When your life’s work is to push words around, on paper or especially on a computer screen, it can often feel as if all your efforts are dissipating off into a bottomless void. Unless someone should happen to come up to you on the street and say, “Hey, I liked your article about such-and-such,” the product can seem to cease to exist as soon as you hit the Send button. And then it’s off to research and write the next highly ephemeral piece.
So, there’s something especially rewarding about getting an opportunity to do some real hands-on work for a change, such as was afforded last week to hundreds of volunteers assembling the new playground at Hasbrouck Park in New Paltz. It’s easy to forget the visceral feeling of accomplishment that comes with seeing a material object take shape in your hands, and then go on incontrovertibly existing in the physical world once you’ve finished putting it together.
I got my first real taste of that kind of satisfaction in the mid-1980s, when I moved back to the New Paltz area after a six-year post-college sojourn in Manhattan in search of employment, armed with a once-in-a-lifetime flush of profit thanks to having lived in an apartment building that went co-op at the height of the real estate boom. My ex and I had never planned to stay in the City permanently. So we bought, we flipped, and then we headed off to Heartwood Owner/Builder School in the Berkshires to learn how to be our own general contractors, so that we could move back to Ulster County, into an energy-efficient, passive solar timber-frame house of our own design.
I’d never built anything more complicated than a shelf at that point, having grown up in an era when girls weren’t yet allowed to take woodshop class in high school. My dad was a mechanic by trade, kept a workshop in the basement and was always doing handyman stuff around the house; but it never occurred to anyone that such skills could be passed on to daughters as well as sons. If I had the genetic potential to be “good with my hands,” I never had a chance to find out — until the leap of faith that was Heartwood.
It was a revelation, working around a bunch of affable hippie carpenters who simply assumed that any idiot could learn to do construction work. Building a house, they told us, was an extremely long series of small, manageable tasks strung together. If you took the trouble to learn the capacities of your tools and your materials, and were meticulous in your planning (“Measure twice, cut once”), you could make your home anything you wanted. The day an instructor showed me how even a numerophobic klutz who has trouble visualizing anything in three dimensions can use an architect’s square with little brass buttons clipped onto it to figure out how to make stairsteps the right distance apart when cutting a stringer, it felt like a moment of personal epiphany. I could do this!
It took three years of unpaid, full-time focus to find the right homesite, design floor plans and elevations, contract out the frame, get a bridge loan, hire the excavator, mason, electrician, plumber, carpenters, sheetrockers and all the other subcontractors, supervise their work, find new ones when the old ones walked off the job for a higher-paying gig before the finish carpentry got started. I put down most of the flooring, roofing and siding with my own hands, stained and painted, installed sinks, set tile. My ex worked in the City on weekdays and on the house on weekends.
When it was done, we had a quirky, customized house in the country, with a priceless view of Sky Top (and a bunch of small mistakes that I’d have done differently if there’d ever been a second time). I went back to pushing words around, but there are no words to describe the sense of satisfaction that came with that accomplishment – the realness of it all.
Six years after we got our Certificate of Occupancy, I bore my only child, but jokingly went on referring to that house in Gardiner as my firstborn. (The labor certainly lasted a lot longer.) Within five years of my son’s birth, my marriage unraveled, and I lost my “firstborn” in my divorce, not making enough money at the time to manage the mortgage payments alone. It was a wrench, but objects don’t matter, I told myself; people matter.
My son was only two months old when the first Hasbrouck Park playground was erected in 1995, so I didn’t personally participate, although Evan did go on to enjoy using it over the years that followed. He is all grown up now; I am aging and will never build another thing as complicated as a house or a child (unless I get around to that novel, one of these days). I’d forgotten how joyful it is to feel something so real take shape. But when I showed up for my shift at the park last Friday evening – designated a “skilled” worker simply because I’d once, decades ago, learned how to use a circular saw – I soon found myself laughing at the memory of the way your hands go on humming for a few minutes after you finish using a power tool. Terminology I hadn’t needed in ages popped back into my head: bevel, birdsmouth, spirit level, joist, countersink. Like riding a bicycle, doing rough carpentry is a skill you never totally forget, ingrained in muscle memory – even if the number of boards you can carry at one time diminishes with age. (I do not recommend attempting this on a bicycle, however.)
