It was getting close to lunchtime. Or farther away from lunchtime, I guess, depending on when you eat lunch. I always wanted to get to a stopping point before taking lunch, to finish some kind of task so I could feel good about my morning's work. So sometimes we would work until 2:00, or until my partner said screw this--I'm taking lunch, whichever came first.
We were working on a tract house on the outskirts of Charlottesville. It was one of five or six models that were repeated ad infinitum in this development, so we had the routine down pat. Hang the siding, do all the exterior trim, build the deck. My buddy and I were one of a bunch of subcontracting crews that performed various phases in fleshing out the suburban sprawl there in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
I was up on the scaffolding, working on the cornice--eaves in layman's term--you know, that part where the roof hangs over the wall. Back East, on those Colonial style houses, the cornice was pretty elaborate, consisting of a frieze board, a vented soffit, a fascia board, and crown molding.
Before we even got to the trim though, we had to do some 2"x4" blocking to form the framework for the pretty stuff.
So I was twenty feet up on the pump jacks, a rickety scaffolding system that consists of two or more (three, in this case) 4"x4" posts set upright and attached to the roof on top, with brackets that hold a walkboard spanning the distance between the posts.
My partner, Bill, was down on the ground, cutting the the 2x4s. Because we were paid by the job, not by the hour, it behooved us to work as quickly as possible. We would get into a rhythm where Bill would throw a block up before I was even done measuring the next one, so when I turned around, it would be right in front of my face and I could grab it out of the air, turn, and--BAM--shoot it in place with the nail gun, while yelling out the measurement I had just taken for the next block.
We had almost finished a long section of this blocking, and I was walking as quickly as I could on the swaying scaffold. Bill tossed the last block up to me, and I grabbed it, turned, and put it roughly in place. The scaffolding was wobbling so much, though, that I lost my balance and had to reach out with my right hand and grab at a rafter tail to steady myself.
But in my right hand was my good old Bostich N80SB framing nailer, which we called "Nagelmaschine," because we gave names to a lot of the tools we used, and thought the German word for nail gun was equal parts funny and sinister.
As far as power tools go, it was a blunt instrument. It did one thing only, which was to shoot 2" to 3.5" long framing nails at a very high velocity. There was one adjustment on it, which allowed you to choose "trigger" mode or "bump" mode. In "trigger" mode, you had to press the business end of the gun against the lumber, compressing the spring-loaded tip, which released the safety so you could pull the trigger and shoot the nail. In "bump" mode, you could just keep the trigger squeezed, and then bump the tip against whatever it was you wanted to shoot. The latter was much faster, less accurate, and more dangerous, and of course the setting that we always used.
I reached for the rafter tail, but instead, the tip of Nagelmaschine bumped hard into the block I was holding, and I heard the distinctive hiss of a burst of compressed air. But I didn't hear the rest of the nail gun noise--the crack of the nail penetrating the wood.
That was because the 3.5", 8-gauge framing nail didn't find purchase in any kind of lumber, but rather went neatly through the middle of my thumb.
I felt a prick in my thumb, then a numbness, and when I looked at it, I saw that the nail had pierced perfectly, symmetrically through it, like one of those gag arrow-through-the-head hats, with exactly the same amount of nail on one side as the other. It didn't go through the thumbnail, but on the opposite axis.
I braced myself for the searing pain that was sure to follow, and the difficulty of getting down the ladder near the scaffold with one good hand and one enflamed with agony.
But the pain didn't come.
I clambered down the ladder, and Bill rushed over to take a look at my thumb.
"Oh, shit!" he said. "Do you want me to take you to the hospital?"
"I don't know," I said. "It doesn't actually hurt that much."
"Well, what are...what are you gonna do, then?"
"I guess I'll pull it out."
"Do you want some pliers, some Vice Grips or something?"
"Ahhhm...I don't know. Lemme just try pulling..."
I pulled on the nailhead, and despite some resistance, I was able to ease it out cleanly.
I expected blood to gush out of the hole, but instead it just trickled.
"Holy Fuck, man. That was pretty cool." Bill said.
"Wow," I said. "It really doesn't hurt much. It's just kind of...tender. I guess it just went through the fleshy...pad thing--didn't hit any bone or anything.
"Oh shit!" Bill said.
"I should have grabbed my camera out of the truck before you pulled it out."
Bill had been taking a photography class at the community college, and was always snapping pictures at the jobsite.
"You're a sick bastard." I said.
"But that would have been such a cool picture."
"You're right," I said. "Damn it."
We didn't have a first-aid kit or even any band-aids, so I cut a piece of my t-shirt off with my utility knife, wrapped it around my thumb, and Bill wound some electrical tape around it. Then we loaded the dogs in the truck and went to lunch. Actually, Bill went to lunch, and I went to the gym, where I did a quick workout and drank a blueberry smoothie, as was my habit at the time.
A couple days later, I was telling the story to some medical school friends of my wife (girlfriend at the time). They asked me which hospital I went to, and were scandalized that I had gone to none. Are you at least up to date on your tetanus shots, they asked. I said that I was, because they had given me one at the ER a couple weeks earlier, when I went in with a facial laceration from a piece of lumber Bill had thrown to me before I was ready.