Sunday, September 28, 2008

Ken Laundry: The Barn

“As long as you keep a good roof on an old building it’ll last near forever.” That’s what Ken told me, and his barn is living proof. The structure is actually 3 separate, connected barns built in 3 stages by Ken, his father, and his grandfather. The oldest section is the cow barn, built in the late 1800’s using cedar timbers and siding that were even older, salvaged from a previous barn. The timbers support the ceiling.

The style is post and beam, and after 120 years or so, it’s still sound.

The “newer” section of the barn, built a mere 75 years ago, uses the same technique.

This section Ken built himself as a young man, and like his grandfather he recycled the lumber from some other structure:

He calls it a “3 hole shed.”

A few years ago, Ken started to stain the siding, but you can see where he stopped. I asked him why. “A guy told me the siding was worth more, a lot of money, if I left it natural,” Ken said.

In a warmer climate such as where I live, where insects and fungus attack wood from the ground and from the air, where an outbuilding isn’t frozen solid for half the year, a good roof isn’t enough to make a shelter last forever. It isn’t really enough in the Adirondacks, either, but still it’s a pretty good philosophy of life. Ken has no intention of tearing the siding off the barn and selling it, but he’s a practical man who has seen his share of rainy days. And snowy ones. Like a savings account in a bank, he keeps the siding, just in case.

Ken doesn’t use the barn much any more. It’s a storehouse of tools and old farm equipment - and a few memories. Some evening, after a glass of scotch, sitting by a warm stove Ken might tell you about the time he ended a mouse infestation in that old stable. These mice were so intelligent, you couldn’t catch them by traps or by cats. So intelligent, in fact, that perhaps they could read. And so Ken posted a sign: ALL MICE MUST VACATE THE PREMISES. Sure enough, the mice seemed to go away, seeking a new home, perhaps somewhere nearby. Problem solved. A couple of weeks later, one of Ken’s neighbors was complaining about a new infestation of mice in his barn. Ken just listened to the neighbor and nodded, revealing nothing.
Or depending on the evening and perhaps the kind of scotch, Ken might tell you it wasn’t a sign, it was playing music on the radio that drove out the mice. The music kept the cows calm so they made better milk, but the mice couldn’t stand it. Either way, there was the same befuddled neighbor, the same dry telling, and the same twinkle in the eye.

Recycling isn’t a new concept. Ken learned it from his grandfather, and he practiced it with good results whether it was lumber in a barn or an old story by the stove.

[You can click on any of the images to see a larger view.]

Friday, September 26, 2008

Ken Laundry: Coffee Cans

I first met Ken in 1962 when I was a camper at Hawkeye Trails Camp where Ken was a caretaker. Everybody liked him. Here is how one camper remembers Ken: “As a little girl at camp, he struck me as mythically strong. Also it seemed he could fix, make, or do anything: I remember him getting rid of wasp nests, cutting down huge trees, putting in the docks in freezing water with huge rocks, building whole new cabins single-handedly complete with plumbing systems, climbing up on high roofs to re-tar the roofing paper. And as I got older I came to appreciate his loyalty to Hartzie [Helen Post Hartz, the camp director] and his humility and gentleness. He is of a breed of rural folk who are the salt of the earth - down to earth, generous, and self-sufficient.” Which is just how I felt, too.

I didn’t really get to know Ken, however, until I returned years later as an adult in 1994. My friends John and Duncan had bought the section of camp known as the Blue Heron, and I was visiting after an absence of 29 years. With my family I was escorting my oldest son to his first day of college, stopping by to see the old camp along the way.

John and Duncan had made heroic efforts to fix up the Blue Heron, but a lot remained to be done. For one thing, the septic system was leaking into the basement, stinking up the whole house. I volunteered to help. Somewhere, I knew, a pipe was blocked. There was no clean-out access for the drain. I had no tools with me (I was, after all, on vacation with my wife and children 3,000 miles from home), so they sent me to Ken.

As with the camp, I hadn’t seen Ken in 29 years. Several people had commented that Ken looked 10 years older since he fell off a roof a year ago. To me that day, he looked about 60. I asked him about the roof accident. He’d been up on his barn; it was a little wet; there was moss. He slid off. “I messed up my chest,” he said. He then loaned me a shovel and a snake along with a lesson in country plumbing: Dig a trench, find the pipe, punch a hole in the top of the pipe, run a snake through it, cover the hole with a piece of coffee can, and fill the trench - which I did with help from my college-bound son. Mucking in sewage, I thought, would be good experience for a lad on his way to Dartmouth. As we were shoveling the last of the dirt back into place, I heard a chainsaw at work. It was Ken, next door, cutting down some birch trees, bucking and splitting and stacking the firewood. As I was later to learn, Ken on that day was 80 years old.

