Sunday, January 15, 2017

Falling Up 2: A House on the Hill

It would be odd for a preschooler to understand much of the family finances. The stories that I heard when I was older, though, combined with my memories lead me to believe that my family was struggling.

My dad had been in the Air Force for 13 years, war years and beyond.  He was a control tower operator before the stress of the job was understood.  When he got out, a year or so before I was born, my mom fully expected that he would want to return to North Carolina.  I have no idea how he decided on Santa Monica, California.

My mom had suffered through a number of miscarriages.  I would have had a sister two years older, but she was quite premature and did not survive.  They were convinced that my brother was going to be an only child, so they bought a nice little 2 bedroom post war bungalow.  My dad got a job at the phone company, and they settled into suburbia. I certainly was unexpected, and a bit of a disruption.

Part of what I don't know is if my dad worked well at the phone company.  Some little hints were dropped at times that maybe there were problems.  I know he also tried selling Fuller Brush for a while.  Then my mom got a job, and I had sitters for a time.  The other part I don't know is why I suddenly didn't have sitters, but was staying home with my dad during the day.  I don't know if he was fired or was working nights, he did seem to sleep on the couch a lot. At any rate, from hints dropped later in my life, I think my parents were struggling to make the house payments.

When I was around three and a half or four, my dad began to take me with him to Topanga Canyon.  I remember a couple of times we just drove a little way in from the coast, to a pull out just before the first big curve.  My dad left me in the car with strict instructions to just sit there and wait, while he hiked up a side canyon with his rifle.  What seemed like hours later, he would come back and put his rifle back in the trunk.  That night we would have a special "fried chicken" meal.

Bu then we started driving deeper into the canyon, meeting up with someone at this house or that. We would go look around a house and talk about it, I seem to remember he would ask me what I thought of this or that.  Then he made me promise not to tell my mother. That was easy, because I didn't even know what I would tell her.

Then one evening after my mom got off work, we all drove up the canyon, up a side street too one of the houses, and my dad announced his surprise to my mom. This was going to be our new home.  My mom was less than excited.

The house my dad had chosen was a weekend getaway shack.  As I remember it, it was up on stilts overlooking the whole of the canyon.  It had a main room with a bit of a kitchen in the corner, a bedroom, and a screen porch stretching across the front to take in the view.

When we moved in, one end of the screen porch got partitioned off with plastic tarps to become a bedroom for my brother and I.  I don't remember this, but I have been told that the whole house slanted so that you had to hold onto things set on the table or they would slide off.  

My dad added supports, used a hand jack to level the foundation, dug the bank out deeper, dug holes and used concrete to anchor the house more securely in the hill, and leveled the whole thing out.  He found termite damage and treated it and replaced major beams as needed.  He built a downstairs, two bedrooms and a storage room.  He built a bedroom upstairs, the end of the screen porch that had served temporarily. He moved the bathroom plumbing from the add on off the back, into the back corner.  Put in a full, if small, kitchen and dining area.  He rebuilt a shack into a home, mostly by himself, with many of materials bought from demolition sites.  He did it in a year.

During that year my mom had another miscarriage and then a followup infection, my brother broke a front tooth, and my dad chipped a bone in his elbow.  

At the end of the year, my parents owned a three bedroom house free and clear, two cars, free and clear.  All debts paid.  On the salary of a file clerk. We ate a lot of beans.

The house was not large, it was not beautiful, but it was in Topanga Canyon, with a view that went on forever. I'm going to have to tell some hard stories and some sad stories about the years that followed, but this one story is almost too good. It is like a  pioneer going into the wilderness, or a big dreamer making a dream come true. But this is just a man who found a way to build a life for his family with his bare hands. And because of that, I got to grow up in this amazing place of trees and caves and creeks.  

And when he dusted his hands together and called it good, he had a whole new skill set.  He put an ad in the paper, got some business cards made, and took his show on the road.  Over the next few years he built an impressive client list from Malibu to Venice Beach, painting and patching, stopping drips and leaks, eventually adding rooms.  He was his own boss, and possibly the only boss he could ever handle.

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