Friday, February 5, 2016

Wobbly and Wobberjawed

JB, my childhood friend and neighbor, and I built many things together.  Carts and wagons and bikes and caves and tunnels and, well, structures.  We liked to make "secret places" in the woods and backyards and fields and gravel pits that surrounded us.  

We made treehouses, platforms really on relatively low branches.  Pounding giant ten penny nails with lightweight hammers through planks and into the green wood of the branch.  Two nails took us half an afternoon.  But, one time, we managed to form a sort of bench very high up in an old maple on someone else's property.  It was shockingly high, terrifyingly high, exhilaratingly high.  

I think we sat there ten minutes or less, never to climb that high again.

We made a low, lodge-like building one Spring out of long pines we'd found in a particularly spooky patch of woods just off Mr Poff's soybean field.  The long trunks - felled many years before in a wind or under the weight of snow or ice or, perhaps, just crowded out like little brothers by the big guys - were as dry and hard as driftwood, not rotted, laying all those years on a thick bed of pine needles.  We stripped the bark and cut off the knots of branches with our trusty hatchets.  We found four pieces of forked wood from an oak that had fallen not as long ago, sharpened the points and drove them into the ground and laid the long logs between them.  We used string - that rough hemp string, we'd found in and abandoned barn, I can still see and feel it in my hands - to tie crossbeams of shorter sticks across the two forkends and vertically like pickets to frame a wall.  We sacrificed a fairly small white pine and wove the soft-needled branches all around for walls.  (God - it's funny what comes back when you really start remembering a thing, it can almost hurt.)  We used an old "oil-cloth" for a roof lashed down with that same hemp twine.

We spent an afternoon and evening in it, peanut butter and honey sandwiches, canteens of water, apples and a chess board.  At sunset we took our tarp and went home.

One year, in the woods on the other side of 741, behind the old gravel pit where people shot their rifles and shotguns, we had the notion we could build a sort of log house.  We gathered every fallen branch we could find.  We cut them in to five or so foot lengths with a bow saw and hatcheted points on each and pounded them into the ground, one next to the other like a vertical log cabin.  The plan was a circle but, after about three days we only had a six, maybe, foot wall.  It was all wobbly and wobberjawed.  

At the end of that third day, I think we peed on it and went home.

JB had the notion to build a tepee.  We used long bamboo poles, five or six of them.  He'd found an elaborate knot that was supposed to keep the apex from slipping and yet still the poles could lay flat for transport.  We cussed that knot for hours.  Finally though, we had something and we spread the poles and it all stayed as it was supposed to.  We couldn't understand why our rectangular tarp wouldn't wrap around it, neither of us had yet studied the geometry of cones.  It didn't matter anyway, Mr. B. came home and told us to put the poles back in the garage where they'd been because he might need them someday.

We argued we needed them now.  And then we put them back in the garage.

There are many others that flash through my mind - a cozy little lean-to, more an a-frame, I guess, sticks leaned up against a length of long-forgotten fence, three poles and only the top rail, weathered and gray, still hanging on; a deep gouge in a hillock, cut out by a farmer who needed some top soil many years before that we lined with sticks and fashioned a roof from a couple of peeling, water-logged sheets of plywood and, because it was dirt and Ohio mudclay, we poured bucket after bucket of sand and stone from a dry creekbed for a floor; a fort of pallets out behind someone's barn, we imagined shooting arrows out the slits.

It was, in fact, those pallets that began our last masterpiece.  We found out it was Bucky Barnes' dad's barn.  On the bus one morning, we asked Bucky to ask his dad if we could have four of them.

"Ask him yer damn self," was his reply.  I saw his point.  Mr. Barnes was a pretty gruff dude, heavy set, big, that kind of big that surprises you, perpetually in overalls or Carhart's, leather face and hands - a farmer.

It was near the end of my sixth-grade year, JB's seventh, and that first day of Summer vacation we marched across a few fields, through the gravel pit and came up behind the Barnes', well, barn.

I'll spare you the whole conversation, calling it awkward would be kind.  Although we'd talked to him before, we introduced ourselves and asked him about the pallets and if we could have four.

"You ain't gonna burn 'em, are ya?"

Frankly, that hadn't occurred to us, so we said no.

"Well," he said gruffly, "Whaddya want 'em for?"

"We want to use them as, well, a sorta floor and foundation for a clubhouse were gonna build," I blurted out, sounding ridiculous, I'm sure.

His face softened, just a bit, and his eyes smiled, just a bit, and he said, "Well, that's just about as gooda want as any, I guess.  You can have 'em.  Jus' four."  

We thanked him, relieved to have his permission and to be away from him.  Big guy.

Pallets are heavy.  We'd really not considered how we would get them all the way to JB's backyard.  Not wanting to have to return, we decided, in our primitive wisdom, that we'd take them all by carrying one about a hundred yards ahead, drop it, and return with another, repeat.

We were easily a mile-and-a-half from home, through fields and over hills and fences.  It was a masterful comedy routine - add "Yakkety Sax" and speed up the film and start laughing at the clowns. We tried carrying two and getting about ten feet out and dropping them on JB's toe.  He jumped up and down, cussing - which we'd just really started at - and chased me around with a stick.  We tried to roll - remember pallets are square - them, sort of flipping them to one side then the next.  They kept falling on us, and we got to laughing and wrasslin' and before long we'd moved exactly three out that hundred yards.  It'd probably taken us an hour.

We were wet and hot from the dew and exertion, so we figured we'd take a break.  We were not daunted, boys are not quick to recognize ill-fated or idiotic schemes.  We sat on those three pallets listening to the birds and bugs and frogs and, suddenly the sound of a tractor firing up in the barn disturbed our revery.

