HOUSE BORN OF MUD
A Builder's Story
In October of 1962, my wife Ann and I bought a 17-acre piece of land on the rim of Arroyo Hondo, about seven miles southwest of Santa Fe, New Mexico.
We engaged Buford and Kitty Bartell to draw detailed plans and specifications around Ann’s basic design of a quadrangular house with a patio in the middle. Although we would not begin building for another year, we chose a site on and over the rim of the grand arroyo. Our acreage dipped into the valley, with a view of mountains all around—the ridge of Cañada de Los Alamos to the east, the Sangre de Cristos to the north, the Jemez to the west, the Sandia to the south. The piñon and juniper that covered the site and steep banks of the arroyo stopped at the floor of the dry watercourse, and there began chamisa that covered the bottom like a river of pale green, sweeping and winding back through a dark cut toward dark foothills and mountains.
Our well was drilled in the fall of 1963. The dry mud from the drilling still flows down the slope; I hope it all washes down some day. Pat Mullins dug the well and built a crude, tiny well-house underground for the well-head and the 50-gallon pressure tank. Mullins was a short, stubbly man in a shiny helmet who spoke in a high-pitched voice that always seemed about to shoot out of control, always on the verge of a scream. Gerhauser the grading contractor called him “Squeaky.” He dug Gerhauser’s well and Gerhauser got fed up with him: “I run him off,” he said.
Mullins’ son Jackie did most of the work on our well, and he and his pretty wife and baby camped out on site, in a trailer next to the drilling rig. The place was littered when they left. Jackie struck water at about 250 feet, and got a flow of about 25 gallons a minute. With a piece of broken mirror he reflected sunlight down the casing and showed me the water shining at the bottom like a new dime.
Power was brought in that fall, and I put in my first hard labor digging a three-foot hole for the meter pole (later moved). I dug it right behind the small grove of trees off the northeast corner of the house. There was nothing on the land then, it was a cold day, and Michael, then 3, kept me company playing in the dirt and buzzing around. Lengthy dickering with the slow and immoveable Public Service Company finally resulted in the setting of only one extra power pole, at no cost to us. Once the electric hookup was installed, a line could be run underground to the well-pit, to run the pump and provide water for construction. Later, another line would be trenched to the house from the meter pole.
On that October day Michael gathered some firewood, bringing me twigs and proclaiming how good they’d be for fires. We piled it under the big tree that still stands by the garage. It is hard now to remember what the wild site looked like; almost with the first digging I began to forget. I think the ground was pretty bald except for a couple of junipers that used to be under the garage or southeast corner. There was one good clump at the site of the dressing room and laundry that had to be ripped out and several good trees under the dining room, and many under the living room. I regret all those trees and can still remember the size and shape of them and how they grew together.
The house stands half on what was the crown of the site, and half over the edge and down the steep slope of the arroyo tributary to Hondo, a deep forested ravine which the children have named “Echo Valley.”
The site was never staked out by a surveyor; Tom and I did it ourselves, and I am figuring out how we could have done it. We must have set stakes at the house corners and set offset stakes to pinpoint those corners after the true stakes were bulldozed out. Wall lengths we knew from the few drawings the Bartells had finished: 79 feet along the back, 70 feet along the side.
“Seventy-nine feet?” Tom said in soft disbelief. “Seventy feet? This is a big house. What do you want such a big house for?”
I rented what Tom called a level and tripod, a sighting instrument set on three legs. It had a scope with a crosshair, on a swivel that was leveled by screws on three sides, so that when correctly adjusted it turned full circle and remained level. Using the rod as a constant measure, you mark the rod at the crosshair elevation, and then you can sight on any number of different stakes, and with the rod find and mark the same ground-level on those stakes, and all the marks will be level with each other.
So, after the first elevation was marked on the rod, Tom sent me to another point—say the southeast corner—and turned the scope to find the rod as I held it, sighted the mark and had me transfer ground-level to the stake at that location.
The markings were made on the batterboard posts. These 2 X 4 posts were offset several feet from the actual house lines, so they would not get dug out, and they provided moorings for the batterboards and lines. Three posts bracket a corner, forming an angle, so that the true corner can be found plumb under the intersection of lines strung from them.
