Wednesday, August 12, 2015


Building and maintaining and sharing a cabin with my sisters and their husbands (Barb & Phil and Betty & Jeff) in an isolated Black Hills creek valley has been, for Caryl and me, an experience of love and joy (and a bit o’ work) for twenty-three years. It’s not that we’ve never disagreed about what color to stain a wall or what kind of dish soap to use, but a certain openness and honesty in communication (and that love thing) makes it work. I have friends who have told me that they wouldn’t be able to do something like this in their family, which makes me feel all the more fortunate when I contemplate that this dream, which Caryl and I could probably not have realized on our own, has been reachable when shared among the six of us.

I’ve mused in earlier essays (here, and here) about this partnership and family experience. But in this post I share a memory of a particular vignette in our cabin-building odyssey—a memory that just now came to me as I was reaching into the refrigerator for some orange juice.

The exterior walls of custom-cut logs, and the roof of the cabin, were erected by Jorgensen Log Homes, the company owned by our brother, Bob (we love him, too); Jeff and Phil and I finished off most of the interior. At that time we were all living six hundred miles away, in Minnesota, where we were serving as pastors of Lutheran parishes. The finishing work was accomplished in a series of week-long study/work retreats, with a daily pattern of examining preaching texts or discussing theology in the morning (honest!), and working on the cabin in the afternoon and evening…and, usually, into the night. In these kinds of projects, we make a pretty good triumvirate: Jeff is a skilled woodworker with experience in home-building, Phil is an old farm boy who knows a lot about a lot of things, and I make a pretty good pot of coffee--and am fairly adept at learning the minor crafts to which Jeff introduces me. A typical workday would start with Jeff giving us our marching orders, including giving me a quick tutorial in my assignment (I am now, for example, learned in the ancient art of scribing: cutting a board-end to fit around an irregularly shaped log), and each of us bending to our particular task. (With the occasional break for that coffee I mentioned.) In this way, we made good progress and solved most problems. Until, that is, it came to installing a propane refrigerator.

In the early years, we had engaged in some earnest conversation and Whole-Earth-Catalog-research regarding keeping the cabin off the grid. Somewhere in those discussions, the idea of a propane-powered refrigerator came up. We researched that, too, and came upon a retired handyman in suburban Minneapolis who repaired and restored these appliances for sale. We called him, described our need, and arranged to pick up a refrigerator in preparation for our next westward work trip. Arriving at the handyman’s address, we were met by his wife, who sadly explained that her husband had died only a few days earlier. After receiving our sympathy, and with some hemming-and-hawing on our part, she invited us into the garage, which was a gallery of used propane refrigerators. Somewhat timorously, the widow pointed to one of the appliances and said, “I think it was that one.” We examined it to the best of our knowledge (there’s the rub!), paid the agreed upon price, and loaded the refrigerator into our trailer. This “loading” was the first of a number of times that the three of us lifted, pulled, pushed, man-handled, and cursed what amounted to the dead weight of a bull elephant into or out of our little trailer. (I don’t think this was the occasion on which, before driving off, we noticed that the trailer hitch was actually causing the front end of the car to elevate noticeably. Another story.)

We said our sympathetic farewells to the widow, and headed for the hills. Six hundred miles and ten hours later, we backed the trailer up to the steps (eight steps!) of the cabin porch, and proceeded to… (see “lifted, pulled, pushed…” etc., above). We hauled the beast up the steps, across the porch, heaved it up another small step into the front door, and rolled it across the floor into its assigned corner.

After our huffing and puffing had subsided, and our faces had returned to their normal color (and, maybe, a well-earned beer), we examined the ancient owner’s manual that we found inside the refrigerator. Jeff had piped in the propane supply in readiness, and he hooked it up. Guided by the yellowed manual, we turned knobs and tried various connections and controls. Nothing happened. We tried again. The woodworker and farm boy and coffeemaker had met our match. We were stumped.

After some head-scratching, my brother helped us to locate a local retired handyman (!) with considerable experience in propane refrigerators. Arriving at our remote cabin, he—a man of few words—proceeded to examine the unit from every angle, including on his knees. He straightened, rubbed his chin, eyed the hulking thing for a few more minutes, and broke the long silence with, “Yeah, we might be able to get ‘er goin’…, but then again... this just might kill you boys.”

We called the trash hauler that day. He and his burly associate bound the appliance to a freight dolly and wheeled it (surprisingly easily, I thought) down the steps and away.

Well, that’s a long way to go to get to what has become a bemusingly appreciated mantra among us. Every once in a while, as the three of us are rubbing our own chins and pondering how to get around some conundrum, I can’t help suggesting, “This just might kill you boys.”

Postscript: Later, upon further reflection, we determined that the poor widow had probably--completely innocently--directed us to a unit that her late husband had not even started on. Probably a blessing in disguise for us.

Our current (non-lethal) refrigerator.
A sensible Whirlpool.


Helene Raymond said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Helene Raymond said...

I'd love to have a cabin in the woods and really admire the way you and your family have shared this experience. The fiasco with the refridgerator made me chuckle though.. Just glad to see that you have found a safe one now! Hope you all enjoy using the cabin in the future.

Helene Raymond @ Trade Squad