October was already nippy in 1975 in the Finger Lakes region of New York where, over the years I learned to ignore the weather because no matter what I did it always was getting in the way.
This first morning of a new project, the architect/contractor, Pebbli Aquada, told me to watch over the excavation for the foundation. He gave me a brief lesson on how to use a builder's level and a compass. "Lay it out this way," Pebbli said, then abruptly left in his Volvo. The first time I ever saw a builder’s level and not even in a book. It looked easy the way Pebbli explained it. I had never ever overseen or dug a foundation pit.
Patrick von Arsonus, who was having the house built, was a long-haired math whiz Professor newly on tenure. He wanted the prospective second-floor picture window to face the woody ditch at a specified angle of oh-point-oh-oh-nubbie degrees.
Joseph Mallory Sr., with his yellow Cat D9, had carved a slash in the clay through the woods and rammed his machine down the hill. And here at the bottom near the fern-bound creek Joseph and his helper, Buzzy Rama and I were looking at a fresh cut with the fuzzy idea that we were now going to construct a house designed by a newly released architect. There is meant here no intentional comparison to escapees of the historic Willard Asylum for the Chronic Insane. Some undertaking, always willing, never smart. A rule of thumb when you graduate from the Cornell architecture school is to run away from the region as quick as possible and get a real job. At least it should be a rule of thumb if it is not already. I was a young townie mason, able to lift a concrete block in a single heave. I should also have come to my senses and left the area that day.
It began to snow.
Joseph and Rama were in kind of a hurry and did not appear to be particularly appreciative of my detailed angular calculations. I was born high on theory, low on practice. Once I got started I quickly realized I had to go over this a few times. After running around with the builder's level and dropping the bluelines in the mud, scraping my knees and smashing my hand with a lump hammer, getting bloody thumb prints on the blueprints, driving broken branches into the mud (Pebbli had not thought to provide wood stakes with fluorescent tape flags), Joseph chasing me around with the dozer blade and Rama menacing my behind with the backhoe, we got the thing laid out. As it would turn out I was only three degrees off, a tiddly of a fact later to cause a major upset with Mr. von Arsonus. How could we do such a thing? Conflict with the lay lines, bad karma, diversion of energy, loss of services, zombie visitations, white nosed bats, bad gas, mutant babies. In fact, the most important thing I should have perceived was that it was snowing. But instead, as any sensible mason will agree, once the damned hole was done with I lit a cigar and went afterwards to the nearest pub.
As with any well planned turn-key operation, the following Saturday we were scheduled to pour the concrete footers.
At 2:00 AM the Cornell university meteorological department came on the local FM radio, that was how we found out things back then in those old days, and advised the early morning audience to brace itself for the Blizzard of the Century.
Professors must have been using students to transcribe Antarctica's subsurface ice flows that week. I admit I was not that old or experienced, so a century type of storm seemed like an important occurrence. A big storm was coming.
By 5:00 AM I had fretted myself silly and called all of my crew -- the masonry company of three and a half -- and told them to stay home in bed. Most of them were hung over and happy to hear that they could stay home. It didn't much matter to them that later it was a beautiful day. One of those days you simply love to read about. Clear blue skies, sunny and unseasonably warm. So on Sunday Mr. von Arsonus called up Pebbli, crunched his number, and seriously questioned my capability as a mason. Pebbli was adept at bullshit (it must have been his minor at university) besides, nobody but Pebbli would have volunteered to build the foundation at that time of the season. Like me, Pebbli was hungry and would do roughly anything to feed his beast.
This headed to my promise to pour the footers the following Saturday, rain or shine.
I don't apprehend how many meteorologists it takes to predict a storm; I just hope they don't get paid too much for doing it. If you predict the future, it doesn't help to be a week off target. Upstate there are two solid maxims: Gennie Cream Ale is fun to joke about, especially if it glows in the dark when you expel it, and weather is unpredictable.
It rained, it snowed, then it rained, then it snowed some more. Good for penguins. Clay is interesting when it gets wet. I have heard experts talk about the mysterious properties of clay at conferences, so it must be interesting. If it had not been for Joseph with his big yellow Cat we would not have gotten the readi-mix truck back up the hill when it was empty. When you push a wheelbarrow in clay the tire gets bound up and the rubber boots start to suck off your feet. Nobody ever told me this. Concrete is always in a hurry; you have to get it placed before it sets. I judged that something was not working out very well when I noticed brown ribbons, sort of like veining in Vermont marble, running through the gray. We had mud, then we had mud, then we had mixed mud. We also had hot coffee and fresh donuts, so it wasn't all that bad.
