'Sturdy is the only way to build'

The hammering awakened me early one Saturday morning. This clattering alternated with a buzzing, equally forceful and persistent and so loud it sounded as if an army of termites had arisen (at 7 a.m.) to the challenge of separating the rear from the front of my house by half-past noon. Finally I got up, peered out the window, and saw my neighbor was building something in his backyard.

I went over to watch him tear out the wall of a storeroom beneath his house.

''Going to extend it out here,'' he said, stepping off 10 paces toward the carport.

''Workshop?'' I asked.

''Studio,'' he said, chuckling at this fancy noun applied to his add-on. To date, his post-retirement activity had been gardening. Was he now taking up painting or photography?

''Picture frames. It's a kind of partnership. My wife says she needs picture frames for the flowers and fruit and landscapes she paints. Besides, she says there's good money in picture frames.''

He deftly searched through the former wall, now a heap of lumber beside the geraniums growing in a barrel he had sawed in half, and held up a two-by-four for inspection. ''I see through that,'' he went on, deciding the two-by-four could be reused. ''She figures I'll spend the winter down here instead of wasting my time over at the retirement center with a game of dominoes or 42.'' He measured the board, marked it with pencil, then laid it across an upturned garbage can before reaching for a saw. ''I get the impression she likes having me around.''

After a dozen swift strokes with the saw, he paused and looked up. ''I like being around,'' he said and, with another dozen strokes, had himself a support for the door-frame.

For the next week, at least, his wife had figured correctly. No time was wasted. Every day the hammering commenced about the hour I left for work and did not cease until after dark. I walked over every afternoon to check on his progress.

Watching him measure, saw, remeasure, trim, realign and hammer, I realized this was no makeshift studio. ''Where did you learn carpentry?'' I asked one day.

''Helped a feller build a house once . . . back when I was too young to have sense enough to stay off a roof. He was what you might call, well, a worthless feller. But I learned from him. It wasn't in him to build a bad house.''

My neighbor recently had hired a young man (apparently without sense enough to stay off a roof) to paint the trim and window facings and eaves on his house. He invited me to step around to the side yard for an inspection. He wanted to know what I thought of the job.

''Well,'' I said, not knowing what more to say, ''it's . . . uh . . . well . . . a nice shade of white.''

''Sure is,'' he agreed. ''When it's on the woodwork. Look at those splotches of paint on the window screen, though. Now, that's not necessary, is it? I pointed that out to the young painter, and you know what he told me? Said I shouldn't worry; it would wear off in a few years. At my age, you never know if you can afford to wait that long. Course, at his age, I guess it seems time will take care of all your mistakes. Still, it's careless workmanship.''

By the next Saturday morning, the ''studio'' was enclosed, except for windows yet to be installed, and I saw my neighbor painting the doorframe with the absorption of an artist in front of a canvas. The strokes seemed almost careless , yet not a splotch of paint fell to the walkway or splattered onto the geraniums or the side of the house. Perhaps that same sureness of touch will come to the young house painter . . . in time.

Late that afternoon - my neighbor apparently had gone inside for dinner - I wandered over for a closer look. I jumped when a voice behind me suddenly boomed , ''Hot dogs! Hot dogs! Step up to the counter and get your hot dogs!''

I turned and found my neighbor leaning on the sill of the open window, grinning. ''Looks more like a hot dog stand than studio, doesn't it?''

''Whatever it is,'' I gasped, leaning against the newly applied siding to wait for my heart to resume beating, ''it's sturdy.''

His grin radiated the faintest aura of pride as he dealt the nearest supporting stud a blow that would have felled a good-size sapling. ''It'll do for me. Get the window in . . . get me a workbench down - you know how much they charge for workbenches? Been thinking I might build one myself . . . got some scraps left over. And maybe it'll be a good room for somebody else, someday, after I'm gone,'' he said. ''Sturdy is the only way to build.''

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