A lot of things in this world make no sense. Yet, we accept many of Life's incongruities without question. They have always been there, their inconsistent logic, conveniently overlooked.
Of the many illogical bits and pieces in our culture, our handling of dimensional distances, sizes, and space are not set up in anything close to an intuitive system. And of these, none is more glaringly odd, than the way we measure, cut, and sell lumber.I first noticed the disparity and dumb labels of lumber when I was sent to LaValley Lumber as a teen to pick up some 10' 2x4's for my dad 35 years ago.
When my ole man got into a building project, he got into it. Tools laid out and inventoried, sawhorses found , blades sharpened, and 300 sketches and drawings of what the projected outcome was to be. He covered every base possible. Anal to the n-th degree, he more often than not became an insufferable SOB until the current project had finished to his satisfaction. And when I was old enough, I became his bitch.
Anyway, he gives me a list of materials, a measuring tape and sends me off in my uncle's old Ford pick up to score his wood for him. His last words were, "Use that tape. Make sure you get the right stuff. And be damn sure to pick through the pile. They'll unload the twisted ones on if you give em half a chance." I glanced at the list and all it had on it was -16 - 2x4 - 10'. Piece of cake. I could certainly count to 16, measure to 10, and I knew what a 2x4 was. Yeah right.
In the meantime, because he left nothing to chance, my dad had phoned ahead to LaValley Lumber and set up the order. I get there, go inside to the counter and ordered up the wood.
"Oh, your dad called in the order already. It's out on the dock."
"But he told me to pick them out to make sure I got the straightest ones."
"We know what he wants, the 2x4's are out there, ready to go."
Peeved, I went outside to the loading dock and checked the order. Okay, there were indeed 16 of them, but what about the length? Yep, all a tad over 10'. And then I really looked at the boards. They seemed small somehow. So, I asked a guy on the dock, "Are these 2x4's?"
He walks over and hangs over the pile. Scratches and then lights his pipe. "Ah yup, they look like 2x4's to me", he says in between cheek crushing draws on the pipe.
"Look kinda puny to me. My dad told me to make sure I bring back 2x4's. Think I'll measure em."
The guy stops sucking on his pipe and pulls it out of his mouth. He looks at me with a kind of "amazed you're so stupid" look. But I forge ahead and check em again. I pick up each one, eyeball it for straightness, measure each one for width and thickness and then stack them neatly on the dock.
Damn! They only measure 3 1/2" wide by a strong 1 1/2" thick. I know my dad will kill me if I bring these back. He said 2x4's. He wrote down 2x4's. He called ahead for 2x4's. The man wants 2x4's and these ain't them. Just to be sure I repeat my measuring and they still come up 1/2" shy all the way around. "These won't do. They ain't even close to 2x4's. They are 3 1/2x 1 1/2. Where are the 2x4's?"
The yard rat with the pipe looks at me. His amusement is apparent and he says, "Well, I guess we ain't got 2x4's then. We must of figured your dad had a board stretcher, so we gave you these." And he walked back into the warehouse.
Wondering what the Hell a board stretcher was, I decided it wasn't important. These boards were not what he ordered. So there I was, stuck between a rock and a hard place. If I didn't show up with the studs, I wouldn't hear the end of it. If I brought back the wrong stuff, I would have to suffer his disgust for a month, I was sure. What to do? I opted to head home with an empty truck and take my chances.
I pull into our dooryard and the ole man meets me as I get out of the truck. He hangs over the empty truck bed, "Looks like you forgot something. Did I not ask for 16 10foot 2x4's?"
I had been dreading this conversation the whole 20 miles home and I was sure I had my explanation down pat. But all I said was, "Uh, yes sir, I guess I did." And then I quickly added, " That's cuz they didn't have any 2x4's. They tried to pawn off some boards that only measured 3 1/2 x 1 1/2. They told me something about you havin a board stretcher and that they would work. I figured the guy was yanking my chain so I came home without em".
Still hanging over the truck bed, I see my dad's shoulders begin a kinda jumpy gyration like he was gonna have a fit. But I couldn't see his face to see just how pissed he was. " Oh boy", I thought, "shoulda picked them up afterall, I guess. I'm in for it now". I began to sweat.
The two of us stood there. Me, awkward and nervous, waiting for that next shoe to drop. And my dad, back to me, still shaking while he contemplated the lack of lumber he had been primed for. It was an eternity for me, but then he turned around. Oh my God! Were those tears coming down his face? Oh Shit! He is really, really pissed. And then he just lets out with a bellow and wraps me up in a bear hug, still shakin and hootin.
"Son, the look on your face right now is about the funniest thing I have ever seen. Gus down to the yard called and told me what happened, I had plenty of time to get pissed and then get over it. And then it just tickled my funny bone. I guess I never filled you in on the basics of wood, did I?"
I realized then that someone in this fiasco was a fool, and that fool was me. The ole man went on to tell me about how the whole dimension thing worked with lumber. A 2x4 was a nominal designation and that over time, in an effort to get more money out of the logs, the size had settled on something less than it had started. That calling them 2x4's was a whole lot easier than calling them 3 1/2 x 1 1/2's. About the time he started in on finish boards and their less than accurate labeling, I became disgusted, got back in the truck and headed back to pick up the wood. The ribbing I endured on that second trip was tough and established a special pet nick name for me at the yard. "Hey, Mr. 2x4 got your tape with you?"