A pack rat and Habitat join forces for a good cause

June 30, 2004|by BOB MAGINNIS

You can tell a lot about people from what they save over the years. My grandfather saved the wishbone from every turkey my grandmother ever baked, and occasionally let us kids crack one for fun. My father saved every check he ever wrote and enjoyed pulling out the old ones to show what he paid for a car back in 1948.

But compared to them, my own pack rat tendencies make little sense. In my attic, there's a rocking chair with the caned seat ripped out of it. It's been there for 25 years, waiting for me to find someone who does recaning.

In my garage, there's a director's chair with a broken hinge that I've been meaning to fix for so long that the canvas cover has disintegrated. This list goes on - furniture that needs to be refinished, broken electronic devices that require parts that haven't been available since Jimmy Carter was president.


I have been forced to confront my flaws this month because I decided to volunteer to run a yard sale for Habitat for Humanity's Boonsboro project. There's about $50,000 left to raise, and we've got to start somewhere.

"Somewhere" will be the parking lot of the Boat America Corporation at 19224 Longmeadow Road. Officials there have been kind enough to allow us to use their parking lot from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. this coming Saturday, July 3.

If you come, you'll see the few things I have that are worth selling - or which I've given up believing I'll ever lose enough weight to wear again.

But you'll also have a chance to talk to Habitat officials about the project and about the idea behind what they do.

As I learned when I got involved, Habitat doesn't just give people houses. Habitat builds them affordable houses that the people then purchase. It's a hand up, not a handout, as executive director Sherry Brown Cooper says.

The new owners also have to participate in the construction, putting in 500 hours of what Habitat calls "sweat equity."

I've done a few hours of this myself on the site recently and for someone who's been a desk jockey for 20 years, it wasn't easy.

For the last session, I arrived at 5:30 p.m., as the professional masons were finishing up the foundation wall. I was assigned to help set the bolts that will tie the house to the foundation.

The bolts were laid out at prearranged spots on top of the block wall. My job was to tear empty cement bags in half, then stuff them down the holes where the bolts would be set.

That was done so that when cement was poured in to hold the bolt upright, the "mud," as they called it, wouldn't run all the way to the bottom of the wall.

That job complete, I was assigned to follow behind someone who was cleaning up the mortar joints and sweep any chips off a 2-inch lip at the bottom of the wall. It didn't make sense at the time, but later I saw how it all fit together.

Then the foreman gave me a 2-by-2-foot piece of chipboard and a mason's trowel. It was time to cover the block wall with a thin coat of cement.

I loaded mortar onto the board, and then, while holding the trowel at a 45-degree angle to the wall, I spread my load onto the wall.

Sometimes it stayed, sometimes it didn't. Imagine nailing a piece of bread to the wall and trying to cover it with half-melted butter.

Now I knew why I'd swept that small lip at the bottom of the wall - so that when I dropped mortar on it, I could pick it up without adding a bunch of rocks to the mix.

When the one section of wall was coated to everyone's satisfaction, we took wet brushes and smoothed the surface.

Why smooth out a wall that will be buried anyway? To create a smooth surface for the black tar-like coating that will be applied to keep water out of the basement.

After we were done and tools cleaned up, one of the professional masons showed us how to speed up the operation, using a two-person approach, with one loading the "mud" and the other spreading it.

In the space of a few minutes, they did what it had taken us 45 minutes to do. Once again, I left with a great appreciation for the skills of these professionals, and for the fact that they're donating their services.

Many have volunteered to help, but the project also needs dollars. The steering committee has decided to ask 50 houses of worship, individuals or companies to donate or raise $1,000 apiece toward the cause.

If you're inspired to do so, or want to hear more about why this is a worthy cause, call me at 301-791-7622, or contact me by e-mail at Thanks.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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