A Few Thoughts on Questions For My Dad.

My neighbor Aaron Harris showed up with his portable sawmill this week, and we proceeded to make rectangular pieces out round logs harvested from my place by Ma Nature herself: windthrown Douglas fir, cedar and hemlock courtesy of big wind events during the past few years. Brother Kent and I salvaged them with my chainsaw and his tractor. He sent his portion off to the mill, but I reserved mine for personal use. Homegrown is best, right?

The lumber is fodder for the continuing project of rebuilding the cabin my mom and dad put together over a few decades starting in the 1950s — and never quite finished. My dad took a crash course in jackknife carpentry from my Grandpa Earl when they cobbled the first iteration together in 1953; on-the-job training for future shoestring projects. Grandpa built — in the late 1920s — the 12- by 14-foot log cabin that is the original kernel of the structure we lived in as a young family. My mom wired that and the log addition Dad and Grandpa built for electricity. Another homegrown product.

Aaron Harris and his mill.

Meanwhile, back in this century, Aaron and his mill produced beautiful one-inch boards for new floors, window framing and sheeting. I also had him cut two dozen thirteen-foot two-by-four-and-a-halves. This is surely not a conventional size, but they match the rafters my dad used in 1960 for what became a kitchen and my parents’ bedroom. Why he used rough-cut two-by-four-and-a-halves, as opposed to two-by-fours, I haven’t a clue. Did he get them on sale; half off for half an inch over?  

The rafters over the 1953 addition are kiln-finished two-by-fours (planed to one-and-a-half by three-and-a-half), a number of which had obviously been put to other purposes before becoming part of the ceiling under which I slept during my childhood. Dad and Grandpa put enough pitch on the roof (well over 100 percent) to assertively shed snow. It has ever since.

Another question I have is why these rafters are placed on 26-inch centers instead of 24 or even 18. My best guess is that Dad counted the number of two-by-fours he had and divided the combined length of the roof sills by that number less two (framing carpenters will understand) and the answer was 26 inches.

The rafters to be replaced by the two-by-four-and-a-halves are tamarack and Doug fir poles made and placed almost a century ago by Grandpa Earl. When someone asks how old the cabin is, I can answer, “Ninety-five, 69, 60 and two years old.” The two-year-old portion is my contribution to the footprint, also made from lumber cut by Aaron from salvaged trees.

There are many things my dad did piecing the house together that I don’t quite get, except on a general basis. Disassembling or reinforcing his carpentry is often an exercise in conjecture. “Why did you do that, Old Man?” I ask. There is one apparent answer: “Because that’s what it took to accomplish this with the time, money and materials at hand.”

“Yeah,” I think, “but why two-by-four-and-a-half? That seems pretty intentional.”

There is only silence.  

I have many questions I would ask my Dad, but I can’t. He’s been gone for as many years as he was in my life in his physical form. He left too early, but I did end up with many of the things he left behind, including that old/new cabin and his penchant for building things out of salvaged logs, recycled lumber and slightly used nails.

Dad and his young family about the time he put those two-by-four rafters up on 26-inch centers.

This month is the 94th anniversary of Dad’s birth. Father’s Day is coming up as well. You might want to sit down with your dad on June 19 — or any day, for that matter — and ask him questions, maybe how he came to live where he does, how he met your Mom, or what his greatest adventure was when he was a young man. Those answers may lead to other questions, some he may not want to answer — dads can be somewhat monolithic sometimes. But if you don’t ask now, you may not get a chance later. And then, you will never know.

Sandy Compton is a writer with roots in Montana and Idaho. His books, as well as those of other writers published by Blue Creek Press, are available at local bookstores and on line at bluecreekpress.com/books and Amazon.