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Seeing the Sights of the U.S. From Behind My Big Machine

William Burnam
Our wood flooring business is a family affair, and we've enjoyed experiencing the United States as we do our jobs.
Our wood flooring business is a family affair, and we've enjoyed experiencing the United States as we do our jobs.

Our wood flooring business is a family affair, and we've enjoyed experiencing the United States as we do our jobs.Our wood flooring business is a family affair, and we've enjoyed experiencing the United States as we do our jobs.

Hardwood flooring was the first job I ever applied for as a teenager that did not involve French fries. I was looking for a better paying job than Burger King, reading the "want

ads" in the weekend newspaper in Arlington, Va. The ad jumped off the page at me. "Hardwood floor sanders. No experience necessary. Will train. Starting pay $7.25 an hour." This was my first summer job out of high school in 1990, at M&M Floors in Falls Church, Va. I was thrown from the safety of being a boy at home into the world of specialty construction.

The Monday morning meeting included hardworking rednecks, peaceniks, a few folks who enjoyed smoking lunch and no shortage of strong-willed, opinionated, gritty, mildly arrogant dust-eating tough guys, some of whom were off on good behavior. At least one had been in prison in Cuba and, when he wasn't doing wood floors, he told us he had a side hustle as a hit man. I was paired up with a "mechanic," Wes Tanner, who trained me on my first piece of professional equipment: the push broom.

The first job was a muddy mess. We entered a home that looked like an anthill after it had been kicked—people everywhere. Wes promptly did whatever he could to toss everyone out. "I ain't never lost money on a job I didn't take! And if you want us here to do this one, y'all are gonna have to git yer [backsides] outta here. I'll tell ya when you can come back." That's not exactly how nice he was, but the place sure got empty in short order.

After pushing the broom it was time for me to do something useful: Help carry the heaviest piece of steel I'd ever carried in my life at that time, "the big machine." Wes strapped himself to that ol' split-drum Clarke with a heavy leather belt and turned the switch. It wound up like an F-14 Tomcat ready for takeoff. My jaw fell open. He walked forward, lowering the lever, and under all of the muddy footprints, splattered sheetrock mud and overspray paint appeared the most beautiful oak I had ever seen. The smell hit me, and something inside of me came alive! With guys like Wes to show the way, a decent helper evolved from the dust. From there, it was about a year and a half before shipping off with the U.S. Navy.

When my "hitch" was through, the Navy brought me to Southern California. Another classified ad led me to the finest craftsman you could ever meet, Jim Henderson, who taught me how to be a "mechanic." This time, too, was very brief—just long enough to get a taste of real attention to detail work. Soon after that a shipmate who was leaving the Navy for his home in Coeur d' Alene, Idaho, invited me to tag along. This is where I met Wendy, began a family, spent some time in other industries and eventually started what led to a full-time business as a hardwood floor sander. Good fortune led us to some amazing work, but after many beautiful homes in some amazing country among those evergreen hills, deep blue lakes and Old West towns, things became real tough in the Pacific Northwest after 2009. I'm sure many of you remember.

My daughter Maddie and I on the roof of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.My daughter Maddie and I on the roof of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

"Leap of faith" has all too much meaning to us, and those tough times presented an opportunity to go to Colorado. I was invited to help a fellow craftsman swamped with work, and a new adventure began. After a couple of years on the high plains and Rocky Mountain Front Range, a combination of wanderlust and middle-aged crazy grabbed us, and we decided to try Florida! The homes were fabulous, but it felt strange turning away weekly requests for work coming by email from Colorado, so my daughter Maddie, who had joined the team, and I headed back after a year and got back to work; the rest of the family followed. In seasons following, Wendy and our son-in-law Isaiah joined in, forming our new and improved team. Most recently, our youngest daughter Gabrielle stepped up after Maddie enlisted in the U.S. Marines.

We are now operating out of Centennial, Colo., and as great as we have it, our gypsy souls have us exploring the Carolinas as a new possibility. Each move has us researching areas, looking for leads, reaching out through emails to various contractors we find through NWFA resources and online maps, making calls to see what the local demand is, and finally securing a couple of opportunities. Somehow it just works out.

Perhaps it was growing up in a military family that gave me itchy feet. We do want to settle in a place that reminds us of Coeur d'Alene—but without the six months of winter. If you really love what you do, people want to hire you, so for us, we say: Why not make it an adventure?

It's hard for us to imagine a life of driving a rut in the same patch of interstate to a cubicle. I doubt I'll ever know that life.Through the windows of homes where Bella (our belt sander) and our family are at work, we've seen beautiful mountain vistas in the Rockies, palm-tree-bordered Florida beaches, silent snow-covered forests around frozen North Idaho lakes and inner city skylines from condos way above. From our nation's Capitol overlooking the Iwo Jima Memorial, the Hollywood Hills, to the vast Palouse of Washington State's waving wheatfields, we've been blessed to experience this great nation from behind our sanding equipment and meet people from the famous to simple folks like ourselves.

Do you want to know the craziest thing of all? Our family has never lived on our own wood floors. Maybe someday we'll put down stable roots—or maybe we were meant to enjoy all of America and her people as wanderers? No matter, as we're grateful to have the talent and the stubborn aggressiveness necessary for this truly underestimated trade that provides us with a real experience of America.

Even through the latest challenge of the pandemic, somehow we keep rolling. I've learned that this trade can give you everything. It will allow you to be a great success and will also allow you to just barely get by. But if you're willing to let it, best of all, it will not allow you to leave this life without tremendous memories and the pride of knowing that we leave our mark and bring real value to the homes throughout this land.

All the best to you out there making wood floors beautiful. If you're a razor sharp businessman, or just a good ol' boy like me, I sure hope you all have some mighty good memories of all the great places this trade has brought you.

RELATED: How We Stopped Working Late Nights and Weekends

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