“Let the tent be struck.”
-Robert E. Lee
A long time ago, I lived in northern Vermont, where the air is clean, the animals are wild, and the people are friendly (a little too friendly, actually). After working at a supermarket for about a year, I was tired of being trapped inside all day, and doing the same thing all the time. I knew I was moving back to Boston, but for the remainding three months in Vermont, I wanted to do something different.
So I took up tenting. What is tenting, you ask? Well, its the art and practice of setting up commercial grade tents for such events as graduations, weddings, and parties. Sounds like fun, huh? I remember when I first was applying: I had dreams of setting up a tent an hour before some cocktail party started, and then having the hostess walk up in an elegant dress, and whisper in a seductive voice, “Hey Tent Man….why don’t you stay little while, we may need some help with those pesky flaps through the evening.” I even remember talking to the cleaning guy at the super market (I worked the late shift till midnight, so the cleaning guy was usually there: he owned his own cleaning business, and would wash the floors first with a big cleaning machine, and then he’d “buffer” the floor with an insanely noisy, propane-belching buffer machine that would terrify shoppers. He knew the owner of the particular tent company I was going to work for, and told me, “Ahh, it’ll be great……you’ll get to eat the hors d’voures at all those little parties.”). So I actually had a reason to think that maybe the job would be like this.
Well, it wasn’t. In fact, it was the single toughest job I’ve ever had. I’ve worked in construction as a laborer (see here), but despite what I may have thought before hand, ‘tenting’ was much more difficult.
The prime season for the tenting industry is mid-May, when just about every college and university is having there respective graduations. Graduations, often times, need tents: the company I worked for provided tents for just about every graduation in Vermont, a lot in New Hamphire, and one major one in Boston. During the month of May, the average tenter works somewhere around 70 hours a week, leaving him rich with overtime money and cranky/miserable from lack of sleep/lack of free time/physical soreness. Once June rolls around, weddings take over the scene, which are generally smaller, with more eloborate details. Eventually, things really start to slow down in late July/August, and at this time the average tenter becomes broke and pissed off he’s not working enough. Ahhh…..the life of a Tenter.
Without a further ado, lets delve into the life of the so-called Tenter.
First of all…..there are different jobs held within the tenting industry. Let’s take a look:
The Tent Cleaners: These are the guys that clean the precious vinyl (we will discuss vinyl more when I go over equipment later on). They work in the warehouse from 8am-4pm, Monday-Friday, cleaning and scrubbing the vinyl that has been out in the field. Wearing large rubber boots that go up to their knees, they walk around in about a half-foot of soapy water all day cleaning the vinyl, which hangs above from ropes. Many of the cleaners were of Nigerian descent (interestly, there is a pretty substanial African population in northern Vermont, consisting of Nigerians, Kenyans, and other nationalities).
The Truck Loaders: These guys come in on weekdays at around 4pm, and usually work till around midnight, depending on how many jobs are going on the next day. Their sole job: load the trucks with the proper equipment needed for the next day’s jobs.
The Events Crew: This crew is entirely different from the tenting aspect of the company I worked for: I’ll discuss them later in the post.
The Tenters: And then….there’s the Tenters. The Tenters’ responsibilies include setting up tents in the field, breaking down tents after events are finished, loading and un-loading trucks in the field, unloading trucks in the warehouse, loading trucks on the weekends (when the truck loaders aren’t there). Having been a tenter myself, I can say, with a decent amount of authority, that the tenters are the blood and soul of the tent company. (Note: There is no other term that I know to describe a tenter besides ‘tenter’. Honestly, I think its a little bland, but there’s nothing else to really call tenters. ‘Tent-setter-uppers’? ‘Tent Guys’? Nothing else really works. On my resume, I put Tent Specialist, because it sounds a lot cooler than Tenter. But whatever people may call them on paper….they are Tenters.)
Now, very quickly, I will try to describe the life of a Tenter: Depending on what time his crew leaves (crews and supervisors changed daily….you usually worked with a different boss and different guys each day….unless a boss really liked you, in which case he might request you. Or vice versa, when a boss doesn’t like you, and requests not to have you. I think had both of these requests made about me), he’s usually up at around 6am, eating breakfast and watching the Weather Channel (to see if he needs rain gear). Then he’s off, with all his stuff: shoes (preferrably boots), t-shirt and shorts (unless its cold or rainy), and backpack with lunch (sandwiches or pasta, drinks, and lots of energy snacks like raisins), suntan lotion, and band-aids. Some tenters wore sunglasses….I did not.