Before Joseph disembarked forever from my life, I got him to agree to send down the hill a few loads of 8" concrete block, which Rama agreeably discharged in a mud hole at the base of the slash. About 30% of the block got busted that way, but at least we did not have to hump the good ones by hand, two at a time, down the bank. The next day everything melted and we were happy. Then it snowed. Then it froze. Then it melted and sank more and then it froze. When I came around to looking I think we got two feet up in snow and down in mud in one week. The temperature dropped to an unpredicted subzero range. Things got stiff, but we kept up a good spirit. The concrete masonry units in the canyon got froze into the ground. No problem, we installed a tarp over the pile and set up a propane heater. As we melted each block and scraped off as much mud as we could manage we carried it over to the foundation. Most of the time we were laying hot steaming block. Only once in a while did one get laid that was frozen. I kept after my guys to only lay a block if it was hot.
It got sort of chaotic when we held our jobsite toolbox meetings. It was too damned cold to stop moving and bring ourselves to talk about shit. But safety is important.
When our teeth had finally got to firmly chattering in a steady bucking rhythm we would all gather around the heater puffing on hand-rolled Durham and questioning the theory of cold-weather-work to death. There was always a lot of the kind of probing and concerned questions a craftsman invariably divines at telling moments.
Do you think the mortar is setting up too fast? We used to compete to see who could buck their teeth the loudest. Why don't we use some of that fiberglass stucco and forget the joints. One day Bill got bored and lit a bunch of roofing cement buckets on fire inside the enclosure. What about that article you read last week in the masonry magazine, didn't it say admixtures weaken the mud? Always a new topic. Is that white stuff on your beard ice? I like the balance on the Rose trowel better than the Marshalltown. Do you think the used motor oil in this bucket is OK to mix in with the mortar; I hate to throw it away? We agreed that one field indicator of value was whether we had to chisel the ice off a block before we set it. Even though we were using an approved admixture -- blackberry brandy every half hour, the mortar kept freezing to the trowels and the joint slickers. It took something smarter than us to survive.
Each day Mr. von Arsonus and his wife Veronica stood at the edge of the hole in silence and watched every move we made. They would never say hello, they would never say goodbye, they just stood there watching us. They were so stiff that we never thought to offer them some admixture. It was nerve wracking at first, and then it got worse, they were taking notes. Every time I said anything to one of the guys, "Hey Steve, leave a little for the rest of us," they were listening. In the evening they would sit in their campus apartment warm at the hearth with mulled cider counting their toes in hexadecimal, and then near midnight call up Pebbli and ask their own probing questions. Pebbli would then call me up after midnight and relieve his own bile. I got tired of that, shut the job down, found out which pizza parlor (power of networking, my Uncle Bob was the pizza truck guy on campus) Pebbli frequented, and told him to his face that it was me or them, but not both.
Unfortunately, I won that argument. This was supposed to be a three-week job, and we had agreed that we would not be paid until completion. It actually took four months. I didn't have any money. My wife sold her guitar so we could buy a few Christmas presents.
By this time we needed an enclosure and supplemental heat. We decided to enclose half of the foundation, build that half and then move the enclosure over and build the other half. Two-by-fours, a few pipe frames, and clear poly sheeting. No problem.
There is a geometrical difficulty in building a masonry wall when you start from one corner and just trust, or hope that the other corner will show up sometime soon. You keep looking over toward that end of space and imagine a lot of neat stuff. Put a slightly warped door buck in the middle, and you're bordering on psychosis.
The sand pile, frozen solid more than a foot in depth, was conveniently located at the top of our itty bitty Mount Fuji. The solution to frozen sand was to get a fifty-five gallon drum, cut a hole in one side, stick a chimney flue on top of it, and bust up the sand with a pick, pile it around the drum, then start a fire from selected deadwood scavenged from the site.
By this time we were getting our mixing water out of the scenic woodland ditch, which meant we had to break through the ice every morning. Whenever a guy fell in we had to dry him off fairly quickly, which tended to use up the propane, so the pressure to scavenge firewood increased proportional to the duration of the project. I made up a little graph to illustrate this to the guys one evening on a napkin.
The snow was getting serious about this time, close to three foot deep, so we built a sand sled out of two-by-sixes. The sled worked pretty well for moving the sand down the hill and bringing in unbroken block and bags of masonry cement. But it took determination to get the damn sled back up the hill. I wish we had oxen. Sometimes the sand would freeze and we would have to pound it out of the sled with sledges and the sled would fall apart. Or we would dump a load halfway down the hillside and have to start over. But we were having fun in the snow doing this winter sport thing.
