The photo is from 1978. My son, his truck. Behind him, my truck.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Kattila the Hun

July, 1990

Sometimes you're blindsided.  Sometimes the right thing turns out to be wrong.  Sometimes a client goes berserk - cracks - like the earth beneath your feet.  In October, 1989, the so-called World Series Earthquake shook La Honda hard.  My house sustained damage, but I felt lucky compared to one of my neighbors.  One rock-walled side of his house peeled open and fell off, leaving him exposed like a dollhouse.

Suddenly as a contractor I was in demand.  After a few weeks dealing with emergencies all over town, I settled into a long-term job rebuilding my neighbor's house.

Kal, my neighbor, was a small man with a competitive instinct.  If you jogged with Kal - which I did - he would run slightly faster than you.  If you played tennis with him, even if you were a better player - which I was - he'd find a way to beat you.  Kal was a vice president at a big corporation.   His coworkers called him Kattila the Hun.

Kal had a teenage son named Shane.  Kal made a bet that Shane couldn't beat him in a three-mile race.  The bet was for a hundred dollars.  Shane was already a big strapping boy.  Shane trained every day for a month.  Shane was taller, legs longer, heart younger - and yet Kal won the race.  "It's about desire," Kal said.  And he made Shane pay him a hundred dollars.

The money didn't come easy to Shane.  Kal wouldn't provide his son with an allowance.  Shane ended up working for me on a couple of jobs - digging ditches, carrying lumber - to pay off the bet.

Kal had a vivacious wife, a southern gal.  She was his third wife and, he said, his last.  He told her with a straight face that he would never divorce her because he had been through two already.  Murder, he said, was the only option.

Kal had three vintage cars.  Unlike most collectors, he didn't store them as museum pieces in a garage.  They were the family vehicles, driven every day to work or school or shopping: a '54 Ford convertible, a '55 Corvette, and a '46 Ford sedan.  All three vehicles were fun to look at and brought smiles to bystanders, but when he let me take the Corvette out for a drive, it made me appreciate modern automotive engineering.  On our mountain roads, those cars took corners like a bread truck.

The earthquake work went well enough.  After seven months I'd exceeded my estimate by about 50%, but I'd uncovered extra damage, and Kal had added several  changes.  The house looked better than ever.  He paid without a problem.

A couple months later, July, Kal asks me to install a new kitchen door.  He selects - rightly - a 1 3/4 inch exterior door to replace the old 1 3/8 inch model.  After discussing the options, we decide not to replace the existing jamb but rather to rout it to accommodate the thicker door.

On a pleasant sunny day I do the job while nobody is home.  There's a special pleasure in carefully performing an exacting task, knowing it's hard but knowing you can do it well.  Kal is a stickler for details.  I work cautiously, slowly, exactly.  The router throws wood chips all over the place, so I sweep the porch and walkway, leaving a tidy site.
A few hours later, Kal pounds on my door.  He wants, he says, to have a word with me.

The words are many and foul.  "You got sawdust in the fucking garden."

It never occurred to me to worry about that.  "It's good mulch," I say.  Perhaps not the most useful comment.

He's shouting:  "Look at that!  White sawdust on dark soil!  It looks like sugar on shit!"

"I could wet it down with a hose.  It'll darken.  I could rake it, mix it in."

"No!  You have to spread topsoil over it."

"Okay, I'll do that."

"No!  I'll have to do it myself!" 

"I'll buy the topsoil."


At this point, I realize we've gone beyond reasoning.  The encounter is building like a thunderhead over the Kansas plain.  There's the rapid boiling rise, the ominous dark.  Now comes the blast of wind.  Lightning.  Hail.

"YOU'RE A FUCKING SLOB!"  He's in my face now, shouting jaw to jaw.  "I've been picking up after you for NINE FUCKING MONTHS!" 

"I wish you'd said something earlier if you think I'm not cleaning up.  This is the first I've heard about - "


Now he's totally lost it.  He likes my dog.  He's offered to buy that dog from me several times (which, by the way, shows utter cluelessness about family values - my kids love that dog).

