“Lynnie! Sit up. You’ll muss your shirt mommy worked so hard to press.”
This is my mother Estaline. She’s sitting in the front seat of our car a ’63 Pontiac Bonneville. I’m in the back seat
with my brother Frankie. He’s three years older than me. I’m probably eight or nine.
“Now you just sit up like a good boy. You look so much nicer when you sit up straight like a little soldier. Doesn’t he look better when he sits up straight? Earle, doesn’t he look better? Don’t both the boys look better when they sit up straight like little soldiers? Earle, don’t they?"
“Sit up boys.”
This is my father, Earle. He’s driving the car. Mother continues.
“Yes, both of you sit up. You too, Frankie. I just hate when you sulk down in your seat like that.”
This is my brother, Frankie.
It’s Sunday and we’re driving north on Highway 59. Most every Sunday after church, we’d get in the car and drive someplace for dinner. One week we’d go to Red Oak for the buffet at Berning’s Café. Another week, it might be Nebraska City for fried chicken at Arlene’s Diner. The next week it would be someplace else. It didn’t much matter that not one of these places was any better or worse than the restaurants in our own dreary little hometown. It was just something different to do once a week, every week for all of our young lives.
Father would always drive. Frankie and I would sit in the back seat. Mother would sit in the front seat and jabber continuously, mile after mile.
“Look Earle, over there at the Arnold’s place. Don’t look like they got much of a crop this year, does it? See that corn. I bet it won’t make thirty bushel. Wouldn’t you say? Not thirty I bet.”
“Looks so, Est.”
“I’d say so. And then, you wait. They’ll be coming round asking for a handout from everybody, talking ‘bout how bad off they are. You just wait. They will, I tell you. Happens every year. Lord help those who help themselves, I always say. Isn’t that right Earle? Isn’t that what I always say?”
“Yep, Est. That’s what you say.”
“And it’s not like they’d ever help anybody else. They could help out you know. Like last year when you threw your back out. You think they could help? No siree. They just couldn’t be bothered. No sir….”
“I just don’t know why people act like that. Lynnie, sit up. ‘Pul-leeze’.”
Father never spoke much on these trips. In fact, my father never spoke much at all to any member of his family. It wasn’t his way. He did love to talk to other people, especially total strangers. We’d stop at a gas station and he’d strike up a conversation with some Yoakum he’d never met before in his life. He’d talk to them about the weather or the corn crop or the Republican Party or anything really. It might go on for fifteen or twenty minutes or maybe longer while we all sat in the car waiting on him, sweating if it was July, shivering in November. He’d get back in the car and not say another word for thirty or forty miles. You think maybe just one time in his life he’d talk to one of his sons about the weather or the Republican Party or such, but no. Not once. Not once in twenty years. Three decades later, I still loathe the son-of-a-bitch.
Mother must have read somewhere that a happy family talked and so she felt it her maternal obligation to fill in the dead air, which she did with complete and unrelenting dedication. She could blather on for hours about nearly anything of inconsequence: our relatives, our neighbors, her friends, her children, her children’s friends, their parents, money, debt, farm prices, gardening, the church, the schools, politics, television, cooking, eating, being too fat, her colorful youth. Anything really.
She would pepper her clatter with sweetly quaint aphorisms offered to illustrate whatever point she was trying to make, proffered to build character in her two hapless sons. She must have read this somewhere too.
“A penny saved is a penny earned.”
“Toast makes the butterfly.”
“Two heads are better than one.”
“Ours is not to wonder why. Ours is but to do or die.”
“Red in the morning, sailor take warning. Red at night, sailor’s delight.”
Occasionally, she would cobble together two such truisms in quick succession, as in: “He who hesitates is lost,” followed immediately by: “All things come to those who wait,” without ever acknowledging the gapping contradiction separating each declaration. This was one of her great charms. She could and actually did say almost anything without ever contemplating the literal meaning of the words spewing out of her mouth. After all, she was just filling up dead air, which you must appreciate requires an awful lot of material.
By her own admission, her favorite saying was “Lord help those who help themselves,” by which she might mean either of two entirely different notions. If she were describing someone she respected, a family member or close friend for example, the phrase could be interpreted as one of hopefulness, i.e. if you take care of yourself, sooner or later the Lord is bound to pitch in and help out too.
