A lesson for times of COVID-19 sequestration: a did-it-myself fence

At a time when many people are required to cope with home projects because of the pandemic, I recall a time when I actually succeeded on one.

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The house where Harry Mark Petrakis built a fence six decades ago.

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My brother-in-law, Raymond Fox and one of my closest friends, Jack Murray, both men now deceased, were loving and caring to my wife, Diana and me. They were both skilled in all manner of home repair, electrical wiring, plumbing problems and, if needed, both men were capable of constructing a house from the foundation up to installing walls, ceilings, windows and making any house ready for occupants.

At a time when many people are required to cope with more home projects on their own because of the pandemic, I remember how for decades Ray and Jack assisted my wife and myself in responding to and repairing our household emergencies. We were naturally always grateful for their friendship and their devoted assistance.

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We needed them because I totally lacked any handyman abilities. To be honest, I could not change a washer in a faucet, and found it impossible to saw a straight line through a wooden two-by-four. I did not dare attempt any electrical repair, for fear I might electrocute myself.

Once, in the earlier years of my marriage, swept by a momentary surge of confidence, I bought a barbecue from Sears Roebuck that carried the bland warning, “Some assembly required.” There were only a few components; the bowl, legs, grill and the handles. I began the assembly confident that even with my limited skills, I could certainly manage so rudimentary an assembly.

I soon came to understand that putting it together was a more intricate problem than I anticipated. No matter how carefully I followed the instructions, the parts simply would not fit together.

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I worked all afternoon on the assembly and gave up at twilight. I began the assembly again the following morning, but my efforts that day proved just as futile. Ashamed to carry the parts back to the dealer and confess my failure, I secreted them under a tarpaulin in a corner of our garage, where they remained untouched for years. When we moved from that house years later, I put the parts into the back alley with the other trash.

A decade later, my wife and I with one small son and expecting another were renting a small apartment in Kenwood on Chicago’s South Side. My parents had recently lost their lease on the apartment where they lived. We decided that we would buy a house together.

We found a commodious two story, seven-room residence that we felt we could afford. One major disadvantage was that the house and adjoining garage were built along busy 76th Street, which carried a stream of automobile traffic all day long. The yard where our children would play needed the protection of a fence.

I hadn’t forgotten the failed barbecue assembly, but I was older, and had managed to complete a few minor household projects. To save the money we’d spend by hiring a carpenter, I made the decision to build the fence myself. My wife and parents tried to conceal their apprehension and provided me their full support.

I began by acquiring a set of plans for a picket fence. I studied them dutifully and I began by digging holes for inserting sturdy posts into the ground. I planned to link them with 2x4s, to which I would then add the pickets.

From the beginning, I had problems. I couldn’t seem to make the posts with 2x4s stable. When I attempted to add the pickets, my difficulties mounted. I couldn’t get the pickets to align properly. Then the posts weren’t stable enough and the pickets tumbled. Every task, small and large, had to be repeated several times. My wife gently suggested we call on Ray or Jack, expecting that both men would volunteer to help. But I would not admit failure and I struggled on, often having to repeat work I thought had been completed.

June passed, and we began the month of July. Each morning, I returned to my project resolved to fulfill the task. Neighbors marveled at my perseverance, while asking whether I planned to finish before winter. I tried to muster a smile of reassurance in response.

July passed, and we entered the month of August. I spent a few restless hours each day trying to write but couldn’t concentrate and went outside to resume work on the fence. I tried to sound reassuring to my family and my friends, but my confidence was waning. I struggled to go on, resolved not to give up and have to admit defeat to my family, friends and my neighbors. I began to see that the fence had become my white whale and I had become the obsessed Captain Ahab.

Then one afternoon, at the end of August, following several days of effort to install hinges on the gate, hammering in the last few nails, I looked around and with a feeling of bewilderment, realized I had finished the fence. My wife came from the house into the yard. When I saw tears of gratefulness for my victory in her eyes, we cried together.

Decades later, on a day at the beginning of July, I was driving from our home in Indiana into Chicago for a doctor’s appointment, I decided to drive past the house where we had lived in South Shore. I was gratified to see the fence with its pickets aligned and its sturdy gate still standing.

Later that evening, back home in Indiana, I emailed my beloved niece Lambrini, who had composed a fine biographical entry for me in Wikipedia. I asked her if she could make a small amendment to future versions of my biography. I told her I’d be grateful if she could add the line, “Once he built a fence.”

Find more information on novelist Harry Mark Petrakis at harrymarkpetrakis.com.

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