The House That Al Built: Chapter Five

(Based On A True Story)
By Rick Manzone

(Form Before Function)

That first morning of the actual house build greeted us with a slight breeze, a warm sun and a breakfast of fried eggs, toast and coffee. Looking back on the ordeal, I would have to say that electricity and refrigeration were the two most important aspects of our existence during that period. I had never tasted coffee prior to that morning. The times my father had taken me to a diner always resulted in my beverage being soda, milk or hot chocolate. At first I didn’t care for the coffee. Dad said it would “Put lead in my pencil”. He showed me how to put the right amount of milk and sugar in it. Eventually I grew to not only enjoy it but to look forward to that first cup of the day. My breakfast table of choice is and always will be outside. I would rather sit on a bench in the dead of winter with that first cup of the day then on the plushest sofa inside the most prestige mansion. It seems that some things you experience just can’t be topped.

As we ate breakfast, dad laid out the plan for the “footer”. First we would measure off the perimeter of the house. The plan was to build it 30’ deep and `100’ wide. Actually, dad’s plan was to build a garage we would live in as we built the house. He would abandon this plan early in the build however as he discovered a “momentum” that would drive him to complete the whole house before September. First things first, we would dig the footer and fill it with cement. Next we would build the floor, then the walls, and then the roof. Afterwards we would close in the outside of the walls, shingle the roof, put the windows and doors on and secure the building. Then we would finish the inside once we moved in. Sounded simple enough. Actually I didn’t have a clue of what he was talking about but was about find out.

After determining where the northwest corner would be, dad drove a large stake in the ground. He then measured off 100 feet to the south “eyeballing” the direction he wanted to go in. This would be the front of the house. He drove a second stake into the ground at that point. After stretching a piece of string from the first to the second stake, he paced off the northernmost 30’ span. He then put a third stake in the ground and repeated the string stretching procedure. We now had the front and northernmost sides of the house.

What happened next was to be the defining moment of the build that would live in infamy to this day and gave the old man the very colorful description he would use when describing the house until the day he died. He walked off the southern side wall and “eyeballed” where to put the fourth stake so the corners would be squared. Then he stretched the rest of the strings. He used no surveying equipment, not transoms or plumb points. He created four corners and then measured from the northwest corner to the southeast corner to find it’s length and from the northeast corner to the southwest corner to see if the distance was the same thus creating, (in concept), square corners. The distance was, as he declared, “Close enough for the girl I go with”. In fact, as we would learn later and deal with for years, the corners were anything but square. My father would state with pride for the rest of his years that “You could tell an Italian built it…. because it’s WOP-sided!”

We finished the measuring off around 11am, too early for lunch according to dad. He wanted to get started on the foundation before we stopped to eat. Now here is where the story gets both interesting and primitive. My father said our next step was to dig the foundation. Being naïve to the whole process I asked him how we would do that. He said we needed to dig a 12” wide by 4’ deep ditch along the length of the four strings. Using simple math, that meant the ditch would be 260 feet long. We were going to do this by hand with pickaxes and shovels. Now would be a good time to share just what kind of land this was my father had bought. It was a hillside pasture that had never been developed. The ground was full of rocks, clay and roots. Not exactly the most suitable for digging a foundation let alone doing it by hand.

Knowing no better, I picked up the pickaxe, which I had never even seen one of before this day, and after sizing up where the first strike should be I swung with all my might hitting the stake and sending it flying. Dad replaced the stake and showed me how to swing this tool correctly. And so it began. I would swing the axe a few times breaking up the ground and then shovel the dirt out pitching it into the “inside” of the leveled off area where the floor would be. It is no exaggeration to say that this method of digging a foundation is very hard work. The sun would beat down on us as we work all day at the task. I often felt myself getting dizzy and weak. After all, I was only a teen and had never been exposed to this type of manual labor. Manual labor in the city was unrolling the garden hose by hand, or mowing the tiny front yard with a non-motorized push mower, the type that as the wheels move so do the blades. I should have been riding my bicycle to the corner store a block away and getting a Popsicle or going to the local public swimming pool, not working as a child laborer on a two-person chain gang.

It took us a full two days to dig the foundation. Now we had to build the “forms” along both sides of the ditch that would enable the cement to extend a foot above the ground. The walls would then be bolted to this foundation. The forms would be made from some of the boards that would later be used in the building of the floors. By the end of the third day the forms were up and ready for the cement. The hardest part of constructing the forms was getting them level. This meant building up the ground, or digging out some of it, to make the foundation level. Of course, like the corners were anything but square, the footer would turn out to be anything but level.

The evening of that third night, I ached as I had never ached before. I was sore, sunburned, exhausted and just plain beat. My father must have taken note of my “condition” and said, “Let’s take a walk”. Quite frankly, taking a walk was the last thing I wanted to do. Dad was not swayed by my reluctance. He said it would be good for me and would make me feel better. We walked down the hill and across the road. There was a cornfield across the road that a farmer down the road tended. We made our way through the cornfield to a creek. Following the creek about a half-mile to the north, we came upon a wide spot in the creek where a block wall ran up the bank on the other side. My dad had spent most of his childhood on a farm in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. I would imagine that you learn a few things during that type of daily activity. Dad was about to share one of them with me, how to end the workday. As we stood on the bank of the creek, dad took off his work boots and his trademark white crew socks, which were now mostly brown from the dirt of the footer ditch. He was wearing a white sleeveless t-shirt and sporting an obvious farmer’s tan. He removed the shirt leaving only his cut-off shorts, made from an old pair of work chinos, and waded out into the water. He stopped about 3 feet out and yelled for me to come in. I had jeans on so after taking off all but them, I rolled up the legs and made my way out to where he was. He motioned to the middle of the creek and said that it looked like that was deep enough to swim in.

I was never a very good swimmer. I could swim, but never really seemed to have the stamina to trust myself to go where I couldn’t touch bottom. A fear I have to this day. I ventured out further and found that dad was correct. The water got about 5 feet deep and was cool and refreshing. I felt myself feeling better with each splash and stroke. Dad stayed where he was just wading in the water, splashing some on his chest, arms and the back of his neck. He lit up a cigarette and just stood there, taking in the scenery. He was a hard-working man with little education and even less tangible resources, but he had a deep sense of nature and the beauty that surrounds us. I called for him to come out to where I was but he said no, that he wanted to just “cool off”. I found out later that although my father had thrown me into a lake at Boy Scout camp to “sink or swim” in regards to getting my merit badge for swimming, he never learned how to swim. Dad was not afraid of the water and loved to be on and in it. He had a boat several times during his adult life and would fish on lakes both small and large. He just never learned to swim. After I swam around for a while and felt sufficiently refreshed, I climbed out and sat down on the bank against a log next to dad. We must have spent over an hour just sitting there, talking about the build, the land, the creek and how it probably has some great fishing in it. Many nights we would take a lantern and poles and drive, by way of a dirt road that jutted off the main road about a mile south of our land, to the other side of the creek and sit atop that block wall drowning worms, swatting mosquito’s and telling corny jokes. I don’t fish anymore and use bug spray so I’m not accosted by those annoying summer pests, but I do still enjoy hearing and telling those corny jokes.

The End

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