Wednesday, September 16, 2020


This morning I woke to the sound of hammering on the roof and I was so pleased!  The old and romantic shake roof has been pried off, replaced by conventional shingles but it's not the corrugated metal roofs that are going on all over town.  This little house, built in the Thirties, was lightly built with less wood than we might use today, so the lessening of weight is changing the frame, doors and windows.  Doors that wouldn’t close, now open easily.  Houses are more flexible than we think.

Until it rains again.  This soil is gumbo, fine ash from millennia ago when the Pacific Northwest volcanoes were spewing the stuff.  When it’s wet, it absorbs the water and expands.  When it’s dry, it shrinks.  The houses here tend to be parallelograms rather than rectangles.

I joke that it’s a tossup whether my house, my pickup or myself (80) will collapse first, but my mother lived to 89 so it becomes clear that the twenty years I figured to need in 1999 might go to thirty.  Some upgrading had to be done.  Of course, as you know, I’ve been operating on a wing and a prayer most of my life, so when the major hailstorm hit last summer, I had no insurance.  Most of the others in this town, cautious ranchers knowing about hail, did have insurance and the hammers have been flying all over town all summer.

Using the list of contractors made by the hardware and contractor in town, Swank/DeVoe, I called Jim Schlosser, got an estimate, and approached the bank in Portland — really a credit union where I’ve banked for decades — for a loan.  I do not make enough money to be loaned the total cost, but I managed to scrape up enough to go forward.

Everyone in town is upgrading their house, so everyone on the list was overwhelmed with work.  Luckily Jim “sub-contracted” with Mark Gold of Gold Construction in Great Falls.  That’s who’s hammering up there.  He had one small patch to do this morning, the roof on the bump-out I call my geranium window alcove because it faces south and riots with red blooms all winter.

People who malign men, saying they are all lazy, irresponsible, can’t keep promises, double-crossers, they don’t get any traction with me.  Men that I know in this small town reach out to protect others.  A few are imports from places that had low standards or are too eager to make a profit, but I can name a dozen who are still hard-working, thoughtful, and intelligent.  Sometimes it's the women who are wicked.

One of the rites of passage unique to the Pacific Northwest is years spent in Alaska.  Mark speaks of his sojourn there with nostalgia though it was hard, miserable, life-threatening work on the sea.  To the Alaskan people, Montana is okay but not quite the intoxicant and legendary life of Alaska where only the tough survive.  For a while he was in Sequim, WA, a town I know a bit because of relatives.  But it’s regulated and civilized.

My neighbor across the street is also a contractor.  He and Gold were caught in the same sudden economic cataclysm that strangles new construction.  Thus Mark is able to pick up jobs he wouldn’t have looked at earlier.  He works to the same standard as he did before, which isn’t easy with old twisted improvised houses.

I’ve been embarrassed and apologetic about the state of my house and yard — even my pickup and wardrobe — but haven’t had the energy or imagination to do much about it the way I did when I first came twenty years ago.  Now I begin to understand why.  

Mark and then Jim, a bit older and the technical chief contractor, went on the roof and looked down my so-called furnace vent.  It was rotted out and so was the vent for the hot water heater.  They called in a plumber from Bain who tells me my gas floor furnace — beloved by cats — is beyond repair and my gas hot water heater is out of code.  They both had to be shut off.  But now I feel as though I were recovering from a case of flu I I had all winter.  It was a case of "flue", I guess.  I have no heat but small electric heaters and no hot water except what I heat on the stove which luckily is electric.  

I’d asked a previous plumber to look at the vent systems and he said they were okay, so I didn’t think about that anymore.  Probably I’ve been gassed all winter and even flirting with death from carbon monoxide.  My health improved when it was warm enough to open doors and windows and even now I can feel the difference from the pilot lights being shut off.

One of the aspects of the urbanization of the population is that so few even know how things work.  In cities it all tends to be a mystery, esp since so many householders are single females, maybe with children.  It was a mistake to think that only men should know about houses and another mistake not to teach the basics of “this old house” in high school.

Not every workman has high standards and good manners.  A few have been patronizing and most are dismayed by my scuzzy housekeeping.  In this town people survive as clusters who help each other.  The solitaries are usually old men who just neglect everything.  Like me.  All I care about is writing and I let everything else crash.  When the world reaches a stable “new normal,” I may be able to sell writing.  In the meantime, now that I’m not breathing fumes all day and night, my energy level is rising.

But I will never reach the drive and dexterity, the persistence and balance of my roofer.  I NEED men like him to keep my house from collapsing.  But in a civilization that is also collapsing — and he’s keenly aware of that — we’re all worried.  As for Jim, he went elk hunting close to where Bob and I used to hunt on horseback west of Augusta.  More dangerous than roofing!

The rest of the story is that on Sunday morning when half the roof was shingled but the other half didn’t have the plastic sheeting yet, Mark was in Great Falls and didn’t know when it began to rain.  Jim knew and came at once early on Sunday morning to get the sheeting in place.  By the time he had finished, the rain stopped!  This is the world of men like Jim who keep their promises and protect their customers.  No cute name for his company, no girl in an office, just a guy who has a good reputation in small towns that watch everything.

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