Things My Grandfather Taught Me
by Frank DiBona (Revised 2/15/2017)
If you are nailing two pieces of wood together don’t be upset if you bend the nail. Everyone bends a nail now and then. If you don’t never bend a nail you are not hammering hard enough. If you are hammering a nail and it starts to bend stop before it is bent all the way. You can straighten it out by tapping your hammer against the bend and then drive it in. This nail will hold better than a nail that was never bent.
My grandfather had no power tools. He did carpentry with a handsaw, hand drill, chisels, a hammer, and several flat-bladed screwdrivers. Add to that a few squares, a miter box, and a large wooden vise. I watched him make mortise and tenon joints with just these tools.
“Grandpop.” I never called him anything except that. When I was five my mother tied to teach me to say, “Nonno,” Italian for grandfather, but that never sounded right. English was my language and “Grandpop” it was. He was born in 1885 in a small town in Abruzzo Italy. In 1910 the Pennsylvania Railroad was looking for men with strong backs and good work ethics. There was a man in Philadelphia who came from the same town, Torricella Peligna, and had risen to an executive level in the railroad. He went to Italy to recruit workers and naturally he went first to his hometown. My grandfather and several dozen other men got a free ride to “L’America” and a three year commitment to work for the Railroad. It wasn’t until those three years were up that he called for his wife, my Grandmom, to join him in Philadelphia.
While working for the railroad, he travelled as far west as Denver, Colorado. I’ve been told that he mostly worked laying tracks. His youngest daughter, my Aunt Linda, told me once that in Denver he had a job as a bouncer for a fancy bordello. Once my wife and I were in Denver on business. We stayed at the renowned Brown Palace Hotel, a ten-story sandstone and red granite building in the heart of downtown. We took a tour of the hotel. In the basement the guide pointed out a bricked over archway that he said was once a tunnel used to keep the wealthy male guests from being spotted while making their way to the brothel across the street. “Ah, Grandpop!” I thought and felt an instant connection to the place.
Always measure twice before you cut once. If you are nailing the end of one two by four to the end of another, use two nails and aim each one at a slightly different angle. The joint will hold better. For a two by four the nail got to be four inches long.
My grandfather’s name was Nicolantonio D’Amico. As far as I knew, he was always “Nick” to his friends. He acted like he was the richest person on the planet. My grandparents owned a second story flat, about 800 square feet, above a poultry shop, with three bedrooms and one bath. He raised his four children there. I can remember going with my grandmother to the poultry shop below the apartment. She would pick out the chicken she wanted. That big fat one over there with the red feathers. The man would pick up the live chicken by the feet and go into a small back room. One minute later he would come out with the chicken, now featherless, cut up into pieces. Grandmom would go upstairs and cook the bird.
After the railroad, Grandpop worked delivering ice from a small pickup truck. He could pick up a 50-pound block of ice with huge tongs and carry it up three flights of steps to deliver it to his customer. He had an assortment of ice picks that he would use to cut the block into smaller pieces for his customers.
America is the greatest country in the world. A person works here and can make a living. You work, you eat. You no work, you no eat. When we were in Italy we never knew if we would eat tomorrow. We only knew if we were eating now.
Grandpop hated Benito Mussolini, the Fascist dictator of Italy. Mussolini was a traitor to Italy and deserved the hanging that he got. Grandpop was proud that his oldest son, my Uncle Eddy, signed up for the U.S. Navy immediately after Pearl Harbor. My grandfather was too old to join the military or he would have gone himself. He was relieved to learn that Uncle Eddy’s ship was going to fight in the Pacific where it was highly unlikely that Eddy would have to shoot an Italian soldier. He wanted America to beat Italy and Germany, but it would feel better if his son did not have to kill any Italians.
These things I’m telling you about wood and carpentry are not things I made up myself. I learned them from my father and my nonno, just like you. I’m sure that St. Joseph taught his son, Jesus, how to do these things. Did you know Jesus had to make his own cross? He was the best carpenter, so they made him make his own cross. He used a cross-lap joint, wood glue, and wood pegs that he made himself. I could teach you how to make this joint, which is the strongest for two boards that cross in the middle.
My father once told me that my grandfather made things up but I didn’t believe him. Grandpop knew everything about wood and about stones and bricks and cement. He knew how to use every tool there was. He knew about Jesus and all of the Saints. Grandpop and Jesus were a lot alike since they both made things with wood.
