I looked at Red and then at the assortment of brushes, tools, and other painter’s paraphernalia in the back of Woody’s truck, trying to figure out which tool Red was talking about. He was perched on a stepladder in front of a bay window so I decided he needed some sort of tool to remove loose paint from the window before painting it. I could feel Red’s eye’s watching as I hesitantly reached for a scraper, but before I could pick it up I heard him exclaim, “Well I’ll be d****d, you don’t even know what a sash tool is, do you?”
I looked up sheepishly as Red snapped, “It’s that two inch brush laying there by your hand.”
I picked up the brush and handed it to Red, noticing that its angled edge was perfectly designed for applying paint to the muntin bars of a window – those little wooden strips that hold the panes of glass in place. And so began my career as a house painter, which provided my livelihood through the next four years of college.
Woody Simmons must have known I was talking a fast line when I told him about my extensive experience as a painter (all told about seven days, and mostly using a roller) but he hired me anyway, and I soon realized why. He needed a young fellow who was strong enough and not afraid to scurry up and down a 40-foot ladder to paint the high trim and gables on three-story houses.
Alcohol had aged Red well beyond his 45 years. His sagging shoulders, large red nose that matched his red hair, and droopy bloodshot eyes put me to mind of a tired old hound dog that had long ago treed its last rabbit, and, given the choice, would have preferred to pass the day in the shade of an old oak tree. But Red still had to work so each morning while Woody drove us to the jobsite Red downed a half pint of Mad Dog to steady his nerves and get his blood flowing.
Smitty, Woody’s other long time painter, had a steady hand but his specialty was interior painting and wallpapering, not climbing ladders. I was Woody’s new ladder man and within a few weeks I had proven myself to be an important member of our four man team, climbing up and down those tall ladders like Curious George, and sometimes even tying myself off of a chimney to maneuver my way across a steep roof to paint a high gable.
Woody took me under his wing that summer like the son he didn’t have, and patiently taught me about sash tools, plug brushes, mixing colors, and other tricks of the trade, like how to use a “Carolina Duster”, which is painter slang for using a few good puffs of air to blow the dust off of a surface before slapping on some paint.
One day when Red was too sick to work Woody told me that Red had worked for him for so long he didn’t have the heart to let him go, even after the disastrous experience that had happened when they were painting the dining room of one of Woody’s wealthiest customers. All of the crystal and fine china had been stacked in the middle of the dining room table and covered with a plastic tarp. When Red climbed the stepladder and leaned in to trim around the chandelier that hung above the table, he lost his balance and fell headlong into the middle of that stack of crystal and china, paint bucket and all. Woody laughed as he finished the story, and added, “Thank goodness for insurance.”
Unfortunately, before the summer was over I had my own story to tell. One morning we were setting up to paint a small two-story brick house and as usual I was assigned the second story trim work. I placed one of the older 24-foot extension ladders on the sidewalk just over the front steps and climbed up to paint the gutter and soffit above the front door. In the interest of expediency I gave the top of the ladder a little jerk to the left so I could reach over and paint another small section before moving the ladder. Well, that older ladder didn’t have rubber feet to grip the sidewalk, and that small jerk was all that was needed to kick the feet out to start sliding down the wall. When the ladder slammed onto the steps so did my mouth, extracting my front teeth right there on those steps. Woody heard the commotion and came running around the house to see blood pouring from my lips and gums all over the front of my white painter’s shirt and pants.
The life squad arrived and whisked me off to the hospital where they stitched my gums and lips up like a great big burr. For the next six weeks I drank through a straw and dropped bites of food in my mouth like a baby bird eating worms. That was over 40 years ago, but to this day my roommate at the time greets me by mockingly squeezing his lips together with his fingers and chuckling the same way I did to keep the stiches from stretching and hurting my lips when I laughed.
I also injured my right knee when I landed on those steps, but in the course of time my mouth, knee, and pride all healed, and that disastrous experience become another interesting, if not humorous, painter’s story, not unlike Red’s encounter with that chandelier.
George Brown is a freelance writer. He lives in Jackson Township.