When we needed another 100 lb tank of propane, we would all go to town with an empty. When we got back we would tip the full tank over, tie a rope to the valve, and pull it down the hill. One person pull, one push. We got a groove built up, like a bobsled run, and those tanks zipped along real neat; it never occurred to us that we might be risking involvement in high-level ballistic research.
When Joseph Mallory had first cut the mud slash down the mountain, the brain trust and his wife, standing in the way the whole time, had insisted that he bypass a particular defunct tree. This was not a large or monumental dead thing, hardly a landmark, and very similar to most of the surrounding wood. The trunk on this pre-stump edifice was about eight inches in diameter, a good size for cordwood, and at about four feet off the ground it split into two vertical branches. Something like a northeastern version of a deceased saguaro.
Well, one of the guys working for me was the carpenter's lead man; eventually we would be finished with this masonry circus and a carpenter would come in to frame out the habitation. Bill was sort of assigned to us as a laborer by Pebbli, because out in the boonies you do anything you can hope to get paid for. When the foundation was completed, I in turn signed on as the carpenter's laborer. Bill was a nice guy but he was more into trimming wood than mixing mortar, so he was assigned to firewood and water detail.
I don't know how the miscommunication occurred, or if it even was a miscommunication. With the cold winter weather and blizzard white-outs we were getting to be like squirrels denied hibernation for two seasons. As well, I don't think Bill had a proper attitude about getting himself soaked wet to drag wood through the snow every morning. The hardwood was at the top of the hill and convenient to the sand pile. Next thing I knew one branch was gone. This did not go over very well with Mr. von Arsonus. Pebbli made one of his rare progress visits to the site. Apology, apology, apology. One of the drawbacks of speaking English is that you can be held responsible.
A week later the other branch was gone. It's like asking the kids who broke the garage window.
The actual architect of this house, who was not Pebbli Aquada, had designed a split-level foundation. One half was five feet lower than the other half that was five feet higher and it was not gradually stepped between them. Possibly as students the two architects had been rivals for the same young woman or something, but they obviously did not have matching ideas about this house. Half of the foundation, the part sunk into the clay, ran along level, and then the whole thing dropped down five feet and ran level for the other half of the house, and pointed out toward the rustic stream at a weird angle. It had occurred to me – the uneducated mason -- that something like this should be incrementally stepped down, but Pebbli assured me that you could come right on over to the precipice, then drop the whole footer down in one brilliant perpendicular cascade of solidly reinforced concrete. Pebbli was the one with the Ivy League education, major and minor and though I had previously told him about the mud marbleizing of the concrete he took it no mind.
The architect had also specified that on the hill side the wall was to be completely filled with concrete and that #4 bars were to be set continuously in pairs from top to bottom in each block core. Pebbli assured me that this was a case of overbuild, which was a new idea to me (overbuild?), and sternly instructed us to only fill the cores on four-foot centers and to leave out the rebar. OK. I showed him a book I had found about federal specifications for constructing concrete dams, like Hoover, that clearly indicated the unsoundness of his directions. Then he really went overboard on this overbuild thing. It took me many years to recover and understand what is really meant by "good enough for government work." I was under the impression it meant a standard of quality that nobody in their right mind would try to sustain; an obvious illusion young contractors should be disabused of promptly. Good enough for government work means build it as shitty as possible and still get paid. Not very patriotic, I agree.
It was about this time that I began to have a recurring problem with my heart rate, which now and then would suddenly jump up to around 220 beats per minute. Each time this happened I thought I might be dying. I would be in intense pain. I had trouble breathing. I lost all feeling in my arms and legs. I could not talk. My heart beat so fast that the blood was not flowing. I spent a lot of time getting wet from lying on the cold ground trying to like bloody hell to tick normally.
I thought this might be something that happens to lots of people when they get stressed out, but several years later I had a job with health insurance, and when the heart thing hit I told my wife to call an ambulance. It was about time I found out what was going on. It turned out to be a rare congenital heart syndrome. As a contractor I believe in providing good service, so if you ever see me lying on a New York sidewalk with my legs up in the air against a building, you can be assured I am taking care of business.
I said we had no money, but that was not exactly true. My wife and I had a big bag of dry soybeans, and my partner Steve had been in the habit of stashing quarters in his bedroom wall since early childhood. We survived on quarters, soybean patties, cheap beer, and the generosity of family. To this day I have an aversion to pan-fried tofu.
The front brakes on my Ford pick-up failed, and I tied the calipers together with bailing wire. I did not have money for antifreeze so eventually the block froze and cracked. We lived about twenty miles from the job, and realizing that without transportation we could never complete the foundation, Pebbli lent us his white Ford van and a Sunoco card. We started making emergency material runs all over the state. We even got some side work moving furniture.
