This is chapter eight in my book The Bailey Line Road Chronicles, the 30-year story about moving from the city to live a modern homestead life deep in the country on Manitoulin Island, Canada. Missed Chapter Seven? Click here to read it.
I’ve never met anyone who set out to build their own house who did not also grossly under-estimate how long the project would take. And it’s this under estimation that causes some owner-builders to lose heart as they encounter the reality of building. It’s not the magnitude or difficultly of the work itself so much that kills aspirations, but the disappointment of not meeting our own timelines of accomplishment, however groundless they were in the first place. I didn’t know anything about the treachery of expectations when I began the Bailey Line Road adventure, but by the late summer of 1986 I was starting to feel it. Looking back now, I think I did pretty well to build an outhouse, have a well drilled and get The Shed built during my first summer of work, but at the time I thought I should have accomplished much more. Never mind that I didn’t actually have a schedule of progress laid out, nor did I have the experience, tools, finances and building skills to meet a schedule even if I had set one. Have you ever noticed how the biggest burdens in life sometimes exist entirely in our heads, often of our own creation?
By early August of 1986 there were two things left to accomplish on The Shed. First, I needed to install an electrical panel with service cables to the road and wiring inside. I also needed to install a pump to make use of the water that sat 55 feet down the hole in my new well. Both of these jobs were to bring new measures of disappointment, and a heightened sense of the importance of technical details. In the end there was also deep, deep satisfaction in direct proportion to the struggles.
In the world of rural living, running water is almost entirely dependent on electricity. You need electrical power to make a water pump work, and that’s why I chose to tackle the job of getting power to the cabin first, before installing a water system second. I hadn’t done either job before, but I had a plan. I’d study the design of electrical systems in other buildings, take notes, then reproduce what I learned with The Shed. I was starting from scratch, from the utility pole itself, which was beyond what we’d learned in high school wiring circuits and outlets. The Shed would also need to be wired for lights and that precious water pump, but these were something I had at least a passing understanding of.
When it comes to practical things, I’ve noticed something strange in the world. The easier it is to learn and accomplish something, the less likely people are to attempt it. Back in August 1986, for instance, there was no internet to turn to for articles, forums, videos and blogs about wiring. If you wanted to learn how to install and wire an electrical panel without first becoming a full-blown electrician, you had three sources of know-how and only three: studying electrical systems that already existed; conversations with trained electricians who knew what they were doing and were generous with advice; a small handful of books in print.
Scarce information meant it was more difficult to successfully and safely install your own electrical panel then than it is now, yet there were people in their 20s (other than me) who were doing work just like this. At that time I had non-electrician friends who were gutting entire electrical systems in their old, first-time starter homes, adding new panels and rewiring. So why is it that with information so much easier to find these days, I don’t know anyone in their 20s who is attempting work like this? Am I just turning into an old curmudgeon or are the people born in the 1990s and 2000s less likely to build, fix or create things? I’m sure there must be some millennials out there doing stuff like this, but I don’t see any. Why is this, especially given that it’s easier than ever to succeed?
As I’ve mentioned before, you can never know most things about a rural community ahead of time, before you attach yourself to it. And a man named Terry Addison was a pleasant surprise when it came to electrical work. Terry is a master electrician – he has been for decades , and he’s also one of the most generous men I’ve met when it comes to advice. I can’t remember how I discovered Terry’s name, but for 30 years he’s been my go-to guy for information on wiring. Terry comes from an old Manitoulin family and he grew up just around the corner from my place. I’d call him up or go to his house in town with electrical questions and he’d answer it in perfect detail. Terry also provided lots of electrical hardware to me at cost over the decades. Since meeting Terry I’ve installed three electrical systems from incoming feed cables to outlets and switches, and of course all this work has been inspected and approved. Occasionally, when an inspector questions the way I’ve done something, I just say that Terry Addison told me to do it that way, and the inspector got happy. “Oh, if Terry says to do it that way, then that’s fine.” That’s the kind of respect Terry wields in the area. But even with Terry’s advice, I still got into enough trouble with the electrical panel in The Shed that it led to a big emotional set-back.
