My Fixer-Upper Man
When I first met him, Bruce was living in a string hammock under a plastic tarp next to a construction site on a lake in Winthrop, Maine. He owned a fifty-dollar truck spray-painted with this sage advice: "Honk if you love Janis Joplin." He also possessed assorted tools, a sleeping bag, two knives, a toothbrush, and several changes of clothes. Lacking plumbing or cooking facilities, he washed in lake water and subsisted mostly on wild berry frappes from the Dairy Delight, where I worked.
Bruce was building a camp of his own design for his father.He had sketched the plan on a piece of paper and had scraped with his boot heel the outline of the foundation for the bulldozer to dig. Every day he rose from his hammock, enjoyed an icy dip in the lake, and approached his monumental project, solitary as Sisyphus. Each night, he climbed Mount Pisgah to watch the sun set, then returned to camp to sketch fanciful designs by candlelight and ponder the challenges he would face the next day.
All houses are built with human hands, assisted to one degree or another by technology, but Bruce's project was, to a remarkable extent, the work of one man. He designed and built it almost entirely by himself, and it seemed as much an outward expression of his nature as a snail's shell or a beaver's dam. When he did have help, it was of short term and questionable value. One friend dropped a scaffolding plank on Bruce's head and set him back a good week while he nursed his concussion. Another friend, who had promised to help with a dicey bit of framing, showed up late after a weekend of jacking deer to pen his lengthy confession onto a beam to be buried in the building.
Bruce spent the first four years I knew him working on the project, moving from tarp to cellar hole to back porch to bedroom as he finished each phase. As his domestic situation evolved, so did our relationship. At first, I visited him out of frank curiosity, to see the self-appointed wildman of the Winthrop woods. But soon I was drawn there, to nail soffit boards, or drift at sunset on a homemade float, or sleep in air electric with loon calls. All the while, Bruce's unformed world took shape under his hands. Like magic — loud, hammering, messy magic, but magic nonetheless — he created a place where there had been no place before.
Bruce's Thoreauvian asceticism was a bit less enchanting when we ultimately set up housekeeping in a place of our own, a 200-year-old fixer-upper in Bowdoinham, which possessed neither the charm of an antique nor the comfort of a modern place. In fact, it was as rotten and cheerless a house as I had ever seen, but it was all we could afford. Bruce's solution was to build a new house around the old one. He replaced every stick of wood, every pipe of plumbing, every wire of electricity, every pane of glass by hand, by himself, and out of pocket. In the meantime, we raised a young daughter in the debris, who learned to toddle over a two-inch chink in the floor and came to expect the walls to move on a regular basis. Sometimes we lived with no walls at all. At that point, I would have happily traded Bruce's brand of ingenuity for a ranch house in a subdivision.
But, to my chagrin, I'm fated to love a fixer-upper man. Bruce and I have been married fifteen years, and I have yet to live in a completely finished house. Despite my occasional frustration, though, I cannot help but delight in watching Bruce's architectural visions take shape around me. In a country choked with heartless, mass-produced McMansions, our house stands as a monument to originality, punctuating rows of bland rooflines with its mad geometry.
These days we are drawing plans for our own camp in Winthrop, which will, no doubt, take forever. We have already completed our first real project (aside from an outhouse built in one afternoon with a hammer, a hand saw, and a beer bottle level): a dock. It was, not surprisingly, homemade. Bruce perused all the dock catalogues, found their products overpriced and lacking in imagination, and pulled out his sketchbook.
Because there is no electricity at camp, Bruce built the dock at home. First he erected elaborate plywood staging in the side yard, which I mistook for the dock itself. Next, he laid the cedar planks and supports out on the ground like a giant puzzle. As he cut and assembled one rail of the dock, I realized he was building some sort of truss structure — it had a lovely, arched shape that would create a picturesque reflection in the waters of Lower Narrows Pond. Once the rails were done, the dock began to take shape, all twenty-seven feet of it. I began to wonder how we would get it to camp.
The answer to that question turned out to be a miracle of seat-of-the-pants engineering. Using nothing but PVC pipe as rollers and a two-by-four stick to pry, Bruce, our neighbor Al, and I rolled the dock over our short-bed Nissan truck, suspending the front ten feet in the air over the hood, like a ship's prow, and trailing the back ten feet in a long sweep, like a bride's train. Al was skeptical at first. He plied Bruce with questions: "How you gonna keep the truck's roof from crushin'? How you gonna keep the load from twistin'? How you gonna keep it from draggin' at the back, or liftin' up at the front?" Bruce had satisfactory answers to all of Al's questions, so he moved from fretful interrogation to appreciative ridicule. "Oh man," he chortled, "I can see you rollin' down Route 95 with that."
The next morning, I followed Bruce up to camp, vigilant for any sign of movement, but eventually enjoying the spectacle of such an enormous load balanced so neatly on a tiny truck. When we got to camp, we got the rollers and sticks out again. We managed the dock off the truck and down a steep switchback trail to the lake, while our daughter and her dog pulled rotten tree stumps out of its path. Finally, with only feet to go, we laid a board across two lakeside rocks to ease the dock into the water. But the dock wouldn't skid on the wood. We were at a standstill.
After years of witnessing Bruce's ingenuity, it was my turn for a solution. "We could spray the wood with Pam," I said. I was planning to make pancakes after we finished the dock, and I had some handy. Bruce said, "Well, it worked for the Egyptians," so I got the can of cooking spray and greased the skids.
After that, the dock slid easily into the water. We paused for a moment and watched the lake lap its fresh cedar sides. Finally, we withdrew to the campfire under the pines, to cook our breakfast and plot our next campaign.