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Digging Holes

I’ve been hankering lately to work on some bigger house projects so I was delighted with the prospect of building a deck and remaking the yard. For some reason designing a deck that integrated gracefully into the steps leading from our back porch down to the yard presented a strange challenge. But after days of brainstorming we developed a design that was pretty cool. It seemed like a fairly straightforward, one-man project but I hired Howdy, a contractor friend, to help with the framing.

About ten years ago Howdy and I had worked together through the spring, summer and into the fall remodeling our old house. We worked as partners but Howdy was clearly in charge, the brains of the outfit. At the end of each week I wrote him a check and to be honest, it was always a little strange, like paying your dance partner after a memorable evening. But our arrangement worked. During those months we added six feet across the back of the house, moved the kitchen and dining room, moved the downstairs powder room and expanded it into a bathroom with a huge shower and heated floor, and gutted and expanded an upstairs bathroom. We did it all: poured concrete, updated all the ancient knob and tube wiring, ran pipes, relocated and added heating ducts. We opened up the main floor, removing most of the walls and raising laminated beams to carry the load from the upstairs. We ran long “home runs” of romex electrical cable and every evening, after Howdy quit for the day I would somehow manage to cut through each with a misapplied but efficient reciprocating saw.

A few years later Howdy returned to help me move the front door and raise the ceiling on the porch and a year after that we reconfigured and finished two rooms in our basement, gaining a small woodshop and a sewing/photography room. After all this time, I came to respect the way that Howdy worked and, especially, how he went about solving problems. Howdy approached situations like I did, like a metalsmith, breaking down the situation, considering materials and staging actions. He has a startling ability to imagine space and understand volume, easily laying out a flat pattern on sheet metal that would miraculously fold up into a 3 dimensional duct transition.

We began this spring by staking out the deck margins with string after which we dug holes to pour the cement footings that would hold our pier blocks. There had been little rain (a surprise in a Seattle June) and the ground was cement hard. Getting a shovel started in that turf was a chore but I managed to chisel out passably square holes deep enough to do the job. Howdy, at seventy a decade older than me, also dug holes but his were different. Dug with a square shovel the margins were perfect; the sides true and vertical. These holes looked like they were cut from above with alien laser devices that removed perfect cubes of material. These holes were beautiful. And they took no longer to dig than mine.

Looking at those holes made me smile. I had felt the same way over and over during our time together. Howdy had worked on fishing boats back in the day and had come to understand intuitively that an ordered space is a safe space. At the end of every day we neatly coiled extension cords and hung them on the end of a sawhorse. Nothing remained under foot or cluttered the work area. We swept up and made things right. Howdy’s nail and screw patterns were always on the money. His scarfs and miters were tight. He took the time to straighten the heavy, stubborn 12 gauge electrical cable before we ran it, stapling it at regular intervals and running it nice and true down the sides of studs and joists that would be covered with insulation and sheet rock and never seen again.

Howdy’s working practice, his way with materials and making was something that I suppose might have evolved over his years building things but I think that it was something more, something innate and hardwired. It’s a respect for the craft of things, a belief in getting things right. As innate as I think this is for Howdy, I’m not sure that it is for me. As a younger man I was impatient and easily frustrated. It took an act of will to stubbornly commit to making something well; to see it through to the end no matter what.

Maybe I’m wrong and maybe it was that way for Howdy too. But that way of working—of being—just seemed to flow through him, his natural state. Watching someone work like that in even the most mundane of tasks is inspiring and instructive. It’s something to aspire to. At the end of the day it doesn’t really matter how you get to that point. But it’s a sweet place to get to.

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