Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Cabin - Holes

     No hurry anymore. The pressure was off. Don't mind doing what I have to do regardless of how big a thing that might be. So long as it can be done at my own pace. No one looking over my shoulder. I'm gonna make some mistakes in the coming weeks, months and years. But it'll get my best shot. Do it right. Make the building so it'll outlast me. The UBC had given me most of what I needed to know about construction. Plumb, level and square. Wright says the strength of a building is directly proportionate to the amount of steel in it. Don't think he meant nails. Also heard that too many nails can weaken a joint. I'll go with the UBC. Pierce the wood, twelve inches apart for eight penny nails, sixteen for sixteen penny.
     Left Minneapolis before rush hour and it was a little after ten when I pulled off the road. Power company'd be coming in the afternoon to trench and run the line. Task one was to sit out on the road, assemble my first wheelbarrow. It's a simple tool. Probably goes back to the discovery of the wheel. In the coming weeks it'd move tools, sand, dirt, firewood and concrete. Grunt tool for a grunt. Let's see, bolt A goes into hole 3.
     Am learning quickly the woods are an unexacting place to work. No open ground. What looks flat ain't. Easy to lose small things. That's why I'm out on the road. Pop it together, tighten it all down, load it up and move it in. Step one done, a half a million more to go. Tiny smile on my face as I humped the stuff up the driveway.
     Life turns on a dime. One minute you're walking through the woods behind a wheelbarrow, all's well with the world under bluebird skies, in seventy degree air. Then you come upon a corner building stake with a note tied on. The note says, more or less:
                               Think again city boy. Seems I thought
                               your land was somewhere else. Kinda funny
                               actually. Don't know whether the joke's
                               on you or me. Deadman's an
                               environmental lake. Ha! Bet you didn't know that.                                                                     
                               Get hold of me. Good luck. I could be 
                               anywhere in the county. And my phone's
                               been disconnected.
                                                   Bob the zoning dude
     Read the note three more times. Even tried if backwards in case the guy was dyslexic. Nearby, hazel brush leaves rustled from the air coming out of my day. You ever have one of those moments where something big-time goes wrong and you've got to fix it but have no idea where in the world to begin? I sat down on the ground. Tried to figure out square one.
     Don't remember how or why I remembered Meyer Electric. Probably had to do with my mental game plan at the time. Somewhere down the road electricity was to run through the cabin, even though I don't believe in electricity and it seems to have it in for me because of that. Kind of a paradox ain't it?  Meyer was only three minutes away by car. Hoped he'd have a clue.
     Lucked out. Meyer turned out to be the man I needed. More than once. Was both an electrical contractor and the electrical inspector for the township. 'Spose some folks would see that as a conflict of interest. Didn't seem to be in Meyer's case. Besides, electrical inspection requires a fair amount of expertise. The township had at most a few hundred residents. They did what they could with the resources they had. Meyer was easy to work with. When the time came he sold me what I needed, drew up a wiring plan and showed me how to do it. Inspection was a breeze.
     On this first day I ditheringly rushed in, the world on my shoulders. Explained my problem and got a chuckle in return. Guess he'd heard something similar in the past. Yup, he knew the building inspector. Knew he was a free-lance hired hand who could indeed be anywhere. Also knew the low-down on Deadman and other environmental lakes. Wondered if I was dead set on building where I'd staked it out. If so be the case, I'd need to get written permission from the other four land owners on the lake. Then petition the township board for a variance at the next meeting.
     "You get lucky, they'll say yes. Six, eight weeks from now you might be able to start work. Or you could pace two hundred feet back from Deadman's high water mark and start right away. I'll let Bob know. No one'll say a word against it." 
     Simple decision. A month's vacation wasted up front. No guarantee the variance would go through. Headed back to the land. I had me some pacing to do. And a well to move.
     Time to step back and think about what I'm doing on these pages. Over the years I've given a lot of thought to writing the cabin building process. Tried putting it down on the page several times with no success. Could never decide how detailed to make it. Somewhere between a brief paragraph and enumerating all the bent nails, there has to be an interesting story. At least one that goes beyond my personal fan club of me. Haven't been successful. Cripes, the cabin's in its thirtieth year and still evolving. Had to be something fun, meaningful, maybe even illegal, going on somewhere along the way.
Also, this here blog is a public document and brings in self-censorship. Don't want to be getting my ass in a wringer. Or embarrassing friends and relatives needlessly. Also don't want to white wash the process to the point of hearts and flowers. Dilemma, dilemma. 

     Figured I'd take no chances. My strides were good and long. Also was impossible to strike a straight line through the brush. Threw in a fudge factor and began to clear a new site. Consoled myself with the mantra of "No longer have a water view but now have a woods view. Never had that before. Life is good." Part of me retreated to the lower left corner of my soul where it knew the whole process still sucked.