There’s a strange queasiness that sets in when you’re having electrical wiring inspected. A stranger arrives, says hello, then starts looking closely – very closely – at work you’ve spent weeks doing. He is the master of the situation. If he says yes, you get power. If he says no, you’ve got more work to do. Sometimes a lot more work. You’ve spent hundreds of hours making hundreds of decisions about wiring and terminals and cables and ground rods, and success or failure all comes down to a few minutes of scrutiny.
It was a sunny August morning in 1986 when an electrical inspector named Don Carter pulled up in an Ontario Hydro truck. I wasn’t surprised that he looked a little puzzled. “What are you up to here?” asked Don. “You’ve got a 200 amp panel in a 10×20 foot structure in the middle of a field. I don’t see this sort of thing very often.” My plan was to wire The Shed with a 200 amp panel that I’d eventually move over to the house when I got it built, re-routing the service cables there. Why have two panels when one will do? After I explained all this, Don got to work. It took less than 1 minute for him to burst my bubble.
“This is all wrong”, Don said matter-of-factly, pointing at the panel with the cover left off for easy inspection. He didn’t have any malice in his voice, he just stated the cold, hard facts. “Your panel has service cables running through the area for branch circuits only. Your circuit wiring looks good, but your panel is all wrong.” I’d mistakenly assumed the panel needed to be installed right-side up no matter what, which meant I had to run the big fat cable across areas where, apparently, they weren’t supposed to go. “You’ll need to flip your panel upside down, then you can run the cables properly.”
Have you ever noticed that sometimes you feel a strange sense of relief after receiving very bad news? It doesn’t make up for the disappointment, but there’s somehow something bright in your heart when there really shouldn’t be? That’s what it was like as Don drove off. The worst had happened, but somehow I wasn’t completely devastated. Maybe it was because I knew exactly what needed to happen now, despite it being a lot of trouble. I’d need to disconnect all the circuits from the panel, remove the big service cables from the main breaker, flip the panel top-for-bottom, then reconnect everything. A few minute’s work with a tape measure also confirmed that the current service cables were not long enough for the job with the new panel orientation, so I’d need to scrap the old cables, buy more, then re-wire the electrical mast. This expense was the hardest part of the bad news to take, but somehow there was relief here, too.
Although I didn’t know it at the time, the whole electrical panel fiasco was the first instance of something I’ve noticed several times since then. It’s a hidden fact of life. We can have something that matters to us very much – something we struggle with and strive towards – yet in a few years it matters not at all. The most important thing in the world to me then was getting electricity in The Shed, so by extension the most devastating thing that could happen was that I’d fail in the attempt. And yet, less than four years later, I’d be happily scrapping that same second set of service cable, taking down the mast from The Shed, disconnecting the panel from the branch circuits, then moving it over to the house for permanent installation in the basement of the house. I felt no sorrow at all dumping the big, fat aluminum service cables in the junk yard when the time came. All I remember thinking at the time was how little it mattered to me. Once upon a time these cables were everything. Now they’re nothing. Not even the cost of them mattered. I wonder if this is how we’ll feel when our body has played it’s part in life and the only thing that matters are the things of value that we bring with us from our time on earth. Our body and lives and aspirations seem so important to us now, but I suspect few of them will matter even the tiniest amount in the most final of all final analyses.
It took a couple of weeks before Don came back and signed off on my electrical installation, version two. A week after that, a utility truck arrived and installed a new pole at the end of my driveway, such as it was. The utility crew was puzzled about a 10×20 foot shed with a 200 amp panel, so they told me they were just installing a 100 amp transformer on the pole. “You’ll never need more than that”, they insisted. “But I’ll have a nice big house here someday”, I argued. “We’ll change the transformer when that day comes,” they smiled.
