Views from the Uppermost House: Two wing nuts and an I-beam

By S. Peter Lewis

BN Columnist

My dad is 86 years old. To put that in perspective, if he was a fruit bat he’d be…well, an 86-year-old fruit bat. That’s a really old fruit bat. The point I’m not making very well here is that my dad doesn’t know that he’s 86. He looks in the mirror and sees a 12-year-old boy. I know how he feels; I caught my reflection in the side window of my car the other day and my first thought was, “Should this kid be driving?”

Dad has always been a little dysfunctional when it comes to his age. I called him on his 60th birthday, a bit concerned about the mood I’d find him in, and after I congratulated him there was a long pause and I heard him shuffling papers on his desk. Finally, he came back on the line (after finding a calendar). “Son of a gun, you’re right, I am 60.” he said.

A decade later, I called him again, wished him a happy 70th birthday, and then asked him what he’d been up to lately. He then cranked off a long list of tasks he’d tackled in the week immediately preceding the historic day, including big, nasty, dangerous things like shoveling his roof and cutting down enormous trees.

“Why in the world were you doing all that?” I asked.

“Well, I didn’t think that was the kind of stuff a guy in his sixties should be doing,” he said.

So I go down to Connecticut to see him a couple of weeks ago and when I pull into his yard late in the evening I find him not in a big stuffed chair falling asleep in front of ESPN, like any sensible octogenarian, but out working on his sawmill. When he sees me, he says, “Hey! Great! Help my hoist this thing up onto those timbers, wouldya?”

The “this thing” in question is a 10-foot, 250-pound, steel I-beam that is currently dangling precariously from a block and tackle, which dad had rigged from a rafter. “It needs to go up there,” Dad says, pointing up into the dark recess below the peak of the roof.

And so father and son, both oblivious of their respective ages and doing potentially stupid things involving poorly-balanced ladders and heavy stuff and ropes and chains and gravity and dim light, spent the next hour or so attempting to be clever. We tried every trick in the “old age and treachery” handbook and kept coming up short. Literally. We just couldn’t get the I-beam up high enough.

“You might have to buy another length of chain,” I said at one point. “Buy? Buy?” Dad replied with palpable consternation. “You seem to have forgotten who you’re talking to.” My father, the consummate scrounger, got a $50 gift certificate to the scrap yard when he retired after 25 years as an engineer. I hung my head in shame. “Right, sorry,” I said.

After standing around with our baseball caps tipped way back and squinting and pointing and saying things like “Um,” and “Huh,” and “I wonder…well, no,” and finishing each other’s sentences, I’d finally had enough with all the mental ciphering, so I clambered up into the nest of rafters and collar ties, balanced on a couple of cracked staging planks just under the metal roofing (“Watch your head!”), bent way over, muckled on to one end of that big beam, strained those middle-aged muscles and ligaments of mine like piano wires, and just heaved that thing up into place — with a thud.

Filthy and exhausted, Dad and I admired our handiwork from back on the ground. It wasn’t pretty, but that beam was sure up there. Then Dad remarked that when his neighbor, an infamously arrogant curmudgeon, saw how we’d jury-rigged the beam, he’d probably say something like, “A bunch of wing nuts must have put that up there.” And he’d be wrong, I told Dad. “There are only two of us, so we’d be a pair of wing nuts!” And then we laughed like a couple of 12 year olds.

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