Ed and Martha
Great moments in building history: Compost mishap
In a fast-lane world of building projects, a setting such as this was downright refreshing. What needed to be done, quite simply, was to rebuild an outdoor stairway and landing that led to a little flat above a garage. The original stairs had not been built well (nor maintained for that matter). They were on the verge of giving way under the daily comings and goings of Ed and Martha, who rented the quaint apartment in an old urban neighborhood in San Diego. Ed, a sinewy little codger, was retired from a life of dairy farming in Ohio. Faced with impending old age and absence of family, he and Martha decided to sell the farm and move out west to be with their daughter. Life in southern California, however, was a touch foreign to Ed. “I’ve never seen so many people without livestock,” was his observation of the city population, “and I sure miss the girls.” The girls were his beloved holsteins back in Ohio.
Now this stairway ran up the outside of the garage and terminated in a landing, roughly 8 ft. above ground, at the door to the apartment. The stair structure was weakened in every way, a result of poor construction, dry rot, rust, lack of paint and, well, Martha. Like many a good farm wife, Martha’s station in the kitchen had influenced her physical stature, and the old stairway could testify. The rotund Martha had a way of pulling and leaning and squashing as she huffed her way up the decrepit stairs. Ed, lean, short and tough, would be right behind her, usually with a double armload of groceries. He was the model of a dedicated husband.
Ed and Martha were from the old world where those who worked together ate together. Consequently, it was not unusual around lunchtime to be on the receiving end of generous plates of fried chicken, potato salad and apple pie.
The yard adjacent to the stairs was small compared to the farm, but Ed kept himself busy growing things in every possible location. As it worked out, a good location for the compost pile was just beneath the landing, which by now was adequately reconstructed by yours truly. Ed’s first love, next to Martha, was his compost pile, which he kept well stocked with bags of cow manure. Endless turnings with a shovel allowed an even mix of kitchen scraps, garden cuttings and earthworms (thousands of them) to work in harmony with the cow poop, producing a sumptuous variety of plant food with bovine fragrance as a by-product. Big was the pile. Big, ripe and soft. But I digress.
With the stairs and the landing finished, it was time to fix the rails to the 4×4 uprights. A common approach that satisfied the specs of this job was a 2×4 on edge, fastened to the outside of and flush to the tops of the posts. A 2×6 fastened flat over the tops of the uprights would finish the rail. I had run the 4x4s a little long, figuring that I would cut them for height upon installing the handrail assembly. So, stairs and the landing complete, I began to install the rail just outside the front door. But my level was still on the truck. I could have measured up from the deck and found the accuracy I needed, but the idea of a little back-straightening jaunt out to the truck seemed right. On the way back I could size up the job for aesthetics, and maybe sneak a couple of cherry tomatoes from Ed’s prize-winning plants. Ed himself was happily turning compost. So I lightly tacked the 2×4 in place and headed for the truck.
It was during the search for my second perfect cherry tomato that Martha eased out the front door. Her intentions were more than honorable. She had arrived to announce that lunch was on its way. The words froze in my throat, “Martha don’t lean…!” Too late. Martha never made an announcement from that platform without first leaning on the rail. It was her style.
Tough little Ed, not one to abandon his post, braced for the catch. Like a good linebacker, he gave way neither left nor right, but stood fast to impending doom. With a shriek, Martha plunged into Ed’s waiting arms. The compost pile received them both like a down pillow. Cow manure and kitchen scraps surged everywhere. Ed and Martha were in full matrimonial embrace, the faithful Ed wearing the 2×4 like a necktie. Earthworms scurried for renewed security in the pile, and I wished I could have done the same.
Lunch was a sober affair that day—just me and Ed. Apparently undamaged, at least physically, Martha had disappeared into the little apartment for the rest of the week. Ed, a man of broad vision, was receptive to the idea that we had just witnessed a Great Moment in Building History but was more concerned over convincing city officials to let him have one cow in his yard. Just one.
—Bernie Conrad, Grants Pass, Ore.