Or, if she was referring to someone she didn’t particularly care for, especially folks who come off a little too interested in themselves, the homily would mean just the opposite, as in the example of the Arnolds. “Lord help’em,” she’d always say, as though this, the Lord’s abiding assistance, might be the only way they’d ever overcome their damning selfishness
You could never know exactly which of these two interpretations she might intend on any given occasion. You had to pay very close attention to the context of her chatter to figure it out. Mostly I didn’t pay attention. It was far too exhausting. My brother didn’t pay attention and neither did my father. We all just kept our mouths shut, stared out the car window and prayed for it all to be over. This is why I spent so much time alone as a kid. Anything to get away from the constant din.
“Lynnie! I’m not going to say it again. Sit up right now.”
And then she’d say it again.
About nine miles north of our hometown, Highway 59 takes an unexpected, looping bend, swinging west in a broad arc for half a mile before again turning northward. There is a lone farmstead on the rise overseeing the highway’s elegant slalom, looking for all the world as though its sudden presence of the horizon had obliged the road to veer from its intended path to avert a collision. Whenever we passed this farmstead on one of our Sunday excursions, my mother would always say the same thing:
“Oh look Lynnie. There’s that farm you like so much. See the piggies. See the cows. See ‘em?”
Apparently as a toddler, I had expressed some great wonder at the livestock grazing out in front of this farm and my enthusiasm had made an indelible impression on my mother. She never failed to mention it anytime we passed.
“See the piggies, Lynnie.”
Even some forty-five years later when I’d be driving my poor, raisin-skinned mother into Omaha to see her cardiologist, she would still brighten each time we pass that same bend in the road.
“See the piggies, Lynnie. See the cows.”
She needn’t have pointed this out to me, for even in my earliest memories, the farmstead had always attracted my careful attention. This was not due to the quality of its livestock, but rather for the farm’s seemingly hallowed siting within the landscape of my childhood. There was good reason for this perception, even if I could not have known such things as a youngster.
When Thomas Jefferson’s surveyors laid out the orthogonal grid of the Midwest, they faced a geometric problem of sorts. They were mapping a two dimensional, orthogonal pattern onto the face of a sphere. Given the curvature of the earth, sooner or later their carefully scaled, right-angled grid would peel off the surface of the landscape and float out into space. The two idealizations: a perfectly flat, two-dimensional grid and the perfectly curving surface of a sphere can never be perfectly mated. One must always defer to the other.
To envision this, look at the lines of longitude and latitude on a globe. The latitudes consist of regularly spaced, concentric rings running parallel to one another, marching up and down the face of the globe from north to south. The lines of longitude-also circles- lace the globe in the opposite direction but unlike latitude, they are not parallel. Each radiates from one pole spreading out widely at the equator before converging again at the opposite pole.
And so if you were to examine any area bound by these lines, you would notice it forms, not the shape of a perfectly orthogonal square, but a rhomboid, that edge nearer one pole being narrower than the edge of the figure farther from the pole. A sphere subdivided in this fashion consists not of squares, but of a series of wedges, the top member of each becoming progressively narrower until at each pole, the wedges become small triangles.
This system of subdivision is all well and good for navigating from one point to another or for locating some fixed position on the face of the globe. For the purposes of land surveying however, it’s pretty annoying.
Such a grid, subdivided down to the smallest extent, would yield a network of roadways that don’t meet at right angles, farmsteads that are skewed in one direction or another and courthouse squares that aren’t actually squares. This wouldn’t be terribly practical or particularly easy to accomplish and so in response, Jefferson’s surveyors did something fairly shrewd. They laid out the Midwest in a right-angled, orthogonal grid and whenever the grid failed to match up with the curvature of the earth, an inconvenience that would arise every twenty or thirty miles, they would simply shift the grid until it all fit together again.
A seamstress will perform the same adjustment when fitting fabric to the curvature of the body. She executes a nip here and a tuck there, in places no one will notice until a flat piece of woven goods neatly conforms to the contour of a hip or buttocks or breast.
The grid of the Midwest is fashioned in exactly the same manner. Like any finely tailored garment, it is quilted with subtle pleats and darts and gathers that stitch the fabric of the landscape back into a single seamless cloth.
As a consequence, the anomaly of this recurring grid shift sets up all kinds of curious geographic occurrences. County and township boundaries jog sideways along the line of the shift. Farmsteads are offset, one from the next. And the country roads and highways that dutifully follow the grid for mile upon uninterrupted mile abruptly halt in their tracks at the shift, generally at an intersection with a crossing road, forming a tee.
