Maine is full of self-made people: those who, with little or no formal training, can put up a garage over a weekend, build a canoe from native woods, or convert any manner of junk into something useful.
Sometimes their talents are diverse, as evidenced by the sign I once saw tacked to a tree outside a farmhouse: I REPAIR CHAIN SAWS AND VIOLINS.
As such, I have never had a home repair or improvement that couldn't be done by some neighbor who harbored the necessary skill. No need to call in the big-name contractors when a local can get the job done for half the price and is likely to be far more colorful to boot.
Such is the case with Mike, the six-foot-five, 240-pound carpenter I ran across during my ramblings in Maine's back country. When I first met him, he had just finished tearing down and then rebuilding a fixer-upper, brick-by-brick, board-by- board. "Can you install a window?" I asked him, rather ridiculously.
"I'll be down tomorrow," he clipped.
Mike arrived in the middle of a February snowfall, driving a beat-up van with 240,000 miles on it and little sign of fatigue, since Mike himself had rebuilt the engine. He opened the cargo doors to reveal a yard-sale's worth of hardware. "Where do you want the window?"
I stomped through the snowdrifts to a spot on a south-facing wall. Touching it gingerly, I suggested, "Here?"
In the next moment, Mike had revved up his chain saw, and I watched slack-jawed as he tore through the wall. Ten minutes later there was a neat square hole. A few hours later Mike left as unceremoniously as he had arrived, and I had a brand-new window.
Within a very short time, Mike had become a weekly habit around the house. He and I had fallen into our respective roles, with me, the university professor, playing the ignorant go-getter and Mike the sagacious, self-assured craftsman. One time, hoping to save a few dollars, I offered to finish off a project Mike had begun. But that didn't work. "Yes," was Mike's ironic rejoinder, "we've seen evidence of your handiwork." And that was that.
I soon learned that, although I was paying Mike and he was working on my house, he was used to calling the shots. "I say what's on my mind," he told me.
Recently, I had Mike remove a living- room wall, exposing the bare bones of yet another wall. "Now, wouldn't it be nice to cover this with rough-cut pine?" I suggested, hoping to push one of my ideas through by diplomacy.
Mike's response was immediate. "Sheetrock," he said without so much as glancing from the plane he was honing.
"But I thought...."
"Sheetrock," he repeated.
Mike threw me a gaze as sharp as his plane. "Look," he said, "Sheetrock is God's gift to the wall."
And so we went with Sheetrock.
Many a night I have lain awake, wondering how to get the upper hand with Mike. Then I hit upon the idea of starting a project that I knew he would never leave unfinished, and in this manner I would have my way.
I decided, of all things, to do the preliminary work to replace an outside faucet that had been leaky for years. And so, one spring day, I descended into the dirt-floor crawlspace under the house and closed what I thought was the shutoff to the supply line. And then I began to cut the plastic, or PVC, tubing that joined the plumbing to the outside faucet. Suddenly, the thing burst from my hand, and I found myself scrambling through mud as the water rushed from the open line. I finally located the main and shut it down. Then, full of contrition, I called Mike. He listened in silence. And then, "I'll be down."
Within the hour, Mike had arrived. I followed his immense frame under the house and watched him as he assessed the situation. Then he shook his head mournfully. "You had to join plastic to copper, didn't you?"
"It seemed like a good idea at the time," I apologized.
Mike rolled his eyes. "So did buying a baby Saint Bernard."
IN LIGHT of my efforts to be of assistance to a man who doesn't need any, I continue to be amazed that Mike dutifully returns time after time. Even though he says he doesn't approve of my house, I think that, on some level, he has made it part of his mission in life. Just last week, after trying to drive nails into a rotted floor joist, he threw down his hammer. "Get out while the gettin's good, Bob," he advised. Then, after a moment's respite, he pulled himself together and resumed his work. Mike managed to reinforce the joist and, as he left for home, remarked, "We'll get to that door frame next week."
And so our relationship ebbs and flows. It has for about three years now, and there hasn't been a boring moment yet. Mike, despite his "take no prisoners" attitude toward homes and their owners, is an interesting person, and if he's correct about the condition of my house, I think he'll be around for a long time.