Reporting For Duty

or, Day 1 with East St. Tammany Habitat For Humanity

Driving to Slidell can be exciting. Yes!

First off, it’s possible to have lived under 40 miles away for eighteen years and still not be 100% sure how to get there. Now, if you’re in that position, and you ask a friend for directions, they’re gonna say, “Oh, yeah, just take I-10 East, and then go left at the 610 split, and then stay on that ’til it puts you back on I-10. Then drive.”

Google_is_not_my_friend.gifFine. Simple. But did I ask a friend? No. I asked Google. Google is many things, but Google is not my friend. Friends do not tell friends to take the Louisa/Almonaster exit in order to get to Slidell.

And then of course, thanks to Auntie Katrina, street signs have become an endangered species. The Central Baptist Church, which East St. Tammany Habitat For Humanity is using as a headquarters, is on Robert Blvd, whose street sign is extinct. At least Google’s map clearly indicated Front Street as my cue to turn around and try again.

And that’s not even to get into how Dad booby-trapped me with the home security system this morning, which is a fine 6:00 AM wake-up for the whole household, let me tell you. But about that, more later.

In any case, I got there late.

But everyone else was late getting started, so that’s OK. I had plenty of time to sign in, get my name tag, get some coffee and a bite of scone (generously donated by Starbucks), and get acquainted with folks while the milling-around-in-the-parking-lot stage of things was still underway.

Aside: Name tags. Right. So, they want to know your first name and what state you’re from. I said “Niki” and, after some mental debate, I said “Louisiana.” Yes, I am currently living in Colorado. Shut up. I’m not from there, dammit. I’m from Metairie. We’re talking about identity here. Yes I protest too much, what’s your point?!

Anyway. A morning with ESTHFH typically begins with everybody circling up and someone delivering the morning devotion. I was initially a little apprehensive about the word “devotion.” HFH is an ecumenical Christian group, which description I don’t exactly fit. Would I be expected to participate in a prayer circle? Was my habitually worn pent necklace going to get disapproving looks? Of course I knew, logically, that they weren’t about to turn down help from people of other religions, but “logically” doesn’t help when years of experience train you to get indigestion at the first hint of peer pressured religious exercises.

Well, “morning devotion” doesn’t refer to prayer at all, as it turns out, although I’m sure prayerful devotions aren’t forbidden. Basically, one person steps up and gives a heart-felt speech about the volunteers who showed up, the work the group is doing, and personal lessons learned in the process. And then the homeowners-to-be are introduced–everyone who receives a home from HFH logs 200 hours of “sweat equity” to pay for it. They work right alongside the volunteers, who are encouraged to get to know them over the coming week. There’s the recitation of safety concerns–stay hydrated, rest when needed, don’t use any power tools you’re not comfortable using, or in fact any at all if you’re under 18. There’s the admonition to be flexible, as weather and other circumstances can affect what tasks are ready to be done. And then there’s the daily repetition of “Habitat’s not a hand-out; it’s a hand UP!” With hand gestures.

If anything, I felt like I was back in girl scouts. With what looked to be a really awesome troop.

Finally they sent us all to work. There were several jobs that needed doing; I pounced on the one that sounded the most constructiony. I came down here to pound nails, dammit, and I was gonna pound nails!

So they sent me to Lacombe.

Lacombe, Day 1: Click to enlargeAs part of their “300 Houses In Three Years” goal, ESTHFH are working on five houses in a row on one side of Beech Street in Lacombe. They call this a “pod.” Of the five houses in this “pod,” the first and third have their foundation trenches dug, the second is acting as a temporary driveway for equipment, and the fourth and fifth are in the process of being cleared. A jumble of tree stumps on the fifth lot is still smoldering. And the foundation trenches are full of water. “Remember what we said about being flexible?” the construction leads say.

As I understand it, they wanted to start positioning frames in the foundations, but they can’t until the water’s pumped out. So we get to work building more frames instead. Frames are built like this: You take two 8-foot 2-by-fours, and you connect them with 21-inch 2-by-fours positioned 16 inches apart. When you run out of 16 inch intervals, you just put one last 21-incher at the end. Then you nail down a piece of plywood on one side, and you have an 8-foot frame. Frames come in all sorts of lengths depending on the shape of the trench they’re going into. Sometimes the plywood hangs off one or both sides by 4 inches, forming “ears” that are presumably used to overlap a corner where two frames meet. Today, we’re working exclusively on 8-foot no-ear frames.

Aside, sorta: When I was going to college in Seattle, I used to attend community full moon rituals held up on Queen Anne Hill. The people who organized this event–still do, I think–were known collectively as Our Lady of the Earth and Sky, and the leaders of that group had done a fair bit of volunteering for Habitat themselves. One evening over potluck leftovers, they shared this anecdote: A Habitat house, they said, stays up longer and withstands the elements better than a professionally constructed house. Why? Because the volunteers, being conscious of their lack of professional know-how, tend to err on the side of caution. They’re more likely to drive a third nail in, just in case, where the pros might slam in two and move one without looking back.

I can attest to that. At least, today, I can attest that we marked up the 8-foot boards twice, sometimes three times, trying to get it exactly right. First we measured 16 inches from one end of the board and marked that as the center of the 21-incher’s end, where the nails went; then we crossed that out and turned it over and made the 16-inch mark be the left edge of the 21-incher; then we crossed that out and went back to the first way. We very carefully marked a space of 1.5″ to fit the 21-incher into and made careful Xs from corner to corner of that space. We got super anal with the speed triangles and the tape measures, trying to do it exactly the way the construction leads told us. “Good enough” wasn’t invited to this party. People were counting on us to build them a sturdy home, and we wanted to get it right.

I’d gotten a chance to hammer together a few of these marked-up 2-by-4s by the time thunderstorms chased us off the property around 1:30. We scrambled to put tools away in the big red truck-box, and we stood around inside the truck waiting for the rain to let up. I splashed in the puddles to get some of the mud off my feet. Finally the construction leads made the call to quit for the day. We said our goodbyes, I put my sopping wet self into the rental car’s driver’s seat, and I headed over to Covington. Since my aunt and uncle with whom I’d be staying weren’t home yet, I spent a little time in the CC’s by St. Tammany Parish Hospital. CC’s got wi-fi! CC’s got air conditioning! CC’s got little bitty samples of their “cinammon roll mochasippi” going around!

(CC’s got me falling asleep in the cushioned wicker chair by the door.)

And here ends the portion of my day that’s remotely of any interest to the public. Tomorrow: wake up at 6:00 AM and do it all again!

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