liked to work with the bricks piled to his left and slightly behind him and the mortar tub to his right. Whenever he slashed his trowel into the mortar tub and it was empty, it made a clanking noise. Johnny would keep clanking that trowel against the sides of the tub until I rushed up the ladder with fresh mortar. How I hated that sound! Each clank echoed his observation that all athletes were soft. At first I just cursed him silently and took my time bringing up his mortar. But soon that noise became a reminder that I could not handle even so menial a job as this. I decided one day to silence that trowel forever by mixing mortar faster than Johnny could use it. But no matter how feverishly I worked, I could not still that trowel, and by the end of the week I was exhausted and defeated.
One day I was standing at the base of the scaffold with a bucket of mud and listening to the clank, clank, clank of his trowel, too exhausted to take that first step up the ladder, when the thought suddenly occurred to me that perhaps failure was to be the new pattern of my life. Perhaps baseball, far from being the one, great failure of my life, had actually been only the first of many.
The following Monday I arrived an hour early for work. It was seven o'clock on a chill, sunny morning that would grow unbearably hot by noon. Tucked back among trees and wild undergrowth, the house we were working on was at the end of a deserted dirt road. I had to make my way across a front yard strewn with boulders, planks, shingles and empty paint cans until I came to the side of the house where we kept our materials and where the chimney had already risen to what would probably be the owner's bedroom. I flipped off the tarpaulin that was covering the sand and bags of lime and cement and pulled the long mortar tub out into the open. I shoveled sand into it. Then I slit open two bags—one of lime, one of cement—and shoveled part of each on top of the sand. The white lime billowed back into my face and burned my eyes.