Monday, January 17, 2011

Handyman

In 1941, on the eve of the war, my parents moved into a spanking new house in the suburbs of Chattanooga, Tennessee, the quintessential American dream house of the 1940s. A half-acre lot on a quiet street with a bus stop on the corner, white asbestos shingles, blue shutters, dormer windows upstairs, detached garage -- what every middle-class American aspired to. In 1948, RKO released a popular comedy called Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, with Cary Grant and Myna Loy; our house was a more modest version of what Hollywood in the '40s imagined to be ideal. My father even had a little room upstairs for his photography hobby (which would soon be taken over as a bedroom for his growing family). I dare say he would have liked to build the house himself if he had had the time, which he didn't. But he did have the big backyard that he could improve at his leisure.

The backyard would also be the American dream. A white picket fence around the whole thing. A badminton court. Rose bushes. A barbecue pit. Brick pathways. A Victory garden. I remember the tools. A manual lawnmower (was there any other kind?). A roller for the badminton court that you filled with water. A hand-pushed plow for the garden. There were lots of odd bits of wood too, leftovers from the picket fence, from which I could bang together toy boats and airplanes.

The backyard was, for the duration of the war at least, a handyman's heaven, for father and son, with lots of projects going on at once. I'm puzzled at this late date how he managed to get the wood he needed for the picket fence. Wouldn't that have been hard to come by during the war? The bricks for the paths were no problem; on the property next door was "The Brick Pile."

A rather substantial house once stood where building lots were now being sold by the family that had once owned all the land thereabouts. The house had been demolished before my parents' arrival on the scene, and the materials stacked and stored in "The Brick Pile," "The Wood Pile," and "The Shed" -- all of which lay just beyond the picket fence. There was no end of things to do with the bricks, but most of what I built with my neighborhood pals had to do with the war -- pill boxes, forts, gun emplacements. "The Wood Pile" became a battleship or PT-boat. "The Shed" was supposed to be off-limits, but we found our way in, and snitched banister posts to use as machine guns. If my father wanted to pass on to me his handyman skills, he could not have chosen a better place to build his house.

As a promotion for the film Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, RKO built seventy-three full-scale replicas of the eponymous house in cities around the country and raffled them off. One of the replicas was just a few blocks from our home in Chattanooga. It was quite the hit when it opened, with half the city driving by to see. It was classy, all right, but it didn't have a "Brick Pile" or a "Wood Pile" or a "Shed". Or a workbench in the basement made from a dismantled coal bin. It's hard for me to imagine Cary Grant as a handyman, although I'm sure he could have played one if the role required. He was just a bit too suave to do for himself what he could hire professional craftsmen to do. By the time the landscapers had finished with the Hollywood dream house around the corner, our backyard was already starting to show the first signs of a genteel decrepitude, a slight fraying of the American dream, but everything there was the product of a handyman's hand.