Everything I Never Needed to Learn About Carpentry….
Wooden You Like to Know
Every single cabin Up the Lake was hand built, requiring the valuable carpentry skills to be passed from one generation to the next. I was not what anyone would call a “fast learner”. Just like everyone else, I started with my own coffee can full of discarded nails and pieces of scrap wood. While my friends practiced various cutting and fastening methods, I hastily hammered my stuff together into a makeshift robot to play with (an early dawning of the inevitable geek hood). However, through the years I have managed to learn (through bitter pain and necessity) enough to humorously pass on.
My Grandfather and his brother (Uncle Ackie) were part of the first generation of builders, skilled in the art of “finding” the needed materials at various unguarded road sides, construction sites, and also in the back of my uncle’s gravel and delivery trucks. This explains why some of the sixteen-foot support beams are made of many shorter boards, doing a less than believable impression of a single piece of wood. It also explains the front column of Uncle Ackie’s bedroom, which is in the shape of a cinder block hourglass, thanks to the timing and availability of materials. The fact that the bedroom has survived over fifty years and a skewering by a large determined tree branch supported by that tapered travesty of mortar is an indication of the amount of magic holding all of our cabins up. As a side note, the lack of flat ground, and the large number of animals living on that ground, has forced all cabins to be built up on columns or pillars of some sort. Every builder has a definitive idea of how the supports should be built, which is mutually exclusive of everyone else’s ideas.
My dad learned the most valuable part of Up the Lake building methods from those two brothers shortly after he married into their family. They demonstrated the most common method of Up the Lake construction while building our bedroom. Grandpa would tell Dad to build something one way, Uncle Ackie would tell him to build it in an entirely different way, and then the two of them would argue in Italian. At this point Uncle Nicky would say, “Come with me.” While they built walls and floors and the like, a constant stream of Italian profanity from the battling Frissoras would serve as a metaphysical glue, allowing these amateur assemblies to last the many decades that they have. This has to be the case, as it is the one ingredient every cabin up there had in common while being built.
My largest infusion of learning came just before the first summer of high school. After nearly 50 years in existence, the kitchen was showing a few signs of wear (not the least of which was that the only thing keeping the refrigerator from passing through the floor was a tree stump directly underneath it). Therefore, after obtaining special permission, we began going up weekends in April in order to “repair” the kitchen. (Due to legal rules, we are not allowed to build new structures. We merely repaired the walls, floor, roof, supports, and soul of the kitchen.) As nighttime spring temperatures up there tend to vary between offensively frigid, and “Dear God, I can’t feel my legs”, there was great incentive for rigorous early starts to keep the blood circulating. Having worked with computers his whole life, Dad stole previously coded subroutines for his designs. (Translation: he went around looking at every other cabin and making notes on his plans about what he liked.) George, a building inspector, looked at the plans, and cheerily and helpfully wrote CONDEMNED on them. Dad reacted by saying; “I don’t care if you criticize my skills, because I’m a computer man, not a builder…but you called my baby ugly!” And so, condemned plans in hand, we armed ourselves in this pre-Home Depot era with a mountain of supplies from the lumberyard and hardware store (all bought first hand in a radical departure from tradition), and set out on our task.
First, before we could put the new cabin up, the old one had to come down. Based on the fact that two people nearly fell through the floor the previous summer, we believed that the kitchen would come down easily. Sadly, we had not reckoned with Up the Lake magic. Dad’s brilliant plan of tying a chain to one of the corners and pulling the building down with his four-wheel-drive had only one slight flaw…it didn’t work. On each of the three attempts, the chain pulled free a ferret-sized piece of wood, as the building had rotted so much, the molecular structure of the wood itself was failing. Then Dad found a use for his untrained son. My abilities in CONstruction produced many intestine shaped nails, and trapezoid shaped sawed boards that were greeted by Rich with an, “Oh…another Jeffrey cut,” as he grabbed enough caulking material to fill Lake Erie to hold them in place. But, in DEstruction I was quite skilled. Dad would hand me a sledgehammer, point me at an object he no longer needed, and *poof* it would go away.