With one hand I held the rod to the post, and with the other hand clamping a yellow pencil horizontal across the mark, I slowly moved the rod up or down until Tom signaled that he had the pencil lined up with his crosshair. Then I held the rod still, took the pencil and marked the batterboard post right at the bottom of the rod. This was one of those times I wished I had four hands.
After the batterboard posts were marked at the same elevation, Tom took a length of 1 X 8 lumber and with my help leveled and nailed it flat across two of the posts, with the top or bottom edge of the board exactly at the elevation mark. To get the other side of the batterboard corner, we either sighted on another mark or used the board already nailed as a guide. He marked with a penciled arrow which edge, top or bottom, was to be used for the line. At the finish of this work, all corners were bounded by these angles of batterboard; and for a long time afterward they imposed the only precise definition on seas of rucked-up dirt. Not only at corners, but wherever we needed a fix on the outside line of the house, we had to put batterboards: midway down the line of the east wall, we set a batterboard facing west, to keep the line of south kitchen and dining wall; down the north side, another, facing south, to keep the line of the hall. I could squeeze my brains to give the splendor of the batterboards and lines. For a while they were the house: level fence-like angles and signposts that held the planes and crossroads of taut white cord. From those lines of cord depended the depth, straightness and squaring of all foundations and walls.
For groundbreaking, Tom drove a stake about midway down the east wall-line, so the bulldozer would know roughly where to start digging deeper; at that point the floor was to drop, and with it the crawlspace below it. Same at the dining room -kitchen, where floor-level was to drop another two feet.
Pine won’t stand much pounding. We had to bash the stakes into very hard ground with Tom’s sledgehammer, and the tops were all crushed in; some two-bys split clear down the middle. Tom asked me how old I was (he was getting tired of driving all the stakes). I told him I was 34. He was 45, with a wife and eight children. That was the first time he openly sought my help. The way he told you to do something was: “Why don’t you bring some two-by-fours, if you want to.” “You can start filling block if you want to.” “If you want to” was the cushion, softening an order until it wasn’t an order; yet you did it. He spoke in a soft voice, a diffident, downtrodden voice, with a singsong lift at the end.
The idea was catching. If I wanted a man to do something, I said, “Do you want to help me here” or “Do you want to give me that board.” I usually took the cue from Tom and suggested rather than ordered. It’s easier on the spirit. Things get done with better grace, better will.
None of the building trades is easy, and the workers live hard lives, working into their sixties and on to the day they drop. No breaks, half an hour for lunch. Time goes fast. Busy days go fast, Friday is upon you very quickly. Winters are “slow,” employment is “slow,” time is slow and miserable. At the end of such a winter, I first met Tom Weatherford, and he was low and in dire need of work.
I engaged him; but the beginning of the job was slack, uncoordinated, and Ann remembers him sitting by the hour in his car in front of the house we were renting, waiting for me, waiting for work. He wouldn’t go in the house or take coffee or read the paper, only sit there staring grimly and wretchedly out the window.
As soon as work developed, he suggested and I bought a power saw with a 7½" diameter blade, a “Wizard” on $30 special sale at Western Auto. Tom always called it a “Skilsaw,” from the main maker of these tools. He proceeded to make four sawhorses and a pile of stakes. To make a sawhorse, Tom took a two-by, notched the four corners on a bevel to seat the legs, cut legs of a 1-by, tapering them toward the bottom so they wouldn’t splinter, and nailed the legs to the beveled corners of the two-by and braced them so that they were spread wide and stood firmly on the ground. “Burro,” the Spanish people called a sawhorse. After two years’ hard service, his burros were worn, paint-spattered, and scarred like dog-chaws, and their legs began to wobble; so I had him make two new ones along with a cradle of X’s for cutting firewood.