     Time to whack me some stakes. Coming up with a perfect rectangle in the middle of the woods wasn't the simple process I'd imagined back last winter. Needed to drive eight stakes in pairs. Each pair joined by a cord. The end product looked like the pound sign at the top of a keyboard. The inner rectangle of the pound sign, sixteen feet by twenty-four feet. Measured both ways diagonally. When the diagonals were finally equal (Moved some of the stakes a half dozen times. Measure and measure again. Curse briefly. Thankfully, Mother Earth had built in white-out.), I had myself four square corners, baby. I'd been square most of my life. Now it was finally working to my advantage. 'Bout then the power company showed up. Slathered some peanut butter onto whole wheat and cracked open a coke. Watched the Ditch Witch lay some line. Picnic time.
     Pier holes were something else. Five feet deep, a tad under two in diameter. Even today that doesn't seem like much of a hole. Heck you're just making nothing out of something. Actually moved right along until around three feet. That's when the post hole digger took over. And the inches got longer. And the hole widened. The PHD's like a clam shell with long wooden handles. A dirt digging tongs. Four feet long. Five foot hole. Work on your knees. Squeeze the handles together. Fire it down. Reach in. Pull it out. Dump a couple of cups of sand to the side. Repeat. Slowly widen the hole so you can spread the handles. Two hours a hole. Nine holes. Got two done that afternoon. And hoped they were in the right places.
     Beer, wonderful beer. Working and sweating in the great northwoods of the U.S. of A. called for and American brew. Pabst Blue Ribbon. Put a bucket under the pump. Put in the beer and pump 'er full. Come back twenty minutes later. Empty and re-pump. Near ice-cold and refreshing as the land of Sky Blue Waters. Wondered what the poor folks were doing tonight. Bathed at the pump. Crawled in the car and slept the sleep of the dead. The first of many twelve to fourteen hours now in the past.
     The beauty of youth. Well, thirty-four years is young when viewed from thin-haired sixty-four. Back then I could work myself to exhaustion, sleep in the back of a mini-station wagon, and do it all over the next day. Yawn, stretch, scratch my butt, throw a bunch of calories down my throat and pick up the shovel. Gonna have company today. My sister's oldest boy, David. Gonna work him to death. A good friend refuses to work with me 'cause he knows what it'll be like. Says something about chain gangs being a step up.
     Again, another picture perfect day in the woods. However, there's a cloud over my head. The holes are growing, no doubt about that. But I don't have any sand to mix with concrete to make piers of the holes. For all I know, the sand I'm lifting and pitching is perfect. But I don't know. A wise man would get hold of a local ready mix company. But that kind of wisdom was still a few years up the road for me. The good news was the remaining seven holes. Didn't have to figure out the sand today. But it ate at me.
     Dave road in on his motorcycle just as the power company showed up to finish installing the transformer. Meyer'd be by in the afternoon to put up a power post with outlet. How could I be so organized? I remember myself as an idiot. Had to be. I was digging holes in the middle of the woods. Yet, all the ducks seemed to be lined up, at least the one's that didn't need sand. While David and I excavated, the cloud above my head turned into a plan. Come morning we'd go pay Rollie at the lumber yard a visit. Give his leg a shake and see if any sand information fell out. For the rest of the day we alternated shovel and PHD. Ate in town, drank beer in camp. Set up the tent on a pad leveled with the fruit of our labor. Seven holes and counting.
     Rollie knew. Rollie knew where to find the sand. Knew what two and a half yards weighed. Knew three tons of sand outweighed my car. Also didn't know me from Sam Hill. Set me back a piece when he reached under the counter for the ring of truck keys. Said he had a '52 Mercury, two ton flat bed, I could use if I wanted. Had driven something similar in Basic Training. Figured I could do it, said yes and thank you. I recall the cab as being a sun faded green. Smelled like me and Dave weren't the first working men to sit up front. A comforting smell of dirt, grease, dust, wood chips, Lucky Strikes and tools. Been in similar cabs many times and many places over the years. Gives a feeling of home on wheels.
     Rollie passed out directions that didn't touch a single state road. Might have been a reason for that involving State Troopers. Three miles later we were alongside a white clapboard farm house. No sign out front, no sign of a gravel pit out back. But the white haired lady said we'd found what we sought. And commenced to give a set of directions that started down the two track behind the shed. Our path was heavily dependent on turns predicated on my ability to tell a white from a burr oak. Outside of having to back blindly up a half mile of trail, it was mostly easy.
     She was a big flat bed and we intended to load sand 'til it overflowed the sides. One shovelful at a time. Carried from the hillside twenty feet away. Three pints of sweat split two ways. Not a guess. The math was mentally fudged by the two of us using the Boellinger Universal Work-Sweat Formula. Converting the resultant liters to pints gave an approximation of 2.97 pints. About equal in volume to the bottles of Pabst we drained once back on the land. The offload from truck to wheelbarrow to tarp left us two brews behind the curve cheerfully regained when back from returning the Merc. Hats off to Rollie C. Finished the last two holes. Tomorrow the concrete. Almost.
     Friday. A load of people coming up. More than just warm bodies. Friends, relatives and sons of friends. Some to work, others to fish. It was Memorial Day weekend, the official beginning of summer in the northwoods. They're thinking fun and adventure. I was leaning toward cement mixers and hole fillers. Either way it'd be a camp-out party. Work can be fun, really it can. Could be eight people. Almost one a hole.
