Sunday, March 25, 2012

Chapter 8: Two Stout Doors

"After breakfast Pa hitched up Pet and Patty, and taking his ax he went to get timber for the door. Laura helped wash the dishes and make the beds, but that day Mary minded the baby. Laura helped Pa make the door. Mary watched, but Laura handed him his tools."

After his encounter with the wolves and having them surround the cabin that night, Pa decides it is time to build a door. He hasn't done it yet because he is out of nails, but there are other ways of door-building than just using nails. Laura gets to help him because there is lots to do to make a door from scratch.

First, Pa takes the saw and saws the logs to the right length to make a door. Then he saws two shorter lengths for the cross-pieces. After all the pieces are the proper size, Pa takes the ax, splits the logs into slabs, and smooths the rough wood nicely.

He lays the long boards on the ground with the short boards across them, then takes his auger and bores holes through the cross pieces and into the door slabs. He drives wooden pegs into the holes and the door is held together.

He makes the hinges out of three straps of leather fastened to the door with pegs, and to the strong door-frame with more pegs. He makes the door latch out of a long, smooth stick that can be moved up and down by pulling a string if you are outside and by using your hands if you are inside. If you wanted to keep someone out, you could pull the string back through the door and there was no way for them to get in.
It is a very good, strong door.

The next day Pa goes hunting because they are out of meat, but the day after that Laura and Pa make the door for the barn. It is made just like the first door, except with no latch because Pet and Patty don't know how to use one. Instead, Pa drills holes through the door and barn wall and fastens a stout chain with a strong lock. No one can get into the stable and no one can get into the house.

"Now we're all snug," Pa says.

I don't know about you, but after this latest project I'm starting to get a little suspicious about the accuracy of some of Laura's recollections. Like Pa building a door start-to-finish in one day---I mean, I could see a week or so, but one day? I'm not so sure....

Our chapter begins with Pa suddenly getting religion when it comes to solid doors. I'm sure Ma had felt the yearnin' for quite some time, but nothing like a pack of giant wolves around your wiffle-ball house to inspire a man to bump security to the top of the to-do list.

And to be fair, I can totally understand Pa's side of things. He didn't have any nails left, so it was easy to put off door building until he had a chance to get to town for the proper equipment. But sometimes life demands we forge ahead without the ideal setup, and in true pioneer spirit, Pa met the challenge with skill and flair.

As hard as it is to believe in this age of instant assembly, a great deal of the world's lasting creations were made under very primitive circumstances. It was, and still is, possible to build  many things without using nails in the process. I decided to carry on this noble pioneer tradition by making something using nail-less construction. Of course, I'm not crazy, so I wasn't about to start out with something hard like a door---making a little footstool was a big enough challenge for a beginner such as myself.

I didn't worry about having the right tools for the job. See, I have a very special father. He has taken for his personal life motto the phrases, "What if?" and "You never know...." He's never met a tool he didn't like, and once he gets his hands on them, they're prisoners for life. Evidently, somewhere in his past, he decided that "What if?" would probably involve building a log cabin from scratch someday, so all I had to do was borrow from his knowledge and store of equipment.

My footstool-to-be

I began with my wood in its most virgin state---well, not quite virgin---the tree had fallen down last winter and part of it was already cut into short sections. I selected a log I judged to be the right size and began the process of splitting it to make a board.

This may surprise you, but I am not actually that skilled with an ax, so the log resembled a toothbrush on each end by the time I got done hacking at it. Once I had a deep enough cut in the wood, I was able to fit the wedge in and begin hitting it with a sledgehammer. This may surprise you, but I am not actually that skilled with a sledgehammer, either. I broke the handle by overshooting the wedge and slamming the wood of the handle down on the iron wedge. Repeatedly. I'm glad my dad loves me!

First one side of the log split off, and then the other. I was left with a thick, rough wood plank just the right size for a cute little footstool. That was the first day.

The next day I began my work of smoothing the board. The rough work was done at first with an ax, but I whined my way out of that as soon as possible. This may surprise you, but I'm not actually that skilled with an ax....still. My arms were killing me, too. No need for Pioneer90X---you burned your calories in honest labor back in those days!

After my shrill keening convinced my dad that the board was smooth enough to move on to the next step, he got out his sculptor's adze for me to use in the smoothing process. A full size adze is like an ax on a hoe handle and used standing over your work, but this one was for handwork use. It helped smooth the ridges in the board and take out the largest splinters, but even with that, you'd still need protective padding before you'd dare sit on it.

