Down East 2013 ©
Photograph by Jennifer Baum
The summer before I went to college, I worked on a construction crew, building a four-story summer home that overlooked the open Atlantic from atop a cliff in Georgetown. Every morning, I met the crew at 5:30 a.m. at a machine shop in Topsham, where we all piled into a red dump truck for the forty-minute drive up the coast. It was always dark when we left, but as we made our way down Route 1, past the shipyard and the bridge over the Kennebec and over the Sagadahoc County line, you could catch thin glimpses of the rising sun breaking the horizon. The road to the house wound beneath craned saplings and small indignant firs, past old farmhouses and salt flats, and crisscrossed over a tidal river.
The ocean was usually hidden when we first arrived at the job site. A shimmering gray fog clung to the coastline and drifted onto the land and into the skeletal frame, filling the wall-less rooms and pouring from the glassless windows like smoke from a giant house fire. By the time we’d gotten the tools out and hooked up the nail guns to the air hoses and the hoses to the compressors, the fog had burned off and left behind just diamonds of dew in the short sea grass. Then it became a sort of ritual for our whole crew to shuffle to the cliff’s edge and gaze across the swelling pasture of ocean and, unspeaking, admire the revelation and breathe in its salt.
As the least experienced and youngest man on the team, my boss — a small, wiry, and energetic guy from the County named Gerald — gave me the honorary job of “gopher.” Or, as he explained in his happy Aroostook-Franco accent, “When I need something, you go-fer it!” My other responsibilities included picking up wood scraps and stacking lumber, sweeping sawdust into neat little piles, and climbing tall sections of staging to bring boxes of nails or measurements to the men who worked above me. For my enormous lack of expertise, I was paid $6.75 an hour, which back then seemed like pretty good wages.
Gerald’s right hand man was named Jay. Jay lived alone in a small apartment above the machine shop and never complained or swore. Beneath Jay was Greg, an overly righteous Phippsburg man who liked to brag about his son’s athleticism, complain about falling behind in life, and who often accused Gerald of shorting him on hours. Beneath Gerald and Jay and Greg there was Mike. Mike had big muscles and a blonde mustache and called his wife “Mumma,” which he pronounced like “Mummer.” He was an unreliable ex-con who wasn’t smart enough to be a good carpenter, but since he preferred dangerous jobs — like climbing roofs and rafters during thunderstorms — Gerald felt he was worth the trouble.
Gerald told me on the first day that there were two important rules I needed to follow: 1.) No sitting down on the job, and (the industry classic) 2.) If there’s time to lean, there’s time to clean. I had no problem following the rules, but I preferred to pass my sweltering days of unimportance contemplating the endless field of summer-blue that back-grounded the slowly growing house frame. Some days, the Atlantic appeared so endless that I began wondering if the earth, contrary to what I had been taught in school, was not only flat, but infinite, too. I often gazed at the water for so long that later, while carrying a five-stack of ten-foot two-by-sixes up a temporary staircase, my legs would wobble in time to the cresting of the distant swells.
By the end of July, the wood frame gradually took on an ethereal and nearly religious sheen. Elegant and clean, untarnished by siding, roof, or plaster walls, the form sometimes reminded me of a medieval cathedral. When rays of afternoon sun passed through the gaps between the studs and rafters and joists and left floating golden rectangles on the plywood floors, I found myself lamenting that as this house neared completion, the light would slowly disappear.
In mid-August, the frame became more concealed. My days of gophering with views of the ocean were replaced by hours spent beneath cool imposing shadows. Sometimes at lunch, Mike and Greg would bring out fishing poles, and we’d cast off sun-brightened rocks for undersize stripers and cook them on Greg’s hibachi. When lunch break was over, though, I’d go back to the shade in search of more wood scrap and trash.
In early September, just days before I was due to leave Maine for college, the owner of the house showed up at the job site. He was a falsely tanned man from Texas who dissembled his happiness at the progress we’d made. As Gerald took him on a tour, the man gawked at the extravagant views from his proposed dining room — as if only through the large square windows of his new house could such a massive blue ever be so perfectly framed.