Such intersections assume a kind of profound, near mythical presence in the landscape precisely because of their oddity. A road that was seemingly ordained to run forever to the horizon is stopped and whatever lies across its shunted path becomes in some undeniable way, important.
The earliest settlers of the Midwest recognized the power of such places, which is why they so frequently sited their schools and churches and graveyards directly upon the terminating axis of a grid-shifted roadway. Like Versailles or L’Enfant’s grandiose scheme for Washington D.C., these pioneers instinctively understood that the axial emphasis posed by the landscape’s shifted geometry could impart a measure of significance to a site that no architecture alone could possibly muster, no matter how ornate or impassioned.
Even in wilder parts of the countryside far from the nearest township, a tee intersection is understood as a place of consequence. It becomes a gathering point where long-jawed farmers consolidate the day’s harvest before hauling their rickety grain wagons into the co-op. It will be the place where a traveling salesman will stop and scratch his forehead in puzzlement before reconnoitering his way back to civilization. It’s the spot where kids from the high school will stage a moonlit kegger party after every homecoming game; a place where some too-eager teenage farm girl will be willingly relieved of her virginity.
Regrettably, a tee intersection is also too often a place of death. Sooner or later, probably on some dark, starless night, some damned fool unschooled in the ways of county roads will hurdle his car over a ridge, through the intersection and into an embankment beyond. Next morning, the county sheriff will pull the sorry lout’s broken body out of the wreckage and call the salvage yard to haul away his crumpled vehicle. Country folk are known to whisper a small prayer whenever they pass a tee intersection. They know, likely at some point or another in the past, somebody died there.
This is why this one lone farmstead on that ridge held such fascination for me as a child and why it still does to this day. The farm sits on a rise directly in the path of Highway 59, nine miles north of my hometown, at a place where one hundred ninety-seven years ago some intrepid surveyor was obliged to shift Jefferson’s grid work of democracy nine hundred yards to the west, just to make it all fit back together again.
Later, probably sometime in the mid-thirties, an enterprising civil engineer massaged the original country road’s tee intersection into the sweeping, doubly-curving state highway you can still drive today. Thankfully, the adjustment in no way diminished the power of the farmstead’s siting. Throughout all of my youth, it remained perched on that hillside visible for miles in every direction, glowing in the late afternoon sunshine like a gilded mantle timepiece
And so as a consequence, I couldn’t help but notice this farm. And, I’ve continued to observe it now for all of nearly forty-five years.
As a kid, I looked on these buildings with the kind of awe and wonderment that only exists in a child’s mind. I imagined the farm as a place possessed of magically imaginary properties. A few years later, I would look at these same buildings as a teenager riding the pep bus to a basketball game in Glenwood or Taybor or Mount Ayr. I smugly thought of them as shabby and underwhelming and far beneath anything I would have built on so spectacular a site.
Later still, as an undergraduate student studying architecture at the state college, I would pass these same structures half a dozen times during the course of the school year, going to and from my parent’s home. Their meaning had changed for me in gradual increments. They had become familiar talismans, welcoming me on my homeward path and biding me goodbye on my return to school. They grounded me to my youth, articulating those memories of my childhood I wished to retain and those memories I was so anxious to expel,
As a young man with a wife and two kids, returning to the hometown for Thanksgiving or Christmas, I would find myself slipping out of my parent's house into my car, into a sunlit winter’s afternoon. I'd drive north on 59 to look at that old familiar sight once more. I would park the car along the side of the road and just sit, taking an occasional swig from a flask of peach brandy I kept hidden in the car’s glove compartment. I would watch the farmstead sink into the darkness of a fading Midwestern sunset and wonder how I’d come to this place in my life and how I’d come to be the person I’d become.
Much later, passing out of middle age, divorced and alone, returning again to my hometown to see my mother for one of my far too infrequent visits, I pass the farmstead again. Neither of us has aged with much grace. The barn collapsed last spring. It is now a rotting pile of splintered timber sprouting stalks of volunteer corn and alfalfa. Each of the remaining out buildings lean precariously to one side or another, looking as though they too would at any moment succumb to the same fate as the barn. The original farmhouse, vandalized and looted by three generations of teenage hooligans, burnt down years ago.
Not surprisingly, I’m not in all that much better shape myself, hobbled by a bad back, addled by way too much booze and far too many packs of cigarettes.
