Sunday, June 29, 2008

II. Tree House, We Begin

Part II

The first step Eddy took toward fruition was to sketch his tree house concept based on what we had discussed. He eagerly showed it to me a few days after our discussion, wanting to know what I thought. His crudely penned drawing had the look of a guard tower along with the flavor of the long gone windmills that once dotted in their thousands the landscape of the rural parts of the United States some 40 years ago.
As you can see from the diagram, it starts out wide at the base and narrowing as it soars skywards—elegant yet simple. To me, it was perfect.
“Let’s get started,” I said patting him lightly on the back.
A few days later he showed up at 7:20 am with his welding machine and drill press, both well-worn though not yet worn out. He and his boys spent the whole of a day measuring, drilling and welding metal.
I asked him towards day’s end, “Eddy, how do you expect to achieve the proper narrowing of the vertical supports as you built it up to the top? I can’t imagine how you are going to do that.”
As patient as always with my non-stop questions he told me: “Well, we’ll lay the vertical supports out on the ground first and make sure we get the right distances as they slope upward. You see, the secret is in the horizontal supports and the cross braces between them. We will make them shorter and shorter with each riser section. Don’t worry; we’ll make sure it all works correctly first with all the pieces laid out on the ground before we try to bolt it together up there.” He pointed up to the tops of my trees with pursed lips in Filipino style and then smiled good-naturedly, something he does all the time.
After he explained it, once again, I realized that I had just asked a bit of a stupid question, but sometimes answers aren’t so obvious until you hear them explained.
The assembly of the first section, the base, with each of the four vertical supports some 20 feet long, was to say the least an “interesting” event to observe, because the process seemed so chaotic and precarious. Nuts and bolts held it all together at this early stage, none of which could be tightened completely until all the pieces, vertical and horizontal supports as well as the cross braces, were in their respective positions.
The bottom horizontal level, easily within reach from the ground, was not a problem. The precarious part started when the second horizontal pieces had to be emplaced some five feet higher, at least it seemed that way for me as an American observer used to orderly structure and with a background in following and
enforcing strict safety standards.
With their dad providing even-tempered instructions in his quiet yet commanding style, one of his three very slender yet extremely strong boys, all in their mid-20s and early-30s, clambered up onto the not yet completely tightened lower horizontal support , and began to install the second tier of horizontals a few feet above his head. I could hardly bare watching with my over-developed sense of safety drilled into me from my decades on Air Force flight lines, where every possible procedure to keep workers from harm is followed to a “t.”
He was less than six feet from the ground; just the same,
my heart was in my mouth. The young man was tenuously balanced wearing
only flip-flops, the standard footwear for virtually all construction workers over here, and had to use both hands to tighten hardware while adjusting and keeping it in all in place, and that while standing on a narrow piece of steel only a little more than an inch across, all while the entire structure was still all loose and wobbly.
To me, the whole thing seemed about to collapse in a heap of very dangerous pick-up sticks, with this stout-hearted young fellow trapped in the middle of the jumble. As I said, I could barely stand to watch, but watch I did, and even took photos, while hoping I was not about to capture images of a fallen and broken nephew.
Over the next few weeks, that was not the last time I would marvel at their seeming lack of concern for the preservation of their own life and limbs. I suppose it’s something they just get used to, perhaps out of necessity, but I’ll be darned if I ever will get used to seeing it.
Sometimes, I just have to stop watching, either that or become a jumpy raw bundle of nerves.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

I. Tree House, From Dream to Reality

The idea for it came to me late one afternoon sometime after the beginning of the year. I remember the exact instant. I was relaxing on a bench up against the side of the house. The air was mostly still, yet as my eyes drew upwards to the top branches of the towering mango trees at the far side of the lot, I noticed that the leaves way up there tossed and swayed in their own private breeze.

At that moment, I wanted to be up there, not just for access to the delicious balmy breezes, but to be able to see way beyond the limited views within my little yard and surrounding walls.

From that day I took to standing at the base of my trees and craning my head to stare up at the uppermost branches, trying to imagine how I could make my strange dream come true. It became an obsession.

What I wanted is what all boys want—a tree house. After all, in my 51 year old heart of hearts, a boy is what I remain. Yes! A tree house! As soon as I uttered the words, I knew that somehow I would make it happen.

