Sunday, May 15, 2005

Self Reliance

I went through a period beginning in my mid 20’s where becoming ‘self reliant’ became a real passion for me.

It was the mid 70’s, I was recently married and the new owner of a small home on about 3 acres in the village of North Bay, NY. (If anyone from North Bay happens to be reading this, please leave a comment, I’d love to hear from you!)

North Bay is a very small village (about 700 permanent residents) on the edge of what’s known as the ‘Tug Hill Plateau’. It’s East of Lake Ontario, and is in fact, a bay on the Northeastern shore of Oneida Lake. Now, I was born and raised in Upstate, NY. (Upstate, for those of you from elsewhere is generally anywhere in New York, North and West of New York City.) and was used to the winters there, but I was not prepared for the difference in winters between the Mohawk Valley, and North Bay.

That first winter the heating oil bills kept trying to outpace the mortgage payment for 1st place! Cold and snow… a lot of snow… that first winter it snowed everyday, from around Christmas, until the end of January. I’m not talking about a daily ‘dusting’ either; I’m talking snow, 4-6 inches a day, everyday.

The strangest thing to me was that often you could be at home, in the middle of a snowstorm so heavy you couldn’t see across the street, and yet drive 10 miles south and it wouldn’t have snowed at all! I quickly learned this snow ‘event’ was called ‘Lake Effect’ snow, so named as it was caused by winds sweeping across Lake Ontario, picking up moisture and depositing it at the base of the ‘Tug Hill’ before it could rise and go over the mountains.

It was in this winter I began to become passionate about self reliance. It was like some switch in my brain had been ‘flicked’ and all I wanted to achieve was a sense that regardless of what mother nature threw at me, I could not only handle it, I would flourish through it.

The fellow that had built the house was a now retired wrecking crane operator, Larry Armstrong, from all accounts he was one of the very best in the Northeast, able to take a building down ‘brick-by-brick’, or at least that’s what the locals told me. In building the house he’d installed an old converted coal boiler and hot water baseboard heat. The first real cold snap that fall, despite the furnace ‘running’ the house continued to get colder.

Being a first time home owner and not knowing what to do, or even who to call, I did the only thing I could think of and that was to call Larry. I called to ask if there was something, anything, I could do. Was there a valve to open, another ‘switch’ to turn on, anything? He listened patiently, and then without answering, he simply hung up.

I was left thinking that making that call was not such a good idea and beginning to resolve myself to the fact that it was going to be a long cold night, when a pickup pulled in the driveway.

I should mention that this is (or was then) a sparsely populated area. You could not see another house from ours and in the evening, traffic on the street was all but non-existent. So a vehicle pulling into the driveway was a very rare event, especially when I didn’t recognize it.

The truck turned out to be Larry’s, he’d gathered together a few hand tools and as I met him at the garage door, he announced we (as in he and I) were going to fix the furnace. In my entire life, I’d never known anyone who fixed their own furnace, and this guy was telling me he and I were about to!

We headed down into the basement and he proceeded to look things over. The first thing he did was open a little ‘check-valve’ and explained that with a hot-water system, the hot water would naturally rise and regardless of what else we achieved that night, the house would stay warm. (Now I attribute this little act as the first inkling I had that self reliance was possible.)

After performing a few more checks Larry informed me that the ‘circ-pump’ motor was not working. I still remember his laugh when I asked where we were going to get one of those. His response was that we weren’t going to buy a new one, but fix this one. I remember thinking that ‘Sure we are”, but he seemed so confident that I had no intention of hanging in there to see if we could.

Over the next hour he and I disassembled the motor, looking over the all the various components, the brushes, windings, the armature and so on. It turned out, as he carefully showed me, that a wire leading to one of the brushes was broken. I went to the garage got my soldering gun and we proceeded to repair the wire, reassembled and reinstalled the motor, and then reconnected the power. (At this point I was still doubtful that ‘this’ was going to resolve the problem, but again I just followed his lead). I yelled upstairs for my wife to turn up the thermostat, as she did, the solenoid clicked, and wonder of wonders, the motor began to spin, hot water began to flow and all was instantly right with the world! (Or at least my little part of it)

I thanked Larry, offering to return the favor, that if he ever needed anything, all he’d have to do was call… Larry never did call; you see he was self reliant.

That was the last problem I ever had with that furnace. It ran flawlessly for several more years, until we decided to replace it with a boiler that burned wood, with an Oil backup.

I did remain friends with Larry, and his wife Rose over the next decade or so. We didn’t hang out, but rather we’d see each other from time to time, always stopping to chat for about an hour, regardless of where we were. They were a very down to earth couple and seemed genuinely pleased that we were enjoying their old home.
Eventually, I did, in fact, get to return that favor. About 10 years later Larry suffered a pretty severe stroke that left him in a wheelchair. One very nasty evening, the temperature was in the teens, the wind howling and snowing about an inch an hour when the phone rang. It was Rose, and she couldn’t get their snow blower started, and wanted to know if I would take a look at it as she was concerned that if they needed to get ‘out’ in the morning they’d be snowed in..

I did what Larry had done all those years before, I simply hung up, grabbed my ‘to go’ tool box, hopped in the truck and headed down to their place. The first thing I did on arrival was plow out their driveway as the snow was too deep to allow me to drive in.

