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Bless the hands that came before mine

I was helping my daughter, Goldilocks, with a hammer and nail project a few weeks ago and days later I noticed that I had a black fingernail on the middle finger of my left hand. Although I didn't remember putting a hammer to that nail, there is no other explanation.

When I looked at that black nail, I felt a certain pride -- maybe, at a glance, somebody might think I had the hands of a working man.

Growing up, working as a construction laborer or a carpenter's helper, or working among farmers, I saw all varieties of beat up hands: black nails, dirty nails, chipped nails, scabs on knuckles and scars on the back of hands. I've seen carpenters hammer the wrong nail pretty hard, then scream and stick it in a barrel of water to relieve the pain. That water probably provided as much relieve as a sugar pill, but it was the only remedy available.

I'm going to deviate from my intended point (coming later) to tell you I once shook the hand of Alan Page, the former Minnesota Viking "Purple People Eater," football player. Then later I sat beside him at a table. It so happened he had his hands on top of the table and I had some time to study them. They looked like the entire line and backfield of the Green Bay Packers had run over those hands, ripping, cutting and pivoting as they went, leaving cuts, gashes, slashes and gouges every square inch of each hand and nothing was ever patched or stitched. Those were ugly hands -- I've never seen anything like them. The scarred little finger on his left hand proceeded parallel with the other three fingers until it got to the top knuckle when it took an abrupt left turn at about 45°. Don't they set broken bones in the NFL? Today, Alan Page is an Associate Justice on the Minnesota Supreme Court and he is addressed as the Packers never addressed him -- "Your Honor."

Back to my intended point. My grandpa Joe was a carpenter who built barns in McLean County, North Dakota. I was just a little boy when he died, but I just know he plunged his left hand into a barrel of water more than once. He had all his fingers as far as I know, missing fingers being an occupational hazard among carpenters. I worked for a few carpenters who were bright guys but they couldn't count to ten on their fingers. My other grandpa, Gottlieb, started out as a German farmer in what is now the Ukraine (at that time it was Bessarabia, part of Moldavia) and when he came to this country in 1903, he raised grain in the same part of McLean County as grandpa Joe. He probably knew more about horses than tractors. He was a big man and his big hands were hard hands. My dad made his living with his truck, his hands and his head so his hands weren't as scarred and scabbed, but they weren't soft.

I thought of my carpenter grandpa, my farmer grandpa, my farmer and carpenter uncles, my dad and the construction guys I'd worked with as I looked at that black fingernail on my left hand and wished I could show more black badges of honor, more evidence that I know how to work with my hands.

I've known men I'd swear never had a blister, a callus, a black fingernail, cuts, scabs, dirty fingernails nor had ever needed to wash their hands with a gritty bar of Lava soap. I have, but not much. Not enough to brag about.

Now finally to the conclusion of my intended point. The reason my hands don't have all the knobs and scars as the hands of my dad, my grandpas and the generations before them, is that I was privileged to stand on their shoulders. Their hard work made it possible for me to make a living in a different way. As some unnamed philosopher has said better than I can: "We have all drunk from wells we didn't dig and have been warmed by fires we didn't build." These are the guys who built the schools, paid their dues and paved the way for those of us who followed. So I say now, bless the hands that came before mine. And bless the hands that came before yours too. Let us never forget those who came before -- and those who will follow.