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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

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Chapter 34c. "Just Below the Surface" conclusion

Some conversations simply lead to nothing else to say and we worked in silence for quite a while until Dave pulled up with the pick-up and empty trailer. His wipers were on but until that moment I did not notice that the dark sky was spitting again. It began raining a little harder as we hooked heavy blocks in our curled fingers and walked with ape arms stretched toward the ground to the front of the trailer then stacked the blocks carefully into place. We were far from being done, but it was the beginning of the end, the start of what would surely be our final load.

From the back of the pick-up, Dad took two shovels that he had asked me about two hours before as we finished pulling down the remaining blocks of the wall. I told him they were still in the truck but gave it little more thought because we did not need them to pull apart the soil pipe,

Spearing one of the shovels into the ground, Dad took the other and began digging a small trench along the inside of the foundation line where the top edge of cement blocks were exposed but buried just below the surface of the ground.

“I thought we were done,” I said in mild protest, “We agreed to raze the building to ground level, and we did that. There’s nothing left above the ground.”

Dave agreed. “Dad, Just tell Mr. Solomon we agreed to ground level.”

“Boys, I’m not doing this for Mr. Solomon,” Dad said, perturbed that we were challenging the task at hand, “I’m doing this because I want the blocks. There’s two more layers of perfectly good block down there and I counted them into our take from day one.”

"But, it's raining." I pleaded lamely.

"It's barely sprinklin'!" Dad said without looking up from the machine-like rhythm of his digging. "There's a hundred dollars worth of block down here, and we're not leaving it."

"But..." I began again.

"We've worked in worse," Dave interrupted, and I glared at him as if to ask "Whose side are you on?" With just the slightest shake of his head he so much as said, "Tom, there's no point in saying another word." I knew he was right. Dave pulled the other shovel from its crescent smile in the earth and began digging with Dad.

After they had exposed about ten blocks, Dad took the wrecking bar and tried to jostle one from its place, but the bar was at a much less useful angle than it had been with the higher wall. We had been using the bar as a lever, and now, because we were now much closer to the fulcrum, there was more pressure on the concrete edge of the block rather than on the mortar joints around it, and the block itself broke as Dad pulled the bar toward him.

He began muttering an undeterminable combination of harsh consonants--mostly plosives and fricatives held back by his rigid jaw.

“Ohfur! G...P…Sh…K…D…T…Rrrrr…” [These were sounds not letters.]

We’d heard this happen before on occasions when Dad blew his top but did not want to curse. There’s no more convincing form of exasperation than words bit into pieces and spewed out without the soft vowel sounds that give them meaning.

Dave and I just stood back until these utterances ceased behind Dad’s clenched lips. He finally put together a sentence: "That's the one thing we don't want to do, boys. Try not to break the blocks." Dave and I took some comfort in knowing that Dad had already committed "the one thing we don't want to do." It was a form of immunity in the event that one of us did happen to break a block. It was sort of like messing up the first piece of cake from a tin. The blocks after the one Dad broke came out with less trouble.

“There we go,” he said, “We’ll just have to be sure to dig out enough room to let them move when we jostle them free.”

“Do you care if we eat pretty soon,” I asked out of the blue.

“What time is it?” Dad asked, pushing his shirt sleeve up his arm to see his watch. “Holy Baldy! It’s two o’clock. Why didn’t you say something two hours ago?”

“I wasn’t hungry ‘til now, and besides, the sandwiches were in the truck,”

“I already ate my two,” Dave said. “I could smell the bread through the bag when I was driving back, so I figured why waste time. I’m good to go. I’ll just start digging while you guys eat.”

“You go ahead and eat, Tom,” Dad suggested, “I’ll pull block behind Dave and eat in a little while.”

From inside the truck, I watched them digging and pulling up block, but they soon disappeared as the focus of my eyes changed to the glass just inches from my face. The rain had almost stopped for the moment but was beading up on the windows, and here and there a few small droplets merged into a heavier drop that ran down the window like a tear. Suddenly Dave slipped into the driver's seat and started the truck.

"What are you doing?" I asked.

"Dad thinks the block we're pulling now will be too much for one trip so we're gunna run this load out and come back for what's left."

"Is everything okay? Is he mad?" I asked.

"Everything's fine. This won't take long with both of us."

"Well, let me run his sandwiches to him at least."

I put the sandwiches on an overturned plastic bucket in plain view. Dad nodded a "thank you," and we were on our way. It felt good to be away from the site. The truck cab was dry. The heater was on. The wipers sloshed a gentle sweeping rhythm at their lowest setting. Dave and I began griping about the work and the extra trip and the rain and the fact that our Spring Break had been spent making piles of block and lumber for a house that still seemed like a very distant dream.