One of the really amazing things about struggle is that it makes success so much sweeter. I must have looked like a simpleton as I smiled, mesmerized by the light of that first 100 watt light bulb that lit up The Shed. It was just a bare bulb, but the sense of luxury was intense. Electricity also meant I could cook, though I had yet to get water to cook with and wash up. My only source of water then was trips to and from Ivan’s kitchen to fill up the aluminum boy scout canteen that used to be my dad’s from the 1950s. It had one of those khaki green covers that kept water cool as long as you kept the fabric wet and it was my only source of water.
With The Shed wired, it was almost time to start on the first stage of the main project – the real work – building the basement of the house. The only thing I wanted first was running water. Nothing fancy, nothing hot, just running, cold water. My plan was similar to the electrical panel for the house. I’d learn from existing installations I studied, then install a pump in The Shed, along with a pressure tank to store the water. When the house was ready, I’d move the pump and tank over to the house and install it permanently there. What I didn’t know was that my installation of the pump would lead me to the kind of fundamental trouble I ran into with the electrical panel, fundamental but more extreme and more disappointing.
“How far below the ground is the water level in the well?” This is the first and most important question to ask when installing a water pump, and the reason comes down to a fact of physics. No matter what kind of a pump you have, it’s impossible to suck water up more than 22 vertical feet. If you try, the vacuum in the water line gets so extreme that the water will boil at room temperature, turning into vapour within the pipes. You won’t see this, of course, but the reality is that your pump simply won’t pump water if you ask it to raise water more than 22 vertical feet by suction.
Like many wells, the water in mine was more than the magic 22 foot limit. It was actually 55 feet below the surface, and this left me with two options. I could use a jet pump configured so the jet was in the well below water level, pushing water up rather than sucking it, or I could go with the Cadillac option and get a submersible pump. These have the entire electric motor and pumping system below water – wires and all – so there’s never any suction involved. All they do is push water upwards so it doesn’t matter much how deep they are. Besides being more expensive, installing a submersible is more involved than a jet. That’s why I went with the jet pump and got 99% of the installation correct. One small detail, however, ensured that the pump never moved a drop of water. The issue had to do with screw clamps and pipe connections.
Black polyethylene pipe is the standard for the intake side of private water systems. This is the pipe that’s used to draw water from lakes, rivers and from wells and you can buy it at any hardware store. The problem I ran into had to do with connections. If you don’t do one small thing correctly, black poly connections will leak, allowing air to get drawn into the pipes and causing the pump to lose its prime. That’s why after five days of plumbing installation work I had to take everything apart and start from scratch.
The key detail I didn’t know about is warming the pipe with a propane torch to soften the plastic, then tightening two (not one) screw clamps onto the warm pipe after it’s pushed onto its connection fitting. Without this softening, the pipe won’t conform to the fitting properly. It will look fine on the outside, but all it takes is a little bit of air leakage to shut down the whole pumping operation. It took half a day of priming, struggling and failing with my new pump installation before Ivan came over. “How’s your pump working?”, he asked. “Not at all”, I said as the sun was going down and I was feeling thirsty.” The job of priming the pump was especially troublesome because I had to haul water from a lake about half a mile away to fill the pipes and pump in the hope the system would actually pump water. “Every pump I’ve seen has two screw clamps on each connection, not one like you’ve got”, explained Ivan. “And did you remember to heat the pipes to make them soft before doing up the clamps?” All I could think of as I took every fitting apart to reassemble the connections with heat was how costly it is sometimes to learn life’s smallest lessons. One little bit of knowledge like this can matter so very much.
The second attempt at installing the water system worked perfectly, and as with the thrill of the illuminated light bulb, the prospect of cold running water coming out of a garden hose was satisfying beyond what I can describe. Light, water and the ability to cook simple foods was astonishing. How many of life’s little blessings do we miss because of familiarity?
