Monday, May 16, 2011

Story of a Wall: Barbie's Dream of a Beautiful Stone Wall Comes True.

Let's set the stage with a short video.

A fieldstone wall along the cove of her modest lakeside home  has long been a dream of Barbie Bell. But for a single, hard-working woman not made of money, the size and cost of the project have given her pause.

At a going rate starting at least $30 an hour, Barbie’s wall could cost a few thousand bucks. The building of a fieldstone wall is extremely labor intensive. The hours and costs add up fast.

Barbie’s dream wall can’t be mass-produced and rote-assembled. It is the opposite of that. It is a joint creation of nature and humankind that is unique and must fit seamlessly into the environment. The ultimate goal of a fieldstone wall is to bring out the natural beauty of its surroundings.

When a fieldstone wall looks like it has always been there, when you cannot imagine it not there, when its natural harmony reaches into your soul and puts you at peace, then and only then, will a fieldstone wall have fulfilled its destiny ---  which is to make people feel good every  time they see it.  

Isn’t that a lot to expect from a stone wall? No. Can a stone wall do this for people? Yes.

I’ve been building fieldstone walls for years. I’ve built them at my homes in Connecticut and in Worcester, Mass. and at my sister Ruby’s summer cottage. This is a wall in the back yard at my place in Worcester. Every time I look at my walls, which is just about every day, their natural beauty and harmony make me feel good.

I have never built a wall for money.   But a few weeks ago, Barbie, a friend  of the family from way back, e-mailed me. Actually, she’s become family, calling me “Uncle George.” She has seen my walls and asked me if I would build one for her at her lakeside home   She offered to pay me and asked for an estimate.  

Her timing was perfect.  With no wall projects, I had been thinking of building fieldstone walls as a part-time job.  I e-mailed her back, saying that I  would do it. I said I didn’t want to give her a scary estimate but would give her an hourly rate that would be the “bargain of a lifetime.”

We met the very next day at her place and I saw what had to be done.  The water was down in the lake and would be for about a month. It was not a lot of time but Barbie saw a window of opportunity.

For her, it was now or maybe never.  And Barbie was choosing “now.”

Another big plus was a good rock supply  right there in the drained lake. For years, Barbie had been collecting and piling rocks in the hope that someday they would be used for her dream wall.  

For my walls, I mostly scavage rocks, picking them up at vacant lots, in the woods, on the side of roads, at construction sites.  At construction sites, I ask permission and have never been turned down. I pride myself on never taking a working rock.

However, in the interest of full disclosure, it is said that I am a rock thief who is known to the police.

Notwithstanding the good rock supply, this was still a huge job and Barbie knew it. “I know it might take the entire month of May,” she said.  But she said that with the lake down, the time was right and she wanted to go for it, though she was concerned about the cost.

“What’s the legal minimum wage?” I asked, “eight bucks an hour?  That’s what I’ll charge you.  And if the hours add up to too many, I’ll reduce the amount.”  

Barbie smiled.  Well aware that I am no longer young -- I turned  73 on May 2 -- she said that she would have a guy come down to dig and haul  the rocks for me. “Great,” I said.

He never showed up.

I had  barely gotten started before Barbie  left for a vacation week at a New Orleans Jazz Festival. In the photo, you can see how far I had to go. Out there by myself in the mucky cove, I go on full throttle. I search out rocks with at least one flat, or fairly flat face to provide a smooth, even look.

With my iron bar, I pry big base rocks out of the muck  that are needed for the foundation.  I lug them by hand or pull them by cart.  I never fail to be surprised that I can move these big rocks, some of them small boulders.  

Many  I pick up and carry, hugging them to my chest. Big ones, I bend way down and push, shove, and roll slowly through the muck.  

This work is not for sissies. And if you have a problem getting filthy dirty, forget it.

On top of the base rocks, I gather rocks of all sizes, eyeing each for particular places.  After years of building walls, I can often size up a rock to fit into a specific space.  I love the thunk a rock makes when it slides perfectly into place. 

Most of the time, however, there is a lot of trial and error before getting a perfect fit and hearing that satisfying thunk.

By the way, that thunk is nice to hear because it tells me that an unseen, powerful, and uncompromising force that wants to weaken the wall can't.  It attacks the instant  one rock is placed on another. Its ultimate goal: reduce the wall to a pile of rocks. 

That force is gravity.  But to be fair, it has a good side that comes out when you show it who is boss. That is done when one thunk after another adds strength and stability and gives gravity no room to cause trouble. Cornered, it changes sides.

From fighting the wall, the turncoat throws its immense power into making it stronger. This is classic personality disorder with equally great and indiscriminate capacity for good OR evil. A wallbuilder must bring out gravity's good side. That's what I am working toward below as I set the very first base rocks of Barbie's wall.


After a couple of days, I was running out of the base rocks so important to a wall’s foundation. I was worried.  Would I have to use smaller rocks and compromise the foundation?

I needn’t have worried.  When I showed up the next morning, I found a gift from heaven: a big pile of base rocks along with rocks of all sizes.  I assumed it was the work of the fellow that Barbie had spoken of.

It wasn’t. It was the work of another friend of Barbie’s, Tim. “You did all that?” I asked him when he showed up.  He nodded. He was on vacation from work and had volunteered to help.“Talk about good timing,” I said. “ I had just about run out of the big ones. Welcome.”

Though I felt I had made good progress by myself, I had  done  only about 20% of the wall by the time Tim came on board.  With the two of us working together, work speeded up dramatically.  Tim, 40, is  strong  and works like a slave.  Here he moves a huge rock, laboriously, inch by inch, foot by foot.