When we got to the property, we began unloading the blocks in a cubical stack beside the one Dave made that morning. When we were done, Dave pulled the truck ahead but somehow could not make the turn without backing up about ten feet. He had very little experience backing up a trailer, and as any other novice can confirm, it is not easy. Sometimes it is possible to actually make matters worse. He asked me to step out of the truck and direct him with hand signals. Somehow my signals were telling him the exact opposite of what he needed to do, and within a minute the truck and trailer were hopelessly wedged between piles of cement block and a pile of splintered lumber. This was a three-foot heap of boards that were so badly damaged on site that we were going to burn them. Because of that, we had not bothered to pull out the nails.

Dave was getting more and more frustrated with my lousy directions, and suddenly a clumsy stream of curse words was hurled out his rolled down window. He was not just saying the plosive and fricative consonants but the vowels, too. I can honestly say this was not characteristic of Dave. Nor was it characteristic of me to hurl the same words back at him, but I did. To be honest, we were not good at swearing. By conviction and purpose we had little practice at it, and our word choices and syntax lacked the grit and melody and tempo of a truly polished foul-mouthed tirade.

Strange that the human curse of cursing so quickly reaches into the bodily functions to soil the mouth in passing and pervert the gifts from God and dredge up the very things we are otherwise too wise to speak of at all--much less in vulgar terms. Even worse to ask for God Himself to curse something or someone that is treasured or needed but temporarily despised. More sobering still is the knowledge that it is the heart and not the mouth that speaks.

Dave stepped out of the car to see for himself the fine mess I'd gotten him into, and another string of words filled the air as he jumped back into the truck. I echoed a similar string and then laughed at how stupid it sounded. But Dave was not laughing. He turned the wheel as sharp as it would go, stepped on the gas, and drove the right-front tire up and over the pile of splintered lumber.

"What are you doing?" I screamed, (the sentence may have been a a few words longer than that.) And Dave shouted back, "Shut up and get in the truck!" which was now turned fully around and ready to head out. I jumped in and Dave gunned it down the long winding driveway to Sass Road. Turning the corner, Dave slammed the heel of his hand into the steering wheel.

"I am so mad at myself," he said, "I'm sorry I swore like that."

"Me, too." I muttered, "I mean, I'm sorry that I did it, too."

"I'm sorry I took the Lord's name," he whispered.

"I guess that's what it means to say it in vain,” I pondered aloud "...to not really want him to do what we say when we say that."

"I only said it that one time, but still...that other stuff was bad, too. I won't do that again, Tom," he said, and he meant it, then added, "But we probably shouldn't tell Dad about driving over that pile."

"Do you think you hit a nail?" I asked.

"Hope not. Get out and check the tire at the next stop."

I did, and both the right-front and the rear-right looked fine. It was just past four o'clock when we got back to the site, and to our surprise, Dad had pulled up almost all of the block. The mortar joints still needed to be broken off with a hammer, but Dave and I did that as Dad pulled the last row and backfilled the trench as best he could. By seven o'clock, we were loading the last of the cleaned block and hefting the lengths of soil pipe on top of it. Dad went to the cab to get some rope from behind the seat to lash down the pipe.

Dave and I began gathering tools. It was then I saw the sandwiches still on the overturned bucket. I picked them up to put them back in the truck.

"Dad, aren't you hungry? I asked, but he didn't hear me. He was staring at the right-front tire. He bent over and picked up a bent roofing nail on the ground. "It was only a question of time." He took a deep breath and then yanked the jack out from behind the seat.

"What is it?" Dave asked from the far end of the trailer.

"A flat," I said, afraid to say another word.

"I can fix it, Dad" Dave said, bringing the spare from the bed of the truck.

"No. You and Tom take this rope and strap down the pipe. This won't take long."

And it wouldn't have taken long, I suppose, if it hadn't been getting darker by the minute. We had two flashlights in the glove box of the truck. Dad took one and gave Dave the other.

It started raining again--not a light sprinkle, not the kind that dries on the outside of your coat before soaking through. No this was the kind of rain you could lap with your outstretched tongue if it were July, but it was April and cold and dark and by the time Dad changed the tire he was in no mood to learn that his two sons were lousy at lashing down soil pipe.

We were all drenched, and Dad started testing the tightness of the rope. It did not meet his standard.

“This pipe will be all over the road before we get to I-94,” he muttered along with some stray consonants as he undid our work and started from scratch. "What kind of knots did you guys put into this mess?" He shouted.

"Just knots." Dave said, rain dripping from is nose.

Dad synched the rope back and forth as if he were lacing of a giant boot. Each length across the load could be plucked like a bass fiddle string. With ten feet of rope left, he tossed the end to me and said, "I’ll hold it tight on this side. Just put a half-hitch in it on your side. That will hold."

Dave was standing beside me. "Do you know how to tie one?" I whispered. "He whispered something back, and it was soon clear to Dad from all the whispering in the rain that neither of us knew how to tie a half-hitch.

"Do you know what a half-hitch is?" Dad shouted.

"Yes. I do. It's a knot." I said, going out on a limb

"Do you know how to tie one?" He said in a tone that frankly, after all those weeks of hard work and after this day in particular, I did not appreciate, and to my own surprise for the first time in my life, I lipped off to Dad.

"No, Dad, I don't know how to tie one. Why don't you come over here and show me how to tie a half-hitch so we can get out of here and go home."