We saw the two tandem wheels come around the corner of the barn and then the rest of that old John Dear and then a beat up old hay-wagon.  Mr. Barnes stopped in front of that last pallet, grabbed it with one hand and flung it up onto the wagon.

We were confused.  He puttered up towards us, braked the tractor and idled it back.  He walked up to us, shirtless and overalled, a dirty seed hat high on his head.  Big man.

"Y'all got more wood to build yer 'clubhouse' with?"  His eyes laughed at the word, kindly, though.

"Uh, yeah, uhm, my dad's a carpenter and he brings home scraps and leftovers and stuff and he said it'd be okay if we used some of it and we found some wood out behind Old Man Osborne's shed and..." JB sorta ran out of air.

"I know yer pa, son, he's in Grange.  I know Old Man Osborne, too," he smiled a little and spit brown on the green grass, "and if I were you I'd grab that wood when he wernt lookin'.  Like, maybe, in the afternoon when he's sittin' on that porch, sippin on his 'lemonade' and snorin' in the breeze."

He laughed and we chuckled.  We all knew that wernt lemonade in his glass.

It was right about here that we realized he was gonna help us, and that he knew a lot more about us than we did about him, that he knew a lot more than we did, period.

"Listen boys, let's load the rest of them pallets on here and drive you over there in the wagon.  I found some old wood in my barn that ain't a-doing nothin' but collecting dust and mouse shit so I threw it on there.  There's some two-by-fours and some old pine sidin' there and a couple sheets of some thin-ass plywood I ain't got no use for.  Mind it all though, boys, I cain't guarantee there're no nails in 'em."

We tried to stammer thanks but he'd not have it and he told us where to put the pallets.  Then he tied it all down, hemp rope again, and showed us a tension knot I still use to this day.

He drove us across the farm paths he knew so well.  We sat like kings on top of our pallet thrones, holding on so we'd not get thrown.  He knew where we lived, of course, he worked many of the fields around us.  When we got to the front of JB's house he asked us where we wanted it.  We told him behind the house which was down a steep hill and that we could just carry it from here.  He smiled and told us to hold on.

He went on down to the end of our street, turned left on 741, and then left into a lane.  It was early afternoon and he idled as quietly as he could and didn't wake Old Man Osborne or disturb his "lemonade."  Mr. Barnes pulled right up next to where we wanted it, showed us how to undo the knot and threw the pallets off as we unloaded the rest of the wood.

JB's dad came down, not knowing what was going on, worried I'd guess that we were causing trouble.  The two men looked on and talked as we finished with the last of it.

Mr. Barnes drove off back down towards the road and out of sight.  We heard him gun it and wondered if the lemonade had spilled.

I also wondered, out loud, why he'd done that - why he'd helped us.

Mr. B had turned and was starting back up the hill.  He stopped and came back towards.  This was unprecedented, Mr. B never left twice.  He was a man of very few words but he use up a bunch at once.

"He said he was glad to see kids doin' something.  I am, too.  He said he was proud to know you.  I am, too.  He said you was hardworkers.  I took exception to that."

He winked and marched up that long hill to the house.

We spent the next few weeks planning and building.  I used a circular saw, got a tetanus shot, got pulled over by a sheet of plywood kiting in the wind, got my own hammer and fell off a roof - all for the first time, none for the last.

Most of the wood was questionable, as was our understanding of posts and lintels, but, we had enough thanks to a pile we found behind some one's shed - it was afternoon as I recall.  We bought some plywood or pressed wood - a new concept at the time - and tar-paper for the roof.  As God is my witness, we shingled over it with flattened tin cans.  Yep.

It took us most of the summer.  It had a door and a small window.  We were really proud of it.  Mr. B said something glowing like, it's fine.  Kids came from all around to see it.  My dad liked it.  We thought about asking Mr. Barnes to see it.  We didn't.

In truth, it was all wobbly and wobberjawed, nails bent over, bad cuts everywhere, gaps and scabs and splinters, what a mess...

It was also HOTTER'N HELL.  I mean it.  

We didn't spend much time in it after we'd finished it, we hung out a bit in the fall that year and, except for smoking a cigarette or two in it some years later we never really utilized it.  I think Mrs. B used it as a potting shed (though we already had) after Joe moved on and I went to college.

It's all in the doing, like Mr. Barnes said.  I think that's my point, but, it's trite.  

It's more though, deeper, primal - boys need to do stuff, it keeps the wild at bay.  Men do too, not just to stave the wild but to also embrace it here and there.  Doing is trying and trying is risking failure and failing is good and just and right.

It is also not as complicated as I might make it out to seem.  It is inaccurate to say it's all in the doing, you see, it all is the doing.  The things JB and I made over the summers of my childhood are now but dust and rot.  But, it was the doing that was my reward.

You know, just the other day I remembered another thing we used to do with branches leaned against a tree.  I can't figure what set me to thinking about it:

I've kept you too long again, it's unforgivable really.

Peace to you and yours and mine and theirs and... you get it.


  1. The movement and the voice! I haven't read at this pace in a long while. And so many lines and ideas stand out, as though we built this thing together. Thanks for inviting us in.

    1. Thanks, as always, Brian. I value you as a reader more than you know. Peace.

    2. Agreed, Brian. Great stuff here. Reminds me of Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine, for some reason.

      I need to get outside more with my daughter. Interesting to think about which of these sorts of things are about united efforts with some other friend or sibling, and which are things that would have happened even in solitude.

  2. Yep, both boys AND girls need to be doing this type of stuff! SO SO important!! Thanks for sharing

  3. Thanks for inviting me into the places I knew little of at the time. I am so happy to visit.

  4. You brought back a lot of memories!!