The end of the school year for me as a kid was a bittersweet experience.
On one hand, I couldn’t wait to walk out of school for the last time of the school year and get ready to enjoy the freedom of summer.
On the other hand, there was probably a pretty good chance that my Dad was going to do what he could to wreck that promise with a variety of ill-advised yard projects.
My Dad was, to be blunt, a complicated man. He’s been gone from this Earth since 1997 and since he isn’t here to defend himself I won’t elaborate on the extent of his complicated nature.
I will, however, make it clear that when it came to his definition of the phrase “home improvement project” most of humanity would object to his description.
From our time in the Twin Cities suburb of Burnsville, Minnesota to the years we lived in Fairmount, North Dakota I can honestly say that my Dad’s influence on my lack of passion for anything yard work related is deep rooted in my psyche.
Don’t get me wrong. Yard projects like mowing the lawn and shoveling the snow – those are, for those of us who live in states where there is more than one season – are less “projects” and more “necessities”.
Even the nonsense of raking leaves – a job I so abhor I have willingly agreed with my wife that we should pay someone to do it – is not something I would consider to be a yard “project.”
My Dad’s yard projects went something like this:
“Hmmmmmm, I think should add an addition to the house.”
Now, one contemplates that when someone intends to put an addition on a house they might spend some time actually creating some form of design on a piece of paper and getting permits and making sure that there is enough lumber, nails and all the other assorted things to build such an addition.
You would be wrong when you imagine my Dad contemplating such things.
My Dad was a brilliant man. He was not, however, a practical or organized man.
I did not inherit his brilliance. I did inherit his relative lack of organization.
As for being practical, my kids and wife would likely argue that my definition of being “practical” might well depend on whether I purchased something from a television infomercial because I thought we “needed” it.
My Dad built – and did not finish – many additions to our home in Fairmount, North Dakota.
They began with a burst of enthusiasm and promise and invariably ended because he either got bored, or he realized that his design wasn’t working the way he wanted it to work.
Or, because he got mad about something.
I suspect there were any number of reasons he would start these projects and never stop but he never shared them with me.
The same was true for the projects that didn’t involve an addition but were “remodeling” projects at our home in Fairmount.
There was the removal of the perfectly good fuel oil furnace because he thought it would be fun to heat the house with wood.
That he never enjoyed the “fun” of having to go find wood to heat the house truly did not dissuade him from this ill-advised project. Nor did the frigid winters of North Dakota that made sure our home was never remotely warm in the winter time because wood does not achieve the same temperature necessary to create steam to heat cast iron radiators.
Of course, he removed the water heater in the home. You should have guessed that was coming.
I don’t know.
But I do know that the 5-gallon water heater he replaced it with created enough hot water to bathe my left knee and one foot in the tub.
He tore out the stove in the kitchen because he wanted to create an island concept.
To be honest, I barely remember the outcome of that project but I do know that it did not ever end up on HGTV or would it ever have been featured on a home improvement show today.
Then, of course, there were cement slabs.
Yup. Cement slabs.
What, you mean you don’t have cement slabs randomly poured in your yard?
Clearly you were deprived as child!
My Dad would pour cement slabs. Square ones. And rectangular ones.
Of varying thickness and size. In different parts of our yard.
Because he loved cement! He loved cement as much as he loved the semi-trucks full of black dirt and gravel.
The same semi-truck loads of black dirt and gravel we would have to move, by wheelbarrow, to the far side of the yard which – given his brilliance – should have been where the damn semi-truck dumped it to begin with!
Ah, but I digress!
Yes, the cement slabs started first with lumber, some wire and a vision deep inside my father’s brain.
Once the cement was poured into the frames he would lovingly smooth it out and let it dry and cure.
After a few days, you would seem him outside. Often with a hose in one hand watering the grass — and a cigarette and cup of coffee in the other hand.
That was never a good look.
It meant that the cement slab was not exactly where he wanted it.
And that meant my brothers and my sister, Teresa, were going to need to move it.
If you do, you suck.
Because move that cement slab we did. And many more after that!
