Jim Elliott

Four times in my life, after I have been working a job for months or years, I have had a small revelation that says to me, “Hey, I know what I’m doing, and I am doing it well!” It only came once per job, but it’s enough.

The first time occurred when I was a donut maker in an all-night donut shop in San Francisco. A group of Hell’s Angels had just come into the shop and were later joined by the Oakland Outlaws. (This was not a high-class place.)

A fight broke out which I hadn’t noticed because I was busy cranking batter for 3 dozen old-fashioned donuts into the vat. I noticed it—the fight—as soon as a napkin container bounced off the edge of the vat and fell, thankfully, to the floor. The hot oil in a donut vat runs at about 350 degrees and is nothing to mess with. I knew of a guy who lost his arm when he accidentally deep fried it, so my first reaction was to get away from the vat, quick, before something landed in it and splashed fat on me.

My next reaction was equally sound, I left the shop’s 38 Special exactly where it was. The third thing I did was call the cops. The fourth thing was to look over at the vat where the donuts were about to burn on one side and needed to be turned. All sorts of items were flying through the air—saltshakers forks, sugar containers, one or two people—but none had made it into the vat, so far.

To go up to the vat and turn the donuts would be to risk being maimed by flying fat. I thought about it briefly and my mind said to me, honest, this is word for word, “Are you a mouse or a donut-maker”, and I went up to the vat, flipped the donuts over with the large chopsticks we used, stepped back and waited to take the donuts out or for the fight to end, whichever came first.

But that moment was what they call an epiphany; I realized that I was now a bonafide member of the trade that I had been apprenticing at for eight months.

I don’t think I am alone in having that kind of revelation. I think of a young fellow at Hoglund’s Western Wear in Great Falls last year who shaped an open-crown cowboy hat for me to my specifications and his boss’s directions. He was maybe 17, and he knew what he was doing and was proud of it. He was good, too.

I like to watch people working together at a trade or a craft they know well. I have watched two people fit a bushing into a piece of logging equipment, one tapping the bushing in, the other using a back-up hammer to dampen the reactive force. They were good. They had had plenty of practice, too.

I remember hiring a guy to come and fix a tractor which he did basically by throwing a switch I hadn’t noticed. He charged me twenty-five bucks.

“I know it sounds expensive,” he said, “but it’s only five bucks for fixing it. The twenty’s for knowing how.”

I’ve written about this kind of thing before because I think it’s important for people whose work does not involve getting their hands dirty to think about. Generally, people who make the news seem to wear suits and have college degrees. They speak in what Charley Russell used to call ten-cylinder (meaning syllable) words. They have their place. But the people who make America work are the people who know how to use a tool and what to use it for. Increasingly, their jobs are more complex and sometimes require computer skills, like auto mechanics.

Me, I like to watch people work. Every job has a rhythm. Everyone who works a job learns an economy of motion. People who work a job together know how to anticipate everyone’s next move. The pure competence they exhibit shows that they know what they are doing, that they have pride in their craft.

America was built by a lot of people with dirty hands. They are still building it.