There is this difference between the two of us though. I watched the fall of the farmstead through every agonizing stage of its decay. I can’t say the same for my own body. Apparently, I’ve just been much too close to my life to actually witness its predictable decline. It was something that seemed to happen when I wasn’t paying attention.
I didn’t observe my once firm butt turn to jelly. It just happened without conscious recognition. I didn’t witness my once respectable pectorals sag to lumps of kneaded sourdough. It must have occurred when I wasn’t keeping track of things. I never noticed the thinning of my hairline or the growing girth of my paunch. I didn’t recognize the deepening lines of my face nor did I see the lengthening shadows beneath my eyes. I never felt my skin wither to the texture of dried parchment. I never perceived any of these changes as they occurred, nor did I do anything to retard their unrelenting progress. One morning after forty years of inattention, I looked in the mirror and discovered I’d become a complete physical wreak.
In contrast, I’ve carefully watched this lone farmstead’s steady deterioration, illuminated by a series of mental snapshots, each separated by intervals of eight to twelve months. I can replay these snapshots in my head like a child’s animated flipbook or a hand-cranked kinescope, condensing four decades of decline into four or five seconds. In my mind’s eye I can see this farm, a once proud, lovingly nurtured homestead, reduced to a careless lump of broken rubble.
How did this happen? How did this happen to either of us?
Benign neglect, I suppose. And quite likely, a kind of simple, damning failure to thrive. It is so easy to become fatigued by it all, to just lie down and wish for nothing more or less comforting than everlasting rest. It happens to people. It happens to buildings too.
I can't explain how this happened in my own life. I don’t appreciate the psychology involved. I don’t know enough about the physiology of it. And even if I did, I’m not entirely certain I really want to know how it all happened. I fear I might discover I could have made different choices. Who needs that?
Buildings however, I can explain. I do understand what happens to a building over the course of its life. For thirty years, it's been my business to understand such things. This is because I'm an architect.
We tend to think of buildings as inert and unmoving. This fallacy of thought only illustrates the limitations of our temporal perception. We cannot see buildings move and therefore erroneously conclude they do not. But move they most assuredly do.
In fact, buildings move all the time in a variety of directions and dimension. But excepting those rare instances when a building fails catastrophically, for example: the collapse of the Cathedral at Beauvais in 1473 or the failure of skywalks at the Kansas City Hyatt in 1986 or more recently, the heart wrenching implosion of both towers of the World Trade Center, we don’t recognize this movement because it happens at a the pace of a languid snail. Like the steady creep of a glacier or the gradual erosion of a riverbank, buildings move at a velocity far beneath our perceptual radar.
Nevertheless it is this motion, be it unanticipated or unrecognized or unmediated, that ultimately condemns every building to failure. Even the great Pyramid of Cheops, as stout a structure as has ever been erected by humankind, will one day crumble to windblown dust. Architects worry about such things if for no other reason than the prideful hope that whatever they create might somehow outlive their own brief existence. And so, they become patient students of the ways in which buildings move.
First, buildings sink. A building will sink almost from the moment it is erected. Except for those structures tied directly to a steady base of bedrock, a building always quietly slips into the sea of earth floating beneath its foundations. The soil below is compressed by the weight of the construction above. Its volume shrinks in proportion to the magnitude of the mass imposed upon it and the building settles downward until it reaches a natural state of equilibrium.
Look at the front stoop of any building in any ancient city. If it once had steps leading up to its front door, likely they have been removed or lowered. The building has slipped deeper into the earth and at some point the originally constructed stairs could no longer be mated to their intended threshold.
If anticipated, this natural downward motion is not terribly worrisome since the greatest magnitude of movement always occurs in the first six months of a building’s life. A shrewd contractor will wait for his building to settle before constructing the stairs and sidewalks leading up to the front door. Thereafter, the movement downward is negligible: no more than a quarter inch per century if the foundations have been properly sized and the soil beneath adequately compacted.
More troubling are those instances when a building's settlement occurs unevenly. This may happen because there are different kinds of soil situated beneath different portions of the building. Each will compact at a differing rate under loading. One portion of the building will sink at one rate, the remainder at a different rate, a phenomenon known as differential settlement. In essence, the building ends up tilted, the most celebrated example being the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
In everyday life, the consequences of differential settlement are usually less dramatic and far less photogenic. Foundation walls will crack under the strain of inconsistent support. Structural members will deform in the face of the stresses imposed by the uneven movement. Seams closing the building’s external cladding will open, exposing the rooms within to the elements. None of these faults will lead to a building’s sudden collapse, but their accumulation over the course of the decades will gradually reduce any structure to rubble.
