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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

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Unsettled Chapter 38-B "The Penny in the Wall"

When work on the house moved above the basement level, Paul and I became involved again on most weekends. Sometimes another worker joined our ranks, my little brother Jim. We visited about this recently, and he told me his first memories of helping with the house began with some pretty heavy lifting for a five-year-old. His job was piling four-by-four cubes from the mounds of brick Paul and I cleaned in our spare time, during inadvertent gaps in our Saturday's with Dad.

Dad himself didn't quit working, but when a man is building a house from his own drawings and not blueprints, there is a lot of think time involved; there are moments of staring at an unforeseen snag without wanting too many opinions on how to solve it. Whatever the reason, sometimes Dad would just say, “Why don’t you guys clean brick for a while.” And Paul and I would take our hammers and chip mortar from the old used brick from Detroit.

Over the course of a few months all the brick was cleaned but only the first truck load had been cubed. So stacking brick became Jim’s job once the days became warm. This was right up his alley since he had been playing with Lego and building blocks for years.
Dad cut 4-by-4 sheets of old plywood or the bathroom walls of the old school building. These served as the foundation in the sandy soil around the house. On those boards, Jim would lay the bricks side-by-side, end-to-end, alternating the direction of each layer of brick so they interlaced and held tightly in place until we needed them. There was no hurry on this task, since most of the brick would not be needed for another year or so, but by the end of the summer of '74, the house was surrounded by cubes of brick.

This chapter, however, takes place in the spring, when only that first load of completed cubes sat along the north-east wall of the house.

As he had done two years before, Dad took the week of Spring Break off from Bell. This time, Dave was away at college, and Paul was working full-time, which meant Dad and I were paired up for six days straight for what turned out to be one of the most rewarding jobs we ever did together: the upstairs brick wall between the living room and the kitchen. This wall is a continuation of the brick wall and chimney in the basement, which Dad had done alone.

Masonry involves both skill and grunt work. I did the latter. My tasks were three-fold: mixing mortar, carrying brick, and “raking” the joints.

In a year or so, the exterior walls of the house would have smooth joints (better for repelling water and ice), but the interior walls joints were "raked," recessed in a half-inch. This raking was done with a tool Dad made by driving a ten-penny nail into the six inch end of the shovel handle he had sawed off four years before when we dug the well. (You recall that while digging inside the 4’crocks of the well, he needed a shorter shovel handle. He kept the stub of that handle for no particular reason, and was delighted that half of it was perfect for this task.) He then sawed off the nail to ½ inch. [They sell a fancy tool for this, but Dad’s worked just fine.]
One of my three rotating tasks was raking out the mortar between the bricks with that small tool. The wooden hilt of the handle allowed only the ½ inch nail to flick out just that much mortar. The clumps of soft mortar fell to the wooden floor below and Dad would scoop them up with his trowel and add them to the load on his mortarboard. (A mortarboard is a square a little bigger than a graduation cap with a handled dead center to hold a pound or so of mortar while plopping it accurately in place with the trowel in the other hand.)

Mixing mortar was also rewarding. What kid doesn't like to play with mud? Adding water to dry, dusty powder to just the right thickness. It was similar to the many times I'd watched my mother making a buttermilk biscuits from scratch. “Easy on the water,” Dad would say, “A drop too much and it’ll go to slurry on you.” He was right, I'd sometimes spill just a splash too much of water and my near perfect mortar would be more like pancake batter instead of loose biscuit dough. If that happened we just added a bit more mortar to the mix to thicken it up, but my goal became making perfect batches on the first try.

When not mixing mud or raking out that half-inch gap, I had to keep Dad supplied with bricks within reach so he did not have to break the rhythm of his work. This was the gruntiest of the grunt work. I'd like to say that I was as good at carrying brick as this barefoot man in Bangladesh: [View unbelievable clip!]

But, no, I did not carry bricks on my head like that guy. We did, however, have a gang-plank that allowed me to walk from the cubes Jim had made to the main floor of the house with a dozen bricks—six in each hand—using brick tongs that slipped over the bricks and compressed them into place when I lifted the handle.

My three tasks were each fun and challenging in their own way, and my being there to do them for Dad allowed him to focus on the precision of his work.

The wall was two bricks thick and laced together with bricks going perpendicular “through” the two sides of the wall in a zig-zag fashion up both ends of the wall. This subtle design goes unnoticed by most observers, but it is that design that ties the wall together. So precise was Dad’s work that in the entire wall there is only one joint that was wider than all the other mortar joints in the wall. It was caused not by a mistake but because a brick was a half-inch shorter than the others but we missed it at the time it was laid, and Dad did not want to redo that row. As I was raking that section, I asked if he cared if I inserted a penny in the joint before the mortar set. I happened to have a 1973 Abe in my pocket, and since that was the year we began working on the house itself (not counting the well and foundation), I thought it would make a nice tribute. Dad thought that was a cool idea and approved without hesitation.

It's been over thirty-five years since I put it there. Hundreds of people have been in and out of that room; few have seen the penny at the far end by what we would eventually call Mom's book nook. It's far from any lamp. (I put some light on it for these pictures.) Years later, when visiting their grandparents, my children would seek out the penny in the wall, touch it with their small finger tips, and tell whoever was present about their father putting it there when he was a boy. (Actually, I was a few weeks shy of 18 at the time but in many ways still acting and thinking like a child.)

In looking back on it, there are countless reasons why Dad could have said no to my putting a penny in his perfect wall, but I think he knew it meant I was taking ownership of the job we had done together that week. I think it pleased him that I was aware of the permanence of my request and the significance of having that little secret monument tucked in the corner of a room that did not yet exist. What I don’t think he knew (for who knew I’d be writing this?), was that anyone else might someday understand its meaning.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have been waiting for this chapter for two weeks. It was worth the wait. I told two friends at work about this unfolding story and they have been reading along since. Thank you for letting us read along as you write it, but please no more two week waits! When do you move in?

6/12/09 7:28 PM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

Thanks for your patience in this very imperfect process. I was telling my wife just after I posted this that if it weren't for blogging, this unfinished account would be in a file somewhere, but I have a sense of obligation to finish it even if it seems to be taking forever. That is, by the way, very similar to the subject of this story.

When do we move in? It will only take a few chapters to get there.

7/12/09 6:56 AM  
Blogger the walking man said...

I have been reading Tom, just not much to say. Kind of like in the middle of a book when you have all the background and the story is developed and each page turned is a bit more, another brick on the wall you have been building. Keep 'em coming.

8/12/09 8:03 AM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

Thanks, Mark,
I know what you mean. Thanks for reading. We may have a snow day tomorrow. If so, I should be able to crank on the next chapter, which is pretty unforgetable from my perspective. You'll know what I mean when you read it.

8/12/09 9:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

10/12/09 1:04 AM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

I don't mind Chinese food
like Sweet-and-Sour Chicken
or egg-fu ham.
But, please, I didn't order
any Chinese SPAM.

10/12/09 5:50 AM  
Blogger brotherdave1954 said...

As a sibling of Tom’s being away at college I call this era the “lost years”. At the time I was glad to be away from all of the never ending business and labor that my dad created for us. Each visit home was a snapshot in time. Only now do I understand the lost moments and how precious they are. I suppose it’s part of leaving the nest. Seeing photos of Dad tying to finish a house whose deadline had long past is hard. I am realizing that I am where he was. I am my dad. There is nothing new under the sun. Only now do I realize his predicament. My boys are gone. I thought I had more time to “get it done”. It caught me off guard. So I begin with my grandchildren as my father did…
Dave K

21/12/09 9:59 PM  

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