Chapter 34c. "Just Below the Surface" conclusion
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.