Dave took a small step back, as if to say, "It was nice knowing ya, Tom."

Dad came around to my side with a quickness in his step that made me brace for worse as he yanked the rope from my grip and handed me his flashlight.

“This, young man, is how to tie a half-hitch.” and he began to over-elaborate each step in condescending tones, but to his credit, each step became less sarcastic and more instructive as it occurred to him that his sons had worked with him all these years and he had never shown them one of the most basic knots that he had learned first in Boy Scouts and then in the Navy. By the end of his lesson, he said quite sincerely, “The beautiful think about the half-hitch is it will hold tighter and tighter the more tension is put on the rope and yet when you go to untie it comes right out like this. He pulled the loose end, and the knot fell apart. He tied it tight again in the glow of my light.

“Do we have all the tools and shovels loaded?” he asked. “You two look all around the site to be sure and I’ll turn the truck around to shine the headlights your way.”

The site was clear. Tools were loaded, and the three of us sat soaked to the skin in the front seat of that truck staring out at a rectangle of bare earth in an empty city block of un-mowed matted grass. Dad turned the heater on high, but we got wet again as we unloaded the trailer near the barn. We left it and Uncle Bob’s truck at the property, driving home instead the old blue Bell van with me on the spare tire leaning between the gap in the front seats. The heater in that old truck barely worked, but as we turned into the driveway and Dave opened the gate to the back yard, I was warmed by the thought that Mom would have supper simmering on the stove.

That night, after I'd gone to bed but before I dozed off, Dad came into my dark room, squeezed my knee under the covers and thanked me for all the six weeks of help. He also wanted to apologized for the times he got upset with us. He had whispered the same things to Dave whose bed was now downstairs. That was not a common thing for him to do—maybe that’s why I remember it—and why it was so easy to accept his words there in the dark and to whisper something back to let him know I’d heard them.

The materials from the school building would lie untouched for nearly a year, but it felt good to be done with the project. To this day, Dave and I agree that it was the least pleasant project we ever did with Dad, and that last rainy day, in some respects, had brought out the best and worst in us all. I suppose that should be expected when crawling in crawlspaces, working in mud, salvaging soil pipe, or otherwise dealing with the underside of human habitats, where our baser functions and foundations are entrenched below the surface of the soil.
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Saturday, October 24, 2009

Unsettled Chapter 34b: "Just Below the Surface" Part II

When we pulled up to the site on that last Saturday morning, the place looked sad to me. The school was gone but for the low foundation wall marking where it had been. The sky was gray but not the cold gray that had brought the snow on Monday. It was a good twenty degrees warmer now—warm enough to work without gloves. Michigan is like that in April when the ground is soggy and the air feels clean as damp sheets hung on the line. The only thing missing was some sunshine. Searching the sky for a break in the clouds, I felt just the slightest spit of rain.

“Did you feel that?” I asked, holding my palm toward the sky.

“What? Rain?” Dave said.

“It’s not going to rain,” Dad said, passing out tools, “That’s just dew.”

“Dew from dark clouds,” Dave added.

“Looks to me like it could rain,” I said as we stepped over the block wall.

The fact is it didn't matter what kind of weather was in store. It was the last day to finish this job, and Dave and I were eager to be done with it. Dad was upbeat as ever.

“Well, boys what do you want to do first the wall or the soil pipe?”

“Let’s do the wall first so we don’t have to lift the pipe over it.” Dave said.

“Good thinking, Dave," Dad said, "That’s usin’ the ol’ noggin.’”

Dad was not one to heap praise, but in the morning, on the front-end of work when spirits were high, he'd take lighthearted note whenever a good idea spilled from our noggins. Likewise if we did or said something dumb, he may jokingly call us knuckleheads, but either remark would be shared in good humor and we took it as such. But at the tale-end of a hard day's work, our noggin-to-knucklehead ratio seemed to get worse and worse, and Dad's less jovial side lurked just below the surface. Because of this, we did our best listen as Dad took the wrecking bar and demonstrated how to gently dismantle the wall.

"Take the bar and stick it down in the hole like this. Then pull it toward you without breaking the block.”

To our surprise the blocks that had held firm for all those years broke easily out of place now that the weight above was gone. Sometimes two or three blocks would break free at a time, but a tap on the mortar joints with a masonry hammer broke them free and snapped off the clumps of hard mortar.

After weeks of pulling nails, this was fast and rewarding work, and in no time we were loading blocks onto the trailer. Cement block was, of course, much heavier than lumber, and with just two layers loaded, the tires on the trailer were beginning to bulge. Dad sent Dave alone to empty the first load while he and I stayed back and finished pulling down the last corner of the wall.

Before Dave returned, we moved on to the task of pulling apart the cast iron soil pipe. With a hammer and chisel, Dad worked out the poured lead ring that sealed the inside bell of the first joint. Then he dug our the old oakum packed below the surface of the lead. (Oakum is an ancient fiber made of jute bark originally used to seal joints between planks in the wooden ship-building process.)

