Unsettled Chapter 30-A: "Counting the Cost"
At the time, it did not occur to me as strange that we were always talking of moving out to “the property,” but the house we needed to do so was such a long time coming. Dad had sketched the plans in a hardbound journal that none of us knew existed, but they were penciled sketches not blueprints—the kind of sketches I’ve made through the years for projects that never happened.
Doodling the idle “what ifs” of life is a way walking unknown trails just far enough to know you’re better off where you are or not yet ready to take a first step. Scripture calls it “counting the cost.” (Luke 14:28-30) But prudence can sometimes induce procrastination, and it's a fine line between sketched dreams and fading visions.
I sometimes wondered if the house would ever stand over the well.
Ah, the well… that thirty foot cistern well we’d dug in 1970 on the side of a wooded hill. For three years, it was covered with an abandoned sign held down by a small pile of cinder blocks like memorial stones. It could not be seen from the road or winding drive to the barn, but it stood, so to speak, as surety that this house would someday exist because otherwise the well had no reason for being. Nearly every Saturday--except in the winter months--it gave Dad pleasure to lift the lid and drink from it. Its water was pure and cold and deep—full of hope waiting only for wherewithal.
I never doubted Dad's plans at the time, but it later occurred to me that either the house would be built or the well would be a monument to the most colossal unfulfilled dream of my father’s life.
Probably all of the parents I knew then or since would have taken out a mortgage—borrowed the money and subcontract others to get the job done. And there is nothing wrong with that approach. It makes sense at many levels, but for reasons I didn’t know at the time, Dad and Mom never entertained that solution, and we never asked why.
Kids back then did not pry into their parents business. I did not know how much Dad made at Bell (though I’d heard him tell Mom once that it was less than his brothers made at Detroit Edison). I did not know about bills and savings accounts and the cost of cars in the driveway—only that they were all "used" and Dad did whatever it took to keep them running. I knew nothing about how much it cost to feed a family of seven. I knew nothing about how quickly college tuition payments can become an unspoken first priority in the monthly stack of stuff.
The year after Kathy left for college, Paul joined her. As obvious as it is to me now, I did not make the connection between their leaving home and no house being built over the well.
About fifteen years later, when my wife and I were asking Dad for advice about buying a house. I knew he had avoided a mortgage and thought, perhaps, he would not approve of us having one--not that it was his business; not that my wife and I couldn't do whatever we wanted. But then, as always, I sought my father's advice and it pleased me to please him with the choices we made as a young couple. He was thrilled that we had found a place we could afford and assured me there was nothing wrong with a mortgage on something that is almost always sure to appreciate in value. It was then he explained why he had chosen not to borrow money when we built the house.
Because he and Virg Palmer had built and sold three homes in Port Huron before we moved to Roseville, and because that Roseville house was half the house of the preceding home on Atkins Road, he and Mom owed nothing on it when he bought the property. Buying the land in ’68, however, made him dip into a college fund that he had managed to set aside since the four of us were little kids. He was on track to having enough in the fund to pay half of each of our college expenses. The other half would be ours to pay. This was the same "pay half" approach he'd begun when we each "saved up" for our first bikes. Dad figured unless we helped pay for something we'd never know the value of it. I think this is generally true.
We paid for our half by working through college. And thanks to good summer jobs all of us eventually graduated with no debt, but little did I know that it took everything Dad and Mom could do to keep the college fund flush during those years. (He would have never told me this when I lived at home or was going to college, but at the time of this conversation he thought it would be helpful for me to know.) Dad had purchased the land by borrowing from himself--from the college fund.
When I learned of this, I was impressed that our single-income home even had such a fund, but I was also moved that he felt bad about using money set aside for one thing to do another. It was his hope to have the college fund back up by the time we needed it, and he did. But think about it...
By the time Kathy left for her Junior Year of college, Paul and Dave were also unloading their things in front of the dorms. Three kids in college at the same time. It took everything Dad could do to keep up with his half of the bargain, and this meant building the house little by little.
The fact that the site for the house remained untouched didn't occur to me in 1971. We were happy in Roseville. Still very involved in our church there. Still working with Dad at the property—maybe not every Saturday but most of them.
