Over the Hill

Learning a work ethic, one scrape at a time

I can’t find my father’s old putty knife. I hope I didn’t lose it, although it isn’t much use anymore. In 1945, Pop wore away three quarters of the putty knife’s blade while scraping every square inch of the exterior walls of our 2 1⁄2-story house.

As you know, a putty knife looks like the little brother of one of those spatulas you use to spread cake frosting. But a putty knife’s blade is square on the end, never rounded, and its blade is only about 31⁄2 inches long. When Pop finished scraping the house, the blade of his putty knife was about one inch.

My folks had sold the farm the year before and moved us to town. The paint was flaking off our new home’s clapboard siding. It wouldn’t do to put new paint over that old flaky stuff.

Pressure washers weren’t available back then, although some people used gasoline blowtorches to burn off old, scaly paint. But we’d heard stories of houses catching fire that way. Pop was too cautious for that. He decided to hand scrape that big house with a putty knife whose blade was a little over 1-inch wide.

I was 14 and felt relieved that Pop never asked me to join in the house scraping; he had only one extension ladder. He probably also judged realistically that I wouldn’t have scraped very meticulously.

The only time I participated was when he was scraping the high reaches of the house’s gables. They were too tall for him to reach even from the fully extended extension ladder. So to reach those heights, he wired another length of ladder to the top of the extension ladder. He ditched his caution and climbed to the top of that rickety rig.

But that rig was heavy and clumsy. Standing it up wasn’t a one-man job. It was a man-and-a-boy job. He’d lay the ladder flat on the ground, stretched straight toward the house with its bottom rung near the wall. I stood with my feet against the ladder’s two bottom ends to keep them in place. He lifted the other end of the ladder and then walked toward me, under it, pushing it upward as he came.

After he finally scraped the whole house, he primed and painted it just as thoroughly. Two years later we moved to another town, but I have no doubt that paint job lasted many years.

Pop’s patient, careful, inch-by-inch scraping of that big house made a lasting impression on me. To this day, whenever I do a slipshod or careless job I always feel guilty, at least for a little while.

Phil Dirkx has lived in Paso Robles for more than four decades. His column appears here every week. He can be reached at 238-2372 or phild2008@sbcglobal.net.