“Tom, bring over that five-gallon bucket to put the scraps of lead in and toss the oakum in the trash pile. We’ll melt this down and use it again when we lay this pipe under the house, but we can't reuse the oakum.”

“You mean we’re going to use these pipes again?," I asked. "That's kinda gross.”

“It’s just soil pipe. Perfectly good shape. Hold that end,”

He pulled the sections apart and looked inside, then leaned the opening toward my face for a peek. It was empty of whatever I feared and didn't even smell bad."

“See perfectly good to reuse. If the toilet tank is doin’ its job it takes everything all the way to the street with each flush."

“Still. I didn’t think we'd reuse this stuff.” I said again.

“Do you know how much soil pipe runs at the lumber yard?” Dad asked.

I could not begin to guess how much it cost. (To this day, I couldn’t guess because everything soon went to PVC. The pipe in this picture pretty much replaced the cast iron soil pipe used for centuries.) The only time I ever worked with cast iron pipe (other than repairs) was this day with Dad and the day we re-laid the same pipe under our house.) But whatever the cost was is was higher than elbow grease which was the price of the pipe in hand. There was well over a hundred feet of it configured just above the ground around us. We kept talking as we took it apart length by length.

“Is it called soil pipe because it runs along the ground?” I asked.

“No. It’s called soil pipe even when it’s vertical and no where near the dirt.”

“I figured… you know soil… as in dirt.

“More like dog dirt.” Dad laughed, and indeed, “dog dirt” is term Mom always used when we had to scoop up Duke’s messes in the yard (when he was still alive). Then Dad asked abruptly, “Haven’t you ever heard someone say, ‘He soiled his pants.’?”

“No, but if I did, I’d think it meant like he got his knees dirty crawling in the garden.”

“No. It’s not that kind of soil. ‘Soiled your pants’ means you had an accident in them.”

“Like a baby diaper?”

“Yes, but you wouldn’t say it about a baby ‘cause that’s not an accident—that’s planned. This is when you almost make it to the john but not quite. Hasn’t that ever happened to you?”

“No. Not that end, but sometimes walking home from school I’d get all the way to our driveway without even thinking I had to pee, and then between the sidewalk and the porch I had to go so bad I’d barely make it to the toilet. Why is that?”

”It’s all in the head, a mental impulse. We can control it to a certain extent all the time, but sometimes if you’re overdue the slightest thought of it flips the switch too soon. That has happened to everybody, but that is not nearly as bad as when it happens the other way.” He paused and shook his head at a thought somewhere deep in his mind that narrowed his eyes. “I was in 3rd grade, sitting in the second row four desks back, and the last bell of the day was about to ring. The teacher had a rule that no one could go to the bathroom after last recess, but I went up to her desk to ask if I could go and she said ‘no.’ I whispered it again, pleading with my eyes, and she said, ‘If you go now, I’ll hold you after school for a half hour.’ Well, I didn’t want to tell her it was number two and I didn’t want to stay after school, so I went back to my desk and clenched my butt like a vice as I watched the clock.”

“Squirmin’?” I asked.

“Afraid to squirm,” he said shaking his head. “Afraid to relax at all. I was sweating bullets. Well, the bell rang and I got up slow and walked out the door, trying to look natural but moving my legs only below the knees, holding everything else tight. The bathroom was downstairs by the boiler room, and I made it down a few steps, but I had to raise my knees and thighs to go down ‘em and once my thighs moved, my clenched cheeks let loose a little. I was losing a battle I couldn't even see, and by the bottom step it was all over but the clean up. I was so mad at that lady. Now really, how could a teacher not know to make an exception when a kid obviously has to go? Well, anyway... that’s what they mean by 'soiling your pants'.”

It was a story I'd never heard. People understandably don't talk about such things, but in light of the work at hand it was an oddly educational conversation between a father and son as they wrestled with heavy old pipe. I remembered it years later as a teacher whenever a student approached me with an earnest plea to take care of urgent business. [Urgent being the key word, as in urge from the Latin urgēre meaning to push.]

Pulling out another ring of lead and oakum, we broke apart another section of pipe.

“So that’s why they call it soil pipe?” I said quite seriously.

“That’s why they call it soil pipe,” he replied.

Some conversations simply lead to nothing else to say and we worked in silence for quite a while until Dave pulled up with the pick-up and empty trailer. His wipers were on but until that moment I did not notice that the dark sky was spitting again. It began raining a little harder as we hooked heavy blocks in our curled fingers and walked with ape arms stretched toward the ground to the front of the trailer then stacked the blocks carefully into place. We were far from being done, but it was the beginning of the end, the start of what would surely be our final load.
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Part III of "Just Below the Surface" coming Wednesday.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Unsettled Chapter 34a "Just Below the Surface"

Like nearly every job we did with Dad, salvaging the school building took longer than expected—not longer in the calendar but more days than originally planned. Mr. Solomon and Dad had agreed on a deadline and that could not be changed. Fortunately for Dad, and unfortunately for Dave and me, our Spring Break came the week before the final Saturday. Dad took vacation days, and the three of us worked every day that week from daybreak ‘til dark. Some vacation!

