What my goal in life has become, of late, is to graduate to the "smart end" of things.

There is of course, a "smart end" of things and a "not so smart end" of things. Let me explain.

If you are working on something that involves measuring, for instance, and you are handed the end of the tape to hold on the mark, thatís the "not so smart" end of things. The "smart end" of the tape measure is the one where you read the results.

I learned this quite by accident, even though for my entire life my father had me holding the tape end, not the case end. He never mentioned to me that I wasnít smart enough to hold the case end and read the measurements, he was too polite for that, or perhaps didnít want to stunt my development any further than it already was. In fact, perhaps the most withering stare of complete and utter angst and fury I ever received from him was once when we were working on building Little Pass Baptist Church when I was an early-teen.

We teens used to go over to "help" construction of the inside of the church, which Dad was pretty much taking the reigns of. Of course, a buncha teens trying to "help" is kinda like asking the Three Stooges to do your plumbing.

At some point, we were working on something that required level. I donít remember what it was, but it had to be level, and though we were supplied a level by the Foreman, that being my dad, we didnít get it right. Not to Dadís standards, anyway.

He chastised us, nicely but scathingly, as only Nick Stouff could do, and corrected the error himself, making a mark on whatever it was to show the appropriate position for it to be level, then setting his pencil down on a nearby joist. It was then I noticed something.

"Hey, Pop," I said. "If weíre so bad at getting stuff level, and youíre so good, why you gotta use a flat-sided pencil?"

I mean to tell you, that look coulda peeled wallpaper off the wall, ya folla?

So I walk out of the house Sunday and I hear, "Hey!"

I look around and donít see anyone, continue about my business, and hear, "Hey!" again, a little louder and more insistent.

I am starting to worry that the Great Spirit is calling me to Happy Hunting Grounds, but no, thereís my neighbor, over under my oak tree, with surveying gear. I am wondering if perhaps we have finally decided to dig the fishing pond Iíve been begging for over the last six or seven years, but of course, my luck is not with me yet again. It appears that, after years of discussion between us, weíve decided itís time to work on how our mutual yards drain rainwater. With heavy equipment temporarily at his disposal, he has decided itís time to git Ďer done.

Of course Iím eager to help and ask what I can do. Youíve seen folks survey elevations, of course. One has a tripod with a scope mounted on it, the other is holding a stick with a tape measure glued to it so the guy with the scope can read it. The stick, therefore, is the "not so smart end" of this operation.

Guess who gets the stick?

It only occurred to me after a coupla minutes standing there under my oak tree, noticing the moss, the squirrels and the ferns, wondering absently about cloud formation, and hoping I wasnít standing in a pile of red ants.

"Hey," I said. "How come I get the Ďnot so smartí end?"

Then I realized it was because I have absolutely no idea how to use surveying equipment, so it was probably safest for me to hold the stick. The fact that it took me a couple of minutes to realize it also indicated my rung on the IQ ladder.

They used to give one of our buds the "not so smart" end of the stick or tape or whatever, when working on a project with the notion that, since he wasnít Indian, it was probably best, recalling that Columbus wasnít very reliable at the "smart end" of navigation and the like, while Indian people were developing sun dials and could predict the solstices, planetary alignments, build landing fields for aliens in Peru, etc., to exacting standards.

After taking elevations, my neighbor headed for the big equipment, a bulldozer. I definitely realized he was on the "smart end of the stick" in that case. Iíd have mowed down both our houses and probably half the Rez with that big yeller monster.

So we spent the afternoon working on the drainage in our yards. After a little while, I figured standing around was making me feel like a public highway worker, so I went and packed an ice chest, put it in the bed of the truck, drove down to where the work was ongoing, dropped the tailgate, hopped on and pretended like some football game was going on ó as if I actually liked football. Now and then Iíd try to be smart and use hand signals to indicate where the trough we were dredging was too high or too low, looking more like an aircraft landing signaler without the orange flashlights, and invariably my neighbor would look at me as if I had directed him to Panama, where, of course, the trough is already finished. This is not his fault, because I didnít belong there, trying to needle in on the "smart end" of things, and should have just stayed on the tailgate with my ice chest and kept my uneducated opinions to myself.

But I think we did a pretty good job, all things considered. Weíll know first gulley-washer we get if we were really successful.

My neighbor was probably right in giving me the "not so smart" end of the operation. I canít tell you how many times Iíve been working in the shop and, despite the constant warnings of my father to "measure twice and cut once," I mess up a cut and have to start over. This is particularly painful on a piece of nice curly maple or mahogany. Eventually I got myself fairly well trained to use the WWND principle Ė "What Would Nick Do?" Ė but sometimes I falter and still blow it.