When my arms couldn't take it anymore, I took a break by sawing the legs off of  branches from my parents' woodpile. It still used my arm muscles, but at least they were different ones! That was the second day.

These are the tools I used in creation of my footstool. Of course, the ax, sledgehammer, and wedge were used in cutting the board out. The other tools are (from the top down): a saw, a draw knife (R), a brace-and-bit (L), a plane, calipers, a ruler, and (L) a pocket knife.

On the third day I began the final work of smoothing it . My dad had told me that in pioneer times, before the invention of sandpaper, they would smooth the roughest parts of the board, but then (especially for floors) they would drag a heavy stone back and forth across the boards until the floor was safe and smooth. Let me tell you, you would have kept your boots on at my house, because this whole sanding-with-a-rock thing is a real drag! It does work though, and my board almost didn't look like a porcupine before I called it good.

Everything was now in readiness for the detailed hand-working. The labor moved into my dad's man-cave--his heated Garage o' Wonder. I clamped the board to a sawhorse and smoothed it still further using a plane and then the draw knife. The draw knife is pretty lay it almost flat to the board and then pull it towards you, shaving off little whorls of wood as you go.

The board was ready; now to prepare the legs. I clamped each stick by turn to the sawhorse and used the draw knife to trim the bark from one end and to smooth out any bulges that would get in the way of placing the legs properly. Then I sawed a little slit in each end to fit the wedges in when it was time to assemble things. This was the third day.

On the fourth day all my labor got to come together into a finished last! First I used the calipers to measure the circumference of the ends of the legs. I needed to know what size of bit to use to drill each hole, since the legs weren't all one size. Then I used the brace and bit to drill holes in the seat of the footstool, another great opportunity for growing my upper body strength.

After the holes were drilled, it was time to install the legs. To help keep the legs nice and snug in their holes, I was using a wedge construction. It is done by cutting a slit in the end of each leg, then placing a wedge into the tip. When you hammer the leg down into the hole, the wedge is driven in the rest of the way in and spreads the wood so that it fits very tightly inside its socket. Sadly, this meant I had to cut out wedges. This may surprise you, but I am not actually that good at cutting wedges. They were more like chunks. Hey, square is the new taper! At my dad's insistence, I kept at it until I had 4 passable wedges, which I then trimmed to fit the depth of the hole and width of the slit.

Good! Now I was finally ready to put this thing together! Just in case the perfection of my craftsmanship might be a little bit lacking, I slathered the legs with glue before I pounded them into their holes. And no, I didn't make the glue from scratch. I felt I'd achieved quite enough authenticity for one project.

Voila! Pioneer perfection using no nails. But half a bottle of Gorilla Glue. Does that still count?

So what did I learn this time around? Well, for one thing, I learned when doing wood work it is best to spread your legs wide. You end up with an awful lot of very sharp things swinging towards some very sensitive areas.  

I also learned a little about how much the value of things have changed. In pioneer days a little girl or boy would have been delighted to receive this little footstool as a gift. They would know that it represented hours of hard labor poured out simply out of love for them and they probably would remember receiving it all of their lives. If I gave it to a kid today, they'd look at it for a second and ask, "Where's the cord?"

In our culture today, if something breaks or wears out, we throw it away without another thought, in full confidence that an anonymous foreign worker in a far-away sweatshop will make us another one. Through this project, I've discovered how much pride and sense of accomplishment we've lost in that system. My footstool is seriously flawed, and until I get the legs trimmed evenly, rocks back and forth like a rocking chair. But I am prouder of it than almost anything else I've ever made. I took a raw piece of wood and wrested a (semi)functional piece of furniture out of it. That is really cool! Much neater than going to the store and getting a mass-produced one that would last a week before breaking.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Chapter 7: The Wolf-pack

"Early that Sunday afternoon Pa rode Patty away across the prairie to see what he should see. There was plenty of meat in the house, so he did not take his gun.

He rode away through the tall grass, along the rim of the creek bluffs. Birds flew up before him and circled and sank into the grasses. Pa was looking down into the creek bottoms as he rode; perhaps he was watching deer browsing there. Then Patty broke into a gallop, and swiftly she and Pa grew smaller. Soon there was only waving grass where they had been."

It only takes Pa and Mr. Edwards one day to build a strong stable out of logs for Pet and Patty. There is no door for the stable, but Pa drives two strong poles, one on each side of the door, and piles up logs behind them until they completely cover the opening.

Pa finishes late that night, while the moon was shining, and it's a good thing, because the next morning there is a new baby colt waiting in the stable when Pa removes the logs. It has long legs, long ears, and Laura runs to hug it. Pet snaps at her and bares her big, white teeth. Pa says that Laura, Mary, and Baby Carrie must stay away from Pet while her baby is small.