So far somehow I've retained my composure.  This is my first experience with the military drill sergeant breakdown approach - with Kattila the Hun.  He's glaring into my eyes, slightly drooling at the mouth, bouncing on his feet like a boxer. 

"Kal," I say, "I wish you were handling this with a little more maturity."


"Jeez, Kal."

"WHAT?"  There's a look of eager anticipation on his face.

"No wonder Shane hates you."


Kal breaks into a crooked smile.  "Nice try," he says.  He turns and marches into his house.

I wish I hadn't said that.  It's a true statement, and it's exactly what I was thinking at that moment, but my saying it ... he'd won.  He'd broken me down.

I was shaking.  All evening.

And I'd lost.

Kal always wins.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Big Creek, California (Pop 385)

Big Creek, California (Pop 385)            

In Big Creek all the men
wear yellow hardhats
and park their pickups in the middle of the road
because when they stop, the whole town stops
except for the occasional
wandering black bear
and the water always rushing
through silver pipes
under sugar pine and manzanita
down granite cliffs
while hawks circle soundlessly
in Sierra updrafts,
water from winter
from two miles high
dropping through mountain plumbing,
through hefty turbines
attached by wire
to all the lights
in Los Angeles.

(I wrote this poem in July of 1984.  I was struck by how the whole town seemed to exist for one never-ending job, how it could seem so busy and yet so serene as the electrons kept flowing to L.A.  I wonder if anything has changed...)

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Half a World

July, 1978

Mrs. Caswell opened the front door, took one look at me, and laughed.  "You have funny hair," she said.

"I'm sorry," I said.

"Don't be sorry.  I like it."  Her own hair was elegant, smoothly brushed.  In fact, everything about her was elegant and smooth: her face, her poise, even the blue jeans which fit her like water.  She was small, trim, confident.  Older than me.  Like many small women she knew she had power over men, and she seemed comfortable with that fact.

I had come to install two gas fireplaces.  I didn't tell her I'd never done this before.  On the phone she'd said there was already gas to the fireplace box, so all I had to do was hook them up. 

In a mirror I checked my hair.  It looked normal to me.

She showed me the fireplaces and the gas log kits.  "I'm sure it's a very simple job," she said.  "Most people would do it themselves, but my husband is insane and my son is an idiot."  She smiled unselfconsciously.  One of her teeth was crooked.  She was holding a cocktail glass.  It was 10 in the morning.

This was a house in Atherton, a classy town. 

I went back to my truck for tools.  A stringy-haired man wearing a leather vest with the Hells Angels logo was repairing the electric driveway gate.  "Another piece of shit," he said.


"Crappo gate," he said.  "Fancy design with a tiny motor.  Typical Atherton shit.  They buy first class furniture, and that carpet must be two inches thick, but look at those cheapo aluminum windows.  Shoddy.  So many of these places.  Shoddy shit.  These people have money but they wouldn't know a well-built house if they saw one.  Then they fill it with their fancy shit."

"You'd think they'd want a good gate."

He winked.  "I'm gonna sell her on that.  After I fix this."

"Did she by any chance say something about your hair?"

"She said it was pretty."  He cackled.

The installation of the two gas logs went easily enough, but when I opened the valve, nothing came out.  I started poking around the house, trying to follow the pipe to its source.  Somewhere between the main shutoff and the fireplaces, there had to be another valve or possibly a disconnect.

I saw the stringy-haired Hells Angel go into the kitchen, open the refrigerator, and help himself to a Heineken.  Elegant he was not.  "You seen her?" he said.

"She's somewhere in the back of the house."

He wandered off.

Outside, I found the problem.  The fireplace pipe had never been connected to the main.  I'd have to cut the main, thread it, install a union and a tee.  I went to find Mrs. Caswell to explain the extra work.  There were voices from the bedroom behind a closed door.  Hers.  The Hells Angel.  I walked away.