Unfortunately, there was a force holding the kitchen up far more powerful than we realized, even greater than the standard Up the Lake profanity magic. That was tarpaper. Every year a new layer of tar and/or paper was added to prevent the roof from leaking, even as the floor collapsed from under us. (Apparently, our priorities needed work.) Therefore, after I smashed out one corner, the building remained standing. Surprisingly, this state was unchanged after removal of the second corner. Frighteningly, the state remained unchanged after removal of the third corner. Finally, after some more fun with the hammer, and several prayers to the gods of gravity, the entire roof stopped magically hovering in place and came down as a single black, sticky unit. Then we spent many fun filled afternoons of hard labor pulling each board out of the solid mass that had been the roof. (The floor was pulled up without a crowbar, however, which makes me think that if we waited, next summer we would have arrived to find the cabin had inverted itself.) We learned our lesson though. Mom tarred the bedroom roof (on Mothers Day no less) that year, but we reinforced the floor the following year. See, even Up the Lakers can be taught. We also discovered that all the little holes we filled were not much of a hindrance to the mice, since the floor of the cabin had pulled away from the back wall leaving a gap big enough to allow the Main Street Electric Light Parade to pass. With the land finally cleared, providing fuel for some impressive, if not wholly environmentally conscious fires, the new cabin could go up.
Many of our friends and family came to help out, and we returned the favor to Rich and George in later years. They, however, had the good sense to have children and relatives involved in the construction and carpentry industries, supplying them with massive generators, nail guns, and other equipment one would want, nay need, for this kind of project. (This also allowed them to incorrectly cut and assemble sections of cabin at least four times faster than we did.) We did obtain a generator, which attempted to disguise itself as a lunchbox. I will never forget the truly valuable lesson I learned from my Dad early on in the project. The floor was framed out, and we needed to put in the screws to hold the support beams. Dad precisely set and started each screw in place. Then following every last instruction, he carefully installed the new screwdriver attachment to his power drill. He explained why it was important to use screws and not nails to his eager and highly impressed son (Hello!), and started up the generator. Then, after scientifically adjusting the power screwdriver onto the first in a long line of screws, he pulled the trigger. It turned exactly one millionth of a revolution into the highly treated and strengthened wood…and EXPLODED!!! The screwdriver attachment had ceased to be. Ball bearings flew in every direction, like a game of marbles gone horribly wrong. Dad stared back and forth between the broken tool, and the screw for the exact amount of time required for maximum humor. Then, without saying a word, he picked up a hammer and proceeded to bang in every last scientifically positioned screw. Yes, I definitely learned a very valuable lesson, and someday, I hope to discover what it was. This also marked the end of the generator, as after that strain the fuse would blow if a sparrow broke wind within fifty yards of it. My experience with non-powered tools that summer has firmly convinced me that there is an entire level of hell devoted to cutting plywood with a handsaw.
After recounting that hammering experience, this is a good time to mention the importance of nails in my family’s history. The “more is better” philosophy appears to have been the maxim on the construction of the old cabins. We found a six-inch section of wood with no less than thirty-two nails in it, many of them large enough to lay railroad tracks or kill vampires. Nails were even poured into concrete mixtures for added strength (or something). So much so, that when my mom picked up a chunk of the front step (demolished by the patented point and *poof* method) it resembled a medieval morning star. She threw it into the woods where it stuck to a tree about seven feet off the ground. In order to continue this tradition, Dad made sure to buy one inch roofing nails to attach the shingles to the ¾” plywood roof. This gave a nice, early “iron maiden” look to the inside ceiling, though it has made many helium balloon toting children very unhappy.
