THE HOUSE THAT AL BUILT
(Based On A True Story)
By Rick Manzone
(Change Is In The Air)
The year was 1971. It was the beginning of summer and the music industry was bursting at the seams with wholesome family bands, singer songwriters and teen idols. You listened to the hits on 45rpm records, reel to reel tape players or AM stations on your handheld transistor radio. Television was a mixed bag of variety shows and sitcoms breaking new ground and showcasing social issues while news of racial tensions, war and the space program were the conversation of the day. Cars were cool and the asphalt was hot. Gas was under a dollar a gallon, phones still had dials, Pinto pants, Nehru jackets and large medallions with peace symbols on them were in. Computers were something only scientists had. Soda pop came in 10 or 16oz. glass bottles and you needed a bottle opener to pop the cap. It’s a wonderment of technology that some 50 years later one of the constants in our society is the bottle cap. Other than the “twist-off” ability, they have remained pretty much the same since their inception. You could take a paper shopping bag full of popped-in-a-pot-with-Gem-oil-from-the-big-can-on-the-stove-top popcorn into the movie theatre where you could watch two movies and cartoons for a quarter. You could count your friends on your fingers and if you had a couple of dollars you were living high off the hog. Life was good for a young teenager. It was a simpler time.
I had just finished my freshman year at an all boy vocational high school and had planned to spend the summer working for my uncle in his delicatessen in another part of the city as I had done the previous summer. However, a week or two prior, my father had informed me that he and I were going to spend this summer on a five acre hillside, along Route 16 between the towns of Ishua and Hinsdale, NY, He had purchased the land with what little savings he had and the money I received from guests at my graduation from public school the summer before. The plan was that he and I would build a house and my mother and siblings would join us when our house in the city sold, which my parents hoped, would coincide with the completion of our new home.
I new little of the rural, isolated, simplified far off land known as Hinsdale. It was a town roughly 50 or 60 miles south of the city. We had passed through it several times in the years prior, as we would make regular weekend visits to a farm distant relatives of my mother’s had in the area. Our visits to the farm were tantamount to a vacation from the cement fields, telephone poles, signposts and chrome-laden motorcars of the city. Here the hay fields stretched across the landscape waving in the breeze, trees of every type lined the borders of the fields like fortress walls as sounds of tractors and hay balers created a rural melody. The smell of back yard grilling was replaced with freshly spread cow manure, new cut hay, pies baking, and the week’s wash waving in the wind on the clothesline in the yard of the farmhouse.
As I have mentioned, the land was acquired partially with money I had received as gifts at my eighth grade graduation party the summer before. It was custom then to have a party when graduating from eighth grade. There was no elementary and middle school…just grade school. In all honesty, however, I think the occasion may have just been another reason for my father to throw a party. I remember my parent’s families did not really have a shortage of reasons for throwing parties. Of course every party was pretty much the same. They were held in someone’s back yard or someone’s basement. Rope Italian sausage with peppers and onions, on the grill regardless of the season, Rigatoni and meatballs (which had more bread crumbs and onions in them than ground beef), clams, metal wash buckets full of ice cold 16 oz. “long neck” bottles of Genny Cream Ale, a “church key” hanging on a rope attached to the handle of the wash bucket, several gallons of Vino De Uva (sp)…or “Dago Red” wine as my father would call it, tossed salad drowning in oil and vinegar, and loaves of homemade Italian bread… unsliced, of course so you could “tear off a chunk” to enjoy.
Getting back to my father’s plans for the move to Hinsdale. His plan was that he and I would “set up camp” on the hillside where he and I would begin to build a house that would live in. A concept only my father considered even remotely possible. My father had been a Scout Master in the Boy Scout troop I was part of in the city and we had spent a lot of time camping and learning to “rough it” so I suppose he thought I was up to the task. There was never any doubt in his or my mind that he was. My father was the type who would do whatever job he had to do using the only tools he had…his hands, his back, which was considerably damaged from the earlier fall from a tree, his common sense and whatever scraps of greenbacks he could muster. This summer’s endeavor would prove to be nothing less.
Sometime during the spring of that life-changing year my father had negotiated some sort of trade with my mother’s father for his 1960 Chevrolet pickup. I can’t imagine what my father traded since he did not have much and my grandfather seemed to have everything he needed. Grampa Joe had his little grape covered trellis in the backyard, the walls of his garage lined with chopped firewood for the pot belly store that heated it, his vegetable garden that he tended daily, and his seemingly non-ending supply of Ben Franklin cigars which he chain smoked as he gave lessons to anyone brave enough to join him in a game of Pinochle. He was a skilled carpenter and mason, a member of the local Civil Service and patriarch of a large, close knit Italian family albeit not without their share of traumatic memories of physical and emotional abuse at his hands. I would learn later in life that my grandfather was not a very nice person for much of his life. He was prone to drinking too much and letting his Sicilian machismo and sense of high rank as the man of the house cloud his thinking and his actions alienating his eight children and his wife of almost seventy-five years. Some of the alienation would diminish as the years past however and many wonderful memories were made when our families would visit his house for holidays and other fun occasions. My favorite memory of his yard is relaxing under his very large weeping willow in the wooden glider he made.
Getting back to the pickup truck. Whatever the trade deal was, my father was now the proud owner of this very rough yet very dependable truck. The cab appeared as if it had been painted red with a brush and roller. The box had been removed and a series of cracked and dirty planks most likely recycled from some building or type of crating, provided a sturdy platform for hauling whatever needed hauling. On this day, it would carry our home for the next three months. The load consisted of a nine man canvas olive drab surplus army tent, about 500 feet of extension cord, my father’s old but usable hand power saw, his vast assortment of hammers, screwdrivers, hand saws, T-squares, saw horses, miscellaneous hand tools and “trouble lights”. I found out that summer why they are called “trouble lights”. It is because every time I was given the task of holding it so my father could work into the night, I would get in trouble for letting it move or fall or get unplugged or any other of a half dozen occurrences that would give him the opportunity to “share” his rather colorful vocabulary with me. Various other containers contained our cooking, sleeping, hygiene, first aid and medicinal paraphernalia. An assortment of non-brand name cans, boxes and bottles of non-perishable foodstuffs completed our provisions.
My father had abandoned his pea green 1966 Chevrolet Biscayne station wagon in the driveway of our house in the city so my mother would have use of it for the weekly shopping trip to the ACME or Two Guys or the Wonder bread thrift store, our only source of bread and cake products that I can remember from my birth to that point. My mother, after all, had been left behind to manage the house and it’s inevitable sale along with tending to my four siblings. I often wonder how my mother handled those shopping trips without my father being there. The normal practice had been that my mother would shop while my dad and the five of us would wait in the car. My father would light up a cigarette and one of those mosquito repellent coils. He would place the coil on the dash, the cigarette in his mouth, lay his head on the drivers side door and nod off shortly after my mother left the car, leaving us kids to amuse ourselves. In my father’s defense, he always parked the car on the side of the Two Guys parking lot that faced the Twin Drive In. We could watch both movie screens from the car, often lying on the roof. We would imagine what the actors were saying. Sometimes fog would roll in before my mother would return, leaving us to make up our own endings to the film’s story.