A half hour later the Angel came outside where I was working.  His hair was freshly brushed.

"You sell her on the gate?" I asked.

"Mmm."  He smiled.  "She's negotiable."  Then he left.

Though by now I was well into the project, I wanted to explain what I was doing.  Inside the house I called: "Mrs. Caswell?  Ma'am?"

I heard a muffled reply.  She was still in the bedroom, door closed. 

"It's a lot more work than I expected.  I want you to know."

"Just do it," she said without opening the door.  I heard the squeak of a knob turning, the hiss of a shower starting.

An hour later, I found her in the kitchen mixing a cocktail.  She'd changed into a pink dress, slinky.  Pink sandals.  Chic as ever.  She was half singing, half humming to herself.  Close to You, the Carpenters song.  She sang the instrumental break: "Waa, daba da da..."

"All done," I said.

She smiled.  "Can I fix you a drink?"

"No thanks."

"Can I trim your hair?  I used to do that, you know.  Before..."  With a nod of her head she indicated the kitchen, the whole Atherton house.  "Before all this.  I could make it cute."

"Not today, thanks."

"Well at least you have to let me brush it."  She already had a brush in her hand.  A petite woman, she had to reach high for my hair.  She smelled like - I don't know how to describe it - she smelled like the bar of a classy hotel.

Looking up at me with fingers still in my hair, she said, "We have a hot tub.  Would you like to take a look?"

"Is something wrong with it?"

She smiled.  "It's very private."

I could get laid.  Or I could get paid.  I wasn't sure I could do both.  And I desperately needed the money.  My wife was pregnant with our second child.   

Suddenly I didn't like Mrs. Caswell at all.  I was wearing my ring.  She could see it.

You talk about some things, joke about them, fantasize.  In real life - at least in my half of the world - you try for solid construction, good foundation.  "I better go," I said.

She blinked.  Nothing more. 

She wrote a check with an ostrich-feather pen, pink ink.  She misspelled ninety as "ninty," but she had elegant script. 

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Listen to the Locals

July, 2006

Construction is local.  Construction in the Adirondacks fascinates me because it's so different from what I encounter in coastal California.  In La Honda we deal with landslides, earthquakes, termites, punishing heat and sunshine.  At Silver Lake they deal with snow loads, frost heave, and simply being frozen for half the year.

Oriole is the name of a simple cabin constructed in the Adirondack style.  Now Oriole is tilting with one side of the cabin 3 inches lower than the other.  The low side sits on cedar posts which rest directly on the dirt.  As the post bottoms have rotted, the cabin has sunk closer to earth.

As I scoop away the dirt surrounding the rotten posts, I find flat stones nearby, set into the surface of the ground. 

This intrigues me.  And I know the man who placed these posts and built this cabin way back in 1943.  Ken Laundry is now 92 years old and still an active tractor-driving tree-cutting man.  I drive to his house and find him out by his woodshed, splitting logs with a double-bladed axe.  He's happy to loan me his jacks and give his advice.

"Ken," I say, "I'm a little confused.  Textbooks tell you never to build with wood in contact with the ground."

"I set those posts on flat stones," Ken says.

"That's kind of confusing to me, too.  Textbooks tell you to dig below frost level for your foundation.  They say you can't just lay a flat stone on the ground."

"Five feet.  That's the frost line.  You want to dig five foot holes for a dozen posts?  For a summer cabin?"

"Uh, no.  But the textbooks say you'll get frost heave if you just lay a stone on the ground."

"Yep," Ken says.  "The worst is if you dig part way down, like three feet.  Then you see the heave in frost."

"The flat stones were all about six inches from the posts.  Either the stones moved west, or the cabin moved east.  Does that make sense?"

"Yep.  It happens around here.  That's the frost heave."

"So you don't worry about frost heave?"

"You take it into consideration.  Every ten years or so, you might have to adjust the stones.  I built that cabin in nineteen forty-three.  What year is it now?"

It was probably a rhetorical question.  Ken's mind at age 92 was totally sharp.  I answered, "Two thousand six."

