MR. BRICK: talking bombs, bricks and burlesque with nonagenarian Les Henson

Les Henson wants me to tell you that he's a warm, kindly old gentleman enjoying the quiet life of a brick-layer's retirement on Magnolia's peaceful east side, just down the hill from 28th Avenue West on Lynn Street. He says this with a big, wolfish smile as his daughter, Jane, walks me out the backdoor of the home he shares with his wife of 50-plus years, Ann.

As the British say: hogwash.

Henson, 98, is indeed warm and kindly and avuncular in his hard-won affection. But he is also spry, nettlesome, quick to kid and entirely bawdy. Dubbed "Mr. Brick" for his facility with the mortar and trowel - including an expertise at the fading artform of laying terra cotta - Henson is what some folks call a "personage," a character so bursting with the fullness of his life it practically beams from his eye sockets.

If age has slowed his body some, Henson - who shares the same birthday as one of his heroes, Charlie Chaplin, as well as that of Adolf Hitler ("the monster," he adds) - maintains an active life and a sharp wit. Just a few months back, Jane, one of his four daughters, caught him outside in the yard chopping wood while hip-hop music blasted on the stereo.

"He's such a character," she says. She recalls during her childhood her fathering coming home with "armfuls of grocery bags full of feminine products." He'd call out: "Girls, come and get your size!"

This sort of unfettered, confrontational humor still exists in the Henson household. When I first entered the home, led into the living room by Jane, Henson simply glared at me, scowling. "Who's this?" he growled. "Who are you? What's he want?"

After several minutes of intense, close-range grilling about my purpose for invading his solitude, Henson stopped the interrogation with a sly wink and led me proudly into his study - a small room full of books and covered with plaques, certificates, photographs and newspaper clippings reaching back decades.

"I'm too old to argue anymore," Henson tells me. "I'm beginning to feel my age. But I've always said my whole life a sense of humor is worth a lot of medicine."

HENSON WAS BORN IN 1909 England. His father served in the British army during World War I. He remembers as a child watching German biplanes attack his country. "I've been through tough times," he says with just the slightest hint of a British accent. "I've been through the dropping of bombs on England. And I was going to school. When they dropped bombs on you, you had to dive underneath the desks."

His father was released from the army in 1918. The family immigrated first to Canada, settling first in Winnipeg when, according to Henson, "the black plague hit" - the flu epidemic that killed millions of people worldwide.

The Hensons eventually moved from Toronto to Seattle. "When we hit Seattle in 1923, it was a bootlegger running town," Henson recalls. "I knew Seattle when the speakeasies were wide open. Bootlegging was running wild." One of the local bootleggers went by the name of Olmstead, Henson remembers. "He had a brother - he was captain of the police department."

The bootleggers would pick up their shipments - booze smuggled in from British Columbia - on the docks at night, then make their deliveries in an old Stanley Steamer. Sometimes Henson, whose father also ran bootleg, would drop the hooch off at a speakeasy. He'd bang on the back-alley door, and a small wooden slat at the top would slide open, a pair of wary eyes staring out silently from the dark hallway. To gain entrance, Henson would whisper something like "John sent me" or "Bud sent me," after which the door would open. "I was about 13 or 14," Henson says of that time. "I had a minors driver's license."

During the Great Depression, Henson's father pursued various jobs, eventually establishing his career as a bricklayer, while the young and scrappy Les struggled to help out the family any way he could. Among his many odd jobs was a stint with the Imperial Candy Company and another setting type for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer - the P-I. "We called it the 'pig's eye,'" Henson says with a smile.

"Of all the jobs, I got a job pulling string for the big guy," he says of making tennis rackets for sportsware outfitter Eddie Bauer. The job involved threading the networks of catgut string through the head of the racket and plugging them with clay.

With his brother Harry, Henson often made the circuit of clubs around town, including the Old Society Theatre on Capitol Hill, where he would recite Robert Service poetry for bags of food. Anything earned in the way of money or eats was immediately divvied up. "We used to get these big baskets of food," he recalls. "The first thing you did - you shared the damn thing."

