I’d planned on leaving work early Friday to pick blueberries in Leicester (Lest-er) where I’ve been renovating a mudroom that was slowly disintegrating from the combined efforts of vermin and groundwater. All the rot and mouse turds had been removed. New rot resistant framing was installed over the waterproofed and insulated concrete walls with a skin of sturdy concrete-board panels ready for fresh paint. It had been a productive week and I had every reason to quit a little early to restock my berry horde- but just to be thoroughly motivated I went ahead and bashed my fingernail with my long-handled titanium framing hammer.
A note on titanium hammers. First of all, they’re really expensive. They are the luxury golf club of hammers. I bought mine because it looked like a little viking war hammer with its stylized head and long curving axe handle. Also I justified the purchase because titanium is ridiculously light and I’ve suffered from acute carpenter’s elbow from years of slinging heavy steel. Titanium is an elfish material with magical properties to multiply the force of a seemingly weightless blow, and I’ve tested the destructive potential of its constructive magic repeatedly on my dainty fingertips.
A good finger mashing is always a terribly shocking surprise. It’s not like I’m looking elsewhere while directing hard metal along its lethal arc towards my fingertips. Or maybe I am. It’s such a cruel interruption to the productive rhythm of work. Productive tap, productive tap, produ…..PAINFUL MASH! Blinding pain. Confusion. I have this theory that pain is the strictest of instructors, and a bloody fingernail is a semi-permanent blueberry colored string tied around a finger as a reminder to respect the destructive forces at play on a job site. I also maintain a superstition that as long as that dried blood under the nails remains I’m magically protected from a repeat mashing. It takes 5-6 months for blood-free nail to grow out, and I can usually maintain my hammer wielding focus long enough to avoid a refresher course from professor pain. Not this summer.
This summer I treated myself to a second inoculation against a worse fate, since I’m already sporting a purple pinkie finger on my opposite hand that was dealt by a heavy stone during a landscaping project. In a way its a relief, because on the scale of worksite injury, even a severe finger mashing scores relatively low. No big loss of time. No loss of income or savings. Just a fiercely painful reminder of the dangers that surround us. And the most dangerous tool I face on a daily basis is me, or my tendency to become comfortable around dangerous implements. The work is like hopping from rock to rock in a dry riverbed. You do it enough and you hardly look at individual rocks, but you have to keep your guard up perpetually. Maybe I’ll leave that slight smear of blood on the keys my left index finger is responsible for- r,t,f,g,v, as an additional reminder.
It was a great relief to leave all tools blunt and sharp behind and drive through the rolling hills of Leicester to the “you-pick” blueberry farm that Johnny McFarlane’s been operating for 9 years, picking up to 300 gallons a season off the hundreds of bushes he put in the ground himself. Johnny hooked me up with a bandaid to replace the bloody paper towels wet from long since melted ice. The man is thorough. The first first-aid kit he pulled out of his truck contained no band-aids, but luckily the second first-aid tin was well stocked.
I was self-medicating with cold sweating cans of Coors beer but Johnny let me know a little sheepishly but directly that some of his pickers would be unhappy if I picked with an open container of cold delicious domestic. I interpreted this to mean that if none of the other pickers SAW my adult beverage then no harm would be inflicted. I casually walked back out to the T-100, cracked a cold one on the d.l. and took a long sweet pull. Then like the dim-witted fox I am stuffed the almost full can in my front pocket. During the walk along the fenceline back to the orchard most of the can spilled out and soaked through my entire right pant leg. Not only did I look like I’d soiled myself completely, I also smelled like a brewery floor. So much for discretion.
Luckily it was getting late and the matronly pickers were all departing to get dinner ready for their men. I was free to sit and pick and sip my troubles away. Johnny pointed me to a part of the patch he promised to be “good eatin” and I got to work. At first it was singles and doubles but soon I fell into a rhythm of plucking three berries at a time. Even at 3 berries every 2 seconds the prospect of filling a gallon bucket was daunting. My back began to ache a little.
Then the inner autistic gamer in me engaged and I got into a deeper rhythm in which I became obsessively greedy for those plump sweet blues. The trick was finding a bush especially burdened with ripe berries and pulling them off by the handfull. Unlike hammer work I could do this almost entirely by touch. My hands were learning to pick 5-6 ripe berries at once while leaving the under-ripe red and green bits on the bush. After a day of manipulating destructive constructive forces it was a pleasure to simply gather sweetness from living branch and limb.
I brought my pride and shame over to Johnny’s table to pay for the fruits of my labor. My wet leg still reeked of cheap beer but he pretended not to notice. To ease my guilt and enhance my pantry I also bought a watermelon and some glorious looking cucumbers. Johnny told me he’d built houses for 30 years before retiring to the picking fields. His days of purple fingernails were behind him- unless you count berry juice. I was jealous. I’m still looking at a long road ahead littered with bloody bandages.