"So nobody's checked those stones for a while.  Now you have.  Take my jacks, lift the cabin, fix it.  Easy as pie."

I imagine going back to California and explaining to my local Silicon Valley building inspector that I'll just keep an eye on those flat stones and reset them every decade or so.  Do you think he'd sign off on the foundation?

You can't argue with this:  The cabin has been there, actively used, still lovely to sleep in next to the rushing waters of Coca Cola Creek within earshot of Silver Lake and the babbling loons of the night, for 63 years.

May it stand on re-centered flat rocks and new cedar posts for another 63 years.  I borrow Ken's jacks and get to work.

Note: If you follow this link, you'll get another - perhaps better - post about Ken Laundry and local technique.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Robins Nest and Little Brown Bats

July, 2011

Returning to the old Hawkeye Trail Camp now, I'm repairing the summer landscape of my teenage years.  There are about a dozen structures remaining from the old camp on Silver Lake.  The sturdiest of them - requiring, so far, the least repair - is an architectural peculiarity known as Robins Nest:

When Jules and Virgil saw Robins Nest, Jules said, “That’s your party home, right?”

Well, no.  The current owners use the ground floor to store firewood.  The upper floor is unused. 

Back in the days when Hawkeye was a coed summer camp, Robins Nest was an oddity: the only cabin with two stories, the only cabin with no screens.  Oddest of all, on the upper floor it housed the oldest teenage girls without privacy, exposed to bugs on their flesh and the occasional flying bat caught in their hair. 

I was raised to believe that bats knew their way around at night, but sometimes after lights out in the boys camp we’d hear another outbreak of screaming and beds crashing from up the hill, and we’d know that another little brown bat had entered the intoxicating, bewildering scent of hair recently shampooed with a disorienting cloud of strawberry or daffodil or lavender.  Those bats weren't stupid.  They'd gone where we wished to be.

Down the hill in the lakeside cabin of the oldest teenage boys where I lay, some of us would wonder: if it were my nose at her neck, would she scream and leap up and crash the metal bedframe against another?  Would a dozen angry girls surround and beat me with brooms and pillows until I flew away into the night? 

Those of us lacking experience, we suspected the answer was Yes. 

Those others, the experienced ones, would only smile.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

On Vacation

Gone fishin'...

Be back in a couple of weeks.

I've been posting every day for 182 consecutive days and loving every minute. 

If you're relatively new to this blog, here's a chance to catch up.  You can sample a few of the more popular posts by looking at the right hand sidebar.  If you view this blog through a reader that doesn't show all the sidebars, go to the main blog page for a view.

There's no internet access at the Blue Heron on Silver Lake, where I'll be.  No cell phone service.  No television.  Just stars...  Which is exactly why we're going there.  Peace.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Herbert Hoover's Bench

July, 1974

Jan Anderson was my landlady.  I was her handyman.  She’d been on the planet since 1892.  We called her Jan when she was friendly and Mrs. Anderson when she was acting like a landlady.

One day Jan showed me a bench.  Or at least, she said it was a bench.  All I saw was a rotten pile of wood.  “Can you fix it?” she asked.

“No.  It’s too far gone.”

“Herbie Hoover gave it to me.”

“Herbert Hoover?  The president?”

“This was after he got fired.”

Jan had run a taxi company.  When Mr. Hoover left office, he settled in Palo Alto.  Upon his arrival in California, he called for a taxi.  Jan sent her best driver, a man who was polite and reliable, and that driver never came back.  Hoover hired him as chauffeur. 

Jan and Mr. Hoover met frequently.  She owned a peanut factory next door to the taxi company, and Mr. Hoover used to wander into the taxi office with a bag of fresh roasted nuts.  “Want some?” he’d always ask.  He loved peanuts, but he was not an interesting man.  “Not a conversationalist”, Jan said.

