RUFFIN-IT: THROWING AWAY ALL THAT GOOD STUFF, PART II
So there we were, finally in Huntsville, sleeping on a mattress on the floor of our little Forest Gates apartment, surrounded by power tools and what little furniture we managed to bring along, minus a bed, with school scheduled to start in a couple of weeks. We did what couple do: we made do.
Well, lo and behold, a few days after we ended up in that particular nest, we got a call about a house an SHSU professor had just vacated, having taken a job elsewhere at the last second, and we were there before the realtor had put up a sign. A few days later, with the English Department moving crew grumbling, my wife and I were camped in an old two-story stone house on Avenue N1/2, just a few blocks from the university. The house itself was big, and there was a two-story carriage house behind it.
The house had been built in 1935, several years after the carriage house, and it had all the modern amenities you’d expect to find in a house of that period that no one had bothered to try to improve. The floors were covered with theater-aisle wool strips (maroon, green, and purple) sewn together to form carpets. Ugly is what. And so imbedded with grit that with a little effort we could have built a sand castle in the living room.
Air-conditioned? Yeah: three window units, two downstairs and one upstairs, and only two in working order. Heat? Yeah: two gas-fired floor furnaces downstairs, and one worked. The carriage house had one window unit and a couple of jets for gas heaters.
Some of the rooms had been sheetrocked, but most had not. The kitchen had planks on the wall and ceiling, with strips of cheesecloth hanging where wallpaper had been stripped away. The cabinets were ancient metal units that someone had generously brushed with brown enamel, using a brush with bristles better designed for a broom.
The main roof on the house was lifetime slate—thank you, Jesus—but composition shingles covered the lower roof in back, and the huge front porch was partially protected by a built-up roof consisting of layers of tarpaper coated with pea-gravel-impregnated tar. The roof on the carriage house likewise had composition shingles, which had been so weathered that I could see the tarpaper underlay in places: It leaked in over two dozen places during our first major thunderstorm.
The wiring in both the main house and carriage house were the old knob-and-tube arrangement, and the breaker boxes were spaghetti bowls of wires with a mixture of fuses and breakers. The plumbing? Oh, good old galvanized half-inch and three-quarter-inch pipes so coated inside with rust and mineral deposits that, had they been arteries, the patient they belonged to would long ago have been dead. The first section I cut open was so clogged that I couldn’t stick a sixteen-penny nail through the middle of it.
In short, after I had had a chance to assess what we had bought, I wondered what kind of fools we were to purchase what obviously was not a fixer-upper but a rebuilder. But I had a PhD and a job and a wife who seemed up to the task to tackling the beast we’d ended up with.
You remember all those tools I told you about in the last column? Well, I was glad to have them. And I wished that I had more. I mean, I knew to build a house and wire and plumb and roof one, but most of my experience was limited to building something new. Here I had to tear down before I could repair and build, and my inventory of tools was woefully inadequate for the task at hand.
I didn’t even have a truck to haul materials, only a VW van. But you make do with what you have. With the hatch open, I could easily haul sheetrock, lumber, stalks of PVC and copper, and half a ton of shingles or wood flooring.
Over the next three decades I completely reworked that old house and carriage house: sheetrocking, wallpapering (with help from my wife), roofing, plumbing, wiring. I built a double-wide, super-deep carport off the front of the carriage house to accommodate my ever-expanding inventory of tools and provide storage space of materials. I even did construction jobs for other people around town.
In time we bought a place in the country, where I ran a small “cattle operation,” meaning “tax break.” This meant more tools of a different kind, primarily agricultural. Then we bought houses on both sides and in front of us, and I set to renovating the two that we kept. More tools, more materials . . . .
Then I got into welding so that I could build a wrought-iron fence out front and bought a cracker-box welder and learned enough to make strong joints, whether they were pleasing to the eye or not. Then I got into metal working and bought a Smithy metal lathe/milling machine. Weighed half a ton.
Then I got into building sidewalks and laying stone around the pool, and that meant a cement mixer and every kind of hand tool in the world to spread and level and finish concrete. And on and on . . . .
Whenever I bought plumbing fittings or electrical supplies, I always bought double, knowing that if I needed a part once, I’d doubtless need it again. Every shelf and every file cabinet in my shop beneath the carriage house and in the carport filled to overflowing. There were times on the weekend when on more than one occasion someone would call and ask me if I might happen to have on hand a particular PVC or copper fitting or electrical part. I usually did.
When I finally drove away from that house in Huntsville, all real estate that we owned now sold, well more than half of my possessions was in the form of tools or building materials, which, thankfully, the outbuildings at the place in Willis could accommodate. Soon every outbuilding was simply brimming with all those tools and materials, which apparently I could not leave home or come home without.
Half of our carport became my shop until in a few years I could have my very own separate Mueller shop building, 24’ x 24’, with running water and a concrete foundation. Oh, yeah. I built an equipment shed of about the same dimensions to stash materials in and bought a big greenhouse kit from Mueller and built it to start plants early and store our gardening and orchard tools and chemicals and fertilizers.
OK, over the eight years that we’ve been here I’ve had to use a lot of those tools and materials, but not enough to make a discernible dent. And that leads us, finally, back to where this whole thing started.
(Next week: I yield to her authority.)