Just like the poor fools who built the Pyramids of Egypt the Mische Kids moved the slabs of Eugene Mische.
There were two methods of moving cement slabs.
There was the log rolling method system.
And, there was the rail method system.
The log rolling method involved having logs of whatever length to match the width of the slab.
Before, of course, moving the slab, you had to dig out the dirt underneath it to have enough room the life the slab to slid the first log under it.
And then you would slide that slab forward until it rested on another log – and so on until you had enough logs to begin rolling that slab forward – or backward – depending on which location my Dad decided to move it to.
Then, several of us would get behind it and push while two others would be responsible for grabbing the log that popped out from behind as it moved along its path and put it in front to keep the process rolling along.
Turning the slab? Yes, you would be silly to think that the slab didn’t need to be turned.
I won’t describe in great detail what that looked like but imagine a bunch of ants trying to lift a large slab of meat and work together to get it back to their nest.
If you can see that in your mind’s eye you can see the Mische Kids moving a cement slab.
The invention of the rail system, however, made life both easier – and terrifying – for us as kids.
The rail system meant that the slab could potentially be moved further and at one time.
It involved 4 x 4 pieces of lumber that we would liberally pour motor oil over the top of them. Then, depending on the level of smoothness of the bottom of the slab we would gracefully move the slab along the top of the rail to its final destination
Until my Dad wanted to move it somewhere else instead.
The invention of the rail system, like most inventions, invited untold human suffering to the Mische Kids.
Like the invention of the atom bomb, it was clear that the invention of the rail system would someday require it to actually be used for something more sinister.
Like moving an entire wooden shed.
The wooden shed moving project was elaborate.
It involved digging out dirt from the under the shed. And then lifting the shed up until we finally were able to get it firmly on top of the first set of rails.
From there it was simply a matter of laying down enough rails – having enough cans of oil – and enough Mische Kids to push the damn thing.
And push it we did. Even as the neighbors drove slowly by and watched and slowly shook their heads at the latest crazy “yard project” my Dad has us doing.
Even when our friends rode their bikes past the yard – mouths agape – trying to decide if pushing a shed on oil covered wood was fun or the worst thing they had ever seen.
The latter was found by most of them to be true.
I think of these things today as my Daughter, Maisie, ends her career at Nativity School. She will soon graduate from 8th grade and become a high school student next year.
The Son, Owen, will soon be a junior in high school.
And, at no time in their lives have they ever had to move a cement slab, a shed or live with a hot water heater that required them to shower for exactly 23 seconds before the water turned cold.
I am happy for them that they haven’t.
I am also happy for the memories that make me laugh, smile and cringe and shake my head when I close my eyes and think about those days in Fairmount, North Dakota.
At the time, they were horrible and miserable and I would find myself in deep despair.
Life with my Dad was as complicated as he was. While even the last days of his life were complicated, I loved him. He was my Dad.
I miss him today. I miss him because my kids never got to meet him. I think they would have enjoyed him. I know he would have enjoyed them. My son’s wit, intellect and passion for arguing.
And, my Daughter’s clever eye twinkle, her passion for music, ability to play the accordion and patience in putting up with her own Dad.
The older I get the more I appreciate that my Dad gave me far more than I gave him credit for in my younger years. I don’t know if he knew at the time he was teaching me something – I suspect he did not.
But, he did. And he has.
I’ve grown to appreciate that my entire life is built of memories of every shape, size and experience. Good ones. Bad ones. Uncertain ones.
The end of the school year for me as a kid was bittersweet.
The end of the school year for me as a Dad for my kids is bittersweet.
I am so proud of my kids I could burst every day.
The end of the school year means the beginning of a new chapter of their life which I know will continue to be breathtaking until I take my last breath on this Earth.
I sit in my hotel room in Fargo, North Dakota – barely an hour from Fairmount, North Dakota – waiting for my series of meetings for Spare Key.
I was tempted to drive to Fairmount last night for a quick visit and reminder about my life there decades and decades and decades ago.
This morning all it took was a cup of coffee and a brief minute of memories to remind me, once again, that if you pour a cement slab…
…make sure you have lots of kids to move the damn thing!