Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Up the Ladder

(This essay was inspired by a visit to Struthers, Ohio, the small town where my mother grew up.)
Doing something safe, Grand Teton National Park

When I was a teenager, one of my regular summer chores was helping my grandfather maintain his house.

Although the old man accepted help about as well as Dick Cheney, whenever my mother got wind of some home-improvement scheme of his – replacing a section of gutter, tarring the garage roof, painting the house – she’d tell my father, “I can’t let that 85-year-old man get up there on that extension ladder all by himself,” and the next thing I knew I’d be on my way to Struthers.

What Mom never knew was how threatened I was by the jobs. Grandpa’s summer projects never involved ground-level work. Each and every one included scaling a rickety, wooden, triple-extension ladder, usually with a full bucket of something liquid and nasty in one hand, a brush in the other, hands greasy from cleaning solution and feet smeared with tar.

Being a teenager I was more concerned with looking right than dressing safe, so sunburn and twisted ankles (from low-cut tennis shoes) were routine.

Grandpa, being old, and stubborn, and a world-class skinflint, kept his hearing aid on “low” (saves batteries), didn’t listen to anything I suggested (what could a kid know?), and smirkingly dragging out his collection of America’s Shabbiest Tools, offered up an incredible range of personal injury options.

A favorite scheme was to assign me something that sounded easy so I’d get drawn in, (today we’d call it “invested”), then reshuffle the deck and put me in mortal danger. For example, The Summer Of Bent Nails.

It began innocently, with the hatch door to the house’s basement standing open. I stepped in, out of the broiling July sun. Grunts emanated from the darkness. Not a good sign, since one of my functions was to keep Grandpa from heavy lifting until my mother and her siblings could persuade him to get his bilateral hernias repaired. A grunt meant failure.

However, the basement was cool, with an earthen floor and the lingering scent (Mom would call it “stench”) of the old man’s autumnal rite – making sauerkraut. In the dim light of a 25 watt bulb (why waste electricity?) I saw him hunched over and struggling. He was wrestling an anvil into position under the light. “Shit!” I thought, knowing something weird was about to ensue. He’d not yet seen me; I could turn around and catch a bus home. But if whatever-it-was he was doing landed him in hospital, there’d be Hell to pay. I stepped into his vision zone.

“Oh, hello Chuckie,” he blandly said. “Here. Get those nails from the bench.”

I followed his gesture with my eyes. On the workbench was a tangled heap of rusty metal. Nails? But now he was groping his hernia back into place, an act I preferred not to watch. I went to the bench. They were nails indeed. Tortured, bent, salvaged from God-knew-where….

“We need to straighten them, Use that ball-peen hammer and put them in that can.”

Oh, he meant, “You will straighten them.” “OK,” I answered.

He was already ambling towards the door. I picked up a batch of nails. This was really cheap. I could respect this.

Choosing a roofing nail that wasn’t a total corkscrew, I gave it a firm tap with the ball peen. It rocketed off into the darkness. Nice. I’d have to hold and hammer. I knew what that meant: bruised fingers. Oh, well, at least the basement was cool.

Some time later I emerged with a can full of recycled nails and mashed up fingertips, hoping my job was done. But, no -  there was a familiar sound coming from the garage: wood and metal rattling together.

There Grandpa was, tightening the screws that held the ladder rungs in place. Ancient oak creaked with each twist of the screwdriver and I wondered how many screws he’d sheared in his efforts to make things “safe.” 

“We need to patch up this roof,” he said. “Clean out the gutter on your way up, and replace any nails. Then nail down any loose shingles and tar them.”

I dared to peek at the house. Three stories. Roof as steep as a steeple. Oh… My… God.
But, no, he was leaning the ladder against the garage. “Go on. Tell me what you need.”

So it went: one long week (the hottest of the summer, I might add) of gingerly stepping across a much-too-old garage roof, tapping nails through wood that could barely support tarpaper and shingles (Whoa, don’t step there!) and smearing tar on every leak-prone shingle edge. The dangerous parts came from heat-and-fumes induced dizziness, the many dangling wasp nests, and of course the support timbers. And, oh yes, the transformation that occurs to the soles of tennis shoes when they’ve accidentally been shoved into tar and then land on a round, loose ladder rung.

I didn’t fully appreciate the tar smears I’d left on the ladder’s top rungs until the following summer, when the work was house painting. I was 17 then, just out of high school and looking forward to college, and somewhat less terrified by heights. That “somewhat” got severely modified with each climb up the ladder. I knew the slippery spots were waiting at the top and there was little I could do about them except step gingerly.

There was much ginger-stepping that summer. Grandpa’s nosey and cynical neighbor spent much of every day hanging around, offering me advice while critiquing “the old man’s” cheapness. Every lunch, Grandpa would offer a long prayer for said neighbor’s soul, who was damned by definition (Grandpa’s definition) by being Catholic. Meanwhile I was stressing over pre-college fears (money, courses, girls) and the usual adolescent material (sex, sex, sex). At home, my father’s leftist politics were generating conflict while my mother worried more about my college spending money that I did. I tried to keep a low profile everywhere, but soon found myself having to get a paying job and leave Grandpa to fend for himself.

As it turned out that was the last summer I worked for the old man. The next year I worked in Yellowstone National Park, and the year after that he sold his house and began living with his children. In fact, that summer was the last I ever got up on a triple-extension ladder. Today if you asked me to do it I’d demand a belay!

Oh, you were wondering how this post relates to bread? That’s back in Grandpa’s basement -  the bubbling sauerkraut. Without realizing it at the time, I’d learned that plain ol’ people could make their own altered and exotic dishes and that fermenting foods vastly enhanced their appeal. Today, whenever I lift the lid on a storage leaven and sniff that mix of ethanol and yeast, I think of Grandpa’s basement and the 10-gallon crock of kraut bubbling under the stairs. And the big fistful of bent nails I buried under the anvil stand.

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