The storm of the century was nothing to what came after the storm of the century. It must have been the storm of the apocalypse, leading up to the blizzard from the ice chest of hell. We drove home that night from our rendezvous with my wife in the downtown pub where we should have stayed playing quarter rounds of pool. The snow was thick, the wind was blowing, the snow plowers were chicken hearted, and the road was virgin territory. That night the ride home I put my head out the window. Steve put his head out the other window. We opened the back door, Jeff and Tom and a German shepherd hung out the side of the van. We drove from telephone pole to telephone pole in the darkness, with flakes of snow racing into the blinding headlights and praying we would not suddenly dip into a ditch as we inched our way to Podunk.
At least getting water for the mix became easier. We poked a hole in the poly sheeting above us, and the snow melt from our heated enclosure would drain into an oil drum. We always had concrete blocks lined up on their ends, like little soldiers on bivouac waiting to get laid.
I had gone to High School with the son of the man that owned the local mason's yard. Without telling me Pebbli had gone down to the yard and arranged credit for the job, based on my name and reputation. Since the framing of the house was not yet completed, Pebbli had not paid for any of the mason materials. I did not find this out until after my part of the job was completed and I went in, friendly as could be, with cash in hand to purchase materials for another job. Not exactly fun. Pebbli was an asshole.
Eventually the foundation got four corners. There was a lot of cut and patch to tie into the center of the wall, and the whole thing looked sick. This was good, because well into February Pebbli called an old-time mason, one who had been wise enough not to start the work in October, who came out and gave his helpful opinion. It was the worse job he had ever seen in his life, said he. It looked as if it had been built by a tribe of lunatics, possibly. He would never build anything like that, unless under extreme duress. We should never be paid, “inconceivable, stop the check” stuff. Possibly we should be jailed, his brother Matt being a state trooper.
By this time my poor crew and I were owed close to $10,000.00. Right along from the first snow on the first day with the damn builder's level, I had kept telling Pebbli that we should wait until spring to build this thing. But no, he said it had to be done right along now, he was going to pay us for each man day we worked, and he would take care of any business problems that might develop. I knew our relationship was constructed on trust.
I'm glad I did not have the job of backfill on the foundation, but I am sorry that somebody did. Once they backfilled that split-level footer and the un-heavily reinforced wall with a hump of yards of clay, a big crack running from zero at the footer to two inches at the top opened up. Oh, my God, how could this be?
By this time the first floor was framed out, including the walls, when I met Pebbli alone at the site. I was kind of wondering when we were going to get paid. I had long since given his van back, and was understandably anxious to have some cash. My guys were getting a little anxious with me, and the relation was too thin now to hazard another big winner of a fabulous job.
At this point Pebbli explained to me that I had to fix the crack in the foundation. I told him it was his crack and he could fix it himself. He explained how difficult the whole thing was.
The foundation had cost a lot more than anyone anticipated. It would have been OK if everything had been done to the most perfect standards, but now the owners did not want to pay him. In turn he could not pay us. He almost had a point. The framing carpenter was a specialist and worked with a tolerance of 1/8". That morning he had been riding me because the foundation was off in one corner by 1/2". You know how those masons are always screwing over the carpenters. But I had a point also. I was standing there with a crowbar in my hand. This was the closest I have ever come to wanting to kill someone. I left as quickly as possible.
I was messed up in the head for a while, until I talked with an attorney friend of the family, who suggested I inform Pebbli that I was considering a mechanic's lien. So Steve and I and a couple of other big guys went over to Pebbli's house and knocked on his door. He started out acting angry at us for coming to his house, wanted to know what our business was.
At the time my body understood concrete blocks fairly well, so despite the brief explanation from the attorney, I was not fully cognizant as to the implications of a mechanic's lien. I didn't even know that a mason contractor should have general liability insurance. Always good at repeating myself, I knew enough to convincingly repeat the counsel's words. "If you don't pay us within a week I'm gonna put a lien on the house." Big bad wolf. Next thing I knew Pebbli was outside in his driveway with us guys, crying and begging us not to lien the project. He actually got down on his knees and started grabbing at the air; it was like some sort of ecstatic conversion. I don't think he knew his wife was watching from a side window. I was getting embarrassed and wanted to leave, but held to steady ground.
A promise was made there in the driveway, some sort of covenant I suppose, and within a month we were paid in full. What I did not know was that some other people had been all over Pebbli's case for the last year. This project was supposed to be his bailout. Not much later Pebbli moved to Connecticut and got himself a six-figure gig with an architectural firm. I hope Pebbli is a well- behaved partner by now, with a compulsive desire to sit in his living room and watch the weather channel. I sometimes watch it myself; but if I hear the phrase "Blizzard of the Century," I go about my business like normal.