Raised in a Barn: A Floor to Stand On

Things in the colorful home of my childhood happened in stages–either very rapid or very slow stages. For example, it was not until eight or nine years after we moved into the Barn full time that my parents insulated the interior walls in the living room and hallway–up to that point there was only the exterior walls of the structure between us and the elements–and when the wind swept down the mountain on its way to the valley below, it got frigid. For the first six or seven years that my brother and I slept in “rooms” in one of the former haylofts, they were rooms by courtesy–roughed out 2 x 4 studding to which plasterboard panels would someday be nailed, but no actual walls that stopped anyone or anything from coming in (like, say, cold winds, younger brothers, or bats). On the other hand, when my father decided we needed a trapeze, the thing went up in a matter of days. Priorities, you see.

One of the things which was a lower priority was a finished floor. The floor in the loft was made of plywood sheets. Someday there would be finished floor. But it was not a priority–there were other things that were more interesting to work on (it has only taken me to right now to realize that my father was driven to work on the things that were absolutely necessary or absolutely interesting. Mere flooring in an area he didn’t frequent much was neither of those things).

Sometime when I was in college–Christmas break of my junior year, I think, I decided I needed a finished floor. I told my father so. The family finances were not, at the time, amenable to hiring someone to put in a floor. But we calculated the amount of oak flooring we’d need for my room and the hallway outside, purchased it, and accompanying hardware and tools, and loaded it into the back of the station wagon. When we got home we took out maybe a dozen oak boards and brought them upstairs, and Dad showed me how to install the flooring myself. I think that he got the first row or so settled. Then it was my project. So over the next week I put down the boards–they were tongue-in-groove boards, and were installed using a tool which would set nails at a 45° angle. I could generally get between 1-2 feet width-wise in a day (before the unaccustomed work and my own butterfly tendencies chased me away). For a 10 x 12′ room that made it a 5-6 day job.

A side note: it was December/early January. Rather than moving all the flooring in to the house, I kept it in the back of our station wagon and just went out and got what I needed. One evening I went to visit a friend for dinner. On the way home I got a flat tire. Bless my friend who, when called (I had to hike to the nearest house on the sparsely populated state road, in those pre-cellphone days) got into his warmest work clothes and came to help me change the tire. Of course the spare was in the back of the station wagon which was still half-full of oak flooring. Before Alan got there I had already started removing the boards, trying to put them somewhere where they wouldn’t absorb too much snow–oh, yes, there were snowdrifts, did I mention it? I don’t think we had to completely empty the station wagon before we could access the tire. Eventually, and before I succumbed to frostbite, the tire got changed and I headed for home.

By the time I headed off to college I had a floor of light-oak, unfinished, in my bedroom. But I wanted dark wood. My father had this idea of soaking the wood in automotive oil to change the color, but in the end I settled for a dark stain, which I applied when I came home for the next break. At last: a civilized floor!

Over the next year I finished installing the oak boards in the hallway, starting from the landing and working toward my brother’s room. I don’t recall if we ever hauled a floor sander upstairs–those things are brutally heavy, and there was only a very steep ladder upstairs. But the floor was eventually sealed and done. In later years I twice refinished the existing hardwood floors in the apartments I lived in. So I can add all these experiences (I would not call them skills, just a willingness at the time to do the labor) to the long list of things I can sorta do, if I have to. But if ever I need a floor again, I think I’ll hire someone or do without. Once or twice is a learning experience; more than that is just exhausting.

Raised in a Barn: A War on the Front Forty

Note that even my father’s dog Nellie got a new outfit for the occasion.

My father was born to be a king. Or at least lord of the manor. He had the eccentric manor and the acreage.  And when some friends of mine from the Society for Creative Anachronism came to visit, with the express purpose of deciding whether the front lawn would be a good place for a war, Dad was all in.

By the front lawn, I mean the approximately 20 acres of pasture across the road from the Barn, proper.  When my parents bought the barn, 180 acres of land came with it: the front 20 (often referred to as the front forty, perhaps because of the alliteration) separated from the Barn and the rest of the mountain by a county road, and the 160 acres around and behind the barn, most of which was hilly, forested, and not much in the way of farmable.  The front 20 was rather rolling, and ran down about a quarter of a mile to the Housatonic River, storied and sung in my youth for its horrid pollution. My brother and I had never stuck a toe in it for fear of having it dissolve.

My SCA friends returned to their barony and pitched the idea of a battlefield event, and the War of the Roses was born. I was kept apprised of the planning (since I was more or less the intermediary between my parents and the machineries of war), and some basic ground-rules were set: the war was across the road from the Barn, but people were permitted to come up and draw water from the hose spigot outside the studio door. Digging a hole in which to roast an ox (my father’s face was incandescent at the thought) was okay, and smaller fires likewise, so long as they were rigorously tended. This area for parking. This area, marked out with pennons, for the battle, and That area—essentially the rest of the field—for setting up temporary residences.