Such a trifle as a sawhorse required measuring and exact cutting and fitting, and it would have taken me hours just to figure it out. Tom knew what he was doing. Experience plus patient, steady application: his motions were never hurried or spasmodic, always cool and consequential. His pace was deceiving, because it seemed it would take him a long time to finish something; yet it never took him long. I would set him a task I thought would keep him busy for a while, and he would finish it in minutes. There were periods in ’64 when no carpentry could be done, and I had him shoveling dirt like a day laborer, or laying adobes. He didn’t like it but I paid him his $3.50 an hour just to keep him.
In the beginning he wore a cap and jacket, and until he got his new striped ticking overalls, he used lumber company aprons, short aprons with pockets and a hammer-loop. He wore ordinary crepe-soled low shoes and khaki shirts. Carried his tools in a long-handled wooden tote-box that he made. Tools are expensive; he used his until they broke, patched them up and used them more. Handles of hammer, pick, hatchet were very worn, taped and nailed where they’d cracked. Numbers, inches on his tape measure and his six-foot folding ruler were faded, and the joints were loose. What he didn’t have he borrowed from his brother Carlos, also a carpenter. He always carried on him hammer, nails, pencil, ruler.
In the box: large metal square, combination-square (with attached 45-degree angle), blue chalk, chalk-box, chalk-line, several different screwdrivers, chisel, crosscut saw, hacksaw, keyhole saw, brace and bits, hatchet, small crowbar (octagonal steel bar with a wedge at one end for jimmying, a crook at the other end with a notch for clawing and prying), three-foot-long metal spirit level with four bubbles for testing both vertical and horizontal, plumb bob, lines of cord wound round pieces of wood, wrench, two rickety pliers, pencil stubs, whetstone valleyed hollow from use, 75-foot tape measure in a case, plane, rasp, nailset. All jammed into the narrow box whose bottom was full of chalk and sawdust. I had to pick my way carefully down through the massed points, teeth and blades to find a tool.
Tom smoked heavily and rolled his own, shaking tobacco along the paper, licking and closing the very wet, loose cigarette. One was always in his mouth, lit or unlit, like a scorched old pillow losing its stuffing. I still find everywhere the wrappers of cigarette papers, and Prince Albert tobacco cans, some so bleached that the red has turned pale orange, and the black-bearded figure faded to ghostly atoms.
The only things that pulled Tom up short were the idiosyncrasies of our wishes and the intricacies of the architects’ plans. He never refused, only resisted. “Well, you don’t need all that,” he would say. “You want to go down thirty inches?” he said, as near incredulity as he would allow himself. “O no-o-o!” he used to say, laughing gently. By a searching melancholy stare, a mouth that stifled laughter, he would reveal that he thought we were mad. “You going to use that to make your ceiling?” “That’s a pretty-looking board,” he said as he turned over a specially grimy, weathered piece. In a man so soft-spoken, the least emphasis, twinkle or drawing-out of a word sufficed. He would crouch for a long time over a page of the plans with a dark horny finger on some outrage or other, and study and whisper and murmur in a mournful, baffled tone. He would whisper and mutter to himself while he worked: measurements, bits of Spanish, curses, “Chingar!” and “Eghh, “ a sort of goat-sound of disgust. When he snapped the Spanish loud and fast, he was angry. But he rarely showed anger. Dirt would cave in on some wet, just-floated concrete and he would go “Eghh.”
“O no-o-o! It won’t freeze down there. There ain’t no water around here!? Thirty inches? I don’t know. Maybe it will. I don’t know.”
He would back up and deny his own objection, if it were an objection. So I had to find my way through his resistance, supple, pillowy, constant. Sometimes he won me over. Well—vamonos—
I still hear the little squeaks and chirps of the steel crawlers of the bulldozer in its rocking and tilting drive forward, blade shelving up another layer of earth. “Groundbreaking” is right. I remember the dirt peeling, lifting, swelling and crumbling like a wave of the sea, and the dust breaking off it like spray tearing away on the wind. In places the dirt turned up powdery, ashy, a light gray caliche dust, so light a gust of wind would tear great clouds and sheets off it. In other places the soil turned up clay, red and hard as wood.
The excitement began that April morning as soon as we spotted the huge trailer-truck coming toward us over the hills and dips of our drive. It carried a bulldozer on its back.
