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Be a doll, help build someone a house

December 13, 2004|by BOB MAGINNIS

My family gave me a dollhouse for Christmas.

It's not my usual Christmas gift, but there's a story behind it.

Recently I got involved in helping to build a Habitat for Humanity House in Boonsboro, as part of the activities of the Interfaith Coalition of Washington County.

What a wonderful opportunity, I thought, for people who don't ordinarily socialize to work together on something good and lasting - providing some nice people with a house they could afford.

The house is almost done now - the final coat of interior paint was set to go on Saturday - and the families will move in sometime in early January.

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But although the house is done, the fund raising isn't. There's still $15,000 to go. If it isn't raised, it will make it that much harder for Habitat to do other projects in the future because although all of the labor is donated, all of the materials aren't.

So back to the dollhouse. In a conversation with Sherry Brown Cooper, Habitat's executive director, she told me that someone had given her a doll house kit and that she planned to build it, then auction it at Habitat's annual fund-raiser.

What a great idea, I thought. I too could get a kit, my family could help put it together and we could sell raffle tickets and we could make some little girl's dream come true right before Christmas.

In thinking that way, I was like the man who used to play football in college who decides to play "touch" with his grandchildren and ends up in the emergency room with a sprained back.

Only I never was any good at building things. In that I am my father's son. I still remember him struggling with small projects, his hands shaking as he tried to turn a screw, the sweat running off his nose and his face getting redder and redder. My father was a gentle man, but at such times you did not want to offer advice or even observe him too closely.

I have only gotten better over the years because of my father-in-law's patient instruction and because I have learned that when my hands begin to tremble and nothing is going right, it's time to put the tools away until tomorrow.

I remember the times I didn't, like when the wooden storm door insert wouldn't fit no matter how much I sanded it and I ended up attacking it with a wood plane, deeply gouging a nice old maple door I later found out would cost $300 to replace. People usually don't notice it, unless my wife tells the story for laughs and somebody wants to look at it, for more laughs.

Then there was the time when I flooded the motor of the brand new lawn mower, then yanked out the cord in an angry attempt to make it start, as if it were some stubborn child refusing to behave.

Determined not to be defeated by a mere machine, I decided I would reattach the cord myself. Not bothering to consult the manual - too angry, really, to be bothered with looking at how the thing really worked - I took off the top of the motor housing.

Inside was a long coiled spring, which jumped out like one of those cloth snakes in a fake can of peanut brittle. Unlike the peanut-brittle snake, the edges of the spring were as sharp as razor blades. In a rare moment of sanity, for that day, anyway, I stopped what I was doing, got a pair of gloves and a rag. Then I wiped the blood off the spring, stuffed it back into the housing, took it back to the store the next day and told them it didn't suit.

Back to the doll house. When my wife and I went to the craft store, the kit was on sale for half price. What an omen. We bought it, a glue gun and some paint and went home, determined to finish it by Dec. 6, so we could begin selling raffle tickets.

When we opened the box, we knew we were in trouble. The parts weren't labeled and although there were illustrations, there were few dimensions listed. Was the oblong piece of wood I was looking for 3 inches by 5 inches or 4 inches by 6 inches? There was no clue, or none I could find, although, to my credit, I did read the manual this time.

I called my oldest son, who is an artist with much experience in putting together projects with tiny parts. He once covered an entire stereo system - and its cabinet - with pieces of electronic circuit boards. It looked like a musical version of R2-D2, the stubby Star Wars robot.

I got press-on labels and together we began to identify the parts, beginning with the foundation, which we glued and let dry. That night he got the bug to assemble it. The next day he and my other son and wife sat down to work, while I did things more suited to my talents, like hauling a load of garbage to the landfill.

The basic structure went together quickly, courtesy of the glue gun. Holiday raffle, here we come, I thought with glee.

Then the Maginnis crew discovered that to assemble the windows, the trim had to be cut in a miter box, which is device to make sure your cut has the proper angle. The old miter saw was dull, so I bought another one and a cabinet saw with very fine teeth.

But short deadlines and fine woodwork are not compatible, we found, especially if you're just learning how to do what you're trying to do. Rather than ruin it, or do a halfway job, we decided to retreat, for now anyway. Sherry Brown Cooper has promised that we can auction it off next spring, provided it survives until then.

But that leaves the fund raising for this project unfinished. If I'm willing to tell you humiliating stories about myself to further this project, could you find it in your heart to spare a few bucks for a real house for a real family? If so, please send a check to Habitat for Humanity of Washington County, 20 S. Prospect St., Hagerstown, MD 21740. Thank you.

Bob Maginnis is editor of The Herald-Mail's Opinion page.

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