On the Road: Budding Builders

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The author, age 3, with Band-aid on right temple covering stitches from a marble table collision. Photo taken by a sister since Mom and Dad probably didn’t know where I was, which is how we rolled in those days.

By Annette Hinkle

Last Saturday, as I was driving up island with my daughter, Sophie, and a group of her friends from East Hampton High School, one of them began sharing a distressing tale of a wound he suffered a few months back.

Apparently, he had taken a tumble on a running track which resulted in a badly skinned knee. It was followed by a fair amount of bleeding and then — it became a big scab.

Yeah … And? While I was waiting for the dramatic part of the story the girls in the car were clearly impressed.

“Oh no. That’s terrible. I hate that,” said one.

The others agreed and conveyed their sympathies for his injury. While I appreciated their heartfelt empathy, I couldn’t help but think to myself, “Really? That’s it? We’re talking about a skinned knee that scabbed over almost six months ago?

I hate to be one of those parents who go around saying, “When I was a kid,” but when I was a kid, scabs were a regular and expected part of the skin landscape and far too numerous to count — at least if you were doing things right. Wounds like that didn’t even warrant a mention, much less a story that elicits sympathy six months later.

I was tempted to pull over right there on the Sunrise Highway to show them what the real marks of a childhood well-lived left behind — scars. We were in a hurry, so I didn’t, but if I had it would go something like this:

Upper right temple, age 3, rough housing on couch with siblings followed by a tumble into the sharp corner of a marble magazine table. Result: Hospital, stitches.

Left eyebrow, ½ inch from eye, age 6, show and tell day. Alan Barhorst’s authentic Australian boomerang. On the walk home, best friend asks “Does it work?” He demonstrates and I’m the “roo” 20 feet away. Yes, it works. I get clocked and go down with a massive bloody gash on my head. Result: Hospital, stitches.

I could go on, but you get the idea.

The point is, as a youngster my friends and I were left to our own devices to make our way through kid-dom, including its hazards. I was the youngest of five and by the time I was 7, both of my parents were gone all day long at full time jobs. But even in the years before that, my stay-at-home mom took the job literally and stayed in the kitchen, sewing room or basement where she made dinner, clothes or clean laundry.

Most of the time, neither of my parents had a clue as to what I was up to or where in the neighborhood I was roaming and that’s exactly how I liked it. I didn’t come home until the cowbell rang signaling dinner was ready, which in those days meant chipped beef on toast (look it up if it wasn’t a regional specialty in your town) or mighty fine meatloaf (which I’m happy to say my husband makes exactly like my mom did).

Not to say that there weren’t occasional spies. At age 11, I got busted for indulging in an illicit mini-bike ride on the back of a machine owned by an older kid one street over. I didn’t know him, but held on for dear life as he sped up and down the road several times without a helmet. It was a blast and I was sure my mom would never find out.

I was wrong, of course. One of the church ladies witnessed my indiscretion and by the time I got home, my mom knew all about it, and told me so with something of a grin on her face.

The tale is a prime example of how parents back then didn’t seem to care much about kids putting themselves in harm’s way. Otherwise, mine would have locked the garage because that’s where all the truly great stuff lived.

Saws, hammers, nails, screws, drills, plywood — everything needed to make a fort somewhere in the neighborhood — and I had free access to it all. I don’t once remember my parents saying I couldn’t take stuff out of the garage. The tools just had to end up back in there at the end of the project or there’d be hell to pay.

As a kid, I was amazed I was allowed in our garage. Even on the hottest July days, it was cool and smelled slightly of gasoline while the concrete floor felt damp under bare feet. Our garage had an upstairs that one accessed via a pirate-like ladder — literally two pieces of wood nailed vertically to the wall with several smaller pieces nailed horizontally that played the role of rungs.

Upstairs it was warmer, but there was all kinds of stuff a kid could use in a building project, including mysterious farm implements left behind by the previous residents. There were also ways for a kid to die up there. Specifically on the far side of the attic where the floor was totally rotted away and the boards that were left leaned precariously toward the void. But it was a convenient way to lower stuff down to friends waiting below so that’s what we did.

The author’s daughter engaging in some actual manual labor at Habitat for Humanity site. A. Hinkle photo.

Then we’d tote the stuff in our wagons or someone’s pilfered wheel barrow to a backyard where we’d set out sawing and hammering, sketching or stacking to create the fort du jour.

One time we made an awesome fort in the backyard of my friend Robbie. It was sturdy enough that I thought we’d hang out there for years. But it was destroyed within a couple hours when his older brother, Doug, said that because he was stronger and did most of the work, us girls could only belong to the club if we made out with him inside the fort.

My friend Debbie put a quick end to that scheme (and our hard work) by kicking out the rear wall to escape his advances. Though I was heartbroken at the loss of our fort, I applauded her spunk and to this day, I still hate the name Doug.

Ironically, all this was going on in my head as I was driving the kids up to Bay Shore where we would all be volunteering as workers on a Habitat for Humanity home for the day.

When we arrived, we were given hardhats, safety goggles, hammers and nails, and the kids were assigned various tasks around the site. While I cut foam insulation, Sophie and four of her friends began hammering nails into the wood frame running around the foundation of the home. I winced in pain as I watched her limp wrist flail away at the poor nail. For every hit she landed on the nail she probably hit the wood around it 20 times.

This was going to be a long day, I thought as I turned back to the task at hand.

But you know what? A half hour later the group had improved considerably. All of them were making admirable progress and Sophie had figured out her method. By holding the hammer with both hands she made contact with the nail far more often than not. All the students mastered new tasks over the course of our five hour build day, and some were even using table saws by the end as they completed cutting and building the supports for the new house.

The Habitat for Humanity site foreman was impressed with their efforts and told us they were among the best groups he had worked with. And then to the assembled teens, he added the most cheering news of the day.

“You guys did great — and you now know how to build a fort.”

I’m sincerely hoping that next time I go to the gardening shed, I’ll find the hammer is missing.

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