When it comes to estimating how long a job will take, men fall into two categories: There are those who dive head-first into a project, convinced that it can be done in minimal time (and if it ends up taking longer, they make no mental note of it); and there are those who procrastinate beginning a job because they know it will be much more involved than what first meets the eye.

For instance, the second kind of man knows that tiling the bathroom floor may take only a couple hours in theory…BUT—and it’s the BUTS that always get you (especially in bathrooms)--the tiling job will quickly mutate into a much bigger project. It will involve pulling the toilet and, once the toilet is up, discovering that the rusted floor bolts need to be replaced. Add an hour. Then it will be a no-brainer to replace all the insides of tank and the seals and toilet seat. Oops! The seat no longer matches the sink. Might as well replace the sink while things are a mess. Then the wife hands him an ad from the paper with circles around towel racks and a ceiling fan with a heater in it. And so on and so on. Before you know it the two-hour tile job becomes a two week remodeling project.

“Kill it before it multiplies,” they used to say in the old sci-fi movies, but home improvement projects do not die easily.

I tend to fall into the latter category, and it makes me take a deep breath as I consider each item on my wife's "Honey do" list. Dad tended to be the first kind of man. As his favorite poet, Edgar A. Guest said, "He buckled right in with a bit of a grin on his face; if he worried he hid it; he started to sing as he tackled the thing that couldn't be done and he did it."

In order to get his sons excited about whatever his—and therefore OUR-- next project was, Dad would announce goals to stoke our competitive natures (as seen in the barn-raising scene in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers—except we were typically competing against time rather than other teams). In his mind, he and his sons would dive in, work hard, beat the clock and stand shoulder to shoulder exhausted but victorious at the end of the day. But the truth is: Dave and I were not all that competitive with hammers, and we’d learned after years of working with Dad that just below the surface of any worthwhile task, there are forces at work that do not want it done.

With that bit of a grin, he'd say, “Tell ya what, Boys. I think we’ll be able to pull those three stumps by dark.” If not stumps it was some such task that couldn't be done except in a poem where tractor hoses don't burst or chains don't snap or tires don't leak or the whatchamacallit never breaks. But life is a never-ending story of things breaking down. The race against time almost always includes a gauntlet of things just waiting to go wrong or give way to other forces. Happy is the man who knows this to be true and still finds satisfaction in a hard day’s work. My father was such a man.

Dad had every intention of completing the school salvage project in the six weeks he promised when Mr. Solomon handed him the key. But we hadn't planned on snow falling after the roof was gone, and that's what happened during Spring Break. No roof, no walls, nothing but the sub-flooring, joists, and some odds and ends to go, and we woke to four inches and counting of wet snow.

It was the kind of snow Michigan gets every few years in April. Even folks like me who love snow are depressed by it. The same white stuff that prompts laughter and Christmas songs in November…is met with miserable mutters in the spring.

When we pulled ourselves out of bed that first Monday of Spring Break, Dad was looking out the front window at the snow in the glow of the porch light.

“Can we go back to bed,” I mumbled.

Dave’s face turned toward the dumbest question he’d ever heard asked. He had learned long ago not to even think such things.

“Lotsa work left to do, boys,” Dad said.

Dave’s eyebrows arched high under his uncombed bangs as he tossed a forced smile my way. It was my brother's way of saying “I told you so” without uttering a word.

Mom got up to make Cream of Wheat while the three of us got dressed. She was not waking for the day. Clanking pots and boiling water on the stove was something she could do in her sleep with one hand holding shut her worn-out robe. She had a nicer robe that Dad gave her for Christmas years before, but she always wore her old one to cook breakfast. It was an apron of sorts and through the years it had taken on a look that only a family could see and not notice the mess it was. Come to think of it. I never saw her wear the nicer robe. She must have been saving it for a time when mornings weren’t centered on the stove and we weren’t all rushing out the door.

On cold work days like this, we put on layers of old clothes that Dad kept in a dresser in the basement. These pants and shirts were too worn out to give to Goodwill but still not ruined enough to throw away. They had some holes and rips but almost never in the same places so by doubling them up on top of each other, the holes were blocked, and we kept plenty warm. Dad found odd satisfaction in handing out the old pants and shirts. It helped save our own clothes to be sure, but it also confirmed he was right in not letting my mother throw the old clothes away, as she threatened to do each time she washed them.

Mom laughed as we came traipsing up the steps and into her kitchen.

“Lookatchas! Like something from Oliver Twist. I hope you don’t see anyone we know.”

“I think we look pretty stylish,” Dad smiled.

Dave and I plopped in our torn-vinyl chairs as Mom scraped out our steaming hot Cream of Wheat.

“I’m putting this on plates instead of in bowls so it will cool faster. Eat it slow or you’ll burn your gullet.”

