Friday, September 19, 2014

Arnold Cabin Project Part 3 - The Real Story

I can hardly believe it as I write this.

Cindy and I have been back from our 2 week California Cabin Restoration Odyssey for three weeks now, and it has been a little hard to make sense of the trip.  These things, after all, never seem to quite turn out the way one expects, do they?

As we packed our suitcases, and as we sat aboard the airplane on our way, I kept having these wonderful, "I can't believe this is my real life" moments.  I was excited to commune with the decisions of my great-great grandfather and mother.  As I had photographed, measured, and modeled the cabin, I came into contact with the remnants of thoughts and actions done by my ancestors.  In other words, the cabin is 21' long and 21' wide.  Clearly, because of it's two different roof pitch lines, you can see that it was once a smaller cabin - with only one room.  I happen to know that Henry and Sarah Arnold had 6 children (3 girls and 3 boys), and they also raised some of Sarah's brother's children and some of their own grandchildren in that cabin.  It stands to reason that they would expand, and they did so in two directions - they lengthened the cabin along the original ridge line, adding a 6' room facing down the hillside.  And, either at that time or later, they added a 9' section (divided into two more rooms) along the back of the cabin like a lean-to, adding that second slope to the roof.

That's a bunch of deduction - detective work, if you will.  And I expected to be working with a cabin that was (apart from having been re-roofed at least once before and having some additional support added to the foundation) largely original.  What I found was somewhat the opposite.  In the entire time of climbing all over that cabin, I only remember seeing one original square or "cut" nail.  The rest had been pulled out and replaced by more modern, round-headed or "wire" nails.  And when we started talking with Vince, the Hastings Director, he told us that he had recently come across some photographs of people re-building the Arnold Cabin in the 1970's.  He said they had almost taken the entire thing apart and re-built it at that time.

Now that I was finally at Hastings and able to spend (nearly) as much time as I pleased combing over the Arnold Cabin, I saw more and more things that weren't original, which is to say they weren't made of redwood either.  Redwood is very rot and insect-resistant.  Pine and Douglass Fir are not (unless you treat them with chemicals).  Many of the original redwood parts that make up the roof system had been replaced with pine at some point in the past.

I won't sugar coat it.  This disappointed me.

In the span of time that cabin had existed since it was built, interlopers had (rightfully) put their hands on it.  It had been naive of me to think the cabin had stood all this time in its original condition without any restoration or shoring-up.  And yet, I had so hoped to be able to get close to Henry and Sarah through this strange form of contact - touching things left exactly where they had been put.  All those little round nail heads slightly dampened my enthusiasm on the very first day.

I didn't talk about it much, because there were bigger challenges afoot.  First, Cindy is very allergic to poison oak, and while Jaime, the Hastings Steward had cleared most of it from around the cabin, we were constantly walking on a bed of dried leaves, many of which were dried poison oak leaves.  Also, the cabin was somewhat entangled in poison oak vines - both inside and out, both living and long-since dead.  And thirdly, there were face flies.

If you haven't heard about face flies, you might be able to guess what they are by the name.  But in case you imagine them less of a nuisance than they are, I'll get into it a little bit.  They are small flies, and they constantly hover, buzz, and attempt to land in the orafices of your face.  Barring the ability to do so, they find their way to your exposed skin, alight wherever they can, and if they aren't shaken immediately off, they bite you.  They are weaker fliers than your typical house flies, so you can blow them out of your face by puffing out little bursts of air, but within seconds, they come back for further attempts at landing in your nose, mouth, eyes, and ears.

While working on the cabin, my hands were constantly in motion.  And my head was constantly filled with calculations of angles, force, whether this would need to be cut or how to get that up on the roof. There were assessments to make with every move whether the cabin was sturdy and I was stable enough to maintain my position without falling or breaking through and then falling.  The motion of my hands kept the flies off my arms for the most part.  The flies did, however, manage to get under my shirt and bite my stomach and my lower back.  But the thoughts in my head kept the noise of their buzzing in my ears from bothering me too much.  I blew the flies away from my face with my breath, and when I had a free hand, I swatted them away with my gloves.  

When the day was hot, the flies were thicker, and one's relationship was suddenly with a small cloud of flies rather than 5 or 10.

Cindy, on the other hand, was at the ready to be helpful.  She moved slowly, for fear of slipping and for fear of touching poison oak.  She spent a fair amount of time watching over me - fulfilling her usual role of Safety Captain - cautioning me against falling or otherwise hurting myself.  Sometimes, she was paralyzed with fear for herself or me.  She was not in charge of making sure all the pieces fit and were solidly attached, so she didn't have the luxury and chore of doing as much figuring as I did.  As best she could, she learned the names of things, but ever cautious of making a mistake, when asked to hand me a thing, she would double check: do you want this thing?  Or this other thing?  She was bathed in fear.

And yet, she kept going.  As I worked, she worked.  Or, if she couldn't do anything to help, she stood and actively worried.  Some tasks she could handle on her own - asking me to check them over once she had gone a certain way, to make sure she was doing it correctly.  But, again, there were long moments where circumstances prevented her from moving quickly.  And the nature of her role as assistant meant that she had more space in her head to hear the buzzing of the flies.

Little Cindy Keiter - Actress, history buff, entertainer, mench, tour guide - picking her way through the poison oak, afraid for our lives and limbs, fighting against the urge to panic in the face of danger, struggled with the full force of her concentration to get the hang of which screws were required for which operation, or the names of the tools, or the names of the parts of the roof... stuff she only cared about because she cares about me - that Little Cindy Keiter - persevered through it all.  

But the buzzing of the face flies nearly broke her.

And while I expected to spend the two weeks communing with my ancestors, wallowing in thoughts of what their lives were like when they lived in that cabin, and going deep into the restoration of the place as an heir to its genetics,  I found my time at Hastings wasn't about that stuff very much.  I dealt with the problems that presented themselves - how to get those big, square metal panels aligned to that old crooked cabin, how to get redwood when the salvage redwood supplier I'd counted on flaked out, how to avoid sliding off a slick new metal roof when you still need to work up there, how to avoid making extra trips down the mountain to get more tools...

I figure that's what all us romantic, book-learned fools discover once we throw ourselves into the fray: a project may be grand and all, but work is still work.  In that regard, I can't imagine my experience was any different from that of my ancestors'.  More than once, I thought of the brilliant French films, Jean de Fleurette and Manon de la Source, and how that guy moves to Provence to become a peaceful and successful farmer, only to be forced to recon with the realities of life in the country (and his own inner demons).  Have you seen them?

I was challenged by the work, to be sure, but what I never dreamed Hastings would illustrate for me in the way that it did was the measure of Cindy's love.  So before I get to any talk of angles and methods of construction and such, I just wanted you to know: the real story of our time working on the Arnold Cabin was Cindy's strength in facing so many fears and the love she showed for me by doing so.


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