All I want to do is something real. This was the cry of the alienated, head heavy revolutionary, reified and out-gunned by the counter-culture armies on the march. Me, I just wanted to get on with something that did not depend on transmission lines beaming in Zeit Geist. An artist? I wanted it direct from myself, under my own aegis. If I was going to learn from another, journeyman, professor or guru, they needed to be attached to my own inward directed syllabus. Hand-me down learnin’—what I was supposed to know didn’t cut it. So, I wanted to know something about building houses. Know…so I could do it myself.
I’d met a builder the summer before graduation (fleeing Madison, more like it) when visiting in-laws on Cape Cod. Dennis Bradley was building old-timey Post & Beam buildings with Count Rumsford style fireplaces. They had the character of Japanese joinery in an American Colonial tradition and context. VERY Whole Earth Catalog. I asked Dennis if he ever took on an apprentice, he laughed…apprentice? If you want hard work, call me if you ever move here. I did, and eighteen months later I was sitting on a building deck with a pile of 16″ X 16″ 20 foot yellow pine beams. I’d made that deck with 2″ X 6″ pine, tongue and groove roofing lumber. My job was to follow the blueprints and cut mortise and tenon joints, day after day. When all the beams were cut, the structure would go up in a couple of days. The building was on Eastham Marsh, the place where Pilgrims first landed (which spills out to First Encounter Beach) before they swung over to Plymouth. I’d show up at dawn and go over the plans with Dennis for the cuts I’d be making that day. Handsaw and chisel. Spring marsh, birds getting randy, chittering up a concupiscent chorus. The smell was perfumy ooze, soft spring air after a very hard winter in a drafty old house with a lot of drafty psyches. Those weeks I came up with the idea of happiness beyond it’s opposite. I was happy beyond…
Dennis didn’t have work for me when I moved to the Cape in the fall of ’73. Maybe in the Spring he told me. Until then I did what I’d always done—call all the people doing what I want to do. Look in the Yellow Pages. Make phone calls ’til you find someone who needs help. “Sure, I could use someone,” said Steadman. “Do you use tools?” I could cut on a line, knew what a snap-line was, drill and hammer, knew that the difference between 5/16 and 5/8. “Come by at 7:30 and we’ll get started. I’m a contractor but I do a lot of masonry. Can you mix a batch of mud? You need to be taught to do it right, nothing worse than a batch of bad of mud.” “My first job,” he said, “working for a mason I got a trowelful in the face.” Point taken. I was shown to an elephantine pile of bricks that needed the mortar chipped off. Do that til were ready.
Steadman’s crew included a PTSD corporal just back from ‘Nam with wife troubles, a Jesus Freak who read Christ-y new-age tracts at lunch, back grounded by the boss practicing his Karate Kicks on 2×4’s. A toxic work place? It seemed I couldn’t eat enough to stay warm and be energetic. The caustic mortar was turning my hands to paws. But I was learning to lay block and brick and do things the right way the first time. I had some satisfying days, learning enough, enough to builld my father-in-law a carport/storage shed. On Google Street View you can see it still stands. And the weather was turning cold for working outdoors. I continued that work until it was getting to be like A Day in the Life of Ivan Denesovich— laying block in winter, and finally, too cold for block work and I was off to NYC working at a lumber yard in the Bronx. Spring arrived and finally, I was back on the Cape working for Dennis happily on the Marsh being the “Happy Idiot” as in Jackson Brown’s The Pretender.
That April, with all the cut beams laid out on the pine deck I’d built, it was time for the barn raising. Just like in the movies. I was a nervous wreck wondering if all my cuts would be accurate enough to see the frame of a 30 foot by 36 foot structure rise into the Cape Cod sky and be true. With a little persuading from a come-along and a ten pound sledge, the frame rose up and stood right there on Eastham Marsh. Did I mention something about a species of happiness existing beyond it’s opposite?