Henson remembers riding the rails down to California, looking for work - "looking for anything," he says emphatically.

Still a teenager, he ran away to British Columbia after a row with his father, but life on his own in Vancouver was less than ideal. "It got pretty tough there, eating fish heads and all," he recalls, "so I came back." He started apprenticeship laying brick when he was 17, working with his father, who had done bricklaying back home in England. Young Les' first job was "way the hell and gone" in Snoqualmie Pass at the Milwaukee Road Alpine Ski Bowl. His large, brick fireplace is the only thing left standing of the old ski lodge there. "And then we ended up doing work all over," Henson says.

It seems there isn't a building Henson didn't work on during his nearly century-long career. (Asked whether he's actually even retired, Henson shrugs with a comical frown: "There's two ways of looking at these things, you know," he says. "I don't die.") He worked on the original Olympic Hotel ("The girls used to come to the windows stark naked and waving"); the Space Needle ("of all places," he adds); the old McKenzie Building in Fremont; the Bon Marché ("We added three stories"); the original Seattle international airport ("It wasn't called Sea-Tac," he says, "it was the Bow Lake Airport"); the Burien Public Library. And laid all the original brick in the Quad on the University of Washington campus.

"We built a lot of buildings all over," he says. "I did a lot of churches - a lot of Catholic churches. They got me all wet spraying that holy water on me," he laughs.

Nearer to home, Henson, whose company was named, simply enough, Henson Masonry, laid brick for Our Lady of Fatima. "As far as Magnolia goes," he says, recalling the years after the Depression, "they had a few houses - in fact, my dad and I did a couple. The Village was awfully small."

Henson's trade has also taken him well beyond the greater Seattle area, to Bellingham, Spokane and Yakima, as well as to Hawaii and Alaska. Of the latter area he says: "I was there when the big quake hit. They never built there again."

The term bricklayer is a bit of a misnomer, Henson says, because for most people it only brings to mind the image of a guy in a hardhat with a trowel and a hod of red bricks. But the job, he said, involved all sorts of surface work, including the installation of ceilings. Henson said he regularly worked with such materials as glazed tile, marble and granite.

Henson's daughter Jane remembers her father driving her and her sisters around downtown in a truck. "He'd take us from job site to job site to see how the progress was going," she says, adding that often he'd pick up a box of powdered doughnuts along the way. At some sites, Henson would take his daughters up on the scaffolding, and to keep the girls' attention off the heights, "he'd distract us with doughnuts," Jane recalls.

Henson himself is matter-of-fact when it comes to discussing his work.

"To me, a bricklayer, you covered the waterfront," he says. "You learned a trade that was good. You handle your tools. You have accidents."

He's seen more than his share of accidents over the years. "You get used to them," he adds.

On a site in Bellingham, Henson watched as the rigging on a scaffolding broke loose, sending men plummeting one after the other. And then the scaffolding tipped the other way, sending bricks falling down. Seven men were killed. And this being the Depression, Henson says, a full crew was back to work by 2 o'clock that same afternoon.

Despite such dangers, Henson appears to have relished his work. "We had a hell of a time, the Bricklayers Union," he says smiling. "They're clanny." He and his employees would often throw parties at the old Henson office in Fremont; Thursdays, Jane recalls, were cribbage night. "One hundred dollars a peg," she says, adding that she remembers her father often coming home in the wee hours of the morning.

Henson cracks a big smile at this recollection.

"I love to put things together," he says of his own fondness for his life's work. And, looking at the whole of his life, the metaphor automatically asserts itself: brick by brick. Henson's 98 years, like one of his seemingly indestructible chimneys, appear enviably solid and well put-together, a kind of blueprint for success.

"I'm not to judge that," he says. "I have found, things get tough. I've had my ups and downs like anybody else."

As I say my farewells, Henson asks me if I know what he says to everyone when he says goodbye. Daughter Jane and wife Ann look at me with a knowing smile. "Keep your pecker up," Henson says with a wicked grin. Everybody laughs.

Pecker is Cockney slang for "chin." It's good advice.

Associate editor Rick Levin can be reached at 461-1284.

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