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WOSTER: The romance of roofs

Terry Woster

Leave it to a muggy Saturday morning and a massive, freshly shingled roof to make a guy think life on the farm was romantic.

Nancy and I had taken our usual weekend morning walk along the Missouri River shoreline. We'd hoped to get out early enough to avoid the heat and humidity. We didn't, but we completed the walk, anyway. About halfway through the homebound leg, I saw the roof. It covered a building that stretched for what seemed like a city block, and the roof was roughly the size of the flight deck on the USS Enterprise. The roof held acres and acres of new shingles. For some reason, it reminded me of the summer my cousin Leo and I shingled the barns on the Woster Brothers farm property.

I told Nancy I wouldn't mind shingling a roof like the one we saw on Saturday. The pitch wasn't too steep, and it had only a few protruding features to break an otherwise perfect working surface. The shingles were some of those composition things, I suppose, the kind that come in strips two or three feet long. (I could be way off on the length. I've never had much experience with that kind of shingling). They were probably held in place by the kind of roofing nails that are fired from a power hammer. (I've never had any experience with any sort of nail gun.) It looked like the kind of job that would go as fast as a person could position the shingle strips and pull the trigger.

Shingling a barn roof was like that -- in a low-tech way. The only protruding features were the cupolas at the peak. The only limitations on the speed of the job were the more primitive equipment and the human elements, such as how quickly a guy could place each shingle and hammer it tight, and how often a trip had to be made down the ladder and back up with a new bundle of shingles. In the case of the Woster Brothers barns, the human element was significant.

It must be said that the barn roofs were pretty steep. It wasn't that easy to keep a foothold, and I never did relax much on the job. We tacked 2-by-4s into the roof for temporary steps.

The shingles we used came in heavy bundles, just like the ones today. But the bundles didn't contain strips. They held pieces of wood four, five or six inches across, thick at one end, tapered almost to nothing at the other end. Every last one of those wood shingles had to be hammered into place, one by one. It was the shingling equivalent of using a three-bottom plow as compared with a 20-foot disc in terms of acres covered in a morning.

Neither of us had ever heard of a power nail gun at that point. Roofing nails were carried in leather pouches we had strapped to our waists. The nails came out of the pouch and went into the shingles one at a time. The hammers we used were the old-style claw hammers with wood handles. They were all-purpose farm tools, much too heavy for pounding roofing nails, I suspect. On the farm, though, a tool was a tool. When you went into the garage to grab a hammer for shingling, you grabbed the hammer that was hanging on the wall, not the one you wished you had.

Finally, I had to keep an eye on Leo. He had finished his first year of college and wanted to make more summer money than a farm laborer received from Woster Brothers. He took a night-shift job with the crew building Big Bend Dam. Good money, but nights at the dam and days on the barn roof added up, and sometimes he dozed in the afternoon sun.

First time I grabbed for him, I dropped my hammer and had to climb down to get it. After that, I made sure to grab with the hand holding nails. I had plenty of those. I only had the one cousin on the roof with me, and I didn't want to finish the job alone.