By about 25 minutes before his crew is supposed to leave, he’s usually at the warehouse, to hang out, go the bathroom, and see if any more preferrable jobs are open (if someone didn’t show for another crew). Once his crew and supervisor are assembled, its off to whatever job at task is waiting.
There are two basic jobs a crew may be heading out to take care of: setting-up or breaking down. While it seems cut-and-dry written here, there are many differences between the jobs. First, setting-up.
Setting-up is the setting-up of tents. There are many different kinds of tents, and we won’t go into specifics here, but when heading out to set up a tent, the following must be remembered:
The truck is chock full of equipment for the tent(s) that will be set-up, loaded from the night before. This means the truck is heavy. When the truck and crew (usually following in a van or pick-up) arrive at the site, everything must first be unloaded. Then, the setting up process is followed (this is usually a long, painstaking process). At the end of the day, when the tent is all set up, the job is over. Once the trucks get back to the warehouse, it is time to punch out and go home.
As for taking-down: An empty truck, with crew in tow, arrive at the site, where everything is waiting to be taken down. After taking everything is down (just as grueling a task as setting up, a little different), the loaded truck returns to the home base. The problem with taking-down: When you get back, its time to unload the truck (fun!!). The truck loaders might help out if they’re around, but they’re usually not, and they’re not obligated to anyway. Other tenters may be obligated (not if they’ve punched out!). After a tough day in the field, there’s usually nothing worse than unloading a truck full of dirty equipment from the field. But hey….that’s the life of a Tenter!
One more note on being a Tenter:
You never, never, never get a lunch break while in the field. It just doesn’t happen. In all honesty, it makes sense. When you’re on location, the object is to get everything set up as fast as possible, to see if there are any problems afterward. With this in mind, everyone works around the clock. So when do Tenters eat? In the trucks, ofcourse. This might sound bad, but it really isn’t. Job locations were literally all around the state of Vermont: the amount of time one sat in a truck, and got paid for it, was often ample. So if you weren’t smart enough to eat while on the road…..then you weren’t smart enough to eat. Ofcourse, two exeptions to this rule is if you were a driver (I was; its pretty tough to eat while driving), or if your job location was very near to your work (like St. Michael’s College, literally a two minute drive away). In these cases, it was usually safe to sneak a sandwich without getting yelled at.
In short….this is the average day of a Tenter.
Now that you know a little bit about the life of a Tenter…..lets look at the tools of a Tenter.
The warehouse where I worked was literally filled with hundreds of odd gadgets used in the industry of tenting. I will only go over the basic tools and materials used by Tenters everyday.
Side Ladders: Side ladders are what most of the world calls step ladders. I will explain shortly where the term ‘side’ comes from.
Hammers: Hammers are what the rest of the world calls sledgehammers. At some point in the tenting industry, the sledge just got dropped.
Stakes: Stakes are what some people know at spikes, tent spikes, nails, or long nails for commercial tents. For everyone’s sake…..just call them stakes.
Dollys: Dollys are used to move large objects, without straining one’s back. They have two wheels. Some people call them push carts. Please….don’t call them push carts.
Drops: Drops are large bundles of indiscript cloth which are laid out to provide a clean surface in the field. They are ‘dropped’ on the ground and rolled out to full size, in order that more valuable materials, such as vinyl, can be laid on the ground without getting dirty.
Vinyl: Vinyl is the material which is seen on the top of all tents. It is very expensive, and imperitive that is not dirty when put up. Even worse is if vinyl is ripped: I never saw this happen, but heard about it.
Sides: This is where the term ‘side ladder’ comes from. Sides are the material that hang down on the sides of all tents. For instance, most tents appear to have a roof (vinyl), and walls (sides). Sides are a slightly different material, and not nearly as valuable. Also, sides are not cleaned every time they go back to the warehouse. To hang up sides, one uses a side ladder.
Pins: Every Tenter should have atleast 5 pins on him at all times. They are used to secure poles.
Bungees: All tenters should also have a few bungees on him. Used to secure sides to poles.
Zipties: Used to tighten and secure various materials.
Barrels: Used to store tools. Usually lightweight and plastic.
Rope: Used to secure stakes to certain tents.
Quick Tights: A strap with a crank used to secure numerous things; pretty specific to tenting.
Truck Straps: Used to secure stuff in trucks.
Okay….for now, that’s a start. In Part 2, I will cover the different tents and how they are set-up/taken down, and will tell various tenting stories. Until then…..stay classy.
Until Next Time,