.comment-link {margin-left:.6em;}

patterns of ink

How fruitless to be ever thinking yet never embrace a thought... to have the power to believe and believe it's all for naught. I, too, have reckoned time and truth (content to wonder if not think) in metaphors and meaning and endless patterns of ink. Perhaps a few may find their way to the world where others live, sharing not just thoughts I've gathered but those I wish to give. Tom Kapanka

Monday, October 20, 2008

"Unsettled" Chapter 8: Two Buildings and a Bridge

Enough politics! I moved those last political thoughts and links to the post below. If you' read this chapter before Friday, you may notice that I've developed the thoughts about the Beech tree a little more since the first draft. Hope you enjoy the next installment of “Unsettled.” Review Chapter Six about the barn (since it ties into this chapter more than Chapter Seven). Click on photos below to see larger photos.
***************

.
I should clarify that the “barn” we built from logs does not look like a barn in the “farm” sense of the word. Other than a temporary chicken coup we slapped up beside it once (a project that began with a batch of Easter “chicks” Jimmy raised from peeps to the plate), we never kept animals there.

That's it there behind Dad's old trailer. Inside that black building is the log frame you saw in Chapter Six.
It's less of a "barn" and more of a machine shed, where we kept the tractor, cement mixer, chain saws, log chains, ropes, tools, and an ever-growing collection of used lumber that would someday become our house.

There was also an old wood-burning, cast-iron kitchen stove and the Firestone refrigerator my folks bought in ‘51. The stove was used mostly for heat, but we did cook on it whenever we slept overnight there. By the end of spring, the barn was enclosed. The door latched at the top and bottom, had a crowbar-proof padlock, and a "secret key lock" behind a wooden flap--"That'll fool 'em," Dad joked when he installed it, knowing only an idiot would not spin the block and find the key hole.

Sometimes we’d go out on a Friday after Dad came home from work and spend the night in the barn. We also had Sunday School “roughin’ it nights” in the barn. Dad taught the high school class on Sunday mornings at church and about once a quarter, he’d organize events out at the barn for the guys with perfect attendance and weekly Bible verse memorization.

The winter sleep over was the best. There was sledding on the hill and ice skating on the creek, and good food stewing on the old stove, which we kept stoked all night to help fend off the cold. Four guys slept up in the loft six or seven were on the floor. I was not in high school yet, but Dad let me bring Bob and Randy who were in my class at church. We were on the floor about ten feet from the stove. By morning there were three piles of shivering sleeping bags, huddled together for warmth. Our teeth were chattering like stacked plates on a train, but no one complained. After all we were “roughin’ it,“ and that was half the fun. Dad created a breakfast specialty that I still make sometimes to this day. He put buttered bread with honey on the rack inside the stove and toasted it till the honey soaked in and was crispy on top. Sounds simple, but oh, what a delicacy after a night of chattering teeth. We'd sled the hill or skate the creek then run back to the barn to warm up by the stove. Simple pleasures are the best.

There was another building we build about twenty paces from the barn. The literature of life is often bereft of unmentionable functions, so I'll mention it. We got by without this building in the fall, but as winter approached, Dad thought it might be a good idea to have an outhouse. It was a single-seater with no light or heater--nuff said. A few weeks ago when I was at the homestead, I took some pictures of the old outhouse. It has not been occupied for over thirty years and has fallen into ruin. Actually, I should say it has not been used for thirty years because it is occupied.

A ground hog now lives under it, burrowed a hole right in front of the door that drops down to what was the honey pot. (Over the years, once we had plumbing in the house, we filled the pit with the building refuse, but still …talk about feeling down in the dumps.) I guess he forgot the three rules of real estate: “Location. Location. Location.”

During the first five years of working weekends with Dad, the barn and the outhouse were the only two enclosed buildings on the property. But there was another "structure" that Dad built at the end of our first summer of settling the unsettled land. Before I tell you what it was, there's one more thing beside the barn I'd like to point out:

When we were helping Dad build the barn, we sometimes had "stand around" time where we weren't much help. One day, I was standing on the west side of the barn with a hammer in my hand, and for no particular reason, I bluntly tapped a big gray Beech tree beside me. It was not a particularly hard hit. I was not trying to damage the bark, but to my surprise the ashen bark turned green where the hammer struck. It was a contusion of sorts, that brought pressed the thin crust into the softer layers below. I did it again and it worked again.