Pa sets Pet out on her picket line and the little baby frisks and hops around its mother. Pa says it is a mule, but Laura thinks it looks like a little jackrabbit, so they name it Bunny.

That Sunday, Pa heads across the prairie for a nice ride on Patty. He is gone for a very long time. Jack begins to act strangely, walking up and down and looking worried. The hair stands up on his neck, then lies down, then stands up again. He paces back and forth, and Pet keeps her colt close beside her. Both animals stare across the prairie in the direction Pa had gone.

"Likely it isn't anything, Laura," Ma says.

Suddenly, Patty comes racing across the prairie, Pa stretched almost flat across her neck. She runs so fast that she runs right past the stable before Pa can get her to stop. Ma and Laura both wonder why Pa is driving Patty so hard, but Pa tells them it was all he could do to hold her back at all.

"Fifty wolves, Caroline, the biggest wolves I ever saw. I wouldn't go through such a thing again, not for a mint of money."

"We'll eat supper in the house," says Ma.

During supper, Pa tells everyone about his adventures. He was delayed many times during the day meeting new neighbors and helping families, so he started home much later than he expected to. As he was loping across the prairie, a wolf pack came out of a little draw and surrounded Patty. They were huge and trotted right along beside Pa and Patty. They walked along together for a quarter of a mile or so, then the wolves went down into the creek bottoms.

"As soon as the last wolf was in the draw, I let Patty go."

Pa talks to Ma some more about the wolves and how they would have eaten him if they'd been hungry. Jack walks around the campfire and stands still to smell the air. The hair on his neck begins to lift.

"Bedtime for little girls," Ma says, cheerfully.

It was night as I read this chapter for the first time. The cats had been out for their last frolic of the evening, the dogs were inside, and only Snickers was still stubbornly clinging to freedom in the great outdoors. Then a coyote howled.

Another one joined in, or several thousand, because coyotes have a way of making way more noise then their size and numbers warrant. They were very close to the house, out in a plowed field to the east. I called Caleb and we both dashed out to try and find Snickers. He wouldn't come for a minute or so and I began to worry that all the howling had been an invitation to dinner after a successful hunt.

But then Caleb had the idea of using his laser and lured Snickers out of wherever he'd been hiding. Wolves, coyotes, they've done their part to build the mystique of the Wild West. There's just something so...thrilling...about hearing their calls, especially in the dark at close quarters when you're on a first-name basis with their intended prey. Even more especially if you ARE their intended prey.

This was one of the most exciting chapters of the series so far. The danger of the wolves, the thrilling image of Pa dashing across the prairie on his faithful steed. If only I had a faithful steed to dash across the prairie on. Fortunately, I knew someone with a faithful steed and they were willing to let me take a trail ride out at their ranch.

The ranch has been in the family since it was homesteaded three generations ago. In fact, the original homestead cabin is still on the property. The family mixes farming with cattle ranching--raising durum wheat and beef cattle.

When I arrived, the young members of the family competently set out to saddle the horses. Meanwhile, I wandered delicately amongst the cattle pens learning why the bottoms of cowboy boots are smooth. I was wearing hiking boots made for gripping rough terrain. The terrain was not rough, but my boots still gripped, if you get my drift.

They gave me the most patient horse they had, but I still felt the need to regularly apologize to the poor thing. I could almost hear her. "I know WAY more than she does, but she's the one holding the reins?" Here is a picture of me with the long-suffering beast. It probably wondered why it deserved such a fate after years of loyal service.

Getting on a horse is very easy, for those of you uninitiated in the horsey arts. Simply raise your knee level with your eyebrows and slip your foot into the stirrup. Then stand up and slide your other leg gently over the horse's back. Nothing to it.

We headed up the coolie past all the expectant bovine mothers brought into pasture for their blessed events. They looked at us with bemusement, doubtless wondering why we were so foolish as to leave the warmth and shelter of the coolie for the wind-swept prairie beyond. I think I even saw a few of them stick out their tongues at the horses on our way past. But that may only have been my imagination.

"I never wanted anything worse than I wanted to get away from there. But I knew if Patty even started, those wolves would be on us in a minute, pulling us down. So I held Patty to a walk."

Doubtless by now, you are wondering when I got to the place where I galloped across the prairie, free as the wind. Well, I didn't, OK?! Walking across the prairie as free as the wind turned out to be enough excitement for me. But I crossed a stream and went along a slightly slanted hill....that counts for something, doesn't it?

