THE SONG OF THE CHOPSAW
Notes from Katie Hughes ’02 and MollyMattecheck ’02, who spent the past year building townhouses for Habitat for Humanity in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
Just completed our first week of rough framing. Framing is the most gratifying stage of building because you actually build a wall, stand it up, and create a room that wasn’t ever there before. It’s incredibly satisfying and incredibly tiring. My shoulders ache, my back aches, my hamstrings ache, my right arm aches, and my right hand is throbbing. In spite of what it’s done to my body, I love my beautiful twenty-ounce wood-handled waffle-headed hammer. It has found a place in my heart.
Ray tells me that he wants me to try wall-walking. We need to learn this skill in order to raise the trusses. So I begin timidly along the tops of the walls we have just built. I am on a 3-inch wide beam, 9 feet off the floor, two stories up from the ground. It’s all about depth perception, says Ray. You’ve just got to look straight at the beam and not further down. I walk to Ray. It’s absolutely exhilarating. The sun is shining. I look across the street and see a girl named Melanie. She’s just coming home from school and walking up the driveway of her new Habitat home. This is why I am here. To change lives. And put up trusses.
Many of the women who come out to work on site have never touched a power tool in their lives. Yet I’ve never met a woman who wasn’t addicted once she began. The trick is the chopsaw. The chopsaw is the queen of getting women addicted to power tools. Today it works its magic on Susan. She makes her first cut: beautiful. She drags the freshly cut board to show her husband. He can’t hide his surprise. He says maybe she’s better off with a broom or something. She ignores him and cuts more. And more. By the end of the day she is cut-woman for three crews. When she has to leave she hands the chopsaw to her friend Jean, who promptly falls in love with it.
This week I get a team of high school girls from Connecticut: Carolena, Maggie, Amy, and Erika. Carolena is the funny and dramatic one. Maggie is questioning and trusting. Amy likes to tease and play. Erika is silly but serious and trustworthy at all the right moments. As the week goes by we grow closer and they change from just a crew to friends. They work unbelievably hard yet are nearly always laughing. At the end of the week the girls have gifts for me: a chocolate saw, spokes for my bike, candy. We hug. We cry. Watching their bus pull away I realize that this is Habitat: the people who give their time, their hearts, their laughter, their tears.
I met Belinda today. She is new to the Habitat program. After applying, she was interviewed, had her living situation evaluated, her credit checked, and was accepted. Today she sees the construction site for the first time. She is a single mother of four, but today only brings along Trevor, her 15-year-old son. As each family is required to put in 500 hours of sweat equity, she and Trevor are here to put in their first hours. While I have been there as many homeowners finished their hours, I’ve never seen a family on their first day. I show her the plot of land where her house will soon stand. I watch her eyes.
Habitat is not just about building homes. There is a Habitat culture, a Habitat bubble, much like the University of Portland bubble — a time in your life when something consumes so much of you that it becomes you. Part of the culture here is the vast network of volunteers. Some are retired: the Wednesday Boys, we call them (or the Master Builders, as they call themselves). They bring their own tools and know the system almost as well as we do. Among them are Wally and Jean, who have become our surrogate grand-parents. They’ve given us cookbooks, newspaper articles, a Christmas tree, even furniture. Upon learning that we knew nothing of Pennsylvania history, they promptly scheduled a picnic to Valley Forge. Then there are our Saturday volunteers. Saturdays we get the whole gamut: church groups, corporate teams, college kids, etc. More often than not the Saturday folks are first-timers, but there are a few regulars. One of our most faithful is Maureen. She never misses a Saturday and we never miss Thursday nights when she hosts us for television shows.
The old paint sprayer dies and we get a new one. Because I am the first to use it, and because no one else wants the job, I am quickly elected the Official Paint Sprayer Cleaner. I take it apart piece by piece, scrub each part, hose down the whole thing. I look up and see Dorothy, the first Habitat homeowner in this development, working in the dirt in front of her neighbor Steve’s house. Although she finished her sweat equity hours months ago, she continues to work in all sorts of ways: watching all the neighborhood kids, welcoming new homeowners, telling her story to volunteers, still working on site, and planting flowers all over. She finishes planting in Steve’s yard and then moves on to Vince’s yard. Neighborhood kids play happily in the little creek from my hose. I look around, taking it all in, and hope that I, too, will someday be blessed enough to live in a community like this.