Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The beginning of all things

This is the story of my fall, my rise and the lessons I learned and didn’t. I went from well paid to homeless, lived in a tent, ate beans and wild plants when I had to, and built a house in the woods with my two hands. I do not mean to judge those who do and mean no disrespect to anyone, but I am proud none the less to say that I never accepted food stamps, I did not go onto welfare or charity. In many ways I fell into fortunate circumstances, however I pulled myself through those circumstances in ways few men have the heart to do. This is my story.

I was a productive member of society then. Those days when I went each and every day to the line, clocked in and installed the taillights, the body panels, the hoods and doors. I was one of the best. I learned fast, I knew many jobs, I was the ideal employee.
They said we would be working a long, long time. They said we would be making the bucks. We'd be the stuff, man.

The euphoria was short lived, as it seems. The day came when they said it would end. It would be the end of September and we would clock out and go on to make our way in the world. The news was like a punch in the gut. Less than a year in the little house in town, two little girls and a wife to think about and the construction work I had done before was dead in the water.
We deliberated, the wife and I, and we decided to sell the house lest we lose it anyways. The sign in the yard was a daily reminder of our fortune. Early in September, we got a bite. A nice lady needed a home and ours seemed the one. We closed at the end of September and walked away from the Title company with a cashier’s check for $6.97. The truck was loaded to the gills as was the trailer and, like Jed Clampett, we drove off into our fortune.
Fortune, as it was, consisted of 6.27 acres of undeveloped woods we were fortunate enough to own, free and clear. With our belongings stacked on wooden pallets and bricks beneath the trees and our home a three man dome tent and a tarp strung between three trees, we moved onto the land. For three days we stayed in the tent, fighting to keep the kids under the blankets as the temperature dipped into the 20’s and 30’s at night, until my wife and the girls moved in with my family while I stayed on and began the long process of building a home. Her stay with my family lasted all of two or three weeks, at which point she abruptly moved in with her own family instead.
The cabin was to be 16 feet wide, twenty seven feet long and have a small sleeping loft. The piers supporting the posts as well as a shallow rubble trench foundation for the stem wall had to be dug. There was no money to buy both concrete and rent heavy equipment for digging so I dug in the ’79 Ford pickup bed and pulled out a pickaxe, a hoe and two shovels. Four feet deep by three feet circumference were the pits I dug in the Missouri clay to form up the piers. The rubble trench for the stem wall was about eighteen inches deep. I sweated in the cool days as I busted through the hard red earth. The nights were soon spent in the comfort of an old travel trailer a neighbor loaned me. After evicting the mice, burning the bedding and coating the entire inside of it with Kilz, it was a dry place at the least.
The piers were in by December, the result of more than a hundred bags of cement mixed by hand in a homemade mixing barrow. The posts were on order. By on order, I mean I was marching through the Missouri woods and picking them out. I cut them with a chainsaw, trimmed the excess branches and drug them back to the building site. I have an old drawknife. It used to be a file and some industrious fellow of ages gone by had the notion to change it. Thus I came upon it. With this drawknife I stripped the bark from the trees I had cut. A single strip at a time I loosed them from their skins. Seven posts, all about a foot in diameter, ranging from nine feet tall to eighteen feet I had hewn. With a hand auger I bored a single hole in the base of each to mate with the short section of threaded rod set in the top of each pier. I have the good fortune of having relations who owed a skidloader and this I used to raise the post to their place. Working alone, I lifted each log with the bucket and slid it up onto it. Using heavy ratchet straps and some fairly unsafe perches, I would strap each post to the bucket and then slowly maneuver it into place. Once set, I used old barn lumber (salvaged it from a pole-barn that had blown down in a storm) to brace each one in place. The final one was the high point of the ridge and, at eighteen feet tall, it tipped the bobcat on its nose. I dangled for a moment and then righted it and commenced the project. I had quite nearly soiled my drawers but I was alone and that post just would not set itself.
Soon the posts were set and, with the deeply appreciated help of my Father-in-law, the 2x12 joists for the small sleeping loft were set in place and the salvaged palletwood floor of the loft was nailed down.
By this time I was beginning to frame the roof and the night-time temperature was somewhere in the 10’s. I slept in a parka with every blanket I owned piled above and below me. I heated water for showers and the unheated water in a cup next to me would freeze before I finished bathing. I had landed a job working nights as a maintenance electrician and I would arrive at the little trailer in the woods at around 2:00 am, just in time to fire up the kerosene heater to knock the chill off enough to go to bed. I rose about 9:00 am each day and crackled my joints out to the house to work on the roof. A small camp stove on a propane bottle was my stove where I heated water for oatmeal and canned soup. As it happens Bud Light freezes at those temperatures. Miller Light does not. Words to live by.
The roof of the house has a slanted ridge, about 22 degrees. Framing the rafters was interesting. There was no power at the site so each pocket, each rafter, each mortise in the post frame was cut with a large Japanese pull saw and smoothed with a chisel and large wooden mallet, a hickory handled, maple head mallet handmade by a good friend of mine. The rafters were run on 24” centers and then, as plywood wouldn’t line up because of the slanted ridgeline, purlins were laid horizontally. Each end piece and the rippers at the top of the ridge were cut by hand. Work was slow in the winter. Days would pass where I would have a single board, a solitary sheet of plywood nailed down before I had to gingerly crawl down and go warm myself enough to get to work for the evening.
A stomach illness had been circulating around some of my friends and family. A debilitating sickness that left one hardly able to rise out of bed and vomiting nonstop for a day or so. I arrived at my chilly camper home around 1am that January night. It was eighteen degrees and dropping. I ate a small supper and lay down. The air was cold enough that the hair inside my nostrils was freezing solid with each inhalation. The cramps began slowly. My head felt a little swimmy and I recognized that strange, floating and detached sensation of sickness. If I stayed where I was, hidden far into the woods and out of sight and mind, and came down with that sickness, I would freeze. There was no phone service, no electricity and no one would be there to check on me. Fighting the dizziness and the urge to release a tumbling bowel, I made my way to the little Toyota Camry and fired it up. It was an hours drive, first on back country gravel, cross a low water bridge (I was hoping the water was low enough)and finally, along forty miles of deserted blacktop down the Missouri river bottom (to grandmothers house we go) to get to the house where my family slept fitfully. I drove like a madman, barreling through the frozen water of Lost Creek, down the crisp night back roads, hell bent. Halfway there I rolled the window partway down, letting the frigid air scorch my lungs as I gasped in and out to try and stave off the nausea threatening to rise. After a hellish drive more miserable and cold and awful that any I remember since, I pulled in the drive of her Grandmother’s house, killed the ignition, flung open the door and vomited in a flying spew of angry Campbell’s chunky, all over the drive. I stumbled to the door, knocked as hard as I could and, in a few minutes, someone opened it. I remember stepping in the door. Then I recall waking up twenty something hours later to stumble to the bathroom. I was not out of bed for about three days.


  1. Inspirational, man. Can't wait to read the rest.

  2. My husband directed me to this blog... all I can say is wow and give you a virtual handshake! :)