At last it was time to turn around. I posed for one last glamorous photo to document my equine experience. It was beautiful. My horse reared up as I lounged in the saddle with easy grace. Or at least, that's what it seemed like at the time. The photos look a little different, but I think the exposure wasn't quite right or something.

"Patty headed straight for home, across the prairie. And she couldn't have run faster if I'd been cutting into her with a rawhide whip."

Once we were headed back towards the barn, warmth, and fresh hay, the docile, gentle angels of the first part of the ride began to show another side altogether. What had been a soft, rocking rhythm became a jarring trot that threatened to send my tonsils down into my toes.

Noticing that no one else seemed to be experiencing difficulty I managed to bounce out, "How do you ride so smoothly when they are trotting?"

"Oh, you just rock back and forth like you're in a rocking chair," drifted back the airy reply.

I'm sorry, there was no back and forth.

There was only an up.

And there was only a down.

Within a minute or two I discovered what a mistake it had been to wear my sandpaper jeans that morning. As they rubbed raw parts of my anatomy that are used to far gentler treatment, I thought longingly of flannel and fleece and goose-down.

My knees were a quivering mass of jelly as I tried vainly to absorb some of the impact away from my more-tender portions. I stood on first one leg, and then the other, but no matter how much I clicked my heels together and chanted, "There's no place like home, there's no place like home...." we didn't get there one moment sooner than we arrived.

I slid groaningly off my horse's back, no longer feeling the need to apologize to my "faithful" steed. It had had its revenge. Oh, yes, it had! I swayed up to the van with a rolling gait that would have been the envy of any cowboy, but my whimpers and yelps may have given me away. Perhaps that's why cowboys yodel. I shall have to learn before my next trip, but I think we will wait a bit before tackling galloping. I expect my nether regions should be up to that within a century or so.

On the bright side, the place in my back that's been bothering me forever feels a lot better now. Evidently all that jiggling put something back into place. But a chiropractor is a much gentler method!

Many thanks to the kind family that let me use their horse and took time out of their busy day to take me on a ride!

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Chapter 6: Moving In

"By dinner time the house was in order. The beds were neatly made on the floor. The wagon seat and two ends of logs were brought in for chairs. Pa's gun lay on its pegs above the doorway. Boxes and bundles were neat against the walls. It was a pleasant house. A soft light came through the canvas roof, wind and sunshine came through the window holes, and every crack in the four walls glowed a little because the sun was overhead."

Once the walls on the cabin are built, Pa tells Ma that it is time to move in. He has been hearing wolves howling and wants to have good, solid walls around Ma and the girls. Even though the roof is not on and the floors are not installed, Ma gets busy moving all their belongings into the cozy, well-ventilated home.

Pa stretches the canvas from their wagon over the top of the roof. It blows and snaps in the wind. Pa almost sails away, but he gets it tied at last. He hangs a quilt over the door. Now the house is very snug. That night, the girls are tucked into their beds indoors for the first time since leaving the little cabin in the Big Woods so many months before.

What a treat it must have been for all of them to sleep inside four solid walls again. Sure, it was still a little breezy with no roof, windows, or door, but it was home. It must have given Pa such a feeling of accomplishment to have carved that security out of the wilderness with his own hands.

Unfortunately, it doesn't make for a lot of blog scope for me. I could sleep with my exterior door off for a night, but it's still the middle of winter. I don't think so! I'm not building a log cabin until I get a chain saw, thank you very much, and I don't need to move anywhere....I still haven't finished unpacking from the last time.

That leaves only one thing. Moon-gazing.

"Mary and Laura lay in their little bed on the ground inside the new house, and watched the sky through the window hole to the east. The edge of the big, bright moon glittered at the bottom of the window space, and Laura sat up. She looked at the great moon, sailing silently higher in the clear sky.

Its light made silvery lines in all the cracks on that side of the house. The light poured through the window hole and made a square of soft radiance on the floor. It was so bright that Laura saw Ma plainly when she lifted the quilt at the door and came in.

Then Laura very quickly lay down, before Ma saw her naughtily sitting up in bed."

Of course, I did my gazing very quickly because it is a little chilly for the sport yet. But, it was the exact same moon that Laura Ingalls had looked at so many years before out there on the Kansas prairie. Pretty exciting, huh?

"Laura heard Pa singing.

Sail on, silver moon!
Shed your radiance o'er the sky-----

His voice was like a part of the night and the moonlight and the stillness of the prairie. He came to the doorway, singing,

By the pale, silver light of the moon-----

Softly Ma said, 'Hush, Charles. You'll wake the children.'"