Gullet is a word Mom only used when warning us about piping hot food. I’ve not heard the word spoken in years. It refers to the esophagus, and indeed there is nothing worse than having to gulp cold milk in hopes of putting out a fire deep in your chest. Aside from that risk, there is nothing better on a cold snowy morning of a day outdoors than a plate full of steaming hot cereal. It kept us warm all the way to the school—that is… what was left of the school.

We shoveled off the bare wood sub-flooring that ran diagonally across the joists below. Dad and Dave pulled boards while manned the cold iron nail puller. It was harder work because of the cold, wet boards, and when Dad saw me fumbling around trying to pick up nails with my gloved hands, he found a worn-out pair in the truck and cut off the fingertips. I'd seen gloves like that before but never actually worn them, and it seemed to complete the image Mom had joked about that morning. If I looked like a kid from Dickens, these fingerless gloves made me look more like Fagin than Oliver Twist.

The Oliver imagery came to mind because my sister had been in the high school’s stage production of Oliver her senior year. Paul had seen the movie on a school field trip and purchased the LP sound track album. I’d spent hours listening to it over and over and knew the libretto by heart. So that day, as Dad and Dave did the heavier work at one end of the school, I worked at the end of the floor that still looked like a stage facing an open field, pulling nails and singing Cockney songs like “You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two,” “Consider Yourself,” and “I’d Do Anything.”

At the risk of sounding like a victim of Tinkerbelle’s fairy dust, I will confess that I have lived all my life with the curse of singing songs from musicals triggered in my head by only the slightest connection to reality. In this case it was the fingerless gloves.

Having been reared in a home where much of the music of the day was banned, I had been exposed to every major musical of the day from Camelot to West Side Story. Oklahoma, Seven Brides—you name it. Readers can find hints of it in previous chapters. It’s scary to think that Rogers and Hammerstein had as much to do with my education as anything I learned in school. Here’s an even scarier thought, the heavy metal, drug-touting tripe my school peers were listening to at the time likewise shaped their frame of mind.

The snow stayed with us for a few days, slowing down our work. It also prompted us to stay longer at the barn, rearranging the stacks to make room for the last loads of lumber. By Thursday the planks of sub-flooring were gone and stacked in the barn. And by Friday night, the second load of heavy floor joists were removed, de-nailed, and stacked on Uncle Bob's trailer for that night's drop off. As we picked up our tools in the glair of the headlights, we were surrounded by only the things that lie just below the surface of nearly all buildings made by man: the cement block foundation wall and lengths of black cast iron soil pipe that stretched from where the toilets had been to the sewer underground.
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Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Unsettled Chapter 33: "Redemption"

It is faster and easier to tear something down than to build it up. Read that sentence again. It rings true far beyond the subject of this chapter.

Building something involves very deliberate thought. It requires a plan, some know-how, and countless measurements to make sure things are square and plumb and firmly in place. That’s true about building a business, a church, a school, a reputation, a life. Building something worthwhile is never easy. Most mistakes can be undone, but carelessness can be costly.

“Measure twice. Cut once,” Dad used to say.

Tearing something down, however, requires little thought, minimal planning (beyond one’s own safety). A few sledge hammer blows on the right props and down comes the whole shebang! Wrecking balls, dynamite, and bulldozers may be needed for bigger jobs, but you get my point: It is faster and easier to tear something down than to build it up.

Salvaging, on the other hand, falls somewhere in between construction and demolition. If building is about perfection, and tearing down is about destruction, salvaging is about redemption. It’s finding worth in something worthless. It's saying, "Not so fast" at the dumpster of life. It's the Charlie Brown Christmas tree. [See the Youtube clip here.] Redemption looks beyond the surface, ignores the scorn of passers-by, and cares enough to discover usefulness in imperfect things (or people).

Allow me to jump beyond the back cover of this book to the time I first understood redemption. Fast forward four years to when we lived in the unfinished house and the job of salvaging the school was long past: I was twenty. It was the summer of 1976.

I had landed a job in the Mt. Clemens Ford Vinyl Plant (which no longer exists). It was my first of four summers there during my college years. Nearly every post in that plant required wearing safety glasses and a pair of white canvas “work gloves.” Typically, an eight or twelve-hour shift would do little damage to the gloves, but the workers felt entitled to a new pair every few days, which meant the “old” pair was theirs to throw away or, as most of the workers did, take home in their back pocket in plain view of the security staff at the revolving exit gate. (These were those one-size-fits all canvas gloves that cost about a buck.) By the end of that first summer, I had dozens of pairs of used gloves that I kept out in the barn.

One day I was wearing a pair of those gloves while helping Dad burn brush. I had scythed a patch of burr marigolds and my gloves were completely covered in stick tights, those small brown bidens burrs [bi-dens means "two-teeth"] that cling to your clothes like cockleburs but they're smaller and harder to pull off.

Anyway, when I was done with my work, I carefully pulled off the prickly gloves, shook my head at all the burrs, and tossed the wadded pair on the top of the pile to be burned. We'd forgotten matches so I ran to the house, got a box, and came back to see Dad with my burr-covered gloves in his hands. One by one, he was pinching off stick-tights and throwing them in the pile.