Every time a new Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis movie came out my grandfather would take me to see it. They were the funniest people on earth as far as I could tell. My grandfather’s English was pretty good. He had to deal with the public at his work. But understanding people talking fast like on television or the movies is harder than engaging in a conversation and I knew that he didn’t follow everything. He would often lean over to me and ask, “What he say?” But when the audience and I would burst into laughter, so would Grandpop, even if he didn’t get the joke.
If you are screwing two pieces of hard wood together always drill a hole first. The drill bit should be just smaller that the spine of the screw. You can hold up the screw and the drill bit together to see if the size is right. Always rub the screw with a little bit of nafta.
“Nafta” was the hard yellow cake of soap he kept in his toolbox. It smelled pungent, like the soap Grandmom used to scrub her three outside marble steps three times a week.
Grandpop always had a cigar in his mouth. He called them stogies. They were not fat, fancy, hand-rolled cigars from Cuba or Honduras, but twisted dark brown gnarly things that had been soaked in Anisette, an Italian liquor. He did not have a humidor, a fancy cigar cutter, or a high-powered lighter. The cigars came in cardboard boxes of five, which would last a day, so no humidor was necessary. Wooden box matches worked fine. The cigar stayed in his mouth all day, but frequently went out. I saw him keep the unlit cigar in his mouth for hours. Other times he would relight it as soon as it went out. I loved the smell of those cigars and still do. If I’m walking down a street and catch a whiff of cigar smoke, especially an anisette soaked stogie, I will follow the scent until I can take it in full.
When you put a nail into something nice, like a bookcase, and you don’t want to see it, use a finish nail. Then take the punch and drive the nail below the surface of the wood. Take a little bit of wood glue; add some sawdust from the wood you were using, and make a thick paste. Then put some of this into the hole. When it dries you can take a piece of sandpaper, wrap it around a small block of two by four and sand down the wood paste. Always sand in the direction of the grain of the wood. You will not be able to tell there was ever a nail there.
Always buy the best tools you can. And then take care of them. They will last you a lifetime. When you are done working for the day, dust the sawdust off of your tools and then take a little bit of oil and rub it on the metal parts. Then oil down the wooden handles but be sure to wipe away the excess. If the head of your hammer becomes loose take a small piece of hard wood and use your chisel to chip a shim. Put this into the place where the handle is loose and hammer it in tight. Good as new.
Most of Grandpop’s tools were second hand which he bought at the Italian Market on 9th Street in South Philadelphia just a few blocks from his apartment. This place was a cacophony of sounds, smells, and sights. When I was a child I thought this place was gruesome, dirty, and stinky. Vendors did their best to keep the place clean but it was impossible. Now, this place is “in”. Urban yuppies have “found” the market and have colonized it, seeking out the real McCoy, or in this case, the real Guido. Nowadays, vendors try to keep the place dirty and smelly for “authenticity”. Where once the vendors practiced speaking English the best they could to impress the “Americans,” they now use fake Italian accents and insert Italian words to make the “cognoscenti” feel that they have arrived.
In the market, stalls were piled high with fruits and vegetables. Large bulbs of finocchio (fennel) and aglio (garlic) were next to dark purple eggplant and oven-roasted peppers. Pigs, lambs, chickens, and beef were hung from rafters by huge hooks, blood staining the cement sidewalks below. Italian sausage, hard salamis, large whole prosciuttos, wrapped in cheesecloth and tied with string, and hard smelly cheeses completed the picture. There were dentists, lawyers, and accountants, mostly on second floor offices above the vendors. Number runners were everywhere. There were also Italian bakeries, delicatessens, and specialty shops. I remember one store that sold nothing but ravioli and usually ran out by 2 or 3 PM. There were clothing stores specializing in Italian clothes. Skilled tailors made handmade suits and shirts, while the store next door might have imported Italian shoes. My father got most of his clothes here.
There were also shops that sold used furniture, curios, and second hand tools. These were the stores my grandfather was interested in, He would spot a saw, pick it up, and sight down the blade like it was a rifle. If he saw any curvature he would put it down and condemn it as trash. “Even Jesus Christ could not saw a board straight with this saw.” “Look, they made this one in Japan. Junk!” If the blade was true he would then carefully inspect the stock, searching for any cracks, any weakness in the attachment to the blade. Only if it passed full inspection would he consider buying it and then only if he could get it at a bargain. It was in the Italian market that Granpop bought me my first hammer, first saw, and my first plane, all before my tenth birthday. Then he bought some wood and he and I built a wooden tool box for my new possessions.
