"Just what does a hod carrier do?" I asked my friend. He replied, "You'll find out when you get there." He then assured me that I would be able to handle the job. My friend was involved in building a gymnasium for the reform school in Plankinton, South Dakota, and he had recruited me to work for the masonry contractor. Business was slow at the blacksmith shop In Miller and winter was coming on so I welcomed the opportunity.
The first day on the job I was introduced to the contractor's nephew who was in charge of the hod carriers. He was a large, happy-go-lucky person who, because of his size and personality, invited co-operation and goodwill from his co-workers. That day I was also introduced to a tool with a handle and two long rods to stick through the holes in bricks, allowing a worker to pick up as many as a dozen bricks for offloading from the pallets on a flatbed truck. We also used wheelbarrows to haul bricks and blocks to the site. I found muscles I didn't know I had.
The hod carriers were responsible for mixing the cement, or "mud" as it was known in the trade. The sand we used was piled over a culvert so we could build a fire inside to heat the sand when the temperatures dropped into the freezing range. The "mud" had to be the right consistency or the bricklayers would complain until we added water to make it right. The bricklayers were an assorted group that ran from mild mannered to downright abrasive.
The foundation and basement walls were already poured when I arrived at the job. A long ramp ran down to the basement floor where one of the more vocal bricklayers already had several rows of bricks laid for a room wall. The trick of using your weight on the handlebars to break the wheelbarrow's speed going down the ramp did not work for one of the men, and he came down the ramp completely out of control. He destroyed the bricklayers work and the bricks flew everywhere. The most impressive thing was the language the bricklayer used to show his displeasure, but then in an act of kindness he told the lad to come with him so he could show him how to ride the handles on a wheelbarrow.
The building was to be three stories high and sometimes we were asked to work weekends to keep on schedule. We didn't complain as the bricklayers were union so we received time and a half for overtime. We all mastered the trick of cupping as many as six bricks and throwing them to a man on the scaffold to keep the brick layers supplied. The blocks were a little heavier so we handled them one at a time.
We had a construction elevator which ran up the side of the unfinished building. I thought it was unstable and voiced my opinion to the boss. He said, "You're as safe as if you were in your mother's arms." These words came back to haunt him when it came off-track and dropped a worker two stories, leaving him at the bottom covered with mud and holding a broken ankle. I kept my mouth shut because I liked and needed the job.
Three or four of us stayed at the local police chief's house. The chief had a big house with many rooms, and his wife was a great cook. The chief said not all the youngsters at the reform school were bad, but some were outright criminals. One night we were surprised to hear loud sirens coming from the reform school, and were told that three inmates had escaped. The chief unofficially deputized us, so we cruised around town looking for the rascals. We spotted one of them by the ball field, and I chased him across the diamond. In his haste, he ran into the backstop, knocking the wind right out of himself. We had him captured. We met the chief downtown where he had arrested the other two boys. They had stolen a car, broken into and stolen guns at the local hardware store. A chill ran up my spine when I realized these boys were more dangerous than I had thought.
For some unknown reason, I was chosen to help the bricklayer lay the final decorative block on the crown of the finished building. Afterwards we opened the traditional bottle of whiskey, and I did the manly thing and took my drink out of the bottle and almost lost it on the ground. The masonry contractor stopped at the blacksmith shop in the spring and said he needed help to build the new grade school in Miller, South Dakota. I recruited a couple of my friends and told him I would be happy swinging a hammer at the blacksmith shop
©2001 Maurice D. Karst
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