When I was 27 I was asked to write the history of the school where I worked. What a pleasure. For me, historical research is both soothing and addictive. In this case there were no “archives” to investigate, just sagging cardboard cartons of old files, jumbled letters, and unmarked photographs. As I read the papers of Walter Clark, the school’s founder, born in 1905, I fell hard. Walter had died years before but for the six months of my research he lived in my ear. He was a farmer, a progressive educator, a writer, and a gentle soul with a twinkling sense of humor. Like almost everyone who knew him in life, I adored him.
One result of intense biographical research is that the subjects live on in your imagination. As a researcher I carry a number of people in my heart whom I’ve never met. Most of them, of course, were dead before I “found” them. But for me their words go on echoing.
In 1975 Walter gave a speech at the Albert Schweitzer Centenary in which he spoke of a friend he’d known in the era before backhoes. The friend was a ditch-digger. Walter described the man’s happy nature, skill, pride in his work, meticulous care of his tools. Though ditch-digging is back-breaking labor, this man “worked so gracefully, and with so little apparent effort, that I almost imagined him as a would-be ballet dancer.” Walter explained that as a schoolmaster he would excuse any child from regular classes to work with such a man, “a great teacher and a great artist.”
I was remembering this artist yesterday, as I had to dig a 3’x4′ hole, six feet deep. I would not have put anyone in mind of a happy ballet dancer. Perhaps a surly grave digger out of Dickens.
On the first day building the garage Damon had looked at the concrete foundation and asked, “Where are the holes?”
“Holes?” I replied vaguely.
“Water. Power. Sewer.”
Could it be possible? The foundation plan supplied by the kit manufacturer did not make provision for utilities, and I had not known to look for it. After all the struggle with this foundation, we’re now going to have to chop holes in it for pipes!
After a certain point, I can’t absorb bad news. There’s no more energy for an emotional reaction. For once I am reduced to pure logic. The numb feeling is almost restful.
“OK, we have to chop holes in the foundation. Next?”
Well, to do that (not an easy task) we first need access to the footings six feet underground. Though Allen wanted to bring out a backhoe to help me, I couldn’t afford it — not and also save to bring him back with the excavator later in the summer. Thus my weekend with a shovel.
Nine hours of sweat in the rain and mud later, it’s all done. Digging, I ran into a number of rocks about the size of a microwave. They’d have been nothing to the excavator — not even as big as our negligible “trash rocks.” But four feet underground in a pit, without machines, they might as well have been the size of a dumpster. I couldn’t budge them. There was no space in the hole for a lever. Finally I figured out how I could work with a crowbar and fulcrum to get a chain underneath, and, festooned with chains like Marley’s ghost, each one was pulled out with my truck.
By the time I was five feet underground I no longer had room in the hole to lift my shovel. I was less in a grave than in a well, encircled by mounds of dirt and rocks. Finally I had a brainwave and found the tiny spade I’d bought for Lucy when she was a toddler and my gardening companion. With this doll-sized implement I could continue to excavate the last foot — even if only by the teaspoon thrown high over my head.
Walter would not have been inspired. No artistry. No teaching. But plenty of learning, on my part. Always read building plans very carefully.