Author: Cornish, Rick

One last project before winter sets in

Good morning from Whiskey Creek, where life became much more of a challenge last afternoon at around four when, suddenly and without warning, the comma/left carrot, (which is to say ,/<),key on my computer keyboard popped out of its place and landed dead center on my third dog’s pink nose who was curled up at my feet, waking him from an apparently light sleep…I say apparently because a groggy dog wouldn’t have had the wherewithal to instantly scoop up the ,/< key with one swipe of his tongue, bolt out the study and head toward the doggy door with the obvious intention of finding a quiet spot where he could examine, chew and eventually ingest the tiny, shiny white square. I jumped up from my chair, dashed out one of the French doors that leads onto the back deck and was waiting there for him when he came through his special little door. The jig was up. But my troubles, I’m afraid, had just begun…and continue…and will continue until Staples opens at 10:00 a.m. and I can go in and buy a new keyboard. No, glue doesn’t work. A tiny wad of gum hasn’t either. I doubled over a near-microscopic piece of Scotch Tape and all that did was keep old ,/< permanently pressed down. So, if you noticed a missing comma here or there or, worse, a broken link somewhere on the CBA web site, this owing to the fact that the left carrot is matched only by the right carrot in frequency of use in html coding, you’ll know why. I can use this key, it’s just that once in four or five times it pops off and must be put back into place, which, as I said in the beginning, has made life much for of a challenge.

And speaking of challenges, I want to share with you the story of a big one I’ve been dealing with since the day before Halloween and how it ultimately led to what was for me the closest thing I've had to a religious experience in many, many years. It was the second to the last day of October, a time at which normally I would be finished with all outdoor projects until the spring, when I started to build a rock walkway for my wife, Lynn. She’d been asking me for a walkway that would connect the parking area to the main entrance onto our deck and then, into our house; since moving here twelve years ago we’d walked over three-quarter inch crushed granite which, she’d been telling me for a little over a decade, was a danger to women wearing high heels. (That we’d never had a woman, or anyone else for that matter, visit our home who was wearing high heels didn’t dissuade Lynn from here quest, which by late October, 2013, had become my quest).

It was a span of just over sixty feet and would be about four feet wide. The weather had been exceptionally nice, the weatherman predicted no rain in his long-range forecast and I believed I had just enough time to get the project completed before nasty weather set in. Now, it’s important to the story that you understand why I believed I could make a 240 square foot walkway in just over a week. Here’s the reason—thirty years ago, when we lived up in the east foothills of San Jose, I had built a brick patio in our back yard and it was an absolutely amazing success. Looked great, lasted our entire stay at the Chula Vista Road house and, best of all, took only a few days to build. I built the brick patio on top of an asphalt pad just the way I’d seen it done on a re-run of This Old House. You build a form out of two-by-fours, in this case six four feet by four feet squares long and, five wide, pour in and level out about two inches of sand, arrange the bricks in the desired pattern, one four by four area at a time, and then pour several 60 pound bags of dry ready-mix mortar over the entire area. By using a big push broom and a lot of muscle, the mortar is swept off the surface of the bricks and into the cracks between each. The final step, the one you get to do while sipping on a cold beer, is simply to spray the entire area with a fine mist of water. When the mortar dries you’ve got yourself a nice looking brick patio, and that’s just what I had, in only seven days. Obviously if this technique worked for a rectangular patio area it would work for a longer, narrower walkway. Right?

Wrong doesn’t even come close to fully answering this rhetorical question. We’re all too busy with the daily routine of living our lives for me to even begin to describe how badly the walkway project went, from that very first day, the day before Halloween. Let’s just say that by the second weekend in January, long after the beginning of one of the rainiest seasons we’ve had here in Jamestown, the walkway was not yet completed. By then it had been partly built, demoed, mostly built, demoed a second time and rebuilt to near completion a third time. Except that the mortar between the flagstone rocks was a dismal, hopeless mess. In some spots it simply never hardened, in others the mortar dried rock hard only to begin to crack and pull apart from the rocks in a matter of a few days. Keep in mind, this pathetic pile of sand and rock and broken chunks of ready-mix mortar, sixty feet long, four feet wide, had taken nine weeks to create. Work on the walkway proceeded seven days a week, except on rainy days, of which there were many.

And so it came to pass that early one Saturday morning I got back outside after two days of heavy rain to finally finish the walkway…at least finish it in the sense that all of the rocks would be arranged on the sandy base leading from the parking compound gate to the main entrance onto the deck. Never mind that pretty much one hundred percent of the mortar I used between the irregularly shaped stones were either still malleable after weeks of drying or had begun to crack and, in extreme cases, simply disintegrate. I would finish laying the last of the stones and then I would go back to the beginning, methodically scrape out the old, brittle grout and replace them with fresh mortar that somehow, I didn’t know how, had absolutely zero idea how, would work this time. The thing is, I just had to finish. So much sand was constantly being tracked into the house that Lynn was being pushed closer and closer to the kind of despair and madness that the gaunt women of the terrible dust bowl years had experienced; we were having a big birthday party for my sixty-fifth birthday in two weeks and the forty or so guests would need a route between parking and house; and, more to the point, the depression I’d been feeling about the rock walkway had begun to turn into my own special kind of despair. Some degree of completion needed to be achieved. That’s all there was to it.

