When I saw that Claude Oehme had passed away a couple of weeks back I immediately recalled my days working as a hod carrier for Oehme Bros. Masonry when I was in college.

When I saw that Claude Oehme had passed away a couple of weeks back I immediately recalled my days working as a hod carrier for Oehme Bros. Masonry when I was in college.
The term “hod carrier” originates from when laborers used a three-sided metal or wood box for carrying bricks or mortar (also known as “mud”) around a job site or up a ladder. A hod is carried on the shoulder and has a long, wooden handle below that can grasped for balance and stability.
We didn’t use hods anymore by the time I worked at Oehme’s. The bricks and mortar were either raised up the scaffold with a motorized lift — or we worked bricks progressively up the scaffolding by lifting them by hand to next level — or tossing them to one another. The mud we mostly shoveled up to next level on mortar boards. (I’d used an actual hod as a plasterer’s laborer for Albert Lance working on the Holiday Inn in 1969 and, let me tell you, I was glad not to have to do it again.)
Although it was very hard work (especially in the mid-summer heat), I liked being a hod carrier. Liked it mostly for much the same reason as I liked playing poker at Eagle’s Hall, hanging around Pallucca’s grocery store, and sitting on the benches inside Sam Cicero’s filling station in the Republic of Frontenac; to experience the characters, the stories, the laughs, the camaraderie, the teasing, the practical jokes. In short, the man-to-man, work hard, have a good time but do a good job theatre of it all.
Back when I worked there, Pete Oehme ran the office (where Pep Spigarelli kept the books), Charlie did the bids as well a ran jobs, and Claude ran job sites. Of the three, Claude was by far the most mercurial.
Some of the bricklayers who worked there included Johnny Riffel, Bob Harwood, Harry Hammacker, Joe, Ernie, and Chick Oehme, Harlin Crane, Bill Oehme, and Hookie Caput. Mixing mud and general labor foreman duties fell to Joe Steele, who used to tell us ribald stories about being an aide to Gen. George Patton, and Harold “Roagie” Stevenson, for whom I’d been a paperboy a few years earlier.
Speaking of Stevenson, one blazing summer afternoon about two o’clock, I made the innocent mistake of saying, “Hey Roagie, I’m really feeling wasted even though I’m drinking lots of water. I think I’m losing too much salt in sweating. Would you happen to have any salt tablets?”
“HAW!” Roagie roared with a laugh, removing the Chesterfield from the corner of his mouth. “SALT TABLETS! HEY! ANY OF YOU BRICKLAYERS GOT ANY SALT TABLETS? I’M FRESH OUT. AND THIS BOY’S FEELING WASTED!”
As you might expect, it took weeks for me to live down the bricklayer’s taunting and teasing. Everything from mock nurturing, “How you feeling, son? Can I get you some salt tablets?” to calls from high up on a scaffold, “Hey Knoll, I’m out of mud up here. Get movin’. … and bring some salt tablets with you. I’m feelin’ a little wasted.”
I called Pittsburg Fire Chief, Scott Crain to get his memories of Claude and working for Oehme’s. Scotts dad, Harlin, was a bricklayer — so he literally grew up around masonry. “Claude was really something,” Scott laughed. “He’d chew your butt out good one minute … and then want to take you fishin’ like a favorite uncle the next.”
He went on to tell me about the first job he was with Oehme’s at a school in Ft. Scott. He drove over with Joe Steele from Arma. Claude wasn’t there yet so Scott, noticing some cuts needed to be done there by the saw, dutifully went to work on them. When Claude arrived he gave him a good chewing out because he’d started without his orders. He made Scott do nothing but saw cuts — rather than lay brick — for nearly a year afterward.
“Claude was proud of what Oehme Brothers built. If you didn’t do it right, he’d tell you … or fire you,” Scott said. “Of course,” he laughed, “Claude fired damn near everybody who worked for him at one time or another when he got hotheaded. Then he’d hire you back the next day. Once my dad got fired by Claude and walked around the corner and went right to work for his brother Charlie.”
Crain worked for Oehme Brothers from age 14 when he loaded 80 lb. sacks of cement and drove them in an old pickup with no brakes to their warehouse (without a driver’s license no less) until long after he became a fireman for the city, doing small masonry jobs on his days off.

His affection for the company and Claude were palpable, even over the phone, as he talked with pride about all the schools (he laid the first brick on the new Pittsburg High School) hospitals, and churches he helped construct in southeast Kansas and southwest Missouri. As was pointed out in his obituary, Claude’s accomplishments included masonry work on Timmons Chapel, Mt. Carmel Regional Medical Center, Axe Library, and Weede Field House.

Speaking of Weede, that’s where I got to know and appreciate Claude — for many of the same reasons as Scott Crain. It was where I got to know his mercurial side as well as his benevolent one as he helped me and my cousin, Mike Fowler, get through college working there in 1971. We weren’t the only ones. Hod carriers Merle Clark, Dan Borello, and Mike Spigarelli were also helped to graduate — and Bill Muse and others who apprenticed with Oehme’s became brick masons.

Something else we all got from Claude — something more important than degrees and certifications — was expressed by Scott Crain when he told me, his voice earnest with pride, “Claude wanted you to always do your best work. If he gave you a compliment, it was worth a lot … cause you knew you earned it.”

J.T. Knoll is a writer, speaker and prevention and wellness coordinator at Pittsburg State University. He also operates Knoll Training, Consulting & Counseling Services in Pittsburg. He can be reached at 231-0499 or jtknoll@swbell.net