Paradoxically, a building can also rise like a muffin in a baking tin. The soil beneath a building’s foundations may be expansive-prone to dramatic changes in volume depending on moisture content. Such soil, usually some form of clay, will expand with sufficient force to literally lift a building out of the ground, particularly if it is a light structure or one erected on shallow footings. In cold climates, a similar phenomenon-“frost heave”-will occur whenever the soil beneath a foundation freezes. The frozen soil expands, thrusting the building upward. Any contractor incautious enough to erect his footings above the depth at which soil routinely freezes during winter will have his little structure tossed about like an untethered sailboat caught in a spring gale.
The wind itself will also set a building in motion, particularly if the building is especially tall in relation to its girth. Skyscrapers frequently sway several feet at their uppermost floors, even when confronted by only moderate breezes. Structures of this height are internally braced to resist the pressure of the wind, either by a stout corset of triangulated steel beams or a series of stiff, concrete shear walls, rising from foundation to penthouse. Less deliberately engineered structures-a barn for example-may not be nearly so well trussed. And while a modest afternoon thunderstorm may not immediately topple such a building, it will push it about appreciably, loosening its joinery, straining its internal structural skeleton and ripping off a shingle or two. If left unattended for a decade or more, the wind’s repeated assaults will dismantle a building as surely as would a wreaking ball.
Even for a building that is soundly anchored to its foundation and adequately braced, movement will still occur among each of its constituent parts. Steel will expand and contract with changes in temperature, at times dramatically. Wood will swell with humidity or shrink if allowed to dry beyond its natural moisture content. Masonry and concrete exposed to repeated cycles of freezing and thawing will crack and spaw.
The decay wrought by uninhibited movement also occurs on a cellular and molecular level. Wood is susceptible to dry rot and termite infestation. Nails rust. Aluminum corrodes. Paints and varnishes dry out and crack, losing their capacity to protect more venerable materials beneath.
In a well-crafted work of architecture, each of these movements is anticipated and then mediated. Relieving joints are inserted between materials whose rates of thermal expansion differ. Masonry and concrete can be sealed to retard the penetration of moisture. And, we all repaint our houses every couple of years, not just to improve their appearance, but also to protect their susceptible wood sheathing from the ravages of humidity and ultraviolet radiation.
Naturally if you were to be so incautious as to leave wood unpainted for a decade or more or allow the caulking that bridges control joints to dry out and crumble or forget to reseal concrete for thirty or so years, the results will be completely predictable. Sooner or later if left unnurtured, every building will stumble headlong into oblivion from any of all of these maladies, one inescapable step after another.
This is what happened to my barn on that hillside. For a forty years or more, it wasn't repaired or repainted or restored or relieved of the simple and uncomplicated, completely fatal ravages of time.
It’s thin coating of linseed oil and iron oxide pigment chalked, faded and then simply flaked away. The wood siding beneath would swell with the moisture of an autumn rainstorm or a spring thaw. Before long, its narrow boards would begin bowing away from the armature of their supporting framework, splinter and fall to the ground.
A summer gale would pry loose a few shingles and later storms, a few more. A winter’s frost would heave one of the barn’s foundations in one direction while the collapsing soil beneath an opposite footing will move the entire structure in an entirely different direction. In slow but inalterable increments, the barn was being torn limb from limb.
After twenty years, portions of the roof collapsed, its timbers shattered by dry rot and the insidiously innocent burrows of a hundred thousand termites and carpenter ants. The interior of the barn, now laid bare to the elements, would be left without defense. Fasteners corroded. Bearing plates oxidized. The end of this once magnificent structure would be at hand, though the final curtain call might not yet occur for another ten or fifteen years.
And then, quite likely in the middle of the night; likely when no one is there to
bear final witness, the barn’s few remaining upright walls and rafters would at last falter and plunge headlong to earth in a single, uncelebrated moment of failure.
And then, it would all be over.
In a few years time, the remnants of this barn and its outlying buildings will be overrun by a tangle of cocklebur, brome grass and tautly swaying stalks of brilliantly amber sunflower. Should I live long enough, I might walk this hillside and recognize nothing of the farmstead except for its fleeting image, a sight that will then exist in memory alone.
“See the piggies, Lynnie. See the cows.”