On an incredibly cold and windy day in December of 1995, I was standing atop some forty-plus feet of scaffolding, perched vicariously near the edge of a river, another 20 feet below where the scaffolding’s feet stood in the wind, shaking slightly from my tinkering about at the top. Just outside the small town of Denver, Iowa, I was busy, employed to construct a Lindal Cedar Home. The land was secluded, a 5-acre spread along the bank (literally) of a picturesque river, current still flowing, effortlessly moving against the frozen air. The grey water moved below me like so many mirrors, memories of winters past, the sounds of it barely audible in the high winds.
At the particular moment I am imagining, I was busy trying to complete the soffit beneath the roof’s overhang. Four-inch, tongue-and-groove cedar is painstakingly difficult to finish well under ideal conditions, let alone in roaring winds in near-zero-temperatures, upside down, forty feet up. No doubt, the results of our efforts would be breathtaking, however, the hours, days, and weeks it took us to complete the exterior before the worst of winter hit were character building, to say the least. The immediate goal that day to was handle all loose ends of the exterior so we could move indoors for the rest of winter, completing all that yet remained to be done inside. The nearly seven-thousand-square-foot floor plan illustrated a 40-foot peak in the main living room. The house, constructed almost entirely of cedar and glass, turned its glassiest side to the West, looking over the Iowa River. Breathtaking, indeed.
Before that experience, looking upon such structures, I had imagined a small army was required for such feats. I came to find out first hand it took only the three of us, led by my Uncle Mike, a Jedi-class woodworker and experienced private contractor. He was also a spiritual mentor, who had earned the greatest respect of myself and my closest pals of that age: his two sons, Adam and Ben, along with their childhood pal, Joe. We looked up to Uncle Mike and he never took it for granted. Rather, he was one of the most kind, patient, and empathetic men I have ever known, one of my first mentors. Mike always encouraged us to tinker in his metal and wood shops, equipped with the tools and organization of a true craftsman, a mindful and dedicated artist. His influence on us in those days informs each our own respective pursuits today.
Meanwhile, it was my first house building experience as a carpenter. Since I was the newb I had all the jobs no one else wanted for two reasons: 1. I had much to learn and 2. That’s just the way it goes. I called myself the “King of Visqueen” (I even made up a song). Visqueen, for the uninitiated, is the plastic sheeting used to seal insulation into the frame of a wall. Visqueen is not the culprit, or that which makes that job a living hell. Insulation, at least at that time, was made of fiberglass, which is the bane of the existence of any residential carpenter. Its fibers are microscopic and, no matter how well we attempt to cover ourselves up and hide our skin from its perilous burn and itch, it seeps into cracks big enough only for air to fit. It is impossible to insulate a house, let alone a massive one, without being completely overrun by fiberglass and driven to near-madness by the pain and itch that ensues. The only relief upon arriving home at the end of a long day is taking a cold shower to close the pores, forcing the fibers out, followed in quick succession by a hot shower, to flush them away before embedding themselves, once more. In short, nasty stuff. Work I shall not soon forget.
Among the uckiest jobs, though, there is, of course, an upside. For example, I discovered I had a knack for interior trim work. The satisfaction of getting it just right is unparalleled by arguably any other task in the trade. We spent the remainder of the winter finishing out the interior, complete with dark room and media center. Uncle Mike often reminded me how building a house is a good metaphor for life. Day-to-day it is easy to lose sight of the goal, to feel as if little or no progress is being made. That is why, every few weeks, I would follow Uncle Mike out, beyond the property to view it from afar. It was an occasion to do so. Even as we walked a quarter mile away, we could still smell the cedar. When the house was finally completed, we walked out there once more. What we saw there was, in the words of Uncle Mike, “no half castle.”
I write about him like this now as a farewell. Michael Clore left us today. Fortunately, we all had a chance to have those last conversations in time, in preparation for what he assured us only a few short months ago was inevitable. He was brave in his choice to live his life out on his own terms, freeing himself from the burden and stress of treatments that most likely would have robbed him of these past few months wherein he traveled and saw to it he lived them to the absolute fullest.
In time, we are fortunate if we have a few gurus, mentors who show us the door, even as we stumble around in the dark to find the key to open it. Uncle Mike led me to more than one. As we rode to work in the dark of the early mornings, building that giant house, day after day, we rode quietly together drinking coffee, staring off across towards sunrise on the prairie, meditating on building something, inch-by-inch, moment-by-moment. No half-castles.