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

Friday, March 8, 2013

The Goat-Tree

August 1976 to March 2013

Molly and Mike bought an acre of mountaintop.  A forty-niner had settled the place just after the gold rush, building a stagecoach stop halfway between the San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean.  There was a small barn for the horses.  The stage stop became a hunting lodge.  Now Molly and Mike wanted to turn it into a house for themselves and their eight-year-old daughter.  They had a giant stone fireplace, virgin redwoods, bad water.

"I need country air," Molly said.  "I'm part Cherokee."

"Which part?" I asked.

She gave me a curious look.  "My lungs, at least."  Molly was a nurse who worked at the same hospital as my wife.  They'd become friends.  As with many of my wife's healthcare colleagues, I sometimes felt like the oddball dropout who they tolerated in order to have the pleasure of her company.

Besides the friendship of our wives, Mike hired me not for my experience (I had none) but because I was one of the few tradesmen willing to go so far up into the mountains and actually find the place where you look for the dirt road after the split pine tree, turn at the second gate (be sure to close it behind you), go slow when you ford the creek, then watch for a blue mailbox. 

At the time (August 1976), my wife was pregnant with our first.  I'd just quit my reliable, high pay, full time job as a computer operator.  My goal was to become a low pay, part time carpenter/handyman and then get rich writing novels.  Career planning was never my strong suit.

My first task for Molly and Mike was installing the metal chimney for a wood-burning stove.  In the process, I somehow lost my old cheapo Stanley hammer.  When Mike paid me, he added five dollars.  "For the hammer," he said.

Nice guy.  Generous.  Or was it charity?

My next job was to modernize the wiring.  I crawled under the house through stagecoach dust, running Romex.  I insulated.  I drywalled.  Mike kept overpaying me.  A hardwood floor.  I learned skills and applied them. 

My baby son became a child.  My wife gave birth to a daughter.  We left the flatlands and built a house among massive redwood trees in La Honda, not far from Mike and Molly.  Their daughter was growing, too.

In 1982 we had our third child.  Molly and Mike had just the one, who was now a teenager spending all day in her bedroom watching soaps and playing the same rock record over and over while giggling and screaming on the phone.  Our paths were diverging.  Mike, who was an expert in biotech, had taken a big-bucks job advising a venture capital fund.  I was not so flush.

Mike hired me to build a deck.  I presented them with several choices of how to design the railing.

"Which is better?" Molly asked.

"They're about equal," I said.  "It's a matter of taste."

"Right," Molly said.  "Some folks have it, and some folks don't."

Their taste was for clean wood, simply crafted.  I built the stairs for the deck on a day when I was too tired.  The next day, Molly was waiting for me.  Frowning, she said, "I wonder what my father would have said if he saw those steps.  He was a carpenter for fifty-one years back home in Oklahoma."

I'd used knotty wood, and the nails weren't in a line.  "He'd kick me down the stairs," I said.  "Then he'd tell me to tear it out."

"He never kicked people," Molly said. 

Actually, I felt as if Molly had just mentally kicked me down the stairs in her no-nonsense nursely way.  I replaced the steps with clear lumber, nailed straight in a line.  At my expense.  I owed it to the old man.  And to Molly.

Often, the house on that wind-swept ridge would be gloomy and cold, but you could see a beautiful, sunny day in the air just a hundred feet above if only the fog would clear.  Which it wouldn't, not for weeks at a time.  Then one day the sun would come out, the view would clear to the ocean, and it would be a lovely spot to work.  Heaven.

Mike and Molly came home later and later.

Molly asked me to fix up the old barn.  They wanted to use it as a garage.  Half the cedar roof shingles were missing — eaten by a goat, they'd been told — and the walls leaned badly.  In fact, the entire barn would have collapsed except that its tilt had been stopped by a youthful redwood tree, which easily buttressed several tons of lumber.  The goat had been chained to the tree.  You could still see chain burn around the young trunk — young, that is, in redwood years, which are counted in centuries.

Repairing that barn was a fun job.  In late October after nailing the final shingle, I sat on the roof facing the ocean as a cold drippy fog blew into my face, and in dampness I jotted something like this:

The gold miner settled this hilltop
a century ago,
built this barn next to this tree
and watched the stagecoach pass twice a day.
Hand-hewn timbers
now sag.
Doors hang off hinges.
Glass windows — added later — now are shattered.
Square nails, rusted.
Old roof covered with moss
except where the goat ate the shingles.
Walls lean downhill
until stopped
braced against the redwood tree
which will be there
to hold them without effort
for another, oh say, millennium or so.
I was going to add lines about my repairs and a wish that the new construction might endure for some small fraction of the lifetime of that goat-tree.  My new lumber in that unheated structure, washed by ocean fog, host to insects, fungus, owls and cats, would go the way of dead wood.  Before I could write any more, Molly came home with the Volvo trunk full of apples and pumpkins.  The mood passed. 

After I'd cleaned up, Molly gave me apple pudding, and she told me they were putting the house on the market.  Their daughter needed a better high school.  "It'll happen to you, too," she said.

At that time, my kids were six, four, and one year old.

On an impulse, I gave Molly the soggy unfinished poem.

"How cute," she said.  "I'll show it to Neil.  Maybe he'll turn that old barn into a song."   Neil Young lived nearby on his Broken Arrow Ranch.

Molly  and Mike bought an upscale house in Portola Valley, an upscale town.  Over the next four years they hired me to install track lights, to convert a closet, to rebuild a pool house.  It was in August, 1986 that I came into their daughter's bedroom one day and surprised Molly, who was bawling on the bed.  "I'm all right," she said.  "Empty nest."

A couple weeks later I stopped by to touch up some details and met Scott and his young wife Sara, who was obviously pregnant.  "We're housesitting," Sara explained.  "Molly and Mike are in Switzerland." 

Scott was building shelves in the dining room.  They were young, just starting out.  They were me and my wife, a flashback.  Our decade was over.  Molly would nurture them.  Mike would overpay them. 

"They're the nicest people," Sara said.

"Yes," I said.  "You'll enjoy working for them."

Since then, another quarter century has passed.  I haven't worked for Mike and Molly again.  The stagecoach stop has passed through several owners.  I've stayed in La Honda where sixteen giant redwoods grow on my little plot of land.  Does one, indeed, "own" a redwood?  I think they own me.  My kids attended high school, then college without the benefit of a better zip code.

I never completed that poem.  I don't know if Molly showed her fragment to Neil, but I'm pretty sure he never wrote a song about it.  He's an old fart now, cranky and delightful.  The goat-tree remains youthful in redwood years.  The barn is sagging in places, aging once again in barn years.  The fog keeps coming, cold and damp, unchanging.  Fog years are the longest of all.

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