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  • In 1936, my grandfather's barn was hit by lightning and burned to the ground. Dad was 10.

    A new barn had to be built, and Grandad hired the best person to build it.

    But all the man did was sit there, Dad said, with a pencil stub and a used envelope. Just sat and looked at the stone foundation, all that was left of the barn.

    Dad was furious! He demanded to know when the man was going to do something.

    The man said (very calmly) that he was doing something. He was figuring out how much lumber Grandad would need, and what lengths it needed to be cut.

    "You can't do that by just sitting here," Dad scoffed. "You need to measure things!"

    "Tell you what, son," the man said. "You come back after the barn's built, and I'll give you a nickel for every spot where the building's more than a quarter inch off the foundation."

    A nickel for every spot! Dad was in heaven! He'd be rich beyond his wildest dreams!

    He convinced Grandad to let him stay home the day of the barnraising. The lumber lay beside the old foundation, cut to specific lengths so that it would take one day only to build the new barn.

    The neighbors showed up, sweated, hammered, hammered, sweated, and built the barn.

    As soon as the last piece of lumber was in place, Dad went to collect his riches.

    The man walked around the barn with Dad, carrying a carpenter's level with him.

    The barn was more than a quarter inch off the foundation ...

    ... in one place only.

    And the man put the level on the foundation and showed Dad that it wasn't the fault of the building, it was that the foundation was crooked right there.

    He didn't get one nickel.

    Years later, the same man did some work for a friend of Dad's -- exacting work, where there had to be exactly a half inch of clearance. Exactly a half inch.

    The man showed up with a pencil stub and a scrap of paper, sat down on a rock, and looked at the space. Dad's friend got very, very nervous.

    After a while, the man said, "Look, son, go in the house and have your supper. Everything will be fine."

    Dad's friend sweated bullets while the building went on, and even bigger bullets when it came time to test the clearance.

    It was perfect.

    And all the man did was look.

    (This photo is not of my grandfather's barn; it was taken between Millville and Clarkstown, Pennsylvania, on State Route 442.)
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