The driver backed the trailer up to a mound of dirt. Then the bulldozer operator drove the cat off the back until it dropped onto the mound. It looked as if it would tip over backwards, but the crawlers ran it off safely.
First it cleared trees. I felt a painful pleasure to see the evergreen tops sway and fall, and hear the roots crack out of the ground. The cat lifted them out as if they were little weeds. The operator never touched a tree without first looking to see if I wanted it out. He was a small man with an Indian look. It was nice to watch his hands at the controls, darting quick and sure from lever to lever.
All that day and one hour of the next he graded our site. Tom and I checked his depth by sighting through the level and tripod on a narrow marked board which T. called a “story-pole” or “story-rod.” There were different marks that he put on it for different levels, whether brick or wood floor. For wood floor, we figured: the ¾" finish floor, plus ¾" subfloor, plus 7½" for the joist, plus the 18" crawlspace equaled 27 inches total for one mark on the rod. Where the house stepped down two six-inch steps, we added a foot for another mark at 39". Brick on sand floors had to be left higher in grade; in other words, leave dirt undisturbed as a base for brick. This was tricky, especially where the different depths ran side by side. The floor elevation of the kitchen was to be the same as in the dining room, both rooms three feet below that of the first two bedrooms; but the kitchen was to be brick and the dining room wood, with a cellar dug out under it. The bulldozing by necessity had to be a rough excavation. But even though I had to perfect the grading by hand, the machine did in a day what several men with pick and shovel might have accomplished in a week. Fourteen dollars an hour was the price.
Ann brought the children out, much excitement. At the sight of the mess, Sarah wailed, “They’re ruining our land!” It looked a ruin, with mountains of torn-up dirt everywhere.
Michael kept shrilling to the cat-operator, “Hey, man! Man!” Finally the man gave him a little ride on the ‘dozer.’
The Bartells came out. Buford wanted to know how I felt and how Ann felt, and I told him it was exciting as hell. Pleased, he grinned, one of the few moments during the whole course of this construction when he was pleasant to be with.
“Seems to know what he’s doing,” he said of Tom Weatherford and his work at that point.
The next stage was digging the foundation trenches. To prepare for the ditch-digger, the backhoe, Tom and I had to trace all the outside lines with lime.
The batterstakes around the future basement were miles in the air. In addition to the three-foot drop from the southeast to the northwest corner, the land fell away so fast we had to nail up extra lengths of stake, and because of wind we had to guy them with braces staked to the ground. Even so, I think we set the lines at their true elevation there, or they’d have been too high to work with.
(Let me backtrack and correct to avoid any more confusion. The batterboards were not in place at this stage, only the offset stakes, which were set in line with the true corner stakes to act as a guide after those were torn out in the grading.)
So, our next step in preparing for the backhoe was to reestablish and stake the true corners by running lines between the offset stakes. Once the corners were reestablished, there was no further use for the offsets. They were removed and the batterboards were set up, bracketing each corner. Using the batterboards, we adjusted the cord until it was plumb over the corners, and then marked or notched or nailed the edge of the batterboard where the cord crossed it. We checked squareness by first making fast two intersecting lines, then measuring off on line three feet from the intersection (the corner), then four feet on the other line, tying pieces of string at the three- and four-foot marks, and then measuring the diagonal between the marks. If the diagonal measured five feet, then the corner was square. It can also be done by measuring 6', 8', and 10' on the diagonal. Don’t ask me (or Tom) why, just do it. It is a formula. Another method is to measure the diagonals between opposite house-corners; it requires a long tape. If the diagonals are equal, then the corners are square. Right? God help him whose diagonals do not measure up to 5, or 10. Fortunately ours did, so we didn’t have to start all over again.
Once the batterboard lines were set true and square, we had ourselves a taut diagram of cord which was a plan of the house strung in midair, level and plumb over the building site. At any time this string plan could be projected on the ground with a plumb bob; and it was a removable plan which could be taken off and wound up around a stick, then secured again, just as tight and accurate as before. Wonderful thing!