During the construction I was witness to a mind-numbing feat of strength. I had always known that George was a large powerful man. This was partially due to the many stories of discipline that Nick told me about. (To see many of the reasons that caused Nick’s dad to apply discipline, see any other Up the Lake story.) I also received some first hand knowledge with George’s “Think of clouds” game, where he would grasp our head and lift us way up in the air. Then he’d say, “Think of clouds,” and drop us. (It should be no surprise that his other son is the Joe who convinced me to play BB gun tag.) Nothing, however, prepared me for what I saw during the cabin building. The bottom frame and plywood floorboards were completed, two walls were up and a third was under construction, plus there were several people walking on the floor with tools. I was standing next to George at the front of the unfinished cabin, and he was staring disturbingly intently at a level. Finally, he matter of factly stated, “This isn’t straight. Put this shim in.” Then he picked up the cabin. Anything that impressive needs no embellishment or metaphor. He just put his hands under the floor frame and lifted the front, walls people and all, a couple of inches off of the support column. I stared in total dumbfounded amazement, and he agitatedly commanded, “NOW”. So I put the shim in, and did anything else he said, pretty much from that day forward.
When George built his new kitchen I helped out occasionally. A lot of the time he used me to take measurements for him. This may be because he witnessed my humorous attempts to use tools while building our cabin. But I believe the real reason is that whenever either of his sons gave him a measurement, the resultant piece he would cut was inevitably the wrong size, shape, and in extreme cases material. They could give measurements to anyone else successfully, and he could take them from anyone else, but some bizarre Italian family dynamic seemed to overrule all laws of physics when they attempted to communicate. Their communications would then produce more of that vital magic profanity, meaning their kitchen should still be standing at the turn of the next millennium. Dad and I never seemed to have that problem, even though we tend to converse without using any proper names for objects. Before I reached manhood, I would often cry out in anguish, “I NEED A NOUN!” but once the proper levels of testosterone flowed though my veins I needed no translations or gestures for conversations such as,
“Measure that thing with the thing.”
“OK, where is it.”
“Its either in the thing or on the thing.”
“OK, got it, it’s the same length as the other one.”
“Good, nail it to this.”
At that point someone usually yelled, “I don’t know, he’s on third, and I don’t give a darn!” Then we broke for lunch.
While attaching the walls to the frame of the outside of the building I learned yet another area where physics and carpentry don’t mix. As we finished nailing the two eight foot pieces of plywood to the sixteen-foot beam we noticed a triangular gap between the two sections. (Last I checked 8+8=16, but not that day.) Schumi yelled, “NOBODY MOVE!” and left. He returned three minutes later with a wedge of wood he had saved (for just such an occasion, I suppose) which was practically a press fit. It is theorized that Schumi had not thrown away a piece of wood since V-J Day. The wood doesn’t just sit around either. He was well past the age where other men have forced any intensive labor onto their heirs, had interventional cardiology, open-heart surgery, two knee replacements, and possibly a bionic eye. Despite that, he was constantly using his vast wood stores to replenish, repair, and redo any wooden structure within six light years of his cabin. I once worked with him constructing a massive shed, one door high two doors deep and seven doors wide. I use these bizarre dimensions because that’s what the shed was (and still is) made of. I’m not sure if I was more amazed that he had that many doors, or that he conceived of putting them all together into a functional, if odd looking structure. The only problem was; when we finished the outside, it took us about an hour to figure out which door opened to get us into the inside.
