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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

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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have been reading this story since the early chapters and wanted you to know it is still interesting. I am glad you have not quit writing about it. You make me fell like I am there. I thinki I know your family. It is nothing like mine was but I feel like I would know your mother and father if I met them. The part about the musicals was funny. Did you mean pixie dust?

20/10/09 2:21 PM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

A belated welcome to POI. Glad you've been following. Thanks for your patience with the episodic unfolding through the months. I write in odd hours of the night and early morning and on weekends when the "honey do" list is not too long. =)

I know musicals better than the Peter Pan story. I think I did mean pixie dust.

Writing about these years and my folks has been very cathartic for me in their absence. The urgency I'm sending now is that I want to finshish these chapters before we sell the house because I don't know how that event will effect my ability to write about our homestead.

20/10/09 6:53 PM  
Blogger Nancy said...

"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."

...and what a great man he was! I'm like Anon- I feel like I know him and as you well know from teaching kids, "the apple doesn't fall very far from the tree!" You are truly an amazing man and I consider it a blessing to witness your life and your growing up year's through your story.

20/10/09 7:41 PM  
Blogger the walking man said...

Tom...I was also exposed to all of the Rogers and Hammerstein as well, in the vane hope that when I broke out in song it wouldn't be something by The Who...which I am listening to right at this very moment.

Much of the difference between us is that you learned your work ethic at your fathers hand, while I learned mine through the appreciation of knowing I did the job correctly without assistance or using knowledge I did not acquire other than by studying the manuals. (There were too many mechanics who just do not know how to do something so their information oft was incorrect)

21/10/09 5:26 AM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

It has been an interesting process of reflection and at times evaluation as I sort out what recollections may be of some use to others, but just as often I wonder if it even matters at all. The nice thing about this sort of writing (and blogging) is there is plenty of room in the sky for each of our kites and our strings overlap without getting too tangled up. =)

Thanks for reading here and being an encouragement through the years.

I wonder how much we’ve both been influenced by the music pumped into our brains. I must admit that I see even the drug-saturated music of that day from a different perspective now that our generation has lived to tell about it. In the early 70’s, a good deal of my classmates were so stoned most of the time that it’s a wonder they lived to graduate. I do not regret steering clear of all that and the music that glorified it, but I do not judge those sad and burned-out lives as I did at the time. Art reflects the human heart. But you would be right to assume that The Who were taboo in our house. (Because of my name, I did know some of the lines from Tommy though I’d never heard the whole hallucinogenic production.)

You are an astute observer of life—even the ramblings of a friend in the cyberhood. One of the reasons you can relate to my Dad is that he learned much of what he knew the same way you did and not from his father. You are correct that much of my motivation in life stemmed from a desire to please my parents. This remained true well into adulthood (and in some respects even after their deaths).

One of the obvious themes of this story is the role of “father” in and my life at the end of what had been a patriarchal era for much of America. It is easy to portray this in my particular family because my Dad and Mom were so opposite, but they both shaped our lives in ways I did not see at the time. Me singing songs from musicals, for instance, was because of Mom herding all us kids on the couch with popcorn to watch those classics. (She sang all the time and as a kid she was a tap dancer for the USO shows in Port Huron.) On the other hand, Dad worked us like lumberjacks and remained a part of our life and weekends at a time when many teens wanted nothing to do with their parents. Mom and Dad’s constant influence (along with our church) became a glue that dried slow but held tight.

21/10/09 6:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Paraphrase please

27/12/09 4:33 PM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

I'm not sure if this is the Anon that wrote above, but I have no idea what you mean by "paraphrase please." If you could be more specific, I'd be happy to comment further.

27/12/09 10:45 PM  
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26/1/10 11:19 AM  
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31/1/10 3:59 PM  
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4/2/10 12:10 AM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

strange spam deleted above

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