This work fixed the two rectangles composing the L of the south and east wings of the house. There were also several insets, tucks and angles in the foundation, and also some interior foundations, such as the one wall dividing the brick and wood floors—a retaining wall to keep the dirt, sand and brick from the crawlspace under the wood. Also, a retaining wall between the future sewing room and the kitchen. And others. Those details all had to be traced by lines and batterboards, too.
With the lines up and drawn taut, we began projecting the plan on the dirt. Wind and dust blew; lines wouldn’t hold straight, and the plumb bob swayed when we hung it from a line to drive a stake under the point. We would slide the plumb bob along the batterboard line and drive another stake. Between the two small stakes we tied a line, looping one end around stake one and tying it to stake two. This short line was kept close to the ground, but not touching, so that I could trace it closely on the dirt with lime shaken out of the pinched lip of a coffee can. Then, remove stake one and leapfrog it to the next plumb bob point, tie the line again and lime another 8 or 10 feet. Bob, stake and lime. I liked this work, it made such simple sense. By the time we finished, we had the outside lines of the house drawn in white lime upon the ground. We went home hoping the wind would not blow them away.
The Day of the Backhoe: early May, sunny, clear, and a hard cold wind blowing all day.
The family came out to see this bright yellow prodigy go to work. We were all enthralled. The backhoe had a loader on one end (a scoop like a bulldozer’s), and shovel or “bucket” on the other; two motors, one to drive it, and the other to generate power to work the shovel. It looked like some giant jointed bug, on the order of a praying mantis.
In the hands of a good operator, it digs with great power and delicacy, no wider or deeper than you want it to. Without disturbing a crumb of dirt outside its designated line of work, it gives you as neat and square a trench as man or machine can dig. Case “Construction King” was the name of it. I imagine a folk ballad sung by Cisco Houston, called “Backhoe Bill,” or “Nell She was a Backhoe.”
The trenching started at the bottom end of the site, where the cellar was to be excavated.
Rrrmm—rmm—rm-rmmm: the motor of the digging arm had a hum of its own, a nice, rapid, deep even “rmmm” that was different from the driving engine. I can recall it clearly. It was not tied to gears like the other but went at one rpm, punctuated by little breaks, like throat-clearing. I heard it all day and it soaked well into my ears and memory.
The seat swiveled to face the digging controls. To set the machine firm, the operator, a very young, nice-looking man in a red baseball cap, lowered four compressor-operated legs with round flat feet, each of which could grip the ground at any level. Touching the bucket to the ground as a brace, he lifted the whole front end of the backhoe and swung it left or right to whatever position or angle he wanted. Then he placed the points of the two-foot-wide bucket inside our lime-line and began to dig.
Arm and bucket were a wonder to watch. The arm is hinged by heavy pins at three joints, and along the back of each segment, like tendons controlled by brains of machine and operator, run compressed air lines, one at the shoulder, one into the elbow, one into the wrist. The air lines pull or push those members. It was the most articulate machine I’d ever seen, so insect-like, so animate.
Slowly, carefully, with slight weavings and noddings, the arm reached out, way out, at least 20 feet at full stretch, and put its paw and its row of big claws on the dirt. The dirt was tough, couldn’t be gathered right in, so the arm lifted and brought down the paw several times, tapping hard, and the claws punched and mauled the dirt until it broke. I can hear those claws scrape the dirt, and the ponderous, hollow “dump, dump” of the bucket as it punched ground and loosened rocks. After a pile of earth was loose, the paw took it away. It was a backhand paw, it didn’t push, it pulled; came down on dirt contracting, curling in on itself and cupping out a load that would probably fill two wheelbarrows. When the arm lifted, it drew back its forearm to keep the paw from spilling its load, then swung sideways, reached out and uncurled the paw to allow the dirt to shower down.
It took the backhoe half the day to dig the cellar, nine feet below dining-room-floor elevation, plus four inches for a slab floor, plus ten inches for colossal footings. I checked the excavation with a story pole while Tom went on marking and liming at the other end of the site, at the angle of the future hall where the construction was to be temporarily closed.
When there was dirt to be cleared, the operator raised and shut off the bucket arm, raised the four bracer-feet, swiveled his seat around and used the backhoe like a tractor. He lowered the scoop and turned it upside down to push and plow with; he turned it right-side up to fill it with large amounts of dirt and to move same from place to place.