With power to the cabin, that also meant refrigeration. My grandfather had an old Frigidaire from the 1950s and he’d donated it for use in The Shed. It was one of those gorgeous, rounded, white appliances with the real chrome door handle, emblem and trim. Why is it that they managed to create so much beauty back in the 1950s, but we can’t manage it now? Cars, appliances, music, slender women in dresses everywhere . . . is it just my imagination or were the 1950s something of a golden time aesthetically in North America? I didn’t grow up then, so it can’t just be nostalgia on my part. In fact, I rather loath the culture and aesthetics of the 1960s and 70s when I did grow up. The old Frigidaire was a tangible connection to something retro and attractive.
With water, power and a fridge, I now got into my regular routine of simple, homestead eating. Mary and I were still two years away from getting married, so my time in The Shed was a bachelor affair as she lived with her parents not far from my boyhood home, hundreds of miles away in southern Ontario. Part of being a cost-conscious bachelor meant that my eating habits had to be frugal, fast and nutritious. I had no trouble enjoying meals that were quite similar each day. It might sound like a hardship but I really enjoyed eating this way:
Breakfast 7am to 7:30am: “Scottish” oatmeal, a raw carrot or two and a couple of hard-boiled eggs. I coined the term “Scottish” oatmeal to mean quick-cook oats mixed with cold water with some honey or brown sugar. My kids think I’m crazy, but oatmeal made with cold water and eaten cold is still my favourite way to eat this stuff.
Lunch 12pm to 12:30pm: Sardines or canned tuna plus left-over pasta from supper night before. A slice or two of bread if I had any, plus a couple of apples for dessert.
Supper 8pm to 9pm: Something I called “pasta au tomates” or “garlic pasta” were two mainstay options. I’d normally cook a 900 gram package of spaghetti or spaghettini in the electric stew pot where I did all my cooking, eating most of it for supper. That’s a lot of food, but when you’re working hard enough, fat stays off no matter how much you eat.
“Pasta au tomates” (imagine a French pronunciation of “tomatoes”) is my own invention. Boil some spaghetti so it’s still firm, then drain the water. Add olive oil or butter, then put some on a plate. Open a can of stewed, whole tomatoes (the kind with the herbs already added are ideal), then spoon four or five tomatoes out on top of the pasta, followed by some juice and soya sauce. Get the real brewed kind of soya sauce, not the dark, artificial kind heavy on the food colouring. Sprinkle some grated parmesan on top if you have any, then enjoy. The tomatoes are room temperature when they go on the pasta, but they get warm by the time you cut them up and eat them twirled onto a fork with pasta.
“Garlic pasta” is a variation on the mainstay pasta theme of my time living in The Shed. Boil up some spaghetti or spaghettini firm, then add olive oil or butter. Cut up three or four cloves of garlic, then add them to the pasta followed by soya sauce.
I limited shopping trips into town to once every two weeks, but sometimes I’d splurge on a package of sausages in addition to oatmeal, sardines, carrots and apples. It was a stunning gourmet experience to eat sausages boiled when you haven’t had meat for a while. I usually reserved this treat for a Saturday night in celebration of the day off I’d spend on Sunday. Sausages enjoyed in this way are one of countless examples of how deprivation makes the heart grow more thankful. And the deeper the deprivation, the more enjoyment you feel. These sausages weren’t anything special by grocery store standards, and I’d limit myself to one package of four sausages each month to keep expenses down.
As the building season of 1986 drew to a close, it was time to head back to my parents’ house and put on a final push to complete one last semester at York University over the winter. I see now that a university education was the biggest waste of time and money of my life so far, and I saw it the same way by then, too. In fact, university actually proved detrimental to the professional writing work I’d pursue later. But for what it was worth, I wanted to finish what I’d started, so that’s what I did. I’d serve one last stint in the prison of academia, then freedom and a start on the main work that I’d been gearing up for, building a house. What I didn’t suspect was how the lifestyles of my friends would make me question the sanity of what I was doing.
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