In those 29 years since I’d been to the Adirondacks, I’d gone to college, raised a family, written several books and become a hotshot California building contractor working for the rich and famous of Silicon Valley. Every construction project involved pages of plans, massive fees, inspections, rejections, and picky clients who thought nothing of spending $1600 for a bathroom faucet. A septic repair in those neighborhoods would involve permits, backhoes, no-hub joints, pressure tests, and thousands of dollars. Now, following Ken’s instructions, for absolutely no cost I’d just dug a ditch, punched a hole in an old clay pipe, then repaired the pipe with a split-open coffee can and covered it with dirt. If I’d done this in the Silicon Valley, I’d lose my license and my reputation, and I might even get arrested.

But the blockage was fixed. Ken at his chainsaw observed me covered with dirt and muck, and he approved. I felt blessed.

In Ken’s world, items such as coffee cans are essential tools. His work shop is full of them. They’re useful for holding boltsdoor hardware
or paint. In that first picture - let’s call it “Still Life With Hardware” - Ken seems to be involved in a project that includes blue paint, roofing nails, 3/4 inch pipe, an electric fuse, an oil can, spray paint, a scrub brush, a bread pan, and of course an empty Chock Full 'o Nuts coffee can. I’d love to know what he was up to.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Ken Laundry: The Ice Saw, the Double-Bladed Ax

Ken Laundry has lived all of his 94 years on the stony hillside farm where he was born. His land covers 108 acres in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York, and it hasn’t changed much during Ken’s 94 years.

Behind Ken’s house there is an old hen house, built by Ken, which he now uses as a workshop. To the side is an old barn, built in 3 stages by Ken, his father, and his grandfather.

Inside the barn and workshop are a lifetime of tools which serve, I believe, as a definition of the man who owns them. For the next few days as an experiment in blogging, I’d like to try to draw a portrait of a man through the tools he’s owned and the objects he’s built.

At the age of 7, Ken was swinging a double-bladed ax. He’s been hard at work ever since. He’s got a new one now, but he still keeps an old one lying around, possibly the same one he was wielding at the age of 7.

I’ve only known Ken in his later years as a carpenter, handyman, and caretaker of some of the summer camps on Silver Lake, but in his early years Ken did whatever he could to survive: raising potatoes and chickens, lumbering, even cutting and selling blocks of ice from the frozen surface of the lake. As a teenager Ken and his brother Joe would go out onto the lake with an ice saw. They cut 100 blocks a day, 12 inches square in ice that was 12 inches thick. “Cutting ice,” Ken told me, “is not a job you’d want.” You bend over and hold the T handle of the saw and push and pull - and you can’t stop for more than two seconds or the blade will freeze in place. You load the blocks with an ice tong onto a sled, pulled by a team of horses. You haul, unload and pack them into one of several ice houses. As an Adirondack man Ken rarely felt cold, but he told me that when you start cutting at 7 a.m. in the middle of winter, and there’s nothing out on the surface of that lake to block the bitter wind, you feel a touch of chill.

Life was never easy in the Adirondacks, but in the Great Depression it was even harder. Ken got a break in 1935 when he did a small job building a dock for a man who owned a cabin on Silver Lake, one of the dozens of simple docks that Ken has built over the years.
The man appreciated Ken’s no-nonsense style of labor and arranged for Ken to apply for employment with the state prison in Dannemora. Ken was called in for an interview and a physical. The doctor there said that of all the prisoners and guards he had examined, Ken was the strongest man he had ever seen. Then during the interview, they asked Ken what he could do - what skills did he have? Ken replied, “I can work.” They liked that answer, and they hired him. As a prison guard Ken worked 12 hour shifts, 24 consecutive days followed by 4 days off.

In 1971 Ken “retired” after 35 years at Dannemora and spent the following 35 years as a carpenter, handyman, and farmer.

Ken is not a bulky man and would look puny beside the cosmetic muscles of some bodybuilders today. But I wonder if Sylvester Stallone or Arnold Schwarzenegger could put in 12 hour days, day after day, year after year, cutting and hauling ice, felling trees, splitting lumber, plowing for potatoes.

In a bitter mood once, Ken told me that there's one key to how you get ahead in life, as when he got that job as a prison guard at Dannemora: "It's who you know." I answered, "Ken, it's not who you know. It's who you are. That's why they hired you." But I couldn't convince him this was true.

Three words. Ken had already said them: “I can work.”

Note: You can click on any of these photos for a larger view.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008


I’m bleary-eyed from three days of proofreading the digital galleys of Clear Heart. Meanwhile one of the voice actors for Boone Barnaby has a cold, and he can’t talk. Hang in there. Eventually, I’ll have a published book and a new podcast. Wheels are turning; gears are grinding. And puppies are playing. We have a guest by the name of Gonzo, so home life is a bit of a three-ring circus right now.

Dakota is teaching Mickey to play tug-of-war.

