The long haul: McCallum on Dad’s determination

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(HOST) VPR commentators gathered this spring at Sugarbush Resort to address a common theme, The Long Haul, and we’re sharing a few of their thoughts this week. For commentator Mary McCallum, the theme reminded her of her father and what you can accomplish if you set your mind to it.

(MCCALLUM) My father was a city boy, and he wasn’t handy. In 1946 he bought a "handyman special" in the country that needed everything from repairing the roof all the way down to jacking up the crumbling foundation.  Out of necessity he read library books on how to fix and build anything, and for 60 years he made improvements when there was a little extra money.  When he retired at seventy he didn’t take up a hobby or travel.  Instead, he looked at the packed dirt walls and floor of his cellar, a dank hole with just enough space for a furnace and hot water heater, and said to himself, "I’ve always wanted a finished basement."

A contractor estimated it would cost $2,000 to dig a larger space and pour the floor and walls.  My father thought it over and decided he could do it cheaper himself with a shovel and a few bags of cement.  And so began The Cellar Project  of 1983.  Every morning after coffee and cereal he’d disappear down the rickety wooden stairs and get his workday organized while my mother stayed above ground cooking and doing  housework for two.

He dug out the walls with his shovel, reinforcing as he went along, filling 4 old buckets with dirt.  After popping out the lone window, he pushed the buckets through the small high opening onto the edge of the driveway.  Upstairs he went, circled the house to where the buckets waited like a line of passengers for the bus, and poured their contents into a waiting wheelbarrow.  He dumped the cellar dirt in the overgrown vacant lot next door.  Then he parked the wheelbarrow back by the window, made sure the buckets were lined up so he could reach out and grab them from inside, and headed back down to his underground work site.

He repeated this sequence all morning, broke for lunch, took a snooze on the livingroom floor, then resumed digging, filling, hauling and emptying.  His easy rhythm was unhurried, steady and methodical, with clear results at the end of the day.

My father was a man who found his joy in small things.  He loved order and improvement, and didn’t care that the project was going to be both literally and figuratively a long haul.  His warm weather days were filled with a kind of toil that  is practically unknown in our culture.  It gave a sense of purpose to his first days of retirement, and he rose every morning excited about the work ahead.  

In a year he had his 8’x 8’ cellar hand-dug to 10’ x 15’, a gain of 86 square feet.  He laid cement block walls, poured a floor by hand, and built a workbench.  He painted the walls white and hung a fluorescent light that hummed quietly when he tinkered in his shiny space.

He kept a few cans of warm beer under the bench, and for years when anyone new stopped by the house Dad would ask, "Hey, would you like to see my basement?"

(applause out)

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