The harder Tim worked, the harder I worked.  The more I pushed, the more he pushed. I was the old man bent on showing that he could still do it.  He was the young guy not about to be outworked by a fogie  approaching expiration date.  We were two  stallions rearing up on hind legs and flailing hooves at each other.

We competed in another way as well.  In wall-building, I’m a barely evolved hominid from the dawn of humankind in Africa three million years ago. I use a board with a line on it to measure the height of the wall.   More modern, Tim checks a wall’s height with string stretched between  wooden stakes.  We used both methods, ancient and modern.

Every time I was about to run out of rocks, Tim dumped a new pile of rocks at my feet. If I needed medium-sized rocks, he brought them. If I needed flat rocks, ditto. If I needed little flat and pointy-tipped rocks, the mortar of a fieldstone wall, he produced them.  These little ones are critical to a walls strength and stability. They drive old man gravity crazy.

With Barbie hoping to get her wall done in a month but not really expecting it, we set our sights on getting it done by the time she got back -- in other words, unthinkably, from start to finish,  in under one week.  

Amidst  the feverish work pace and macho displays, we talked about how pleasantly shocked Barbie was going to be when she came home and found her wall finished.  “She’s going to be so surprised,” Tim said. “She’s going to jump up and down she’s going to be so happy.”

“Don’t let on how much we are getting done,” I said.

“I’m not.  When I talk to her, I tell her it’s pretty slow going.”

“Good,” I said. “I can’t wait to see her reaction.”

With the two of us working like a couple of maniacs, the wall was soon in its final stages.  Tim and I eye-balled it from afar for height and visual appeal.  I made adjustments.  We eye-balled it again.  I made more adjustments.  We did that until we could find nothing to fix.

Tim and I looked at each other. “Looks good,” he said.

“Yes, I think so,” I said.

Barbie arrived home on the scheduled evening and wanted to go right out and look at the wall.  But Tim insisted that she had to wait until the next morning  so they could see the wall together. She was up at five and had to wait a couple of hours for Tim.  It felt like an eternity, she said, because she was dying to see the wall.

Tim finally escorted Barbie out to see her wall. She took one look at it and her jaw dropped. She was shocked, dazzled, amazed, and happy, happy, happy!  I came over and three of us celebrated and took pictures. Here Barbie and Tim pose with the finished wall behind them.

“I want to pay you,” Barbie said.  “Let’s go inside.”

Inside, we sat at her kitchen table and I gave her a sheet showing the hours I had worked.  It was 31 hours.  At $8 an hour, the bill was $245.

“You worked so hard and the wall is so beautiful, I want to pay you more than that,” she said. She wrote out a check for $350 and handed it to me. She apologized for it being so little.  “I know it’s worth a lot more than that,” she said. “Thank you so much. I’m so happy.”

“It was my pleasure.  If you’re happy, I’m happy.”

For Barbie and me, this was win-win. She got a beautiful fieldstone wall at a bargain price, but I also made out like a champ. For the first time, I got paid in real money for a wall.  In our society, this is an important way that we assign value.  

When Barbie gave me that check, as modest as it was, it felt good. And I know when I get checks for future walls that are closer to the going rate, though still a bargain, I’ll feel even better.

In addition, Barbie gave me a physical workout equivalent to 31 hours in a gym.  For that whole time, I was in constant motion, walking, bending, lifting. The arms, legs, lungs, and circulatory system of this old body got a great workout.

Instead of  being in a gym  tediously walking a treadmill and lifting weights  and constantly looking at my watch for an  end to the torture, I was outside building a wall and enjoying every minute of it. I didn't even know that I was exercising hour upon hour.  Time was timeless.

In a gym, I would have created nothing.  At Barbie’s, I created a beautiful wall that will be there for her and others to enjoy long after I am gone.

Thank you, Barbie.

The next day, I got an e-mail from Barbie:

Uncle George,


That's all I can say.

I am so very thankful for the work you did! The wall, now known as GPW, [George Pollock Wall], looks stunning!!!!! ….  thank you, thank you, thank you!

It's gorgeous!!!!!!!

I know Tim helped you quite a bit- and that helped speed up the process, but  I am still amazed that it took you two under a week to build something so beautiful.

Thank you again so much!!!

The GPW sits patiently, waiting for the water to return so it can be seen by all boaters and show off its beauty.


 Barbie and her hired rock guy
  at the GPW. See video below.

So long and keep moving.

Amazon E-Books by George Pollock

 "State Kid: Hero of Literacy" is fiction based on his  real-life experiences  growing up in foster homes; "Last Laughs," is the true story of how five foster kids (he and four younger siblings) found their way in life and each other. "Killers: Surprises in a Maximum Security Prison," is the story of his being locked up for 23 hours with killers in a maximum security prison;  "I, Cadaver" is about his postmortem adventures and mischief in the anatomy lab at UMass Medical School. “A Beautiful Story” demonstrates the art and process of creative writing as a 16-year-old boy goes all out to write a story that literally saves his life;  "A Long, Happy, Healthy Life," which is about how to live the title every day; and "Unlove Story," Writing anonymously as "Elvis," a husband, dumped after 38 years of marriage, lets it all out on love, marriage, life, everything. A guy doing this? It's unheard of.
   For the Nook:

A Beautiful Story
A Long, Happy, Healthy Life
I, Cadaver
State Kid
Unlove Story

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