When you use a stepladder always be sure that it is firm on the ground. All the feet have to be on the ground. If you are working on a wall turn the side of the ladder to the wall. Use both hands when you climb the ladder. Don’t reach too far when you are working on the ladder. If something is out of reach get down and move the ladder. If some day you can’t reach something and you cannot move the ladder any closer and you have to lean, do you know what to do? First say three Hail Marys, three Our Fathers, then make the Sign of the Cross. You will be okay. I’ve done this for 50 years and I never fell off a ladder.
Grandpop taught me how to use a combination square, a chalk line, a folding yard stick, a retractable measuring tape, a plumb line, a plane, a crow bar, a hand drill, an augur, chisels (and the stones needed to keep then sharp), a wood scribe, wood carving tools, saw-horses, vises, wire cutters and wire strippers, files, pliers of all kinds, open ended wrenches, plumbers wrenches, a cross-cut saw, a hacksaw, a coping saw, and a miter box. He showed me how to use a steel square to lay out and measure stringers for steps but I never understood that. The last (and only time) I built some steps for my house, I bought pre-cut stringers from Lowe’s.
My grandfather bought a business that sold newspapers, cigars and cigarettes, magazines, snacks and soft drinks to commuters using the Philadelphia subways. He had the best spot on the system, right at the Broad and Market Street junction. Tens of thousands of people walked past his news stand every day. He would greet every customer like he or she was his most important friend. He would stand there holding up a newspaper and shout out the headlines. “Eisenhower, he elected for President.” I spent many hours by his side at the newspaper stand. If someone bought a newspaper he would say, “You come back tomorrow. News going to be all different then.”
Your grandmother is the most beautiful woman I ever see. She could have any man she wanted but she wanted me. And she could sing like an angel. I saw her for the first time in her church in Torrcella Peligna. My family came to that church one Sunday to hear a famous priest give a sermon. When I saw her I was in love. I was 17 and she was 14. I could tell that she was looking at me too. After the Mass we got to talk for a few minutes. Then it was anytime I could get to her town we would meet. Soon we were in love. Seven years after we met we got married, but three months later I moved to America and I didn’t see her again for three years.
I had a hard time believing that my grandmother was ever pretty. She seemed so old and decrepit. In her mid forties she used a cane. She had broken her hip as a young adult from falling out of a rumble seat of a car. I don’t know what kind of treatment she had, but she never walked straight again. But when I saw a picture of her as a young woman I could see how Grandpop might think she was beautiful. She looked a lot like my mother, who was beautiful.
When you make a mortise and tenon joint you have to make both parts the same width as your chisel. You have to measure everything out and mark it with pencil on both pieces. Use the square to make the lines. When all of the lines are drawn then put the wood into the vise. For the tenon use the miter saw for every cut. For the mortise, take the chisel and punch the line all the way around. Then start to chip away the wood. You have to keep measuring how deep you are. When you are done the tenon should be a little too big to go into the mortise. Then use the chisel like a plane to get it to fit.
Most of my mother’s family was ravaged by diabetes. My Grandmom was the first person with diabetes I ever knew. I can remember seeing glass syringes and reusable needles soaking in alcohol in a glass tray with a stainless steel lid. Three times a day she would give herself a shot of insulin. She was fortunate that at about the time she developed diabetes, insulin had become available for treatment. Before that there was no treatment. My grandfather became diabetic later in life but it hit him harder. Before he died he lost one leg, most of the toes on the other foot, and was partially blind. Three of his four children became diabetic, including my mother. My brother and I have also become diabetic. One of my two children is diabetic. The unusual thing is that not one of us who became diabetic was obese, the usual prequel to Type II diabetes. Both of my grandparents became demented before they died. It was so hard to visit them, especially my grandfather, who taught me so much and spent so much time with me. I hated seeing him in this state and I was too immature to overcome this feeling. My grandfather died while I was in medical school. I was 1000 miles away and in the middle of exams. I was crying on the phone with my mother. There was no way I could attend the funeral. Mom said that Grandpop was so proud that I was becoming a doctor and that he would want me to stay and finish my exams. Still, it was difficult.
When you are building a cinderblock or a brick wall you must always make a strong foundation first. If the foundation is small or weak the wall will fall down or crack. You dig a trench at least two times as big as the cinderblock. And it has to be three feet deep. Then you fill it with cement and wait for it to dry. When you are ready to start the wall, the most important block of the whole wall is the first one. It has to be perfect. Put it in the corner. Make sure the outside is exactly where you want it. The cement has to be thick enough to stay on the trowel when you turn the trowel sideways. It has to be thick enough that when you put the block on it, the weight of the block does not squish it down. Use the handle of the trowel to tap the block so that it is level and exactly in the spot you want it and exactly facing the direction you want it. Once you get the foundation perfect and that first block perfect the rest of the wall is easy.