I began to speak of my whimsical little fantasy to anyone who would listen. Perhaps I’m a bit of a sexist to observe this, but I noticed that virtually all the men folk I mentioned the idea of a tree house to would stand there right along with me, stare upwards, and marvel at the audacious notion of such a thing. Most of the lady folk, except one, my special one, just smiled vacantly, feigned interest or looked at me like I was some kind of a nut. (Ah, but it is true!)

The tangible version of “the tree house dream” came to be on the day I revealed my “elevated aspirations” to Eddy, the guy who has been the most responsible for all the home improvement work that I’ve been crowing about in my last few posts. In fact, without him, probably few or none of those upgrades are likely to have been accomplished. Without a doubt, Eddy is the man.

I knew I had him the moment I took him over to the trees and bade him to look up whilst I explained my need to be high up in them. During the days of animated discussions that followed, ideas flowed fast and furious on how we should “get er done.” I much appreciated his enthusiasm. I mean, Misery loves company, but so does Joy. After that, It became “our” project as we fed off each other’s excitement.

I knew that simply being up in the trees was not going to be good enough for me. I told Eddy as much, that I wanted to look down at the tops of the highest branches so that I would be able to see far into the distance, the goal being the Zambales Mountains to the west and all parts in between.

Now that he had his construction guidance from me, or at least a bare outline of the primary idea of it, Eddy convinced me that a tower was the only way to go. Over the last thirty years he tells me that he has built plenty of them, all of them made to support water tanks filled with thousands of pounds of water, so a few humans wasn't going to be any problem at all. He said it would cost a bit, but it would be relatively easy for him and boys to put one up amongst my trees, so that it would rise above them while at the same time providing access to the upper reaches of all three to provide a means to gather fruit and trim branches.

Initially, I had envisioned a corkscrew staircase rising up from the middle of the structure and coming up through a trapdoor in the center of the top platform. Like always, Eddy had a better idea—to use a series of stairs arranged in 10 feet high landings wrapped around the outside of the tower. As soon as he described it I loved the concept. The guy always knows what I want, even more than I do. Thing is, if I had insisted on the center corkscrew; well, he would have built it like that.

In early May, late one afternoon, I returned home from my volunteer work to find a few assorted lengths of angle iron and round bar laid out in a narrow heap along my new bamboo fence. They had already been painted green; the idea is that its easier to paint the pieces before hand. I was elated to see those few nondescript lengths of narrow metal, realizing that my “fool’s dream” was about to take on solidity.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

New Bedroom Revisited in Photos

Much to my delight and relief, I discovered several photos I thought lost. They show the progression of how we turned the original separate structure used as "dirty kitchen"/laundry room/pantry" into the new master bedroom. On with "the show." But, before you check out these pics you might want to take a quick look at the final results again. Click here to see.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Porch

From the beginning, even before I realized that the outbuilding at the back of my house was destined to be my new master bedroom, I knew something had to be done with the back area directly out the kitchen door and to the right. The previous tenants, probably going back over 20 years, had obviously used this as the laundry area.

In case you don’t live here, many if not most people in the Philippines have their clothes laundered by hand. In fact, many prefer it, since the rinky-dink little plastic washing machines here do such a lousy job. All over the country, everyday, tens of thousands of women squat over wash basins, first suddsing up the clothes, then hand scrubbing and kneading the dirty garments, before rinsing and hanging them on a line in the sun as long as it isn't raining out, and inside or under a roof overhang during the rainy season.

Out back of my new place a flat concrete pad just over three feet square was located on the muddy ground next to the back wall with a water spigot 4 feet above it coming out of that wall. There was no grass anywhere near the area, just a few muddy slippery bricks buried in the ground. Right next to the outbuilding, an ancient broken covered swing forlornly waited for someone to fix it up. It beckoned, the broken wooden unpainted benches with rusty bent nails sticking out all over screamed for attention. Within a week I had it rebuilt and swingable; it was either that, or in the interest of safety and aesthetics it would need to be torn apart and tossed.

A giant mango tree towered over the whole area; its branches thick with leaves and dipping low, it kept much of the backyard dark and shadowy. One other slightly smaller mango and a jack fruit tree also added to the deep shade. I fell in love with the trees, but they needed trimming.

