23 March 2018

How To Drive A Nail

As mentioned in My Previous Blog Post, I wrote a weekly column in my local newspaper back in 1994, and that is where the following story first appeared.  I have taken some poetic license with the character descriptions, but the story is true.

How To Drive A Nail

Most 18-year-old kids figure they know it all. I was no exception. The only thing I didn't know back then was what to do with my life. So, after high school I enrolled in an alternative educational program called The Grassroots Project. 

Tucked away on a mountain in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, me and 74 other kids from all over the country spent a year learning about small-scale farming, forestry, and wilderness skills. I also learned a lot about people, and how appearances can be deceiving. And, coincidentally, I learned how to drive a nail.

It's not that I had never driven a nail before, because I had, plenty of times. I was, after all, a country boy and country boys know how to drive nails. It's about as natural as spittin'.

But a lot of my fellow students were city kids, like Harry. Even with a flannel shirt, green wool pants and a Buck knife on his hip (our standard uniform), he didn't look too tough. Maybe it was his slight build and gold rimmed John-Denver-style granny glasses. Maybe it was that I knew Harry was a Choate graduate and, for him, Grassroots was a year vacation before going to someplace like Yale or Princeton.

I liked Harry well enough, but he was a bit too cultured for me to take seriously. That is, until one day.

It so happened that a bunch of us Grassroots kids signed up for a working field trip to a local dairy farm. The idea was that for a few hours we would all help build stalls in a new barn addition. There weren't enough hammers for everyone so the farmer eyed us up and handed hammers to the ones he thought looked most capable. I reckon I stood out as a naturally capable country boy, and I got a hammer.

My job was to nail thick, roughsawn maple boards horizontally down the length of one side of the barn. With a couple of students holding the first long board in position, I commenced to pound a stout, 20-penny spike through the board. 

About half way in, the nail bent. There was no saving it, so I started another nail next to it. With great care, I drove it about as far as the first and, once again, it bent.

I was downright befuddled with the way those nails were reacting to my hammering prowess, because I knew I was connecting with the heads dead on. It was like the nails had a stubborn will and refused to go any further.

I started another spike and was extremely careful about how I hit it, but the same thing happened. Well, country boys don't give in easy, but after a half dozen similar failures, I was frustrated. A small crowd was gathering. Then Harry stopped by.

"What's wrong?" He asked, his face showing concern.

"This wood is hard as a rock. I can't get a nail through it," I replied.

"Here, let me try," he said, reaching for my hammer.

I handed it to him, relieved to be off the hook, and confident that if I couldn't get a nail through the blasted board, nobody could.

Harry gave the nail a few moderate hits to get it started. Then he grit his teeth and hauled off and beat on that cold piece of steel with everything he had. It slid through the board like magic. Everyone cheered. Harry was a hero. I couldn't believe my eyes.

Harry took another spike and delivered an encore performance.

"How did you do that, Harry?" I asked.

He looked me square in the eye and said, "You've got to hit it like a man, with everything you've got. Don't give it any second choices."

"Let me try that," said Mary, a husky girl from Milwaukee. 

And she slammed it home.

The happy procession moved on down the wall, everyone taking a turn. I stared at my bent nails.

Later, Harry told me he had once worked on a farm in Iceland. He had the same problem trying to drive a nail through a hunk of hardwood. The farmer explained to him that you'll never pound a spike through a sizable piece of hardwood like you can a piece of pine. You've got to hit it like a man, with everything you've got. Don't give it any second choices.

I never forgot that lesson and two years later it paid off. I was a building trades student at the State University of New York at Alfred. I was the only trade student on my dormitory floor. Everyone else was in business, or nursing, or some other academic degree program.

Part way through the school year, my floor was planning to have an epic weekend wild college party in the central gathering area, which we called the lounge. A couple days before the event, I walked into the lounge to find a bunch of guys and girls gathered around a pile of hardwood slab lumber. They looked discouraged, but perked up when they saw me.

"Hey, want to help us build a bar?" Asked Cathy, who was one of the coeds on my floor.

I've never been a party animal and I had better things to be doing, so I said, "No, not really."

"Oh, come on," she said. "We're having problems."

"Oh?" I replied, as I looked over their pitiful collection of half-driven and bent-over nails. "What seems to be the problem?"

Tony, an oversized jock stood there, hammer in hand, and whined, "I can't get a nail to go through this wood!"

"Here, let me try," I said as I gently took his hammer. 

I proceeded to slam-dunk a few nails through the hardwood in front of the astonished assembly.

"How did you do that?" Asked Tony.

I replied, "You gotta hit those nails like a man, Tony. With everything you got. Don't give 'em any second choices."

I handed him the hammer and turned to go. The crowd parted silently, and I walked away.

Behind me I heard Cathy: "Hey Tony, let me try that!"



  1. Reminds me of my first exposure to the big world at large. I was enrolled in the Texas state Technical institute, studying computer science. My dorm roommate twas studying welding technology. Man, was he green!

    I had been welding for ten years, but was self taught. Roomie was having putting together a 90 degree butt weld, so I stuck one together for him.

    The next day, he showed me the result of a destructive test, and sure enough,my weld broke right at the joint.

    His didn't break at all. (The instructor took ten minutes to show him what we were doing wrong).

    I stopped calling myself a welder after that.

  2. Elizabeth L. Johnson said, Couple years ago, I was on a short-term mission trip in Mexico. I helped with the children, etc., at the church. The team outside was constructing. That's what I wanted to do. I watched a few youth having a hard time getting nails into the lumber. Being a general contractor's wife, I thought I'd give it a try. I like manual labor. It's my cup-a-tea. The young people who gradually walking away, giving up. I had never seen nails so hard to drive. It was awful. I blamed the quality of the nails. The lumber was only pine. I pulled many a bent nail out, and tried and tried and tried and got the job done; everyone was gone long before. Land's sake, I had to hit them like a man. Boy was it hard.

  3. I see that you have the connection to Sterling..I was the nurse there from 1981-91..raised my kids on campus. Was the Harry you mentioned in your essay Harry Miller? If so, he's still in town and is a builder of houses. I think he's your age. What a small world..Sterling is still there though not what I remember. Do you remember Bill Manning, Dave Linck, Dave Brown??

    1. Hi Craig,

      Yes, that is the same Harry. But I'll bet you didn't know Harry's actual first name is Andy. This link tells the story of how I was quoted in the NY Times, but it was actually Harry Miller's quote: The First Time The NY Times Wrote About Me

      I know Harry stayed in the area and is a builder. He also taught at Sterling some, right? I worked in the building trades for 25+ years. Got my start right there in Carftsbury Common, as I explain in this blog post: Getting Started And Finding My Way Part 12

      I've written numerous times about my year at Sterling. Here's one example: My Best Memory of Dirt Class at Sterling College

      Yes, I remember Dave Link and Dave Brown. I met Bill Manning once. He was not much involved with The Grassroots Project the year I was there. Steve Wright was the director. What a great place to raise your kids!