Sunday, July 12, 2015

Time Changes Everything

That Merle Haggard performance, from 1984, in Richmond, Va, is perfection. Watch it a few times.

In 1984 I'd started working with a stone mason named Joe Kenlan, who taught me the finer points of building with stone, as well as a lot of things about building with conventional masonry materials such as cinder block and brick. (Later on in that decade I went to work for a bigger masonry outfit that constructed strip malls and factories, and found out I didn't know nothing about block and brick, but I learned quite a lot--enough to take jobs on my own building people's foundations.)

Before I started working with Kenlan I was working for a guy named Robin Garrett, who'd helped me build my cabin back in '79. Robin was an expert at log building. We tore down my cabin, which had been build in 1867, labeled the logs by where they were placed, moved the whole thing over here on my place in the most rickety hauling rig you can imagine. My truck was an old GMC that had been worn out when I bought it. I couldn't drive the haul above second gear without the front wheels bouncing off the pavement because of the tongue weight. The logs are twenty-two feet long, and oak. Chisel into them today and they look fresh dropped. We had one shot to get into the driveway, with momentum from the paved road. If we didn't make it the logs would have been sitting cross-wise at the bottom of the hill, with no way to get them to the site, which was over the hill and a third of a mile off the road. We made it.

Robin was a man who believed in his body. When we put the roof up, in the summer of '79, he stood on the top gable log and held the ridge plate over his head, arms fully extended, whilst me and my ex-wife Annie toe-nailed the first two rafters into the top plates. We didn't know shit about nailing anything, and bent a nail or two before we had the rafters somewhat secured. Robin, meanwhile, nailed the tops to the ridge plate with one hand, holding it all up at the same time, balancing thirty feet off the ground at the same time. There was no scaffold, no net, no nothing. Git'er done or die, that was Robin's way. He'd pulled the tin off the roof of the cabin by sliding down each piece and popping the nails as they went by, then stopping himself before he went over the edge.

I worked for Robin for a while after I'd left the Red Clay Ramblers, after I'd sat in the cabin in the dark for a couple of months in the winter of '81, after Annie had moved out. Robin liked music and went to a square dance in Chapel Hill. I started playing in the band that played that dance, and played for a group of semi-professional cloggers based in Chapel Hill. Robin hired a couple of those cloggers to work for him. He'd throw a music party now and then, and he'd get up on a high plank over nothing and clog. I met Libby at one of those parties, and we picked for hours together, and I got her name wrong and had it in my address book that way when we finally had a kind of date and found there were sparks, and we still laugh at that old entry in the tattered book that's still sitting in a drawer under the phone. As well as working on a cabin restoration job, me and the other clogging carpenters helped him build a shop on his place. I was doing that job when Kenlan called me up and offered me the stone work gig. Kenlan had heard, probably from Robin, that I was building a stone chimney for myself. After I worked with Kenlan for a few months I started doing prettier stone work at home. I also borrowed some of his scaffold to get the top part done, and that was finished up after Libby and I got married in January of '84, on my birthday.

Libby had been a friend of Priscilla, Robin's wife. They'd worked in Chatham County Social Services for a while. Robin and Priscilla had a little girl, but they had a rocky relationship, and Priscilla lived in her own cabin, on their piece of land. After Libby and I got our family going I got past working for Kenlan and started working for myself. I didn't see much of Robin, but heard he'd moved to Florida for a while, doing something with boats. A month or so back we heard tell that Priscilla had died a couple of years ago. Libby looked her up on the internet and sure enough, it was true. She was born same year as me.

In the process of that bit of research we also found out Robin had died this past year. I'd heard he was sick. He'd thrown a party last summer and a guy who went told me it was kind of a fair well party, and he forbid anyone to ask about Priscilla, or to talk about his illness. I guess people played fiddle tunes and danced a lot. I didn't go, although I was invited.

Time flies. I'm sitting here in the kitchen this morning looking at the old logs we put in place back in '79. We nestled the cabin in amongst the big oaks here, and some of them are too big now, and one big twin up and died last summer, and another one over hangs the cabin and looks to be dying from the way it's putting out suckers. Gonna have to get some tree guy out here this fall, after the leaves have dropped. Firewood city!

Robin would chop firewood like he did everything else, like a banshee. He'd set out a bunch of rounds and run around with an axe, splitting them all up. He did everything on the run, and usually stoned. One of the problems with that way of working was, he had a lot of moments, usually after lunch, when he'd go "Oh, shit." He'd forgotten something or other, and some of the morning's work would have to come down and be redone. His skill and native genius made up for a lot of that, and good luck with picking clients. He picked us.

He picked the cabin too, and that roof he is working on is still sound, 35 years in. The tin needs painting. That's probably thanks to acid rain.

Now go back and watch that Merle video again. You will never see anything better. That's what a live performance is. That great fiddler has passed away now. Hag loves his band. If you look at his different shows on Youtube, you'll watch them growing old with him.

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