Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Raising a Barn...and a Family

Scenario - you've lived your entire life in New York City. Recently married, you decide to move to the country and start a family. You know very little about country life. Regardless, you decide to raise the stakes by:
  1. planting stakes and watering them

  2. having no money

  3. having a baby right away

  4. building your own home from scratch and some bricks

  5. building your own home with relatives and beer

  6. getting drafted

  7. all of the above

Tsk, tsk. Kids back then did such crazy things. To be fair, getting drafted was beyond my dad's control. As far as the other activities, you'll get no complaint from me. They all serve to heighten the tension in my story.

How hard could it be? To begin with, everyone you knew was yowling about wild, obstreperous Indians and the dearth of a decent deli. Perhaps all that Brooklyn barking was part of the reason my folks moved to the country. Peace, quiet, and a pristine lack of ‘How YOU doin’?’

As you know by now, my parents didn’t listen to the naysayin’ city slickers. They did eventually discover, however, that the country had its own minor drawbacks, such as:
· poison ivy
· poisonous snakes in the poison ivy
· ornery Dutch settlers
· ornery Dutch bugs
· 130% humidity
· -130 below zero winters (that’s in kilograms)
· severe thunder storms
· blizzards beyond belief
· no cable television
· no cable television even after it’s invented

I’m going to assume they were unaware of these. To know about them and still move would indicate cranial incapacities that boggle the mind. If indeed, your mind is still boggle-able.

My folks purchased a thirty acre plot of land outside of town. Very outside of town. Beyond-pizza-delivery outside of town. When they bought it, there was nothing on it except trees, bushes, grass, and the things that like to live in trees, bushes, and grass. Now there’s a lovely house on the property, and the things that liked to live in trees, bushes, and grass have discovered that they prefer living in a lovely house. Especially when it got cold. Or hot. Or rainy.

Fall is the season when all the critters that spent the summer outside begin their migration. Not south, but rather, inside. As in the basement, or attic, or, for the high-falootin’ critters, the living room. Why flap your wings all the way to Palm Beach when you can just peck a hole into the attic? While the ornery Dutch settlers didn’t welcome my parents, the local wildlife was thrilled to see them, especially when the snow hit the hill.

This all happened in Rhinebeck, a little town in Dutchess County, about ninety miles north of New York City. Well over 300 years old, Rhinebeck was founded by three Dutchmen from Kingston, not to be confused with the band by the same name. They opened a bar and the rest is history. Actually, so is this.

Anyone who moved to Rhinebeck in the past 200 years was considered a newcomer. To run for office or open a pizza parlor, you had to show proof of residency on a teeny, wilted, yellow map of the original Dutch colony of Neuuw Amsteurdauum. For many years, the town remained quite small, restricted by the obvious constraints of trying to live on a teeny, wilted, yellow map. Eventually the rules were relaxed to allow for settlement if you possessed a name with several odd, guttural consonants in a row, such as Pietr Fargenschvathing the Elder. Or a suspiciously trimmed name such as Kip.

Since my parents didn’t boast such a meritorious lineage or even extraneous vowels in their name, they settled outside of town, beyond the pale, as it were. In the pre-cable TV days, villages protected themselves from Indians, wolves, and Jehovah’s Witnesses by building timber-pole walls, or pales. Over time this pale distinction has changed from being a protective barrier to the line of demarcation for pizza delivery. Either way, a status symbol of survival.
My parents opted for a breezy parcel of land, choosing a high ridge upon which to build their home. I knew this was the highest point around because electrical storms zapped our house endlessly. Either the elevation was to blame, or God was aiming for my sister.

While there were several homes already built in the area, they were infested with the ghosts of lost pizza delivery guys, so my dad decided to build his own. House, that is. Although we could have used a pizza guy, too. Having no money, he enlisted the help of his dad, brother, uncle and any other relatives he could lure up from Brooklyn. Beer worked. So did all these guys. Hard, if not always smart.

My dad’s brother, Bob, was a high-steel union worker from New York. So of course he managed to fall through the roof of our two-story house-to-be. Luckily the wooden balcony broke his fall. Luckily he hit his head and doesn’t remember this happening or we’d still be running from his union boss.

My dad’s dad, Bob, was the consummate Irish stereotype – drinking, smoking, happy-go-lucky leprechaun with the evil grin and twinkling eyes. He also worked his tail off. Somehow he made everything look so easy, whether it was driving a coal truck in Brooklyn for puny wages, or motoring up to Indian country to pound nails with his son. He took it all in stride with a wink and a smile. Which, of course, drove his wife, Bob (kidding), completely nuts.

A sidenote regarding family names – you may notice a motif repeating throughout my family’s story – a few names, such as Bob, Tom, and Ann, are used over and over, sometimes slightly changed to prevent confusion, sometimes slurred to add to the confusion. No reason except tradition, and besides, if they were good names, why throw them out? It also saves on stationery. At times it’s bewildering, so middle names were thrown in the mix, as well as the ever-popular ‘Hey, you!’ which meant everyone came running.

My dad’s uncle, Tom (yup), was a plumber, so at least some construction was done properly. Recognizing the situation for what it was, he managed to build the pipes strong enough to support the house and the snow which piled on it in the winter.

When the Cuban missile crisis hit, Dad was drafted (again) and reported to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, where my brother, Tom (yup), was born. The birth cost a whopping $12. My dad still wants his money back. Meanwhile the foundation of the house lay open to the elements all winter. Needless to say the raccoons, squirrels, snakes, birds, bats and other sundry varmints weren’t too pleased to have their living quarters unfinished. A few of them wrote threatening letters to Castro, who eventually calmed down and backed off so we could all get back to work.

Eventually the house was finished, more or less. I say more or less because in the rush to beat the winter snows, some nooks and crannies were never properly nooked and crannied, leading eventually to lots of visitors from Mother Nature’s extended family. A red-brick, split-level monster, our home had a huge fieldstone entryway with a rounded, opera-style staircase. Most of it featured hardwood floors. The living room alone had space for a massive fireplace, television, pool table, piano, several couches, and, as we found out later, various varmints.

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