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.

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