My First (and Last) Chimney Job
Given the talents required for such an enterprise, you won’t find many people out there who have built a chimney. You can walk your fingers to the bone in the Yellow Pages and you won’t find this particular specialist. I’ve certainly never built a chimney myself, but I built the top four feet of one once back in Mississippi.
It was back in the mid-seventies, and my good friends Jack and Mary Anne Dazey had rent houses scattered out around Columbus. I was an instructor in the English Department at Mississippi State, where Mary Anne taught, and I made just enough to pay the rent to Jack Crocker, maintain a used VW van, and meet the payments on the Sears bill for a refrigerator, washer and drier, table saw, and wood lathe. I also managed food and clothes. Sometimes I did odd jobs for people I liked to make what was called extry change. Jack Dazey was one of my favorite people—I say was, because Jack died several years ago, bless him—so I took on just about anything he asked me to do.
Well, Jack and Mary Anne had this rent house just north of McBee Creek on the east side of Gardner Boulevard, and ivy had climbed the chimney and flung tentacles around and over it, like some virulent vine that had been trained into a topiary to look like a chimney, and Mary Anne announced that she wanted us to take it down—the ivy, that is.
Jack master-minded the whole thing. I was just the hired help. Being a direct descendant of the inventor of the Dazey can opener, Jack was pretty good at figuring things out. He liked Playboy better than Omni, but it was a fault I could sympathize with. And Jack’s sense of humor made him fun to be around. He could be grouchy and cynical, but never mean. He was a good boss.
We cut the wrist-thick vines at the base of the chimney and tugged away what we could, up as high as we could reach, but we had no ladder, so Jack asked me whether I could get onto the roof and pull off the vines from the top. I told him I reckoned I could try, so he backed the car up until I could stand on the trunk and hoist myself onto the front porch roof, something I might still be able to do, if the trunk could bear the weight.
I managed to get onto the roof and crawled up to the ridge and stood astraddle it, hacked away at that mountain of green with shears and a hatchet, got off what I could, but some of the trunks were thick and tough and rooted in the mortar, and I calculated that at the rate I was going, the vines would keep ahead of me. (This is a joke: I know that if the vines are cut at the base, they won’t keep growing. Since when did literature pay any attention to natural law?)
“You’re going to be at that a long time,” he said, like I didn’t already know it. “There’s got to be a quicker way.”
So I said something like “OK, big boy—Dazey make a tool for taking ivy off chimneys?”
Well, Jack nodded, then opened the trunk of his car and got out a coil of rope, pitched it up to me, and directed me to intertwine the rope among the vines on the outer face. He then took the other end and tied it to the bumper of his car and told me to stand clear. Which I did. He gunned the car and the mound before me bristled and groaned.
One minute there was an ivy-laden chimney rising past the peak of the house almost to my chin, blocking off my view of the driveway below and the horizon in general. The next minute I was looking down at Jack beside the car, bricks and vines all about him, and beyond him a far wall of woods. Jack was shading his face like some explorer surveying the ruins of a rain forest temple.
In his always deliberate, soft way of speaking, he squinted up at me and said, “I guess we shouldn’t have done it that way, huh?”
“There might have been easier ways, yeah,” I said, leaning over and checking the new top of the chimney to see whether the remaining bricks were solid. What we were both thinking was, “What are we gon’ tell Mary Anne?”
The upshot is that we got a good tongue lashing, and I got an extry job: putting back the portion of chimney that Jack and I yanked off. Which I did.
It took a lot longer to put that four feet of chimney back than it did to bring it down, almost at pyramid pace, you might say, but there wasn’t a trace of ivy on it when I finished, the bricks ran true, and that sucker drew. The joints came out something like my welding seams, which my former father-in-law once said resembled the work of a drunk dirt dauber. They were smeared and tawdry—looked like the icing between the layers of a cake before a woman spreads it out and covers the whole thing—and I dropped so much mortar on the roof that that end of the house looked like a nationally approved pigeon campground.
The house burned many years ago, but word is that the chimney drew like a good pipe through the whole affair and stood there solid and resolute when the sun rose the next morning, at least the top four feet of it did, which is all that matters to me.