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Remembering Gene Larson

Fri, Jun 22nd, 2001
Posted in

Monday, June 25, 2001

Writing is a solitary job. Most of the time I work alone, but that changed recently for a few weeks when I had the good fortune to work with Gene Larson. Our relationship began right after I bought an old house in Lanesboro. Quickly I learned I was way over my head and asked Ordell Garness if he could help with carpentry. He was too busy and suggested I contact Gene.

"I work kind of slow," Gene said. But after we worked together for a few days I told him I didnt think he was slow. Instead, from what I saw, he was steady, thoughtful, he didnt waste motion and paid incredible attention to details.

"Why are you doing this kind of work?" he asked as I scraped hardened linoleum glue off the maple floor.

"The work I do is too lonely," I said, stopping to shake my sore wrist. "Many times all I have after a days work is crumpled pieces of paper. Plus Ive been feeling pretty insecure about writing and I need to do something that will give me a sense of accomplishment."

Gene went to his van, came back into the kitchen and handed me his scraper. It was honed to perfection, reflecting years of sharpening.

One day Gene asked me to hold a piece of sheetrock against the wall while he set the nails. Perched on a narrow ledge in an awkward corner he twisted his body around to set each nail in place. Then he reached up and with one blow of his hammer punched in each nail.

"That was pretty slick," I said. "Youve got good eyes."

He cocked his head, his blue eyes looked intently. "I do pretty good for a man with only one eye," he said, then talked about loosing his sight as a result of a cataract. Then he pulled his wristwatch from his pocket, "Ill be back in a little while," he said and went to have his daily cup of coffee with his good friend Arlo Rexford.

After we hauled the old carpeting out, Gene let me use his polished metal pliers to pull rusted staples out of the floorboards. The pliers had the precision of fine tweezers. As he removed the quarter-round he talked about being in the Army. His demeanor became serious as he remembered the cruelty he had witnessed; he paused, then wondered what Italy would look like now.

As we shared our life experiences and learned about each other, I didnt find out anything that Genes friends and family didnt know. He didnt share any secrets. What he did was share the experiences, wisdom and tools of 77 years. As we tore out a bathroom, then ripped a cupboard out of a closet, we laughed about who could make the biggest mess.

Three weeks ago Gene died. He told his wife Avis he didnt feel well, went to bed to lie down and an hour later he was gone.

When I returned to the house I picked up the paintbrush Gene had used last. It was still a little wet, the bristles were straight and even the handle had been cleaned. I remembered him explaining how he had used the wire brush to clean it. When I collected all the switch plates, I couldnt find the screws. It has always been my habit to remove the screws, take off the switch plates and put them all in a pile. But soon I realized that Gene had put the screws where they should be--in the holes where they belonged.

At first I thought that fixing this house was about getting a sense accomplishment from stripping old wallpaper and painting walls, but the real satisfaction came from the opportunity to work with Gene. One day I told Gene that. I told him that being with him was like being with my Dad again and that I appreciated all that he did. We smiled and went back to work.

There is no doubt that fixing stuff and making it look better generates a sense of accomplishment. But it doesnt hold a candle to knowing that you can work with someone else. Being able to share a task, to maintain good humor and work togetherthats the real blessing.

Mary Bell

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