Things My Father Built

It turns out that Ray did indeed build the trebuchet on his own. But the story is still interesting.

Many years ago, my grandson Andrew and I were making a snap-together plastic airplane model. He was about 5 years old, and he had already become quite good building them. Good enough to build them himself. But I enjoyed the chance to spend some time with him, and he enjoyed the chance to let me. While we were building this model F-15 jet, he asked, “Grandpa, did your grandpa teach you how to build models?”

I explained to him that I really didn’t get to know either of my grandpas. One grandfather (Nicholas Pater, my mother’s father) had died when my own mom was only about six years old – long before I was born. The other grandfather (Charles Vrtis, my father’s father) lived with my Uncle Paul, and died before I was 8 years old, and my only memories of him were watching him play poker with my dad and his brothers (my uncles) at a few family gatherings.

“So,” I explained to Andrew, “I didn’t have a chance to learn from either of my grandfathers.”

“But,” I told him, “the person who taught me how to build things is living right here in our house right now – your great-grandfather, Grandpa Vrtis.” (My dad moved in with us when Andrew was about 3 years old, and died when he was about 6. To Andrew, Grandpa Vrtis was an old man in a wheelchair who was much loved and respected, but unable to even dress himself. And Andrew knew my father, Jim Vrtis, as “Grandpa Vrtis”, while I was always just “Grandpa”.)

I told Andrew that when I was young, Grandpa Vrtis taught me how to build plastic tanks and cars and planes and ships. And then he taught me how to hang them up in the basement in front of an old blanket, and shoot them up with a bb gun. I reminisced about some of my favorite models – animal models like a German Shepard, a transparent frog, and a squirrel that had “fur”; a large Sherman tank with a rotating turret and tank trends; and a big model of President Kennedy’s PT 109 that could float on the lake and was powered by an electric motor – I sure needed Grandpa’s help with that one!

And I told Andrew about other things that Grandpa Vrtis had built.

I told him of how, when Grandpa Vrtis was about nine years old, he built a model plane out of strips of “balsa” wood and canvas, just like a real WWI airplane. It took him almost two months to build the model plane. And then he decided to take “just one shot” at it with his bb gun, and ended up destroying two months of work in an instant when his “one shot” punched the nose of the plane all the way through the whole plane, exploding all of the balsa wood rib work and turning the once realistic model into a shapeless mass. (I think Dad was trying to teach me a lesson of how “one single mistake” can ruin a lot of hard work, but he enjoyed telling the story so much that it seemed more like a lesson on “how much fun it can be to take chances”.)

I told him of how, when Grandpa Vrtis was about twelve years old, he and his brothers built a real canvas kayak in their basement, and then built a “kayak trailer” from a baby buggy so that they could pull the kayak with their bicycles four miles to the nearest river . (And then realizing, when they came to their first stop sign, that they should have tied the kayak to the trailer to keep the kayak from sliding forward off the trailer and into the bike-towers – their first lesson into one of the laws of physics “A body in motion tends to stay in motion.”)

I told Andrew of how Grandpa Vrtis had worked most of his life as an “experimental tool-and-die maker” for the Standard Oil Company, and would build all kinds of new parts for different machines the company was experimenting with. Someone would draw a picture of a machine, and grandpa would build the parts that made the machine. A new type of carburetor, a new type of gas pump, and new way of making gasoline. Someone would come up with an idea, and Grandpa would help build the idea.

I told him of how Grandpa Vrtis built one of the cottages out in Michigan before I was born. Not the cottage that Andrew now knows and, but one that used to sit right next to it, where I spent my summers when I was Andrew’s age. That Grandpa Vrtis had made his own small model of his cottage, so that he would know what parts he would need and how it would look when it was done. And how he then went and built it all, right on the side of the hill, with hammers and nails and lumber and the help of my Mom and his brother-in-laws. And how, after he had built his cottage, he helped build Uncle Frank’s cottage – the one that Andrew visits in the summer.

And I told Andrew of how Grandpa Vrtis had built the curio cabinet in our living room (or “front-room,” as we call it, despite the fact that it is not in the front of the house), where Andrew’s Grandma keeps all of her Precious Moment statues. How Grandpa Vrtis drew all of the plans for the cabinet, and cut all of the wood, and all of the glass and the mirror, and how he sanded it and glued it and nailed it and stained it and varnished it. And how complicated it was to build something with six sides instead of just four.

And I told him of how Grandpa Vrtis had found an old checkerboard table that was falling apart, and how he rebuilt it to be better than brand-new, and that that checkerboard table was the same one that Andrew and I had often played checkers on.

