Pergola-la land
Cementing a father-son relationship with a DIY backyard project

Pergola-la land
Zach Hively - 04/13/2023

As a man with an advanced degree in English, I must say that few literary delights compare to building something tangible with my own two hands. Barring that, because in fairness I use English far more often than I use corded drills, very little compares to getting my dad to build things for me.

With me! I mean WITH me. Father and son, drawing up plans, watching instructional YouTube videos, buying carloads of hardware from every home improvement store in the county then returning everything because the hardware we bought was the wrong size hardware – this is as American a pairing as playing catch in the yard. It’s even more American if one of them is playing catch by himself because the other one has a job and responsibilities and doesn’t have TIME to do this right now, Dad.

But – I wanted a pergola. It would make me feel more retired, even though I’m not and (being an English major) probably never will be. So unless I can build a pergola out of a comparative analysis of magical realism in the collected works of Isabel Allende and Gabriel García Márquez, for which I would have to read a LOT more of both authors, I needed to suck it up and dedicate some of those endless working hours to helping my actually retired dad get excited about starting a new temp job, only for free. Because I sure can’t research all this lumber by myself. 

And boy, is there a lot to consider with lumber. Such as: why is a 2-by-4 actually a 1.5-by-3.5, yet when they say it’s 10 feet long it’s actually 10 feet long? Did the definition of an inch shift since the invention of lumber, while feet stayed the same? Or is this, as I suspect, a dark conspiracy backed by Big Wood to nullify all my lumbering calculations?

Ah, but I’m getting ahead of myself. You see, before we even started with the lumber, we had to set the concrete.

The cardboard forms for concrete pillars, as you may know, are round; bags of concrete, on the other hand, are not. This set up Pops and me for doing some math. It being a word problem, I felt qualified to help:

“If a pillar is 8 inches in diameter,” Pops began, “and we need to bury them 30 inches deep…”

“Are these real inches or lumber inches?” I asked helpfully. “And, how many inches equal a pound of concrete?”

Like a couple of smart fellas, we budgeted the entire first day of Project Pergola for buying concrete. This disappointed me somewhat; I had visions of pizza and margaritas under the pergola before sundown. But, Pops knows best that some things, like his son, take longer to reach fruition than you bargained for.

Day Two, Pops called in to his one-day-a-week volunteer gig, and I had to find a decent bookmark for the novel I was reading, so that we could dedicate ourselves to mixing concrete. You don’t want to half-ass mixing concrete – not if you ever want to use your wheelbarrow as a wheelbarrow again. But you might want to half-ass mixing concrete if you have any desire to move your body without hurting ever again.

It turns out – despite suggestive adjectives to the contrary all over those bags of concrete – that concrete requires a great deal of force to mix. Strangely enough, this might have been the moment that Pops chose to disclose to me, in a moment of male bonding, that he had scheduled surgery for his hernia. 

“I can handle the hose,” Pops said. “And I can poke the air bubbles out of the concrete after it’s poured. But you get to mix.”

So I did. I flexed every muscle in my body mixing concrete. And when those gave out, I flexed the muscles that aren’t actually muscles, like spotting an “its” when an “it’s” is needed, just in case they might help. They didn’t. But I mixed the snot out of that concrete, until Pops said, “Let’s call that good enough; we don’t want it to set before we pour it.”

He handled smoothing that concrete and setting some brackets with a master’s touch, and I made sure his dialogue included semicolons correctly. And that was the end of Day Two.

I’d like to say Day Three saw a pergola. Instead, it saw Pops drive home for some much-deserved R&R and a long session of researching bolt lengths. It saw me gazing proudly, for a great many hours, at the six concrete stumps sticking out of my back yard. Someday, I will have a pergola to enjoy. But even that cannot compare to the pride I feel today. It’s like I am standing taller. Which I am, if you measure in lumber inches.

– Zach Hively

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