A suburban Garden of Eden exists south of University Avenue in West Des Moines. Law offices, corporate buildings, and restaurants are all set within wide manicured green spaces with flowers and trees and wide swept sidewalks. It’s all sparkly and fresh and new and clean. People show themselves only briefly as they hustle from their air-conditioned cars to the air-conditioned buildings and back to their cars to beat the late summer heat. Suits and ties and heels and skirts are the daily wear. Success is at every turn.
But over there on the corner . . . .
Side by side, they work together. Chalk line pulled tight to guide the way. Brick, mortar, brick, mortar, then more brick and more mortar. Hard work. A wheel barrow, a trowel, and a level are their tools. Tools you could find in your grandfather’s tool shed. Or for that matter your great-grandfather’s tool shed. Four bricklayers hard at work.
“R. W. Dalton & Sons is the name of our business,” says 81-year-old Russ Dalton. An ornery-looking man. Up to no good for sure, as his eyes twinkle mischievously.
“I started this business. We’ve had our company for 40 years, but I’ve been in the brick business probably 55 years and I’m still at it.” Russ grins proudly, looking down the line at his progeny.
There is the distinct feeling that Russ is waiting for the banter to begin. He does the call, and someone on the line is responsible for the response. So we wait for it.
Randy, Sr., Russ’s son, gladly picks it up. “55 years? I thought you retired long ago,” he says off-handily, while laying a brick.
Laughter all around.
This group has fine-tuned its act with a lot of together time. I’m clearly the audience for the afternoon as I stand with them on the corner of 42nd Street and Westown Parkway in West Des Moines, where they are laying bricks for a decorative wall.
Randy, Sr., explains their business.
“We are out of Madrid. We do a little bit of everything. Brick work and concrete work are our bread and butter.” Randy, Sr., trowels on more mortar, straightens the line, places the brick, as he talks to me. Clearly, the businessman in the group.
And how do the four of you get along, day after day, in such close quarters?
Randy, Sr., without hesitation, replies: “When we can’t stand each other, we just argue and scream. That’s the way we are.” Everyone chuckles and nods in agreement.
“We always work as a team, when we’re not fighting. At the end of the day, a cool beer on the way home solves everything.” Randy, Jr., the son of Randy, Sr., chimes in from the far side of the line of men.
Randy, Jr., takes this moment to tell me that he has the hard job of mixing the mortar and hauling it over to the others. He bemoans his lot in the business: “I have the dirty jobs because I’m the low man on the totem pole.”
During all this, Rod, the nephew to Russ, with his bandana tight, just smiles and works his line of bricks. Mortar, brick. Mortar, brick. Quiet and steady. The Harpo Marx of the family.
And what about these bib overalls that you’re wearing?
“The bib overalls are company issue” Randy, Sr., says, without breaking a smile.
“The most practical thing you can wear,” chimes in Russ.
“For one thing you don’t have to hitch your pants up every time you bend over,” Randy, Sr., throws out there.
“And a belt buckle doesn’t poke you in the belly,” Russ fires back.
“And you’ve got lots of pockets for all the instruments you carry,” says Randy, Sr.
Then Randy, Sr., pauses. All of us wait.
“. . . and they fit even though we’re all fat.”
A general uproar.
“I like this work. I like working with my hands. I like people to see your stuff when you’re all done working. You can’t go to any town within 40 miles, there’s something we done somewhere.” Randy, Sr., sums up their job.
And for fun?
“This is it,” says Russ with that twinkle.
And so it is.