Working under the supervision of the volunteer team captains at the playground site – experienced builders all, on my shift including Hank Wesserling, Paul Scarpati and Brian Sassaman – reminded me of my Heartwood days. There’s nothing like an old hippie carpenter for striking the right balance between laid-back attitude and scrupulous attention to detail and safety, or for treating even the newbie apprentice holding the “dumb end” of the board being cut as someone worthy of respect. Anyone who has ever tried to build something alone knows the importance of that second pair of hands, even untrained.
Among those trying their hands at work on a building site last weekend were many first-timers, including students from two schools with deep ties to the park, SUNY New Paltz and the Mountain Laurel Waldorf School (at the latter, learning to assemble a studwall is a standard part of the curriculum). It was a great pleasure to watch experienced contractors, mostly male, sharing their skills with the many inexperienced women volunteers who showed up, without a hint of condescension, and even more so to see the looks of surprised delight on the faces of those women as they “got it” on their fourth or fifth attempt to use an electric screwdriver. Such moments give new meaning to the term “empowering.”
To accomplish the monumental task of assembling the new playground under the supervision of Leathers & Associates, the Ithaca-based company that also designed the original playground on the other side of Hasbrouck Park 25 years ago, the organizers of the rebuild project had put out a call for 800 volunteers. According to William Wheeler-Murray, the project’s Village Board liaison, nearly that many ultimately showed up over the five days of the massive group undertaking. Considering how many of those people were not experienced at construction, the lack of chaos onsite was striking, as was the speedy progress.
Rainy weather on Thursday meant some time lost early in the process; when I arrived late Friday afternoon, not much was visible aboveground except some concrete footings and timber posts. By the time it was fully dark, however, something recognizably a playground had taken shape. Tons of gravel had been spread on the ground for drainage, and what looked like an acre of weed-suppressing groundcloth unrolled, waiting to be buried deeply in mulch to cushion falling children. Conical roofs lay lined up on the ground, ready to be affixed to the tops of castle towers that were already more than half-assembled. One swingset already had the swings in place. The section I was working on – a pair of low wooden platforms destined to be connected by a bouncy rubber bridge – was ready for its plank surface to be attached. “It’s incredible what you can do when you get about 150 volunteers working together,” Taj Leathers – the grandson of the company’s founder, and one of only two people onsite who had the full layout in his mind’s eye – said with satisfaction as tools and materials were being put away securely for the day.
Every volunteer with whom I interacted on Friday – including some, such as team captain Hank Wesserling and volunteer coordinator Amy Harrington, who had been equally involved with the original playground construction project – exuded a deep sense of gratification in being able to “give back” to their community in such a coordinated, harmonious way, fueled by a commitment to voluntarism and what in old-fashioned lingo was called the “commonweal.” “I love building, and I love helping people. It’s good clean fun,” said Wesserling, who is now retired from dual careers as a high school science teacher and a building contractor. “I like teaching people things.” Many of the volunteers cited the happy hours they’d spent with their kids at the old playground. This new one, made mostly with lumber synthesized from wood fiber in a forgiving matrix of recycled plastic, won’t even give the little ones splinters.
By the end of the last shift on Sunday, remarkably, the project was “nearly all complete with the exception of a gym feature, plants for a planter, shade trees, bringing the mulch level up and a few odds and ends. We’re going to have an entrance designed and made by Craig Shankles, but that’ll come later,” Wheeler-Murray reported on Monday. “We’ll have a small ribbon-cutting ceremony Sunday at 3 p.m. It was filled with kids and families mostly all day today. Nothing but compliments and people impressed with how much work was accomplished.”
For anyone who had a hand in putting it up, however small, that playground will long stand as a reminder that their time on this planet was not entirely spent in vain. It’s a great feeling, of a physical sort that you don’t get from publishing an article. Paltzonians, we built this together: Give yourselves a little pat on the back. And then go out and make more cool stuff to share.