So then, it’s Saturday morning, a chill is in the air, I’m bundled up and ready to situate the last few stones on the sandy base when I see a late model GMC pickup truck come up the driveway. Two fellows get out of the truck and walk toward the gate, an older man maybe in his late fifties and a young guy, I guess maybe seventeen or eighteen. Both are carrying Bibles.

"Jehovah's Witnesses or Latter Day Saints?" I ask.

"Witnesses," the boy answers.

“Okay, here’s the drill…” and I proceeded to lay out the ground rules. The entire transaction would last 30 minutes and nor more. I’d get fifteen minutes and then they’d get fifteen. (For many years this has been my standard approach when people come to my home with Bible in hand. I’ve never felt right about brushing people off who have gone out of their way to try to save my soul for eternity. To me these folks are expressing a powerful kind of love, and I don’t have to believe what they believe to experience and appreciate it. And besides, I don’t often get the chance to talk and exchange ideas about topics as weighty as eternity, a supreme being, free will, blood sacrifice, etc.)

The two agreed to my terms and I proceeded to share my story: from early childhood Sunday school and then Sunday morning worship; forced attendance at Christian Bible camp during middle school; finally high school graduation and emancipation; the discovery of the existential writers and thinkers like Camus and Sartre in junior college; then on to mind expanding drugs during undergraduate and graduate school; later transcendental meditation and a bout with bio-feedback; and eventually culminating in a keen interest and much reading in evolutionary biology…particularly what’s been gleaned about human brain development over millions of years…and neuro science and the new brain scanning technology that’s beginning to shed light on how people think about big picture issues like God and death and all the rest, (think ‘the God gene’). When I was finished the older man, whose name I learned was Cary, made his case. He did a good job, fashioning his presentation around the position I’d just staked out. Fifteen minutes later, without me having to remind him of the ground rules, Cary wrapped up. I asked the kid, Austin, if he had anything to add. “No,” said the boy, “that’s about it.” We had cordially and sincerely agreed to disagree about the existence of a higher power, the question of an after life and the true nature of sin and that felt all right. Actually, it felt good. I stepped forward, leaned over the fence and shook hands with each of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. They turned and walked toward the pickup.

"Wait," I said suddenly, surprising all three of us. Cary and Austin stopped and turned. "Do you mind if I ask you two a non-spiritual question? Have either of you ever done any stone masonry?"

The two looked at one another, then at me, and then both burst out in laughter.

"For the past 30 years," said the older man, "I have run a construction company that specializes in stone work here in the county. And Austin, who I’ve known since he was a little baby, has worked for his dad since he was knee-high. Austin's dad owns a business that’s my soul competition here in Sonora. So, ah, yeah, I'd say we've both worked stone. Why do you ask?"

It took Cary less than ten minutes to inspect my “walkway” and explain what I'd done wrong. With the same spare, logically ordered and direct presentation style he’d used to explain God's salvation program to me Cary laid out where I’d gone wrong with the flagstones. The dry mix method had worked for me in San Jose because, unlike the current project, I’d had a hard, level asphalt surface to build on, unlike the regularly shaped and sized red brick, I was working with irregular rocks and thus the spaces between them would necessarily be variable and generally wider. Nope, what I needed to do was use a two-inch sand base and then an inch or so of wet mortar into which the stones would be anchored. Then and only then could I grout, and certainly not with dry mortar.

"So, what you're saying then is that I have to start over, from scratch. Again. Tear everything up. Yes?"

"Yes," said the Witness with great empathy, “that’s about the size of it.”

And then, as though the entire exchange had, in fact, been God's plan for leading me out of the walkway wilderness, I asked Austin if he'd be interested in helping me re-build the walkway, teaching me as we went.

“Twenty bucks an hour,” I said. “Youbetcha,” the boy said.

That was two weeks and two days ago. For a kid of only eighteen, Austin has an uncommonly full schedule, what with working for his dad, his most every Saturday witnessing, dirt bike trips to the desert, etc., but he’s managed to fit in five days here at Whiskey Creek. I’m his assistant and student, the mixer of mortar and also the provider of lunches and of bluegrass music. He lays out the large flagstones and I fill the spaces between with smaller pieces. He tells me about what the Jehovah’s Witnesses believe, how they worship, how they live there lives, etc. and I tell him about bluegrass music, Bill Monroe, three part harmonies, etc. We’re exactly half done with the walkway. Austin will be here in two hours so I’d better sign off. Was this a case of divine intervention? Don’t know, my supervisor and I haven’t discussed that question yet.

Posted:  1/22/2013

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