Hands in Glove
I was standing in the garage looking at the box of kitty litter. A neighbor had lifted it out of the trunk of the car for me. Now I needed to get it inside. It wasn’t too heavy for me to carry, only too heavy for me to carry without hurting my lame shoulder, but my strong neighbor was out of town. While I figured out how to cope with that box, I recalled dozens of times when I’d had to manage things simply because my husband was in Germany or India and the children weren’t home. And then I thought of innumerable times when he had devised means of accomplishing what I had thought impossible.
There was a time when do-it-yourself was a new notion among middle class couples. We were fortunate when we moved to an old farmhouse that had two barns. People had been managing for generations before us, and often, we were able to take advantage of tools or devices they had used before there were tractors.
No one could say I stepped into something for which I was unprepared when I married my versatile husband. He was in night school studying mechanical engineering when we met. He had spent the war years in a machine shop in a defense plant with an apprentice program, and thus was a journeyman machinist. At some time, because all the equipment had had to be moved, he had also worked with the riggers whose job it was to transfer metal lathes and extrusion machinery, and who knows what else from one building to another. He was fascinated by the skills involved, and learned a great deal about how to enable one or two men to do the work of horses, winches, fork-lifts, and the like.
His first weekend with my parents and me at their retirement home in the country, my father was quick to take advantage of a strong young back to help heave the 28’ oak extension ladder (found in a barn) to the side of the house. He wanted to install an FM antenna on one of the chimneys. I have a slide taken from the safety of the ground below, showing the two men silhouetted against the sky on the roof. My father liked to do his own work away from a desk when he got the chance. I tried to hide my distress at their altitude; my mother stayed inside where she couldn’t see it.
It was June, and already warm, so once the ladder had been returned to the barn, we went to the town beach for a swim. There, Roger confided to me that he hated heights. Since I did too, I could only admire his guts. That roof-peak was at least 25’ high.
A few weeks later, my father announced his wish for a really good outside fireplace for barbecuing. A brief conference took place over lunch, a site was chosen, and before I knew it, we were in my first car — a second-hand Jeep station wagon — on our way to a new road being constructed just over the state line. They’d been blasting, and I knew there were hundreds of chunks of sandstone lying all over the roadside. The grading had already been finished, and no one was working on a Saturday. We drove up, loaded the station wagon with as many rocks as we could lift together and that Roger deemed safe, and began making trips down the hill to the house, where we piled our plunder.
Then we started digging. Roger dug, that is, and I hauled dirt in a wheelbarrow to dispose of it. He and my father determined that the foundation should meet Connecticut building code, which requires footings to be 48” below grade. (It gets cold in the winter.) Together, having chosen a site backed by three 35-foot pine trees, the two men realized that to create a reliable draft would require a proper chimney. Again, we drove up and over the state line, and brought back more loads of stones.
A trip to the nearest hardware store supplied us with bags of cement and sand. How fortunate could we be? There was an old steel wheelbarrow bed in the back barn. Perfect for mixing cement. A hose from the side of the house provided water, and I got to work with a shovel and a hoe, mixing, and Roger poured the foundation for what was turning into an impressive edifice, even with nothing above ground yet.
On following weekends, we mixed mortar and laid stone. A trip to the scrap yard yielded a handsome old cast iron floor register that was perfect for the grill. We mortared it in place, and Roger started on the chimney. Referring to that indispensable guide for the homeowner, Architectural Graphic Standards (Ramsey & Sleeper — and that’s another story), my father and his engineer handyman figured out where to set the smoke shelf and how high to build the chimney. (I know that smoke shelf is a slab of bluestone, but I can’t remember where we found it.)
Once that job was done, Roger and I were engaged to bemarried, and my father never again referred to the barbecue as anything other than “the gun emplacement.” Years later, when a friend left his car in neutral beside the back door, and said vehicle ran down the slope and crashed into it, we could appreciate how well it was named.
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