Little Red Barn
My mother asked me to paint the little red barn that sits on her property. She painted it 18 years ago, the summer after my father died. She painted one side per day, “for therapy,” she said. I could certainly understand the reasoning. Physical labor that accomplishes a task can be therapeutic and very satisfying. I had the same feeling still 24 years earlier, the first time it was painted.
I was 16 and had just gotten my driver’s license. My father was not one to sit me down and have a chat about life, but he certainly felt, in the summer of 1976, that I needed two lessons. The first was to learn something about the internal combustion engine. I wanted a pickup truck, like all 16-year-old boys in the north woods with a driver’s license. He thought that was a good idea too, so he bought me a 1956 Dodge flathead six pickup that leaked fluid, billowed smoke, and was prone to break failure. This was not exactly what I had in mind until I learned of his plan. “You are going to rebuild it,” he told me. He got me a 1956 repair manual and gave me instructions each day before he went to work. Soon our garage floor was carpeted with parts, which I had organized carefully so that I could put it back together. When the engine was finally put back together, I was thrilled and amazed to see it run.
With that project and lesson completed, we went for a ride into the nearby town of Crystal Falls. We stopped in front of an old house that had a smaller, cabin-size, building in the back. “The lady wants to get rid of the shack. Why don’t you tear it down, save the lumber, and then build something.” This was start of the second lesson of the summer.
I started the next morning, armed only with a hammer and a crowbar. His advice, “Just start with the roof and work your way down.”
What 16 year old does not like to tear shit down? I loved this job. My dad stopped in each day and the old lady who owned the place often sat in a chair, watched, and told me stories of England. “I was born on the banks of the Irish Sea,” she told me in a thick English accent. She made me hot tea, despite the hot temperatures, and added a generous helping of milk to my cup without asking.
I took a trip to the dump at least once a day to discard what we could not save, like roofing, electrical wires, plumbing and fixtures. I saved what I could, some two-by-fours, and lots of one-inch lap-jointed lumber that was on the walls.
I was done in about two weeks, and after my father saw the impressive pile of lumber he said, “Your mother thinks that you should build a little storage shed. I think that there is enough lumber to do it. You should build it with a barn roof, like you see on the big barns. We will start tomorrow.”
He could sense I was a little apprehensive. Tearing down a building does not take a lot of skill but I had no idea how to build anything. He said simply, “You start from the floor and build up.”
The next morning, armed with a hammer, handsaw and bag of nails, I met my dad by the garden where we would build the barn. He helped me cut the four sides of the floor and then instructed me to cut the joists and put them in every 16 inches. It took me all day to build the floor, a job that a carpenter could do in an hour. But by the time he got home from work it was done and had his approval.
We repeated this each day. He helped me speed things up by teaching me how to use the electric circular saw, instead of cutting each board by hand. When it came to the trusses, which are the signature of the Dutch roof barn styles, we visited my grandfather’s barn and stared up at the enormous roof as the barn swallows flitted about. We did not take any measurements. He just said, “See how the upper slope is at a shallow angle and the bottom slope is at a steep angle? That is what we want.”
We spent an hour or so fiddling with boards and angles until we had it right. “Now make six more just like these.”
We built the doors together, which are far more complicated than one would think, and then I painted it red, with white trim. There it sat for 24 years fading in the sun before my mother gave it a new coat of red, for therapy.
Eighteen years later, I looked at the barn, armed with a gallon of red paint and brush. Some of the nails, which I awkwardly pounded in 42 years early, were sticking out. I tapped them back in. I ran my fingers across the wood and recalled one of my mistakes. I put in a few wallboards at a slight angle. When my father came home and inspected it, he said, “A man can’t have crooked walls.” He helped me pull out all the boards and showed me how to build it straight.
I replaced two trim boards that had rotted away, but otherwise the little barn was sound. After the fresh coat and my mother’s approval, I walked over to the pole-barn that housed my 1956 pickup. My dad and I parked it there in 1984 and it had not moved since. A project for another day.