I’ve also worked on Schumi’s roof a couple of times. Usually because my dad found out he was up there, said he shouldn’t be, and went to help. As Dad also had a bypass and bad knees, I tended to run after him, thus completing the circle of life, or roofs, or whatever. I do not function well with roof work. The main reason for this is the sudden stop that accompanies falling off of a roof. Another problem I have is most of the Up the Lake ladders were built by the first generation of “Use What You Find” builders, and have enough sway in them to allow easy recreations of the climax of It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. This becomes a feature as you get used to it, allowing you to cover half the roof in a Chaplinesque like fashion without moving the base of the ladder. By a few years after we did the kitchen I was somewhat proficient with ladders and only moderately terrified of heights. So when I had to help nail some tarpaper (all hail the mighty tarpaper) to Schumi’s bedroom roof, I thought I’d have no problem. I forgot to account for two very important factors (1) this was Up the Lake and (2) this was me. His ladder was very thin with oddly spaced rungs. Thanks to this as I reached the top and tried to climb off, I discovered that my knees were locked underneath a rung. Unfortunately, by this point, I had leaned forward and all my weight was on my hands, rendering me completely immobile. Thus I learned a new bar bet similar to the trick where a guy can’t pick up a chair if he puts his back against a wall and bends in half at the waist. I mused that I would never be able to collect on this bet, as I would be spending the rest of my life atop this ladder. Somewhere between fifteen minutes and seven years later Schumi threw the first roll of tarpaper up…and it rolled right back down to him like a weakly played ski-ball. He asked why I wasn’t up there yet, I told him, and then had to wait for him to finish laughing. Eventually I realized that if I fell on my face, I could wiggle ever so gracefully onto the roof. Having completed this ballet of embarrassment, I was ready to work. Being none to happy about the slope of the roof, I decided my best bet was to stand on the sections of tar with white gravelly bits, for more traction. (“Once again my physics and friction knowledge pays off,” I foolishly assumed.) This would have been a brilliant idea, had the bits been held to the tarpaper with a stronger adhesive than squirrel spit. So, as I stepped on them, all the white bits slid from under my feet, and my face met the tarpaper, yet again, at a much higher and less safe velocity. (The fact that I didn’t suddenly find myself INSIDE the ancient bedroom is another testament to the man’s abilities.) After he heard the cabin shaking sound, he helpfully yelled up, “Don’t stand on the white parts, they’re not safe.” …Lovely. At this point I switched to a combination crab soccer/Spider-man form of locomotion on the roof that insured that at least three limbs were in contact with the roof at all times (four if my butt counts as a limb). Then on the way down, the top of the ladder got stuck in my shorts, leading to more laughter and advice, until I finally used the “lay on my face and shimmy backwards to the ladder without looking” method, finding the rungs through the “Using the Force” method.
As much of a disaster as that roofing experience was, my first time on a roof to shingle the kitchen (to get back to the story I diverted away from) was far worse (mentally anyway). I got up to the center of the roof, looked down, and dug my fingers and toes firmly and deeply into the peak of the unfinished kitchen. Then I did not move at all (no exaggeration here) for over a half-hour. Eventually the rigidness of all my muscles deprived my brain of enough oxygen to allow me relax and move about to help somewhat. Since the rest of the construction needed to be done to support us on the roof, with the final editions of Schumi’s Scrap and the Shingles (isn’t that a 50’s doo-wop group) all that remained was the painting.
The construction completed, Dad stood back and said,
“Not bad for a computer man…for a builder it sucks, but...not bad for a computer man.”
The fact that “The House that Stanley Built (with a lot of help from his friends)” remains standing, looking new and fully functional, decades later is a testament to the incorrectness of this observation, and also to his abilities as both a designer and head builder. Also, the fact that that hunk of concrete is still stuck in the tree is a testament to them huge friggin’ nails.
Many years have now passed, and thanks to my dad’s teachings I can now actually wield hammers, saws, and other implements of construction in a useful fashion. On a good day I can even ascend a ladder without shaking so much that it begins to drill into the earth’s crust. But there were two lessons I learned that year building our kitchen that surpassed all others.
(A) I’d better be VERY certain to do well in mental pursuits, because there was no chance I could ever earn a living with my hands.
And more importantly:
(B) Nothing…ABSOLUTELY NOTHING…can make a crappy little turkey and cheese sandwich taste as good as a morning of grueling physical labor.
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