I made the mistake of mentioning to “my people” that I soon intended to prune up those big old beautiful trees, and that same afternoon upon my return I was horrified to find all their lower limbs hacked and twisted off. My heart sank with the ugliness of it. I wanted to yell and raise hell, but I kept my anger bottled up, gritted my teeth, and tersely declared that I did not want one more thing done without my direct supervision. Even now I’m afraid my folks don’t truly understand what makes me tick. Sometimes the cultural differences are more than can be overcome. It’s best just to shut up and keep the frustrations in check. Anyway, my trees are making a comeback with the mangos producing fruit like crazy.

Once I decided that my bedroom would ultimately transfer to the separate structure out back, I also bec
ame equally intent on having a large screened porch built contiguous to it. My plan was to use the porch as a living room, recreation room, bar, and dining area; so that all I would have to do was pop through my curtained bedroom doorway, turn left, and immediately be able to enjoy the pleasant view that I fully intend to create outside and all around my wraparound screened in area with plenty of landscaping and garden planting.

My contractor brother-in-law convinced me that he could easily incorporate the enormous trunk of the mango tree into the d├ęcor of the porch. I loved the idea of it, to have a bit of the outdoors with me on the inside of my living space. I put together enough money to buy materials and we started building.

First thing we did was to dig a trench for the lower concrete walls upon which our vertical support poles would sprout. Within three days we had the cement blocks mortared in, the steel poles up, along with the horizontal beams and roof structure, and finally the roof sheeting and cement floor.

But it was when these fellows started cutting round and flat bar into the hundreds of pieces required to make the porch and gates, and then quickly welded it all together into a veritable structural work of art, that I realized I was privileged to witness the type of functional art that is not much seen in my home country these days. Eddie and his boys have been doing this for decades, and now I’m a fan. I love these guys and the work they do. I can’t get enough of watching them create.

Slowly, as my finances allowed, I bought furniture and items to make that porch my little showcase. It was really coming together, but then, I noticed that the plywood sheets that make up the ceiling started to sag, at first imperceptibly, and then noticeably. In just two months termites from the mango tree had invaded the wooden support structure and had just about finished it off with a big final termite burp.

We had to pull the entire ceiling down and treat the mango tree with some high powered termite poison. Unfortunately, since then, I think I’ve discovered there was already some termite infestation as well in other parts of the ancient outbuilding, especially under the exposed eaves. We’ll have to work on getting a handle on that soon, but first things first.

In the next week or so, as soon as we finish my "tree house," we’ll start back to work on putting up a new ceiling for the porch. In fact, since I wrote that previous sentence, just today, we finished reinstalling the ceiling. All that is left is a final coat of white paint and getting the light and fan fixtures reinstalled. I’m looking forward to it since I have a new recliner coming tomorrow, as well as four bar stools.

We’ve already treated the new ceiling wood with several coats of termite poison, something I wish we’d done to begin with; but live and learn. I’ve also decided to have my guys install a steel frame around the mango tree, and for two reasons. One, to keep any possible re-infestation stemming from the tree from happening; and two, to allow any rain or moisture to trickle down the trunk and into the stones at its base instead of wicking over into the wood in the ceiling sheets.

We did manage to finish one important porch project though. Before we started in on the final stages of my 40 foot tree house, which will probably be the subject of my next post; we put an awning over the exposed side of the screen. The awning became a necessity two weeks ago when during an exceptionally windy storm the rain whipped right through the screen and all over the brand new linoleum. Even before we had a chance to paint the awning another storm blew though and we learned that it worked perfectly. Another problem solved, and the awning looks pretty darn good too.

One more "problem" came up that demanded a solution: my new bedroom door directly faces the kitchen screen door. That means if my door happens to be open, someone in the kitchen might catch a glimpse of something or other that I might not want seen. Part of the solution was to install a center split curtain across my door. We did that and found that it also did great in keeping my aircon inside the room. The final solution to my "privacy issue" proved to be another curtain hung on a high bar installed on a diagonal, so that when pulled closed across the width of the breezeway I can now walk directly out my bedroom door, even in my all together, turn immediately left, and walk out into my porch with out the risk of anyone catching even a glimpse. I'm proud of that one since even with it closed it interferes not all with either door. My door is almost never closed anyway, and doesn't require it since I have the full protection of the thick hanging folds of cloth that covers the doorway completely from side-to-side and top-to-bottom.

I’ll post more on the porch in a few weeks after I get the chance to finally finish it off. It’s proving to provide the perfect place to hang out. It’s great to sit inside and simply watch the little local sparrow-like birds flit about just outside. I love it.