Stone Mason working on a rock.

One Piece at a Time

The hands reached to choose a rock from those piled on the plywood floor. They shook with strain, as they lifted a large chunk of blue stone and positioned it on the floor in front of their master. The hands were callused and scarred, the knuckles swollen and arthritic from a lifetime of working with rock and brick.

I looked up at the man holding the rock. He was a black African-Canadian, with a face leathery and wrinkled from years of working in the sun. He looked back at me and smiled. The lines around his eyes and mouth deepened - lines created by years of smiling. I guessed him to be in his mid-seventies.

I'd met Fred on my way home from errands. I passed a crew of men building a rock wall around a yard. I stopped and asked to speak to the boss. A frail, old gentleman introduced himself, "I'm Fred. What can I do for you?" He spat a string of tobacco juice onto the lawn.

"Nice to meet you, Fred," I said. "I'm Mike." We shook hands. "Fred, my wife and I are building onto our house. We're adding a fireplace and want to have a rock facade built from floor-to-ceiling. Do you do this type of work?"

"Well, I don't like working interior jobs much. I prefer outdoor jobs, like my boys and I are doing here."

"I understand," I replied. "But most bricklayers won't work with rock. They like brick."

He paused for a moment. "What's your number? I'll give it some thought and call you." With a stubby pencil, sharpened with a knife, Fred wrote my number on a piece of cardboard.. "I'll give it some thought." he said again.

Fred called a few days later and arrived at our home soon after. I showed him our plans and the room where the fireplace would be built. "Well, like I said, I don't normally do this type of work, but I think I have some spare time."

Fred and his sons came back a few weeks later. They brought in several wheelbarrow loads of blue stone and dumped them on the unfinished floor. His sons brought in bags of cement, buckets of water, a box to mix them in, and left the old man alone.

Fred lowered himself to his knees, both of them cracking loudly. His back creaked, when he bent to reach for a rock. I lowered myself to the floor to watch. He studied the pile. "I need a few choice pieces for the base." he explained, more to himself than to me. "I need something flat. This one looks good." The rock in front of him was sort of flat on one side, but the other side was round. I was a little confused.

I looked into his eyes - bright, clear, and filled with youth and strength, a contrast to his aging body. These were the eyes of a man with a goal and a job to do. They sparkled when he smiled. "Let's see what I can do here."

He studied the rock in front of him, turning it in his hands. After several minutes, he picked up his hammer and chisel. He positioned the rock, placed the chisel on a spot, only he could choose, and struck it with the hammer. The rock spit into two pieces. The largest piece now had two flat sides. When he had the rocks he needed for the base, he mixed the water and cement, and carefully placed the rocks where he wanted them.

For two days I watched him work, mesmerized by his skill. "Fred, how do you do that?" I asked.

"I like working with blue stone. It splits nicely."

"Yeah, but how do you look at a spot, then at the rocks, and chose the one you want?"

He was patient. "Well, like I said, I like working with blue stone. I can see the grain of the rock. See that spot, up there?" He pointed at a spot half-way up the wall - a small hole between a large stone and the wall. "I need a piece of rock to fit there." He motioned to the rocks in front of him. "Not one of these rocks will fit. I have to find one with the right grain - one that will allow me to mold it.

"See this rock?" Fred picked up a rock that looked wrong to me. "See the grain?"

I stared hard. I could see lines, but not what I considered a grain, like the grain in wood. "Not really, Fred."

"Just watch." he smiled. With his chisel and hammer, the misshapen rock was soon fitted into place. I was in awe of his skill. In a few days, our rock facade was complete.

We asked Fred if he could make the cement lines darker. The contrast of cement and blue stone was not appealing. Fred mixed more cement, black powder, and water. As he stirred, he spat his black tobacco juice into the mixture, making himself a part of his work and our home forever.

He and one of his sons, carefully, filled in the spaces between the rocks, covering the cement with his very appealing black mixture. Fred was a master in his trade. He never thought of a job as work; he looked at it as a challenge. His work was, literally, as hard as rock, but he knew how to make it easy. He studied it and broke it into smaller, more manageable pieces.

Fred knew what many of us have yet to learn - take the hard things in life and break them down into something we can manage - one piece at a time.

~ Michael T. Smith ~

Michael lives in Ohio with his wife Ginny and his stepdaughter's family. You can see a list of Mike's stories here: And you can get his stories emailed to you by signing up here:  Please let Michael know what you think of his story:  Michael T. Smith
[ by: Michael T. Smith Copyright © 2009, ( ) -- {used with permission} ]

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