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Of Nails, Nonfiction & Various Adhesives

By Shane Borrowman

My father stands behind me, watching and sweating in the Nevada sun. August is the worst possible time for roofing, but it’s the only time we have. With the temperature hovering around one hundred, I’m on my knees, hammer in hand, about to be taught a lesson in writing creative nonfiction.

I take a couple whacks at the nails, hitting every time but not accomplishing much. Each nail takes three or four blows, and my shoulder is already stiffening.

“Choke back on the handle,” my father says, his tone giving this piece of instruction just enough levity to lighten the sting. I’m sensitive about criticism, especially when it’s criticism over something as simple as driving a nail, which I am clearly doing wrong.

I slide my hand back on the handle, and the next smack drives a fresh nail all the way through the shingles and into the plywood beneath.

I scoot to the side a bit, line up again, begin driving the next nail.

“Choke back,” my father says again, and I realize that I’ve reverted to driving nails in my traditional, inefficient, painful-to-the-shoulder way. “Who taught you to hammer?”

“No one,” I say, beginning to pound correctly. He doesn’t answer, and I realize that I’ve hurt him. My answer slipped out, wasn’t meant as a dig, can’t be taken back. So I don’t say anything else. Neither does he. The silence stretches out between us, punctuated only by the sound of hammering and the beat of the sun on our necks.

When I finish nailing the final row of shingles, my father holds the ladder as I climb down, hammer in one hand and bag of nails in the other. The knees of my jeans are black from shingle tar.

I haul everything into the stiflingly hot, dusty-stuffy garage, glad to be out of the sun. The temperature is well over a hundred in this enclosed, uninsulated space, but it feels wonderfully shady.

The hammer hangs above my workbench, suspended with its head across two metal pegs.
The ladder is suspended from two hooks twisted deep into rafters, both sheathed in red rubber to give them a better grip.

The bag of nails, soft from sweat and handling and tar-sticky on the bottom, goes on a shelf filled with similar bags of dissimilar-sized nails.

Every tool and tool accessory in the garage has its place, and the floor glows in the dim light because of repeated sweepings. The cleanliness of this workspace is absurd and out of place, and it speaks ill of my mental health.

Behind the bags of nails is a long line of adhesives, arranged from weakest to strongest. A tiny bottle of Elmers hunkers meekly at the left, next to a varnish stained tube of wood glue. A double-barreled syringe filled with the components of epoxy lays before my Gorilla Glue, its cap sealed in place so solidly that I use pliers to open the squeeze bottle.

This is the adhesive collection of a man prepared for any contingency.

This is the adhesive collection of a man who rarely knows what he’s doing or what he’s going to need, a man willing to sometimes force connections.

* * *

Writing creative nonfiction requires a knack for linking lived experience with echoes of interpretation. It’s all about carpentry, about nailing the pieces of narrative together with transitions, about spiking the past to the present to clarify both, about gluing surface events together to add strength and depth and meaning.

Some incidents go together easily, especially those that repeat across the years: Something happens; it reminds the writer of something that happened before. One event opens the story while the other gives it some closure. The events themselves are unrelated but not unlike one another. A little glue does the job.

Some incidents fit together badly, or not at all, until a few metaphorical hammer-whacks force the moments to their crises: Something happens, and both its causes and effects are unclear. Something else happens that seems unrelated. Whack. The “somethings” come together and stick after a pounding from the forces of passing time and research.

* * *

I never learned to drive a nail because of Latin American socialism and Asian mining practices.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Japanese copper flooded the world market, driving the price to sixty cents per pound. It was suddenly cheaper to buy internationally than to mine domestically. This radical market fluctuation was especially devastating to the Anaconda Company, which had lost roughly 70% of its production capability in 1971, when newly inaugurated President Salvador Allende ordered all foreign-owned copper mines seized in the name of the Chilean people. These distant economic quakes in Chile and Japan sent shockwaves through western Montana.

The mines in Butte—dubbed The Richest Hill on Earth—closed after more than a century of operation, leaving an open pit that would become one of the most toxically polluted points outside the former Soviet Union.

The smelter in Anaconda, twenty-one miles away and entirely dependent on Butte-mined copper, closed.

Suddenly my father, like virtually every man in town, was cast as the central character in a song by John Cougar Mellencamp.

Or possibly Bruce Springsteen.

Some of my friends’ fathers took work as guards at either the state prison in Deer Lodge or the mental hospital at Warm Springs. Several found work at the Hanford nuclear site in Washington. Others, my father among them, found work at construction sites in eastern Montana and the Dakotas—union work that paid well but kept them from home for months at a stretch when the roads were bad due to weather.

Long hours of work in cold places left them too tired to write letters home, and long distance phone calls were at their pre-cellular highs.

On weekends—or less frequently—these men, my father among them, came home and filled their time with the chores they once did in the evenings, after a day of work at the smelter—chopping and hauling wood, mending roofs, and tinkering with hot water heaters and furnaces and other appliances too expensive to replace. Such homework, combined with their migration to job sites, left them with little time for instruction.

* * *

Twenty-five years after the smelter in Anaconda closed, my son toddles toward me, a blue Lego block in each hand. They were connected when he took them out of his toybox. Now, he’s pulled them apart and can’t get them to go back together.

At fourteen months old, he just doesn’t have that kind of manual dexterity. So he brings the blocks to me, sure that his father can help.

He holds the blocks out to me, but I don’t take them, partially because my hands are blistered and sore from pounding nails all afternoon, mostly because it’s the wrong thing to do. I take his tiny, delicately boned hands in mine, and I guide the blocks back together. They conjoin with an audible pop, and he grins widely—exposing a mouth already almost filled with teeth, straight and strong and white.

John ambles away from me at his fastest stagger, lurching and swaying but not falling down. He holds the Legos proudly above his head, entirely unaware of the price of copper.


Shane Borrowman is an assistant professor of English at the University of Nevada, Reno, where he teaches undergraduate courses in alternative memoir and graduate seminars in the history and theory of rhetoric. His most recent book, a first-year composition textbook titled The Promise of America, was released in December of 2006. After much practice and occasional injury, he has learned to swing a hammer properly.

photo by Dinty W. Moore