“Dad, we’ve got enough gloves in the barn to last for years. That’s why I threw those in the pile to burn.”

“I know, and I was going to leave them right there for the same reason, but I remembered a day when I was a kid playing out in the snow with no gloves. I'd lost 'em but didn't want to tell the folks. When I thought of how glad I would have been to have these then, burrs and all, it didn't seem right to burn them. It’ll only take me a few more minutes to pick ‘em clean.”

I stood there watching him pick the burrs from those cotton gloves and drop them into the fire, and I understood Dad in a way I’d missed before. I knew he was thrifty; I knew his dress shoes had been re-soled again and again; I knew he hated that it was cheaper to buy a new toaster than to fix the shiny Toastmaster he and Mom got as a wedding present (so he bought Mom the new one she wanted but kept the old one in the barn to fix on a rainy day.) I knew he sometimes made strange meals out of all the left-overs in the fridge. I knew we mixed powdered-milk to stretch the grocery money. I knew we had torn down a school to build our house, but it wasn’t until I watched him picking burrs form those gloves, that I understood what made him the way he was. Maybe it's a gift; maybe it's a curse, but some people spend much of their time and energy redeeming things others have given up on.

Redemption is a wonderful thing.

In the late winter and early spring of 1972, Dad redeemed that old school house for fifty dollars. Mr. Solomon could have hired a bulldozer and razed it in an afternoon, but that would have cost him money; it would have splintered every board in the place and piled tons of debris in the landfill. What a waste.

Today we’d call this project of salvaging of the school a “green” idea. Good for the environment! Save the Rain Forest! and all that. But Dad simply needed wood—just like that little boy who needed a pair of gloves—he needed wood and didn’t have the money to buy it...so piece by piece we picked away at the job, undoing what was done all those decades before.
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With Dad's old cast iron nail puller, we pinched each nail from the floor boards, sub-floor, siding planks, joists, rafters and studs. Thousands of nails filled dozens of coffee cans, and even the nails were sorted. Most were bent beyond hope, but the ones that came out straight enough to use again were put in a separate can.

Pulling nails. Pulling nails. Pulling nails. For weeks we were pulling nails, sorting lumber by size, and piling high the 20-foot flatbed trailer we borrowed from Uncle Bob. If all went well, we made two trips fully loaded from the school to our barn at the property each day we worked.

Every Saturday, Mr. Solomon stopped by to watch us work. He would simply nod in Dave and my direction if we saw him and didn't say much to Dad. He seemed mostly interested in making sure we would finish the job on time.
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Coming next: Chapter 34: "Just Below the Surface"

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

A Simple Hit in the Making

Every now and then I post a random music video that is probably not in the daily listening patterns of POI readers. But my youngest daughter Natalie played this song for me on the way to school last week. It got stuck in my head, and then I heard it a store, at Arby's, and some random places since then. Seems to be on its way to becoming a hit. It wouldn't be this band's first.

Last weekend my middle daughter was home for a quick two-day "fall" getaway. We went to Robinette's Orchard which is about a half hour drive. Natalie played this song in the car again. The scenes in the video above are places we go whenever we visit Kim in Chicago. It won't be long until there is snow on those streets as seen in those clips. Our forecast calls for a chance of flurries this weekend. I like snow, but I'm not ready for that. Not ready for that all.

Having taught English for many years, I can't help but point out the very clever use of the numbers in the title: 1-2-3-4. Listen to the beginning tempo count; then the "It's easy as one, two three...;" then the use of the numbers in the chorus. The first "1" is a numeric adjective: "one way,"; the second "2" is not a number but a preposition in the participle "to say"; "3" is again a numeric adjective: "three words"; then "4" is a preposition in the phrase "for you."

What a simple, clever lyric. Love is never as easy as 1,2,3, and the truest expression of those three words comes on the days not filled with the "feelings" that inspire songs, but still there is a place for simple feelings that help offset the aches and fears and risks of loving, just as there is a place for sweet cider as the beauty of autumn falls.

Chapter 33 in the works but no writing tonight. Tonight Nat's having a bunch of school friends over to watch the Tigers-Twins one-game play-off in the Metrodome.

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Saturday, October 03, 2009

Unsettled Chapter 32: "Six Toilets in a Row"

So where does one begin to take apart a building piece by piece? The roof? The floors? Top-down or bottom-up? Well, Dad decided to salvage the old schoolhouse from the inside-out: that is, leaving the roof and shell of the building in tact to keep people and the weather out as long as possible.

On our first Saturday of work, the outside of the building went untouched, but inside we removed all light fixtures (which proved to be of no future use or us); took the chalk boards from the wall without breaking the heavy sheets of slate (which proved to be of no future use to us). We removed all inside doors with their trim. And then the fun began.

With mallets and hammers we busted out the plaster interior walls between the vestibule and the bathrooms. It was the only way to make the rooms light enough to begin taking out the sinks and toilets. These fixtures were white with a small blue American Standard imprint and pitted chrome hardware, circa 1930's. There were two sinks and toilets in the boys bathroom and three sinks and four toilets in the girls bathroom.