And I told Andrew of how, once, Grandpa Vrtis just took pieces of wood from the hardware store and measured them and cut them and made curved edges and sanded them and glued them and nailed them, and built the bench that Andrew and I were sitting on right then as we were building the model jet. A bench sturdy enough and strong enough to have four big people stand on it without breaking.

And I told Andrew of how, once, when Andrew’s Mom was young, I took Grandma and his Mom and his Uncle Jeremy and his Aunt Jenny up to the cottage, and I had to fix the stairs on the cottage. And I had asked Grandpa Vrtis to come along and help me, but he said that he couldn’t come. And that I got angry at Grandpa Vrtis for not helping me work on the cottage. But when I got back home from the cottage, I found that while I was working up at the cottage, Grandpa Vrtis took an empty room and built a whole new bathroom for our house – the same bathroom that Andrew used each day. Grandpa Vrtis surprised me by building something for me while I was being mad at him. Something that I really needed. (Many years after he built our upstairs bathroom, Dad and I were fishing in a pond by his house, and I confessed to him how angry I had been at him for not helping me with the cottage stairs, and how ashamed I was at my anger when I found out that he had spent the same hot, sweltering week doing a project for me on his own. Dad laughed when I told him this, and said that my shame was kind of ironic, because he had spent the same week being mad at his brother Paul, who was a plumber, and had told Dad that he couldn’t find any time to help. And, Dad continued, “I felt just as ashamed as you must have felt when I found out later that Uncle Paul was undergoing health problems from cancer at the time” but didn’t want to worry Dad with the news. I guess we both got the same lesson on the danger of misjudging others.)

I doubt that Andrew remembers that conversation. I know that I don’t remember much from when I was five years old.

But this past week, while I was on vacation, I was reminded of all that Dad fixed and built. Times I watched him work on a project, and times I worked along side of him to fix something or build something. I thought of him while I was trying to fix a leakage problem in the basement (“Well, Dad, how far down should I dig outside – three feet deep enough? How should I remove this paneling without ruining everything?”); while I was making some improvements in the electrical system (“Heck, Dad, these outlet boxes aren’t even attached to anything! And how come the bx cable doesn’t go all the way up to the box? And how do I rewire this ceiling fixture if all the old wire is brittle?”); while I was cleaning out the sump pump basin. (“Gosh, Dad, I guess there’s nothing quite like the experience of lying on your stomach and pouring filthy gobs of slop water all over yourself!”)

But I really started thinking about Andrew’s Grandpa Vrtis when my son Jeremy gave me a working model trebuchet that my youngest brother Ray had once used in a science fair project on “Physics and Medieval Siege Machines – Catapults (torsion), Onagers (tension) and Trebuchets (gravity)”. It had been at Dad’s house long after Ray left home, and Ray had left it in Jeremy’s care after my Dad had died and the house was sold. Jeremy gave it to me to pass on to Andrew, whose sixth grade Social Studies class was studying the medieval period, and his class was doing a similar project on medieval war machines.

Ray’s trebuchet stands about three feet tall, and has a cross-shaped base, with two tall supports which cradle a long tapered arm that swivels on an axle between the supports. The lower end of the arm has a large wooden crate which holds heavy rocks (on Ray’s model, this basket too swivels, and holds steel ball bearings instead of rocks). The other end of the arm is much longer, and tapers to a point, and ends in a large sling (as in the Biblical rock-throwing sling of David). In actual operation of a real trebuchet, the long tapered end of a trebuchet’s arm is drawn down to the base by ropes and pulleys, and the sling is loaded with a rock (or a walnut, in Ray’s model). This means that the heavy rock-filled crate is lifted high in the air. After the sling is loaded, the rope holding the pointed end down is cut, and the heavy crate drops (gravity), the long pointed end quickly rises, and the sling is “shot”. A real trebuchet can toss a half-ton rock over a half-mile. (I remember a scene from the TV show “Northern Exposure” in which for some reason, a trebuchet is used to toss a piano into a lake. Why, I don’t know, but it looked cool.) In actual operation, Ray’s trebuchet could hurl a walnut a respectable 40 feet.

And as I repaired the damage that decades of neglect had done to Ray’s trebuchet, I realized, “There’s no way that Ray could have made this. Maybe he stained it. Maybe he even helped glue some it together. Maybe he even cut some of the pieces.

“But Dad made this.”

And when I gave the trebuchet to Andrew (too late for his project) I told him that Grandpa made this too.

And he was impressed.

Dad built a little bit of all of us. Added something to our lives. Left us a little better then when we started. Gave us something we wouldn’t have had if he weren’t a builder himself – a person who takes ideas and raw materials and combines them to create something better.

And he left us a pretty darn good model on which we can base our own efforts to build.