The Summer My Father Began to Dig

A son remembers the summer his dad built his family's garage from the ground up.

It was June of that year when my father started to dig the hole. He explained that he was going to build a small addition to the garage, complete with cellar, in the open space on the west side of the yard.

You should know that the house I grew up in did not have a basement like most homes in Wisconsin. Turns out, that was my fault. I had fallen down the basement stairs of our previous house when I was two years old, so when my parents built the new house, the house I mostly grew up in, my mother insisted it be built on a slab, no basement, end of discussion. And so it was.

Which was fine, except this is Wisconsin and we have tornados every summer. My mother was very frightened of tornados, and now she was living in a house that had no basement in which to seek refuge. So my father decided his summer project would be to build a small addition to the garage, giving her the cellar she wanted.

This sort of endeavor was nothing unusual for my dad. Together, my parents literally built that house by hand: they pounded every nail, placed every shingle, laid every brick. They hung doors, put in windows, installed cabinets. A plumber, electrician and furnace installer did that sort of more technical work, but the carpentry and masonry, drywalling and mudding, staining and painting, they did. The whole nine yards.

So none of us were really all that surprised when he made his announcement and proceeded to dig. But we were a little surprised by what he did as he dug.

He saved every rock he uncovered and put it in a pile. “I’m going to use the rocks to build the cellar walls, instead of buying concrete blocks,” he told us. And since the house sat on pretty rocky soil, as June progressed, the pile became a very impressive mound.

Children of the depression, my parents knew how to reduce, reuse and recycle. They became experts of necessity, not because it was fashionable. “Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without,” was a lesson they put into practice during WWII – when they were in their twenties – and never stopped. So why not use free rocks to build the walls?

He dug by hand, my father did, with a shovel that I still have in my garage. Every year in spring, when I use it to turn over the dirt in my tiny garden and fall on the deck tired and sweaty after a half hour, I think about how many shovelsful he must have thrown over his shoulder those summer nights and weekends that June.

His schedule was simple but deliberate: he would work a nine hour day at his job, come home and dig until dark. On Saturday he would dig until supper. On Sunday he would go to church, and then dig some more. So in July when the hole was complete, some ten feet wide by ten feet long by eight feet deep, the stones from the hole became the walls, as he said they would.

He mixed the mortar for the walls by hand, with a hoe, in a wheelbarrow, one bag at a time, same as he had done when laying the exterior brick walls of the house, same as he had done when he poured the driveway for the house. He would patiently find a rock that fit just so, butter it up, place it and repeat the process until the walls were taller than he was. For fun, he put empty wine bottles into the wall here and there. It seemed to amuse him to think that someday after he was gone people would go into that cellar, look at the bottles, and wonder why they were there.

Framing the addition was child’s play for my dad and the stud walls went up quickly over the floor joists and the plywood flooring. Rafters went up overhead, then plywood, tar paper and shingles. Once enclosed, the new structure was joined to the existing garage by cutting a large doorway in the garage wall, after placing a huge header above the opening to bear the load the winter snow would bring.

By August it was done. Double doors on the side of this new addition let him drive the riding mower into the yard, while a south-facing window allowed light into the space he called his workshop, a workshop for which he built cabinets and a workbench (complete with drawers) and pegboards to hang his tools.

The cellar itself was windowless, but my mother now had a place to take her weather radio, lawn chair and battery operated lantern ­­‑ a safe place to sit out the storms when they came, as they always did.

We sold the house after they died. Once in a while, when I get back to the old neighborhood, I drive past the place and see an unfamiliar family living in the familiar spaces I still call “home.” And sometimes, I get the urge to go up the driveway, knock on the screen door and tell them about the man and woman who built the house, about our life together, and especially the story about the summer when my father began to dig.

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