And Mickey needs no one to teach him how to chew up stuffie toys.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Blue Heron

The Blue Heron is the name of an old boardinghouse where I spent my summer vacation in the Adirondack Mountains of upper New York. "Vacation" is an odd term for a trip in which I installed baseboard heaters, replaced toilets, dug drainage ditches, inspected foundations, adjusted doors and repaired screens - but a vacation it definitely was. I spent hands-on time observing and appreciating the local craftsmanship of the Adirondacks.

The Blue Heron was never anything fancy. In the 1890's a man named Baker, a Civil War soldier who had been shot in the knee, built a boardinghouse for summer tourists on the shores of Silver Lake. As a crippled veteran, Mr. Baker received a pension of $12.50 a month, which made him a relatively wealthy man in this hardscrabble region. Eventually Baker's boardinghouse became known as the Blue Heron, part of a summer camp called Hawkeye Trails. Like many summer camps, Hawkeye folded in the 1970's. In 1978 my friends John and Duncan, both former Hawkeye campers, bought the Blue Heron, which was in a state of neglect. Not wanting to change the character of the house, they've maintained it pretty much as it was when they bought it: a much-loved, much-abused old house filled with the happy ghosts of generations of campers who used to scramble all over it.
I am one of those former campers. In 1994 John invited me to visit the Blue Heron, which I hadn't seen since 1968. Inviting a building contractor to visit your vacation home is sort of like inviting a tax auditor to your weekly poker party. I told him that the foundation was falling apart, the posts were rotting, the roof needed replacement, the wiring was a fire hazard, and the whole place was in danger of collapse. And oh, by the way, the septic system is leaking into the basement.

Oddly enough, I was invited back. Since 1994 I've returned to the Blue Heron many times to help with the maintenance, to make small improvements, to meet old friends.

It's a three-story house with a basement, built using the two items the Adirondacks have in abundance: stone and wood. The foundation and basement walls are stone, and there is a stone fireplace. The rest is wood, cut and milled locally. The subflooring is so rough and uneven that it must have been milled on site - after 120 years, the bark is still attached - and it gives a roll to the finish flooring like the surface of Silver Lake. The construction style is functional and practical. The only embellishment I can find in the whole building is in the siding that separates the second and third floor on the north side, visible in the upper right of this photo:Other than that one touch of fancy, the house is solid and workmanlike, if somewhat decayed from 120 freezes and thaws.
The south, east, and west sides of the house can't be seen in their original form because wrap-around porches were added for the summer campers.

People ask me why I enjoy spending a vacation doing the same thing that I am supposed to be getting away from: work. Construction work. The construction of the Blue Heron is fascinating to me because it is so different from anything I encounter in California. In fact, if Mr. Baker had built the Blue Heron with the same design and materials in California instead of upstate New York, there would be nothing remaining today except a smelly pile of fungus and termite droppings. Not to mention the fact that earthquakes would have shaken it to bits. But here it stands. Different region, different outcome.
Poking around is both a pleasure and an education. Ernest Hemingway said that you don't know a country until you've tried to make a living in it. Here's Cottonwood's Corollary: You don't know a land until you try building on it. Construction is the most local of industries. What trees can you use? What insects live here? What is the life cycle of the local fungus? You need to understand the weather patterns and the geological understructure and even the chemistry of the air and soil. How deep is the frost? What is the angle of the sun at the solstice? What happens to the clay when it's wet? Talking to the local tradesmen, learning their work habits, figuring out what supplies are available and where to find them, adapting to local conditions and techniques all give me insight into the ecology and economy of the area. I get a view into the ideals and ethics - the very soul - of the region. For me, in small doses, it makes a perfect vacation.

There is one man to whom I return again and again to touch the soul of the Adirondacks. I'll introduce him, next entry.

Monday, September 15, 2008


Hi folks. I'm back from vacation, and there's a lot to say.

First of all, the publication of Clear Heart is moving forward, though more slowly than I had hoped. Late August is a dead zone in the publication industry. I'd hoped that an on-line, dot-com type publisher would move faster, but so far they have been just as lackadaisical as the old-boy brick-and-mortar publishers. By October, though, I still expect to see it in print.

For the upcoming podcast of my novel Boone Barnaby I've recruited some new talent. Besides the inimitable Susan Walker doing the female voices, I've recruited several male voices. The interplay of voices is a great way to bring this book alive. Since my novels are largely dialog, the podcasting medium can actually enhance and extend the subtlety of the written words. I'm stoked.

Those of you who saw my brokenhearted blog entry Remembering Arno might be pleased to know that I have a new puppy, another Havanese from the same extended family as Arno. He arrived Friday night by air freight at the San Francisco Airport, from Colorado by way of Albuquerque and Salt Lake City, slightly delayed and re-planed by hurricane confusion in Houston. Already, he's a veteran traveler. He's playful, cuddly, and incredibly soft. Meet Mickey:
My big dog Dakota has checked him out and found him satisfactory:
Already Mickey is studying ways to get Dakota's attention. Biting her ear seems to work.