Of course I made my parents suitable garb. My mother didn’t want anything particularly fancy—”your basic medieval schmatta,” as she put it. But my father… I told him to find a painting from any period from 1000-1600 and I would do my best to make the clothing depicted for him. Of course he went for Henry VIII. My father, barrel chested with knotty, muscular calves that would have made the Tudor court swoon, was made for this.  I made him the outfit, and he wore it for the weekend and…did I saw born to be a king? Yeah, like that.

My recollection of the whole weekend is rather kaleidoscopic: I bounced back and forth between the camp and the Barn (and slept in my own bed). The fire over which the ox (well, the half-cow) was to be roasted wasn’t lit early enough, which meant that the meat wasn’t actually cooked until half past 10 that evening. The battle itself was spectacular—a series of individual fights first, followed by a melee, all framed against a sky full of gray clouds. Despite the overcast of the day it was warm, bordering on hot, and after the war was over, some of the combatants took themselves down to the river to skinny dip. Apparently the river had been cleaned up a lot while I was living elsewhere: no one dissolved or emerged from the water writhing in agony (and at the following year’s war skinny dipping was a feature, not a bug: the day was hotter and sunnier, and immediately after the battle the banks of the Housatonic were teeming with naked warriors).

Possibly my father’s favorite moment of the weekend came on Saturday evening. People camped pretty much where they wanted, and one young woman had pitched her tent three quarters of the way down the field, just before the river bank. And she started having belly pain. Among other things, my father was a member of the volunteer ambulance squad, and a qualified EMT. Someone found me and reported a woman in pain, and I charged up to the Barn, where my father had retired for the evening was wearing his civvies. Within a minute of my outlining the problem Dad had his kit in the car, slapped the green flasher on the roof, and tore down the hill to the campsite. “Hot appy!” he announced, and judged this was not the time to wait for the ambulance. He loaded her into his car and took her off to the local hospital, where her appendix was removed just in the nick of time.

The next day the Baron and Baroness of the presiding Barony made a presentation to my parents, and they were roundly huzzahed. I think my mother enjoyed it, in an “I’m just here to watch the young folks being crazy” sort of way. But Dad was in his element: how often do you get to be the Lord of the Manor, Rescue the Maiden (from the fearsome Appendix!) and dress like a king?

Raised in a Barn: A Heist

When I was a kid we went from our home in New York City to our work-in-progress barn in Massachusetts virtually every weekend. Among other things, this meant that my brother and I got very good at packing. My father had a system for packing, which meant we had packing lessons and were supervised by my father until he was certain that we could be trusted to follow the protocol. All clothes were to be folded and then rolled into neat tubes which could then be stacked in our brightly colored duffels (mine pink, my brother’s, blue). This allowed one to pack an extraordinary amount of stuff–far more than one generally needed for a two-day weekend.

In addition to the duffels, routine weekend luggage included my parents’ suitcase, whatever luggage weekend guests were bringing, and an object that we called the Meat Bag. Continue reading “Raised in a Barn: A Heist”

What’s In Your Pocket?

When I was making the sketchbook for my brother I recalled, as I hadn’t in years, that my father always carried four or five 3 x 5 file cards in his breast pocket–unlined, often in an assortment of colors–with his fountain pen, available for quick sketches or notes. In the way of kids, I assumed that all fathers carried file cards and a fountain pen with them in case inspiration struck. I’m not even sure when I realized that this was not so.

My father also carried a Swiss Army knife. Not one of those 20-blade knuckledusters, but a plain six-blade knife that was employed all around the house and all around the Barn (my parents’ colorful converted-barn dwelling in the Berkshire hills) for a variety of uses–tightening screws, opening bottles, widening belt holes. But most particularly for slicing apples. The front “yard” at the Barn was an orchard of old apple trees (okay, with two Bosc pears and a two peach-tree-come-latelys which were annually nibbled by the deer before they could produce fruit). Continue reading “What’s In Your Pocket?”

Running Water

Everyone in California is dealing with wildfires right now (along with the pre-existing catastrophes of this stellar year and yes that was sarcastic, 2020 you train wreck) so of course I’m thinking about floods. (I’m thinking about floods, actually, because my friend Kate in Ireland recounted, elsewhere, the epic tale of the back yard drain clogging up and thereby soaking the floor in her mother’s apartment, and…). Kate’s house is built into a hillside, and because gravity works, water runs downhill into the yard and… squish. Wet rug, to say the least.

I’m familiar–very familiar–with this situation. I was raised, at least in part, in a Barn–a sort of extended weekend project of my highly creative father’s, that started out as a working double barn and wound up as a 60s-inflected House Beautiful. I have written elsewhere about many of the exploits at the Barn (always capitalized in the specific) but not the water problem. The Barn, like my friend Kate’s house, was built into a mountain, and in spring, when the snow had melted, the cowbarn–what normal people would call the basement–would flood. Sometimes significantly. Continue reading “Running Water”