Quality and the Measure of Value

June, 1987

It was Friday morning, June 5th, my first non-homeless day living in Woodbridge, Virginia. I had thirty minutes to prepare for a two-hour commute to a jobsite in McClean, just a few miles northwest of Washington, D.C. and the Potomac River.

It was colder than I expected for an early summer morning. I had been wearing cutoffs and t-shirts to work in Texas but had to wear jeans, a flannel shirt, and a coat that day. A coat in June! What have I gotten myself into? I didn't have time to make coffee before I left Jack and Sue's house, so I stopped at a 7-Eleven for an extra-large coffee and chocolate donuts for breakfast before heading north on I-95.

By 5 O'clock, I was on the road, stuck in a sargasso sea of tail lights heading inbound toward Washington. Is this the commute I hoped for three days ago in Little Rock? To pass the time, I found a Rock and Roll station on my truck's radio featuring a DJ who called himself Greaseman. It was the year of the NFL football strike, and listeners were calling in to share their ignorance. The discussions were often mindless and idiotic but entertaining enough and helped to pass the time while bogged in heavy traffic.

I arrived at the job site about 10 minutes early. Jeff (my new boss) was already there with his tape measure, checking the dimensions of a form someone had built for the concrete slab.

"Mornin', Jeff," I said as I walked toward him, "Virginians like their summers cold!"
"Mornin', Matt! You got that right," he said with a chuckle, "but it'll warm up quickly. Where did you find a place to live?"
"Woodbridge! That's way the Hell out there!"
"Yeah, it was a long drive, but the place is perfect and my roommates are very cool. I might find a more centralized home after I learn the area but the drive wasn't too bad and Woodbridge sure beats the Hell out of the roadside park in Centreville."
"Roadside park?"
"Yeah, I slept in my truck Wednesday night, but I wasn't alone. The park was full of work trucks and vans doing the same. There must be lots of folks that are looking for work."
"There are," Jeff said, "and we're still trying to recruit more help from Texas. So far you are the only one brave enough to make the trip."
"Desperate is a better word," I said with a chuckle.
Jeff laughed and said, "Well, you are here now and we have lots for you to do. Are you ready to go to work?"
"You bet!"
"Did you bring your copy of the plans?"
"I did. I'll get them from my truck."

Jeff walked me through the architectural drawings for the project, beginning with the concrete slab of the semi-octagonal two-story addition that would add nearly 1000 square feet to a very fine, but also very old, two-story home, perhaps built in the late 1800s. The challenge was to add the new addtion to the old home so that it blended with the existing architecture.

"These forms are not level or square. They are close, but close is not good enough. Your first task will be to fix these forms because we're planning to pour the slab tomorrow. I know it is Saturday, but are you available to help us out?
"I am nothing but available, Jeff! You know I came to Virginia to work, right? I am available on Sunday too, if you need me."
"Thanks, Matt, but we should finish tomorrow before 3 p.m.," Jeff said, "Once you fix these forms, you can take the rest of the day off. There won't be much to do on this project until after the slab is poured. We should be ready to rock-and-roll on Monday, once the concrete has cured."
"Sounds good, Jeff."
"I'm heading back to the office," Jeff said. "The cement trucks are supposed to be here at 7 a.m. tomorrow. If you can get here at 6:45, that would be great."
"No problem, Jeff, I'll see you tomorrow."

After Jeff left the jobsite, I broke out a level and tape measure from my toolbox and began checking the forms. Jeff was right. They were very close, but not perfect. I'm going to like Jeff, I thought. He cares about his work. He could have let the workmanship slide, but he didn't. There it is, Quality is the True Measure of Value in practice. Jeff knew building, and he also knew that any carpenter (me, in this case) framing a wooden structure on top of this slab would be struggling with perfection, right down to the last piece of trim, and he put in on me to make sure my slab was done right. Clever fellow.

I spent the morning adjusting the forms and, once they were spot on, I added extra wooden braces to the forms so that the weight of the wet conrete pushing against the sides would not throw it out of whack. Without them all my work would have been a waste of time. Around 2:00 p.m., I checked the slab once more then packed up my tools and drove back to Woodbridge. The trip back to Woodbridge took less than half the time of the morning commute.

Before heading back to Jack and Sue's house, I stopped at Safeway to stock up on coffee, beer, cigarettes, and other essentials for the week. On the way home, I decided it was time to try out Jack's pizza suggestion and brought home a buy-one-get-one-free pepperoni and green pepper. I ate the first one for dinner and put the other in the refridgerator for Saturday.

With a full stomach, I unpacked my jeans and t-shirts into a small chest of drawers and hung my shirts and coats in the closet. Since I didn't have the room in my truck to bring along my color TV from Austin, Jack and Sue loaned me a small black-and-white portable so I could watch late night TV in my room.

I hadn't talked to anyone in Texas, since I left Austin on Monday morning. Wow! Monday morning seemed so long ago. It was hard to believe that so much could be achieved in such little time - I drove 1500 miles, found a roof over my head, and already worked my first day as a carpenter in Virginia. I had arranged employment before I left Austin, but finding a good safe place to live in less than 24 hours was a miracle. Someone was watching over me, and it was time to call my family and friends, and let them know that I was not dead and had arrived safely in Northern Virginia.

Before going to bed, I set the timer on Jack and Sue's coffee maker so that I could fill my thermos before heading back to McClean and avoid spending money on 7-Eleven coffee. The first pot of brewed coffee was another step toward making the move to Virginia official.

I wasn't sure how long it would take to get back to McClean early on a Saturday morning. I didn't figure there would be much traffic on I-95, but left at 5:30 anyway. As I got closer to the Beltway Loop, I noticed a cloud of fairly large bugs over the road. What the hell is that?, I thought. I drove through the swarm and thought they looked like locusts. I arrived at the jobsite by 6:15 to find Jeff checking the forms again as he done the day before.

"Mornin' Jeff, how're they looking?"
"They are perfect, Matt! I couldn't have done better, and I see you added extra braces too. That was a good idea," Jeff said.
"Is it just us today?" I said.
"No. Robert will be joining us to help finish the concrete. He is a short guy, but strong as an ox and built like a brick shithouse."
"Is he a carpenter too?" I asked.
"Robert can do just about anything, but his specialty is concrete foundations. He is the one who built the forms for this slab."


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