This post is an entry for our $25,000 scholarship contest. The post was created by James Yarsky and may not always reflect the views of JW Surety Bonds.
I made a promise to myself that I would leave the music business behind when I turned forty. One can only try and get the attention of producers and agents for so long. In the end, a career in music proved to be too illusive so I looked at other ways to make a living.
My friend Abram once told me that, “Plumbing is like sculpture” so I gave plumbing a try. One day, I walked into a Plumbing Contractor’s office and told them I would dig any ditch, remove any back-breaking, old water heater they could find, and clean every dirty fitting in their shop for peanuts as long as they taught me the trade. The owner agreed and I went to work as a plumber’s helper.
I met some of the greatest guys anyone could ever want to meet in that shop.
“You have to think about the next guy,” they would always say.
“What do you mean?”
“Nothing lasts forever,” they would say, “Do the work as best you can, make it strong and pretty, and remember that someone else is going to have to work on it in ten or twenty or thirty years. Give him easy access. Think about how you would like to repair any conceivable problem.”
I watched carefully as these sculptures soldered in heating systems, calculated the best angles for waste lines, or converted well-water systems to town water. They explained how flexible plastic (pex) piping was changing the business. Pex piping is a flexible pipe that feeds clean water to a house using more of an electrical wire layout than the traditional copper formats. If the pipe is approved for the district in which one works, the plumber can bring cold water into a house with a flexible one inch pipe and build a manifold (similar to a circuit box) from which clean water can feed any spigot (Trethewey).
They broke every plumber stereotype one could imagine. They were smart, thoughtful, strong, and proud. They cared about every solder joint. They thought about fuel efficiency for the home-owner and for the environment as well. Everything they did had an impact or a consequence and they knew it.
These guys dreamt about plumbing. They talked about it for fun. It wasn’t just a job to them. They cared deeply about their work and the customers they served.
They taught me how to do the work – after I dug the ditch, or pulled the old water heater or made all the fittings shine. They were patient with me. They explained the methods and the reasons for every new lesson they taught. It was exciting.
After a while, they gave specific jobs to do on a work site. They handed me a torch or a basin wrench (my favorite tool) and expected me to do sound work in a given amount of time. They inspected my work and gave me excellent feedback on what I did right and what I did wrong. I came home from work covered in dirt but I learned every day. There are many different ways to learn this trade. The traditional path is to enroll in a trade school and enter an apprenticeship program. That is an excellent way to learn the craft and it has helped to form an excellent work force of plumbing artisans. Unions like the United Association have educated men and women who install all sorts of infrastructure for our communities and cities. Their work is deeply important and done so well that most of us turn on our water and gas lines without a second thought as to the water and gas got there in the first place (US Trade Plumbers).
I learned by working side by side with licensed plumbers. Either method of learning can lead one to a better understanding of infrastructure and construction. When one can participate in this process, one can understand the manner in which he or she fits in the professional landscape of the United States.
The point is this – plumbing is not what many people think it is. Yes, plumbers bring in the clean water and remove the dirty water, but the work itself truly is an art form. My friend Abram compared plumbers to sculptures for a reason. Art is supposed to make you think. I thought long and hard about every newly installed loop at every construction site – not just about its function but how the pipes related to the structure. How did they add to the aesthetic vision of the architect? How did my work serve or even improve on that vision?
Now, when I enter a building or a home, I want to see the basement. I want to see the pipes and the manifolds. I want to see if the plumber who installed the system thought about the next guy.
Think about the next guy. Absolutely right. That’s probably the best lesson anyone ever taught me.
Trethewey, Richard. This Old House (Producer). (2014). How to Work With PEX Piping. Retrieved from http://www.thisoldhouse.com/toh/video/0,,1631516,00.html.
United Association, Union of Plumbers, Fitters, Welders and HVAC Service Techs. United Association (Producer). (2011). Plumber. Retrieved from http://www.ua.org/trades.asp.