Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Stuff My Dad Did

As I remember my childhood, James Marvin Abbott was very much a do-it-yourself-er.  At least in part, this was due to us never having too much money.  But, I don't remember any money fights, or anything like that.  Just that we did stuff ourselves...which seemed pretty normal to me.

The Roof

When I was around 8 years-old, I tried to help Dad to lay a new shingle roof on our house.  As I recall, I was only able to carry about 2 or 3 shingles at-a-time.  So, in fairness, "help" is probably the wrong word for my contribution to the project.

On one of our trips to the roof, our ladder somehow fell-over, leaving us stranded atop the roof.  Dad was very athletic throughout his life.  So, he barely hesitated before jumping off the one-story dwelling, landing safely upon his feet.  My assumption was that he would stand the ladder back against the house, and I would climb-down.  I was more than a little surprised when he told me to jump.  I suppose it is the same distance, regardless of your height.  But, somehow, it just didn't seem fair for me to have to jump the same distance that he had just jumped.  But, he tried to calm me by assuring me that he would catch me.

This was the greatest height from which I had jumped to-date.  So, I really didn't know what to expect.  And, I sure didn't want him to miss catching me because I didn't jump right.  So, there he stood, with his arms outstretched...and I jumped.  Apparently, I jumped a little too well, as it was necessary for him to back-up to avoid being landed-upon.  I fell neatly between his arms as he sought safety.  My feet hit first....then, my knees hit my chin...then I was all over the ground.  I remember being very upset that Dad had promised he would catch me, then failed in his obligation.  I suppose that his laughter included a little embarrassment at failing to catch me.  But, at the time, it didn't seem right for him to blame me.

The Plow

Dad liked to plant a garden every spring.  Some years, he would rent a motor-driven tiller, most years he would use a shovel to turnover the soil (something I was expected to help-with every day after school until it was done).  One year, he borrowed a plow.  This was the first of these I'd ever seen.  And, it sure didn't look like anything I'd ever seen on the 'western' movies or TV shows.  As an adult, I've seen them at flea-markets, and as best I can tell, it is called a 'high-wheel cultivator'.  And, it apparently is intended to be pushed.  And, I can only assume that they are/were used on soil that had previously been plowed, but needed to be shaped. 

Unfortunately, Dad wanted to use this plow to extend our garden area into previously (as far as we know) unbroken soil...Pushing didn't work.  Soon, I...and a length of rope, were recruited to double the power being applied to the very stubborn soil.  A simple loop, consisting of a manila rope tied at each end to the plow, served as our harness or yoke.  As I remember it, I was the first to serve as the draft animal.  I don't know exactly how old I was, but probably less than ten.  So, I wore-out pretty quickly.  Then Dad did the pulling, but I didn't do a very good job of managing the I was too short.  The plow was not intended to be pulled, and the rope was tied above the wheel axle.  So, it tended to pull-over.  I think my best technique was to 'hang' from handles by my hands, and use my feet to 'steer'.  But, keeping the plow vertical was problematic.  We worked in shifts, alternating from puller to steer-er.  Upon completion, the plow was returned to its owner, and never again suggested.

The BBQ Grill
I don't remember us having a grill at our house until my 8th grade in school.  One of my classes was metal-shop.  And, before the year ended, I brought-home a welded steel cooking grill...just the part the food sits upon.  It was welded of mild steel, mostly strips about one-half inch wide.  We built a fire enclosure of dry-stacked (no mortar) bricks.  The entire unit sat in our back yard about 4-feet from the back of the garage.  And notably, about the same distance from a storage room door when closed.  When fully open, the door was within about 18inches of the BBQ.

At that time, "match light" type of charcoal was not available.  And, we didn't use commercially-made lighter-fluid because of the expense and the fact that we didn't grill that often.  Besides, gasoline was very effective, only about 30¢ a gallon, and always on-hand for the lawn mower.  In Dad's mind, it made far more sense to use gasoline.  Before I get into the details, remember: don't try this at home.

An average, typical day of grilling involved stacking charcoal, pouring gasoline on the stack, standing-back and throwing a lit wooden match at the grill.  The ensuing 'woosh' provided an audible verification of ignition.  However, if one was too generous with the gasoline, the dry-stacked bricks allowed the gas to seep out into the grass.  And, allowed that gas to ignite.  Very soon, there was no longer any grass at-risk, as it had burned-away.

Gasoline is an effective "accelerant" for charcoal about 99% of the time.  But, one day the gasoline burned-out without having any apparent effect on the charcoal.  Our gas was kept in a one-gallon steel can, which Dad was easily able to grasp, and manipulate, one-handed.  He decided the proper course of action was to add more fuel.  Unfortunately, there was at least one live ember in the stack, and fire raced up the flowing gasoline.  With amazingly quick reflexes, and using only his wrist, Dad tossed the potential bomb about 20 or 30 feet.  And, the unwanted fire was fairly easy to extinguish.

Wind can also be an enemy when using gasoline as a charcoal lighter.  One day, we were following our normal routine; take the gas-can from the storage room, stack the charcoal, pour the gasoline, stand back, then throw a lit match.  This particular day, the storage room door did not get closed completely.  And, it was windy.  In a freak bit of bad timing, the door blew open, just as the gasoline went 'whoosh'.  And, the flash of gasoline fire was hot enough and large enough to immediately set the door ablaze.  So, here stand my Dad, my brother and myself watching a blazing, intentional, fire alongside a blazing, unintentional, and potentially catastrophic fire.  Somehow, we got the door extinguished before we lost the house.  Ironically, we never moved the grill.

Scuba Diving

Dad became involved in Scuba-Diving in the early 1960's.  I know his first tank was a conversion.  That is, it was not made as a SCUBA tank, but was converted from another use.  As I remember it, it must have originally been an oxygen tank scavenged from an Oxy-Acetylene welding rig.  He had no 'frame' (or whatever you call the part to which the tank is mounted).  Instead, he had a variety of belts and buckles which reminded me of seat belts.  And, as I recall, it took him quite some time to get all of the parts in-place.

To my knowledge, Dad only had one opportunity to get paid for diving.  A golfer had missed a shot and lost his temper.  He threw his entire set of clubs into the Trinity River.  Apparently, they were an expensive set.  And either he, or his golfing buddy (I think it was the friend) felt it was worth a little money to recover them.  By North Texas standards, it was a fairly chilly day (probably in the 40s).  As a child, I remember being cold, and completely confused as to why Dad would willingly jump into (assumed-to-be) cold water.  Anyway, he found the complete set of "irons", but the "woods" and bag had apparently drifted downstream.

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