Dave and I had never worked up close and personal with toilets before. Fortunately, it had been years since they had been used. They were dry as bones, but still... imagine the faces of two boys reaching with wrenches around, under, and inside of these old johns to unfasten them from the floors and wall.

“Just think of all the butts that sat here through the years,” Dave gasped, holding his breath and tugging on the lag bolts in the floor.

“I’d rather not think of that,” I said, removing the seat from the stool beside his. “I don’t know why Dad wants me to take these seats off. What are we going to do with six toilets.”

“It’s bad enough we’re keeping the toilets. I’m glad we’re chuckin’ the seats,” Dave said. “Besides, these kind of seats are never used in houses.”

I held the black U-shaped seat up as if seeing it for the first time.

“I never thought of that. So why are public seats open in the front like this?”

“It’s more sanitary. Think about it,” Dave paused as if considering further explanation, but I was suddenly grossed out. A shiver went from the fingers holding the seat all the way down my spine, and I tossed the big horseshoe across the room onto a pile of broken sheet rock.

“Everything all right in there?” Dad yelled from the ladder.

“Yeah, It’s fine,” I said. “We were just wondering what we’re going to do with all these toilets.”

“Well, I’ve got three bathrooms planned in the house. I don’t know if we’ll use those or not, but we've got to haul 'em off either way so load them into the van. I’m almost done here. I’ll come give you a hand with what’s left in there.”

By lunch time, the van was loaded with the six toilets, five sinks, and two drinking fountains. We all felt particularly dirty, but after washing up with water from our five gallon camping cooler, we were clean enough to scarf down a few sandwiches and get back to work.

By nightfall, all the ceiling tiles were down and the batting of dusty fiberglass insulation from the ceiling and walls was neatly piled in the corner. This stuff used to be called Rockwool. It does not contain asbestos, but it's prickly and our forearms itched for weeks. We did not have dust masks and didn't think to wear rags around our faces. In no time our nostrils were dark as a chimney sweep's and our handkerchiefs soon looked like small canvases of modern art in splatters of black snotty paint.

The worst part about that first day and all the days of salvage work to follow was that the Dad had long been in the habit of working until dark, but during the schoolhouse weeks, we worked 'til dark and then still had another hour of work in going to the property to unload that day's treasures into the barn.

That first Saturday we drove the old blue utility van Dad bought from his friend Virg Palmer. It had been a Michigan Bell truck and still had the yellow siren on top to prove it. (That’s the van there in the picture of my friend Bob Johnson riding on the tire swing from Chapter 30. Bob was the only guy I knew who had multiple pairs of white jeans.)

Dad drove the van and Dave usually got the passenger seat. I rode on the spare tire tossed in the back. But that first Saturday night, I sat not on the spare but on a wobbly toilet just behind the gap between the seats. When we got to the barn, we unloaded the toilets in a row against the inside north wall. It looked much like this picture--except our toilets weren't as clean and had no seats.

The toilets stayed in the barn like that for about a year. Mom insisted that her house was not going to have those old nasty things in it, and Dad eventually saw it her way, busted them up with a sledge hammer and dumped them at the land fill. There was one funny thing that happened with the toilets a couple weeks after we put them in the barn.

My friend Bob Johnson had come with me to work at the school one Saturday. (That's Bob riding the rope swing in the picture with the van above.) After a long day of pulling and de-nailing lumber, we had a load of boards to put in the barn late at night. Bob had been in the barn before but not since the six toilets arrived. When the lights came on and Bob saw all that porcelain, he laughed and asked the same question we had asked:

"Whoa! Mr. K. Why do you need all these toilets?"

"Well, Bob. Ya see," Dad paused for effect, "We plan to build a really sh*tty house." [except he didn't pronounce it with an asterisk] Then he laughed hard at his own joke. Bob was speechless.

Now I realize that many readers will find nothing wrong with my father's lame attempt at some bathroom humor. After all, Bob's question was a perfect set up for that line. But you have to understand that my Dad was our Sunday school teacher. He was chairman of the Deacon Board at church. Bob had known and worked with my Dad for years and never heard the slightest cuss word come from him. Dad's joke was so unexpected, so out-of-character...that Bob just stood there stammering, eyes wide. He couldn't even manage a courtesy chuckle. Dave and I would never have attempted such humor with Dad, but whenever he did, we typically snickered. This time, however, we just winced in the awkward silence.

Dad quickly stopped laughing and said straight-faced, "We don't know what we're going to do with all these toilets, Bob. We've got plenty to spare if you ever need one."

Only then did Bob come out of shock. "We're all set for toilets, Mr. K," he smiled.

It's a little anecdote that Bob and I never forgot. It is funny only in the odd and innocent context of the world we knew at that time. Perhaps it's a detail not worth sharing, except as a reminder that adults are sometimes put on pedestals, and pedestals are a risky stage for vaudeville. On the other hand, a life truly worth looking up to knows when to kick aside the pedestal and settle for a stool.
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