     Bottleneck. Mine was the single wheelbarrow. Could only do one batch of concrete at a time. Without going into detail it was nearly fifteen man-hours to fill the holes with mix and rebar. Thus nearly two days doing it one batch at a time. Throw in a second mud box, one day. You get the picture.
     One other problem. I had four yards of hole and three yards of fill. The solution was rock hunting. The only rocks I've ever found on our land were in, not on, the ground. And then nothing larger than a shooter marble. Me and Dave had ourselves a quest for the day that involved gravel back roads and ditches. Little granite treasures between golf and baseball sized, the goal. You'd think finding rocks in a part of the world where the glaciers had roamed would be a snap. Took several forays and most of the day.
     Also made me feel like a thief. Sure weren't my rocks we were harvesting. We'd pull over to the side whenever a collectable was spied. We knew those little buggers bred like house mice. Once had this idea of putting a mating pair of mice in a sealed closet filled to the brim with grain. See how long it took 'til the rodents were packed tight. As for the rocks, where you found one, its brothers and sisters were close by. Never felt comfortable loading them up. Constantly was looking up to see if someone had called the law.  "There be a couple of boogers out front in my ditch stealin' my gravel Bob. You best skedaddle out here and arrest their sorry behinds." 
      On the other hand, I was thrilled to get something needful for free. Back in the Fourth Grade we called that scrounging. Walked the alleys to and from school looking for cool stuff. My find of finds was a discarded carburetor. Couldn't believe my eyes. Obviously some people had no idea what constituted treasure. Snuck it home where I did my first dissection. Spread newspapers on the table in my room - no doubt my mother's idea, although I might have been housebroken by then - and went at it with a screwdriver. Broke it down and built it back up. Yup, I was a regular Tom Swift and his Electric Milking Machine. A perfect job, outside of the two screws, a spring and some kind of widget still on the table. Blew my dreams of being a natural born mechanic out the window. My real ability, an off-center mind, came to the rescue. Had the realization if I found enough carburetors there'd eventually be sufficient left over parts on the table to build a new one. Like Johnny Cash's Cadillac of song. The completed carb would have four parts left over to start on the next. An empire of malfunctioning auto parts, built right there in my bedroom, would have me ready to make a fortune in the late '70s when all the cars were crap to begin with. Didn't know that back then and lacked the ambition to do something totally stupid. Recalled the carburetor story many times over the years. Maybe even in one of the ditches with David.
     Over the evening hours the crew showed up. Each seemed more than willing to lend a hand. By nightfall we were a third done. As darkness suck in through the brush, our conversation grew and the liquor supply shrank. Finally we disappeared into tents and cars. Slept peacefully under the thickening clouds and late night rain.
     Evolved into three days of rain. From gentle to downpour. We'd get an hour of clearing and then she'd come flooding down for hours. Spent a lot of time killing it. Ate in town, shot pool but mostly waited it out. On Saturday night my brother-in-law Joe, pulled a half dozen porterhouse steaks out of his cooler. Didn't expect that but didn't surprise me at the same time. He was that kind of man. There's a picture I'll eventually find and enter showing him bent over the cooking fire, grilling those steaks. What the photo doesn't show was the beginning of another downpour. We wolfed those very rare puppies down with smiles on our faces. No damned rain was gonna ruin the fun.
     With no letup in sight, one by one, friends began to drift back home. Couldn't blame them. When Joe and his sons left on Monday the piers were finished. Three support beams sat ready to go on top once the concrete cured.
     On Tuesday Lois and the kids arrived by bus in Pine River. We were a one car family back then. A year earlier we'd passed through this area at three in the morning. A brief camping trip had become even briefer when a storm compelled us to stuff the soaked gear in the car and head home in relief. While the kids slept in the back we vowed never to camp out in Northern Minnesota again. Five months later we bought the land. And now were staring down the barrel of a two month camp out. A bit ironic don't you think?
     Five days were spent finishing the subfloor. Mostly I moved lumber and Lois chopped brush. Don't know how the kids handled it. But they were kids, a lot better at accepting things. Could be wrong about that. I've always leaned towards dealing with life as it came flying at me. Never did know where the bull's horns were located. Would've been as likely to grab the other end. Allan was a toddler and Annie a wood tick magnet. They seemed to have a good time in the sandbox improvised out of logs and hole diggings.
     Lois worked constantly. Always has, always will. Trying to keep up with her keeps me an the go. Our work load in the woods balanced pretty much as it always had. I did the stuff that showed, she, the stuff no one noticed. You head up the driveway and our cabin pops out against the forest. But, unless you've done it yourself, how many pause to consider what it took to clear nearly an acre of brush? We're surrounded by meadow thanks to a pint or two of Lois' blood.
     The five days passed. We drove home having completed a square, level, and sealed deck in a growing clearing. A couple of days were needed to get the grime off our bodies. Then it was time for me to head back north.

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