"Hey, Dave, look what happens when I tap the bark with the hammer." And in a mindless, systematic experiment, I began tapping the tree as if to make it look like a Dalmatian. I thought nothing of it. This Beech was one of thousands of trees around me in the middle of a "forest." I wasn't thinking ahead to envision it someday in plain view across the way from the back door of a house that existed only in my father's head.

Dad climbed down from the barn rafters in time to see me putting the last licks on the tree, "What are you doing that for?" He asked, more puzzled than angry.
"I don't know," I mumbled, feeling a scolding on the way.
But instead he simply said, "You do realize that tree will live with those marks long after we're gone."
"Gone from here today?" I asked.
"No. Gone from this Earth," he said, not realizing the casual remark dropped in my mind like a slab of granite on soft ground.

At that age, I did not give much thought to the fact that Dad or Mom or any of us would ever be "gone from earth." The facts of death I understood, but the brevity of life in the context of things that go on living fell with a thud and sunk deep. I could not get my fingers under that thought, much less lift it into place. Gone from this Earth.

In time, the truth hits hard enough to gently leave its mark. It's been forty years since I tapped the gray bark of that Beech, but those words stayed with me. Like the many things he taught us while we worked, the quiet lessons learned from Dad outlived a hundred sermons I've forgotten.
***************
.
After that day with a hammer and too much time on my hands, Dad was more inclined to let us take off in the woods when he didn't need us. There are two primitive "elements" that boys naturally love to play with: fire and water. Through the winter, we often burned brush and stumps, to keep warm, and Dave and I would tend the fire while Dad worked.

But in our first spring (1969), we noticed something we had not seen since purchasing the land. The little creek, called Fish Creek on the county maps, that separated the front nine acres from the back five, overflowed its banks and became about ten times wider than the brook we'd seen in the fall and winter. (That's me standing in the middle of the marshy spring overflow.)

Dad did not like the thought of a couple acres of land being under water each spring, so after the barn was done, he traded in the blue Ford tractor for an old two-cylinder John Deere that had both a front bucket and a back-hoe.

With that old yellow tractor, he dug out the creek, making the bed about five feet deeper with high clay walls from north to south border of our land. He was onfident that this much deeper creek bed with banks now two feet higher than the ground arond it would contain the next spring's high waters. In time the creek banks looked "normal" again.

Dredging the creek took every Saturday of June and July. But once it was done in August, Dad was free to take on the project that required a reliably narrow creek, his bridge to the back five acres. Now mind you, on the other side of the bridge was nothing. Not a road, not a path, just trees, but in order to blaze such a road, he needed to get the tractor across the creek, and that's just what he did.

By fall that year, the bridge was done. Made like the barn but with bigger timber from the land. One crisp October night, at the end of a long day, we all stood on the bridge in the glow of a harvest moon. In the distance, we heard the faint sound of southbound Canada Geese becoming gradually louder until the cacophony was just overhead. Looking up, we saw a long "V" of flapping silhouettes sweeping past the orange moon. No one said a word, but when they were gone, Dad told us of their amazing migration rituals, how they rotate leaders and rest and feed together. To this day, when I hear geese in the night sky, I think of that night on Dad's bridge.

Years later, from up in a tree, I took this picture of Dad crossing the bridge in the spring (some oak leaves never let go through the winter). As you can tell, the deeper creek worked until a particularly rainy spring about six years later, when gathering sticks and fallen limbs dammed up against the bridge in the night and washed it away.

That summer, Dad built a second bridge in its place. This time he used cement. Not poured cement. Oh, no, that would be too easy (and costly). It just so happened that thee miles away Interstate-94 was being torn up into strips of concrete about ten feet long and three feet wide. Driving by the slabs of concrete one Saturday, Dad got an idea, and he stopped to talk to the road construction crew. He asked them if, rather than going to the land fill, they'd mind dropping off a couple truckloads of those concrete slabs down by the creek on our land. (What he didn't use for the bridge he later used for the driveway.)

With his back hoe he then dug out the both banks and laid the slabs like Lego blocks cemented together in a multi-layered cantilever arch. It took several weekends, but Dad enjoyed it. This sort of work was his secret passion, and he loved telling people his land was connected by "I-94."

This quaint bridge was shade in the summer when we swam in the creek and our favorite resting place when we skated in the winter. The opening is narrower than his first bridge, but it's much higher and the ramps on either side (under the snow in the picture) held several tons of concrete slabs. The high water flowed through every spring with no problems... until 2004.