Jan grew up among the fruit orchards and dirt roads of the Santa Cruz Mountains near Los Gatos.  She rode a donkey to school.  Some days the donkey would stop at a creek, bend down for a drink, and then buck her off into the water.  Furious, she would chase the donkey, which stayed just out of her reach all the way home. 

Jan grew up fast.  At age 11, she confided to me, she was “fully developed” and grade school was a humiliation.  She transferred to a new town, lied about her age, and graduated from high school at age 15.  She wanted to be a pharmacist but found that nobody would respect a female in that field.  She found few opportunities for a woman to do anything except making babies, at which, she said, she was a failure.  With peanuts and taxis she found some success.

To me she seemed a piece of living history.  She remembered the 1906 earthquake - it ripped her house into three pieces.  These days, a widow, she lived at the edge of the Stanford golf course on land that Leland Stanford had been “furious to discover he didn’t own,” she said with satisfaction.  She rented cheap cottages and invited tenants over for whiskey sours and conversation.  I happily obliged.

“Did Herbert Hoover flirt with you?” I asked.

“No.”  She sighed. 

“Did you flirt with him?”

“Well of course!”  Even at age 81 Jan was a coquette, especially after a couple of whiskey sours, sometimes batting her eyes at me.  Once after a third whiskey sour she showed me two nude photos of herself, taken by her husband on a hill near Half Moon Bay.  She’d placed hands in strategic places and smiled warily at the camera.  Quite the babe.  Now with failing body and bad cooking she could still summon the come-hither smile but carried the permanent smell of urine and burnt cheese.

Jan told me that Herbie’s wife, Lou Hoover, used to call for a taxi about once a week, and she always asked for Car Number Seven. 

One day Jan pulled the driver of Number Seven aside and asked, “Why are you Lou’s favorite?”

The driver just smiled.  “I’ll never tell.”

After Lou died, the driver revealed that Lou used to smoke in the taxi.  He’d give her a pack of cigarettes and drive her around for an hour while she smoked.  He also bought beer for her, which she drank in secret at home.  Herbie wouldn’t have approved.

“So that’s the worst you have on the Hoovers?” I teased.  “His wife smoked cigarettes and drank beer?”

“Sometimes what’s normal is the scandal,” she said.

“What do you mean?”

“Scandal is what people are ashamed of.  Some things are accepted, so they aren’t tittle-tattle.”

“Like what?”

“Herbie had a sign posted at his ranch:  HELP WANTED.  NO JAPS OR NEGROES NEED APPLY.”

“He had a ranch?  I thought you said he had a house in Palo Alto.”

She looked at me darkly.  “Now you’re the expert on Hoover?”

“No ma’am.”

“He loved peanuts.”  She ran hands through white hair, once blond.  “Can you take me for a ride?”

“Where do you want to go?”

“A little hill I know.  Near Half Moon Bay.”  She smiled like a kitten.  “There’s something I want to show you.”

“I can’t today.  Sorry.  Did you ever ask Mr. Hoover to take you to that hill?”


“What did he say?”

“Same as you:  ‘Not today.’  He was a gentleman.  Anyway, if he’d said ‘Yes,’ I don’t know what I would have done.”

“You might have kissed him.  Just for fun.”

“I might have.  And then we’d have tittle-tattle, he and I.  Everybody should make some gossip.  So what can you do for this bench?”

“Burn it.”

“Everything rots.”  She sighed.  “I’m next.”

“Not yet.  There’s still time to make some gossip.”

“Go ahead.  Burn the bench.”  She winked.  “And some day, you’ll take me to that hill.”

“Yes, ma’am.  Some other day.”

Note: About those two photos:  Yes, they’re the real deal.  But Jan is not her real name, and I changed some details.  I asked a (mostly female) group if I would be a cad to post those photos, and they unanimously said it would be okay and in fact, given their impression of Jan’s character and the fact that Jan showed me the photos in the first place, they suspect Jan probably would have wanted me to post them.  Jan died 30 years ago.  Her spirit still hovers over the shady acre of land that Leland Stanford forgot to buy - though now it’s an acre of McMansions.