During one of my college summers, I hired on with a temp agency. Every week (or sometimes every day), I had a different job, a different boss—moving furniture, stocking shelves, collating data, what have you. In hindsight, it was a great way to sample a lot of jobs in a short amount of time. At the time, I just needed money.

One morning I got called to a jobsite working for a trio of masons laying a home addition cinderblock foundation. My job was simple. I had to mix the cement in a wheelbarrow, pour it into five-gallon buckets, and bring it over when a mason called for it.

“Mud!” the lead mason called, and I picked up my bucket with both hands and hauled it over to a burley guy in a sleeveless shirt, full beard and bandana on his head. Each of these guys had arms as thick as my torso (I was skinny). And they all scowled. I got the distinct impression early in the day these were not the type of guys you should piss off.

He scooped the cement out of the bucket and onto his mortar board, then with well-practiced precision he slapped a dollop on top of the block with a downward swipe that left the right amount and a clean edge. Next he gently placed a new block and tapped it into place, aligning it with the blocks underneath and adjacent, in line with a string they’d measured and mounted first thing that morning.

“Mud!” another mason yelled, and I hurried back to the wheel barrow to shovel another hundred pounds of cement into a bucket, then waddled it over to his location.

“Mud!” the third mason hollered, and so on. It took me a good couple hours to get a rhythm down, mixing the cement, pouring it out, and having it ready to go before the next mud call.

I did enjoy watching them work. Block after block, row after row, each of them exhibited a finesse, a muscle memory expertise learned from repeating a task thousands of times. They knew their craft and they did it well. And intellectually, it was an interesting problem pacing my work so that I could deliver the cement right when they needed it.

But it was brutal. At the time, I was 5’9”, 155 lbs and not what you’d call “athletic”.  By 10 am my arms were tired. By lunchtime I was in moment-to-moment agony moving these God awful buckets. I appreciated when the masons took their time for a cigarette or a drink of water before calling me over for more cement.

“How’s the job going?” my temp agency boss asked when he drove up to the site mid-afternoon. He always checked in to make sure both the clients and workers were a good fit.

“I’m dying here,” I quietly whined. “My arms are killing me.”

“I can put you on something else tomorrow, if you’d prefer. Maybe a desk job?” he said.

“Yes please!” I said, a little too eagerly.

By late afternoon, the job was done. The foundation was laid. The masons seemed happy. Not smiling happy, but the scowls were gone.

“You worked out all right,” one of them said to me as we were cleaning up the job site. “We’ve got another foundation later this week. You want in?”

“I think they’ve got me on another job then,” I lied, a little too quickly. His compliment was overshadowed by the soreness I felt through my entire upper body. I’m not exaggerating when I say I probably burned more calories in that single day than in the previous two weeks. It took a good week afterward for me to physically recover from the effort.

I think back though, to that decision. What if I had stuck with it? Would I have learned more of that trade? Made some connections, leading to different summer work? Would I have gotten the ripped physique and my own personal gun show?

More likely, I would have injured myself by the third day. I don’t regret my decision to head in a different direction, but I can’t help but wonder about it.

That single day, working for the masons, has stuck with me for more than twenty-five years. It gave me an appreciation for what I could do, and a respect for what I couldn’t do, but others could. I don’t know if it defined my work ethic per se, but it’s definitely a data point. It felt good when they approved of my work (I get the feeling they were hit or miss hiring folks from the temp agency). It felt good to satisfy a client who’s not easy to please.

But high holy shit were my arms sore.

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