The Millwright’s Apprentice – Grapevine Article September 2015 by John F.

A lesson he received long before he got sober still resonates

Mill construction is demanding work, and it is attended by a subculture of iterant tradesmen that have little reluctance to leave town. The social bonds are uncertain and housing is marginal at best. Broke and homeless, I was lucky to find work as a millwright helper in Prattville, Ala., and my introduction to that culture was at the very lowest level.

I had just left my third graduate school (medical school was the latest failure) and my future was somewhat “open.” I had some mechanical skill, and this was also my third attempt at a new trade in the last ten years. I was in my late 20s, muscular and bright, and very willing to take time in the local clubs and pool bars to unwind. For some reason, I needed a lot of unwinding.

Some day in the middle of the week our assignment was to put a gearbox the size of a car, three stories up into a platform that would eventually house a conveyor belt. Mr. Arthur was a small, grizzled man, long in the field. He was the brains of our duo. I was the brawn. I was also very badly hung over, and despite the early hour, the dirt road radiated heat. It was about a mile walk to the tower, and we had a heavy load: two boxes of Mr. Arthur’s tools, and a chain-fall pulley to lift the gearbox. I lost two boxes of my tools a few days earlier with a story too stupid to tell, and I was still stung and cranky.

Partly into the walk, Mr. Arthur set his load down, and we stood a minute to rest. This man was a master at casual direction.

“Do you see that piece of rebar, Mr. John?”

“Yep,” I said.

“Pick it up,” he replied.

I slowly bent over and pulled a stub of half-inch reinforcing steel out of the dirt.

“Put it in your pocket,” he said.

I did so with quiet reluctance. Then we returned to haul our load in the heat. We walked without speaking for some distance, and again he broke the silence.

“Do you know what you have, Mr. John?”

“Yep,” I said. “It’s a friggin’ piece of rebar, Mr. Arthur.”

He waited a minute, and then said “No, Mr. John, that’s a piece of hard steel. That rebar is from a pre-stressed concrete slab. When you look, you will see the ribs go crossways, instead of up and down.”

We stayed quiet the rest of the walk to the tower, and I was still surly. When we arrived, he set the tools down, and turned to me. “You need a center punch, don’t you, Mr. John?”

My only response was a tepid, “Yessir, I do, Mr. Arthur.”

“When we get done with this gearbox, we go back to the fabrication shop, and make you a center punch.”

The extent of my recent loss of tools was brilliantly clear—a center punch is needed for any kind of work with steel, to start a drill, or to cut or mark the steel. A center punch may not be the first tool for every job, but it gets regular use, and I didn’t even have that.

Mr. Arthur’s direction gently put the gearbox in place at the top of the tower in half a day. We used levers, rollers, ramps and pulleys several different ways. Despite some very good ideas from me, there was not one motion wasted. We even got a ride back to the shop, and then set to work on the rebar.

First we cut the end of the steel rod, and then ground it to a dull point. After grinding, we used a torch to heat the point to red hot, and then quenched the steel to harden it further. Then we ground the steel again to a sharper point. All of the changes we put to that rebar might have seemed we were punishing the steel. Only at the end of the process, was I then given the new tool. Not having a toolbox, the best I could do was to put it back in my pocket, but at least I now had a center punch.

I continued to follow most every one of my very good ideas for another three or four years. That included a lot more drinking, unwinding, and more loss than just a few toolboxes—badly wrecked cars, badly wrecked relationships, and nearly another professional career.

Only when there was simply nothing left, did I pick up the spiritual kit of tools that was so generously laid at my feet. I would love to tell you I got it all figured it out, and my life unfolded as I wanted, but I learn slowly. Fifteen years into sobriety, I realized that I might never “get it together” the way I planned. I thought fame and fortune were needed to “have it all together.” Money, power and prestige seemed to get in the way of God’s grace and love.

My story is similar to that rebar stub reluctantly pulled from the dirt, the steel that was selected by the Master because of the very nature of its hardness, and all the “inflicted discomforts” were exactly what was needed to craft a useful tool.

Those “necessary changes” were badly misunderstood, but every one was needed in order to make the cast-off useful. My reluctance to do the work to stay sober was an understatement. I was also reluctant to do an inventory, once telling my sponsor “I was not particularly attracted to the process.” I was ground down by the reality that I would drink again unless I worked all Twelve Steps—only then did I follow the instructions. I did not exactly see the light, but gratefully, I could feel the heat.

After 30 years of sobriety, those “set-backs” in life appear as different events: the “domestic reorganization,” and the financial reversals seemed to slow the progress of my “imagined brilliant career.”

I thought I could be happy only when everything was fabulous. When things did not look well, as they inevitably will, I would sometimes feel like a failure without reason to live. The hardest part of my life was my attitude, and it did not change of my accord. The tool kit now requires sharing an inventory to see the futility of self-pity and self-centered fear. I can remove those defects no better than a piece of steel can jump out of the dirt and make itself into a tool. The challenges of sober life sometimes feel like grinding and heat, and then more grinding. Now it is clear my self-pity and self-centered fear are precisely what makes life so difficult. To be useful, I was crafted against my will. If I remain useful, then I can belong. I can carry a message as a result of working the Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, and so I can live.

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