Then he started on the trenches, with the backhoe straddling the line and moving backward piece by piece. It is best at trenching; all the two-foot-wide ditching was done that afternoon. He came back next morning for an hour with a 16-inch bucket, to dig the smaller footing trenches. Nine hours in all, $10 an hour, cheap at the price. I and two other men would have killed ourselves for days and weeks shoveling it all out. When I think of just moving the dirt, pitching it shovel by shovel out of the cellar hole …
The fun was over. Now followed the perfecting of trenches, steel-reinforcing and pouring of concrete footings, all hard, grinding toil. The two of us did it all.
The footings were to step down to follow the drop in terrain. The deepest drops came along the outside wall, from kitchen to basement. Trenches and steps had to be trimmed and cleaned out. I worked hard for a day or more just on the cellar and footing steps leading down to it. The outside wall footings were planned to be continuous and connected; therefore the big dive into the cellar to join the cellar footings.
(Before I get further: story poles for checking the backhoe had to be figured and marked according to pumice-block units, and multiples of the 8-inch block, as follows: 10" for the footing, plus 8" for the block height, or 8" X 2 (16"), or 8" X 3 (24"), or however many courses or “rows” of block needed to raise the foundation wall above ground level. In addition, Kitty Bartell insisted that to guard against freezing, footing-bottom must be at least 30 inches below “finish grade” or ground level. So we tried, but did not always succeed, to observe and incorporate that stricture into our figuring, too. Also, at wood floors, Tom had to figure in not only block height but wall-plate. (l½", a 2 X 4 laid flat), joist, subfloor and finish floor. The foundation height, and digging depth, had to be calculated to catch the wood floor at its designated elevation.)
The risers of bearing steps (dirt steps of trenches) had to be cut according to block height: 8", 16", or a maximum of 24"; and the treads must be at least two feet long. Foundations must be laid on unbroken earth, not on fill. We had hard clay earth in most places, so walls and floors of trenches held shape without forming. But in the cellar hole, about two feet below the surface we struck a deep stratum of sand and gravel that went all the way to the bottom; so cellar footings had to be formed. Sand kept showering down on me, on my hat, down my neck, as I worked. The wind overhead raised whirls of grit and dust down there. It was hard. Curses and groans. Try to cut an even wall and it would piddle away. Step too near an edge and it would cave in and have to be cleaned out. It grew impossible to shovel the dirt out of the cellar, so I had to run a plank down and wheel it out. A strong fir plank, under the weight of me and a full wheelbarrow, it bounced nervously and bent like a bow but never cracked.
I balked at the size and extent of the footings planned by the Bartells. Tom said we’d go too deep and use too much block, and—we didn’t need to? I stared at him dumbly. He disclaimed, “Maybe you do, I don’t know.”
The plans were printed in blue on white paper. Rolls and rolls of paper, 11 sheets in all, though we only had a few to start. Even the first few drawings, foundations and wall-sections were complex and baffling. Drawings came in plan and section, with swarms of numbers, symbols and terms in shorthand, and arrows stabbing in and out. Later I could read them easily, but then I had a struggle. Being so new at it, I wanted to do everything right. Tom told me I followed the plans too closely. It was a problem of whose word I was going to take. The drawings were a maze, and it was a trick to learn which to consult for a certain detail—floor plan, foundation plan, wall-sectional drawings, house-sectionals, house elevations, not to mention the specifications, the “specs.” Each shed a different light from a different angle on the same problem.
Aside from the loose sheets supplied to us as we went along, we used up two complete sets of drawings, and the third is now so dog-eared I’ll have to get another. I had to learn and use all the jargon of architects and builders—“lay up,” “rebar,” “aggregate,” “bearing,” “set up,” “darby,” “joint,” “grade,” “finish,” “rough-in,” “casing,” “sash,” “waste,” “valve,” “hydrant,” “hose bib,” “bulkhead,” “backfill,” “buck,” “jamb,” “header,” “on center.” Not to mention suppliers’ euphemisms such as “water closet” and “commode.”