Dad's second bridge lasted over twenty-five years, and then in May of 2004, Macomb County was hit with some of the worst flooding in the Midwest. The 100-year flood levels were reached. (See video here. This was nine years after Dad passed away.) Like many of the bridges and roads built by the real engineers, by the time the rushing waters of 2004 subsided, the base of Dad's bridge (on the right side of that photo) eroded away and we had to remove the portion that remained. I have pictures of it somewhere as it last appeared after the damage, but I prefer to remember it as it was: the place we had to duck when skating through, where we sometimes swam or held a fishing pole, and where one night we stood with Dad and saw the geese against the moon.
.
.

9 Comments:

Blogger Nancy said...

I just realized one other thing that attracts me to Patterns of Ink, your dad is not only like my dad but like my husband, as well. Joe built a bridge much like this one over our creek to get to his hunting land. He used steel beams, from some project somewhere else. He built our barn from lumber harvested on our land... one Saturday at a time. It's almost like your dad and Joe, probably you too, just love the challenge of someone thinking the project is impossible and expensive. They will find a way to "fix it". I just love that attitude.

The photos are just great here, especially your dad crossing the bridge. Katherine's wedding portrait was taken on Joe's bridge and it turned out just perfect.

Talented men creating stories and memories...

Thank you for sharing, one piece of the puzzle at a time, I can't wait for the next piece.

20/10/08 8:37 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Amen to the "print in red"!

I love this post and how you talk about your memories. They come "alive" again here! I can't believe how patient your dad was in building his 'barn' and then bridge(s) as well. He could have been an engineer or architect with training!

I'll be back to keep on reading....
WSL

20/10/08 2:54 PM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

Nancy,
Since we've first met there have been so many things our dad's had in common. It's no wonder you were attracted to Joe (a name much in the news lately =)

Edgar A. Guest's poem "It Couldn't be Done" was a motivation in his life.

I took the photos last month when we were at Mom's, knowing these chapters were coming. I'll bet it's even prettier now with the leaves in full color. I like to think I picked up a lot of Dad's skills. He used to tell me I was more creative than he was. Dad was a measure-twice-cut-once kind of designer, very precise and methodical. I tended to be more visual, associative, and free flowing while taking on similar tasks.

WSL,
He eventually became a "computer engineer," and did have the attributes common to engineers, but he love getting away from the city (he worked downtown Detroit) and get out where he was free to do what he wanted at the pace he wanted, always thinking down the road to the next project in the series of things he felt needed to be done before building the house and moving mom from the suburbs, where she felt evermore at home. Some of that subtle conflict shows itself in future chapters.

20/10/08 6:47 PM  
Blogger Nancy said...

Me again, yes, I've called him Joe the builder since the debate. Joe is more free flowing like you but my dad's mantra (I heard it a million times while growing up), "measure twice, cut once," just like your dad.

I got a laugh out of mom today, as you know emotions are rare these days. I showed her a photo of the flowers that I had arranged on dad's grave and told her that I put a large sign in front of the flowers that said... "Vote Republican"! She laughed and said, "You're kidding" and of course I was, but dad would have loved it.

20/10/08 7:43 PM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

Nancy,
We may want to make sure Acorn doesn't have both our dad's registered. =) Hope that wasn't over the line, but really... stranger things are happening.

By the way, you got to get those Tar heels out on the 4th. Polls show McCain down in NC--I don't trust the polls right now, but that's what I saw tonight. I'm trying hard to break away from politics in my posts (not doing so well so far), but I'm still watching daily developments.
Did you hear what Biden said today about an international crisis within a few months when Obama takes office? Don't these guys know that we're going to hear what they say behind closed doors. Not only do the constant Biden gaffs make Dan Quayle seem like a Rhoades Scholar, I think his remarks make a good case for McCain.

20/10/08 10:34 PM  
Blogger Dr.John said...

I love your on going story. There are times when it touches my childhood memories as well. Thank you for sharing the story.

21/10/08 6:36 PM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

Thanks for sticking with it,Dr. John. I do hope to keep at least a chapter a week coming. It does me good to write about these things. Glad to know others can relate.

21/10/08 7:50 PM  
Blogger heiresschild said...

that tree looks like a leg with a foot & toes. you have another best seller here Tom.

23/10/08 10:52 PM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

HC,
Your comment made me go back and "develop" that Beech tree paragraphs a little more. Hope the still make sense.

28/10/08 4:44 PM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home

Offshore Jones Act
Offshore Jones Act Counter