There was always something to do out at the property. If the creek needed cleaning out, Dad would be on his backhoe for a couple weekends, like a kid playing with giant Tonka. There were always fallen trees to cut and paths to clear and roads to nowhere to maintain. We added a road across the creek that looped the back five acres. It joined the first road he blazed along the creek and up the sledding hill. Each week, weather permitting, we drove these roads many times just to keep the “two tracks” well-used. There was no outlet to these private roads; they served only to help us get to the work and play of the land that would someday be home.
There was another little project that we’d begun the year after the well.
Down at the base of the sledding hill on the south side of the creek and road, there was an oak that must have grown from three acorns in a bunch a hundred years before. At the base where the roots reach like octopus arms deep into the earth, it looked like one tree but the trunk diverged into three equal-sized trunks, leaning out at perfect angles to each other. It was clear that this was three trees grown so close together that the base and roots had fused. To Dave and I, it seemed that high up in the triangle of those trunks was the perfect place to build a tree fort.
It was spring, Dave was four months from beginning his senior year and I would be joining him as a sophomore in the fall. I suppose many would say we were well past the age of tree forts, but we had lived in the city for ten years. The trees that had lined our streets had been lost in droves to Dutch Elm disease, and the Chinese Elm in front of our house was a great climbing tree—we could spend hours up that tree—but building an actual tree fort was not permissible in our little neighborhood.
But now—too old or not—we had all the trees we wanted and no one to tell us we couldn’t build a fort. No one except Dad, of course. We knew enough about building to begin such a project without his help, but we also knew we dared not do it his blessing. He was, after all, a sort of naturalist who hated seeing things defaced; hated the thought of nails in trees without a very good reason; hated hauling out tires and other “big splash” things that kids had thrown in the creek. Dave and I knew that Dad may very well say no to such an idea, but we brought him to the Trinity Oak, as I had dubbed the tree, and told him of our plans.
To our surprise, he was not opposed to the idea at all, but he did have some practical suggestions:
“I can see why you think that building the platform for your hut in that triangle would be perfect, but what happens when the wind blows and those three trunks are not in perfect rhythm with each other. The higher you go in a tree, the more it sways, and I suspect that ten feet up those trunks could move an inch or so in different directions. What then? No boards or nails or anything you build will hold its place against such force. I’m afraid your fort would break lose in the first high winds that came along.”
Dave and I just stood there speechless at the obvious reality of his caution. He continued.
“There’s another thing, and I don’t really know the answer to this, but as the tree’s grow each trunk gets wider in girth and even if the wind was not a problem, they may gradually squeeze your hut like a big nutcracker.”
I was starting to see Dad’s point and added, “Plus the hut will get higher and higher as the tree grows. That would be a problem.”
Dave and Dad both looked at me with screwy faces.
“No it won’t,” Dave said. “That’s not how trees grow. If you put a nail in this tree, it will still be here in fifty years even if the tree is fifty feet taller. Right, Dad?”
“Yep. He’s right, Tom. Trees grow wider each year. That’s why these three trees grew into each other over time, but when they grow taller it’s only from the top.” He pointed to a branch about fifteen feet above the ground and said, “That branch has always been at that height and in ten years it will still be at that height.”
I was puzzled. I had never thought about such things, but something Dad said prompted me to correct him.
“That branch has not always been there. I’ll bet that branch didn’t come until the tree was what? Ten years old? Twenty? How long does it take an oak to get high enough to put that branch out there like that?”
“Good point,” Dad laughed. "Oaks are very slow growing trees and it might very well have taken thirty years for that branch be in place on the tree. I really don’t know, but once it was there it didn’t get noticeably higher through the decades. No. The problem is wind. When winds blow through theses woods the tree tops blow every which way. They don’t sway together in waves like wheat fields. These trunks will move independent of each other, and when that happens anything fixed to all three is going to break free of two of them.”
None of this conversation was a lecture or argument. It was a lesson in things so obvious that none of us had ever talked or thought about them. Nor have I thought about them since. This is true of nearly everything we “know.” Most of things we “learn” in life become part of who we are and how we think without ever thinking about them again.
We walked back to the barn with Dad.
“Now that I know you guys want a tree house,” he said, “I’ll help you find a better place. I have an idea...but first we're going to need to find some wood. Let's see what we can pull out of the lumber pile in the barn."
Here is a link to a past post that tells the story of Dad’s better idea.
To be continued: Next post Unsettled Chapter 31f: “First we need some wood.”