After clearing the driveway, I repaired the snow blower (which simply needed to have the plug cleaned) and discovered that the real problem was that Rose could not start it, nor obviously could Larry. So for the rest of that winter, and any other time they needed it, I handled their snow removal, I’d drive by either on my way to work, or on the way home and if the driveway needed clearing I’d do that and head on. I also started to drop by every once in a while to see Larry and just chat, but every time I did, at some point his eyes would water up and a tear or two would roll down his cheek.

As he couldn’t talk, nor write as a result of the stroke I don’t really know what was going through his head. What I do know, is that seeing that once strong, proud and accomplished guy, shedding a tear over what I believed ‘what once was’, I knew I couldn’t continue to visit.

Rose and I talked about that after his death and she told me that it had been a good thing I stopped coming over. That while Larry really enjoyed my visits, it also reminded him of what he could no longer do and he would, in fact, sink into a depression over it.

I understood. You see in that 10 years I’d become very self reliant. I’d built buildings, converted our heating system to a wood fired boiler, cut 10 full cord of firewood every year (about 35-40 ‘face’ cords), re-piped our well, gutted and remodeled the whole house. Learned to do the plumbing, electrical and drywall work, I cleaned the chimney, fixed the roof, cleared about an acre of woodland and turned it into lawn, in fact the only things I remember hiring anyone to ‘take care of’ were those things that required more ‘hands’ than I could gather, or equipment I couldn’t obtain. Often, I’d hire someone by ‘bartering’, for example, I traded a ’46 Ford I had for the lumber for my outbuilding, and some loader and bulldozer work. I’d paid $400 for the car, and got about $3,000 worth of goods and services for it.

Larry got me started on a cycle of self reliance, one that continues today. Although I’m not quite as ‘committed’ to doing everything myself as I was then. There’s a fine line between passion, and obsession, and I’ve been ‘obsessed’ with self reliance… today, I’m still passionate about it, but, I know where (for the most part) to bring in an expert.

I learned a lot of lessons in those years. Maybe the most important one of all was the lesson that:

“Good friends are hard to find, harder still to hang on to”

Over the next few weeks I’ll be posting more about ‘people’. I've had the good fortune to have made some incredible friends and meet some truly unique people over the years, some, like Larry (and his wife) are gone now, some are still around but I live hundreds of miles away from them now, so while we’re still friends, we rarely see one another. I miss every one of them, their unique take on the world, helping them, having them help me. While I know I still have their friendship, I miss just having the chance to have a beer, talk about what the world tossed in our path this week, and have a few laughs, on a regular basis.

All of these people I’ll be writing about taught me something, it’s my hope, that in relating a taste of my friendships with them to you, you’ll learn something too.

Thanks again for reading, and as always… you’re comments are welcomed!


Kim said...

Wow, that's a great story Bill. I'm happy for you that you got to repay the favor to your friend. We too, suffer Lake Effect snow, mine from Lake Erie. It's an amazing thing, isn't it? People can't fully appreciate what it's like unless they live it for a season, lol. Maddening...

Bill said...

Thanks Kim, I lived there 14 years and 76 was one of the lighter winters for sure! Erie creates some awesome storms too... I can remember driving back to Chicago, when I was stationed at Great Lakes, and having 'clear sailing' until we hit the PA and OH sections of I-90!!

Firehawk said...


Great story. Reminds me of my youth, growing up a mile from the Atlantic in Maine. I don't know if there's such a thing as "Ocean Effect" snow, but we sure got a lot. I can remember days when we'd open the door and see nothing but solid white, and have to dig out just for the dogs to go pee.

We were running on all wood stoves at the time in an huge old farmhouse, and it took a good 13 full cords to get through the winter. I can remember being 8 or 9 and spending the whole day in front of the chopping block while my dad ran his big chainsaw and we all took turns stacking the wood into the drying shed.

Every year was a new adventure, whether it was putting up new chimneys, building a Russian Fireplace, or jacking up the whole back of the house and putting in a new (and ship mast sized) support beam. It was a great thing for a kid. We had motorcycles and tractors and chainsaws and all that great stuff. I think that, even if you know a pro could have done the work better, when you've put down a floor or built a wall, there's an element of pride there.

My friend and I got to build a really big cinderblock wall a few years ago, supervised by his 70 year old aunt, who's been a bricklayer all her life. It was hard work, but as we put the capstones on and stood there looking at it, it was a good feeling.

Bill said...

Firehawk: You obviously *know*! What you described was very much the deal there too. One of the buildings I was referring to was, in fact, the 'drying shed'.

I miss the equipment and the raw-ness of it all. Or, maybe I've sweetened the memories... I know that I don't have that same energy I had in my 20's and 30's...

I often wonder how those 'old timers' used to manage. No choice I suppose.

I've got a number of stories in process about this decade and a half.. I hope you enjoy them all.

No_Newz said...

Very nice story Bill, thanks for sharing. It's so nice to have the chance to give back.
Thanks too for stopping by Home Fires and leaving a nice comment.
1979 was the year of the big snow storm for Chicago, I was literally up to my eyebrows in snow! LOL
Lois Lane

Karyn Lyndon said...

I live in Texas, Bill. I have NO idea what you're talking

Bill said...

Thanks Lois and Karyn, for stopping by, AND for letting me know you did!