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  This is one of several Fun Pix resulting from my experiences with Habitat For Humanity.
  KANSAS CITY (MO)    HEARTLAND (KS)                  NEW   Construction How-To articles


Wrong One Way

wrongoneway.jpg (10678 bytes)

What's wrong with this picture?

In this view east down 33rd Street in the heart of the Kansas City, Missouri, affiliate of Habitat For Humanity, what's wrong with this picture is that there are stop signs at an intersection where both side streets are one-ways the other way.

The point, as you can see from scrolling up and down this painstakingly constructed map, is that the two stop signs guarding 33rd Street at Flora make no sense.  33rd is the through street from west of Flora to east of Highland.  Why -- if 0% of the traffic from Flora may enter onto 33rd -- should there be stop signs for traffic both ways on 33rd?

I think the city meant for this pair of stop signs to be located the next block east, at Wayne, where 100% of the traffic from the north and 100% of the traffic from the south must enter onto 33rd Street.

whether you think I got this wrong, then keep reading, if you want to, about the houses labeled  1 ,  2  and  3 .

Update of February 9, 2008: I took the photo above in June of 2001.  Today I got an explanation for the inexplicable signage from an article in The Kansas City Star.

Well, with that one out of the way, the Habitat house labeled  1  above is the very first one I ever worked on.  I showed up early one hot afternoon in August of 1997 and I was immediately put to work shoveling dirt behind a retaining wall by a troll named Carl.  That's almost the last time I ever used a long-handled tool on a Habitat For Humanity site.  Tools with long handles are invariably strenuous and unsatisfying to use, unless you count pounding railroad spikes into railroad ties with a ten-pound sledge hammer, which is satisfying if done correctly.

There's a technique to swinging a sledge, especially when it must be done at a precise angle from a precise place.  Any wimp or idiot can use a sledge at all, but when it comes to the application of a precisely angled blow, with the face of the hammer angled precisely at the moment of impact, and then actually hitting the exact target precisely, that's tougher.

But when you add in the most important factor -- which is that you want to strike with as much speed and power as possible -- the chance of success drops dramatically.  Hammering nails well with a framing hammer is tough enough.  Regular people miss the nailhead all the time, and I do too.  And although it happens much less often, even real carpenters miss.

So is using a sledge well harder?  Well, (1) unlike a framing hammer, a sledge requires you to swing from your feet up, not just your shoulder; (2) you probably aren't standing on a firm, flat, dry, level surface; (3) with a sledge your hands are a lot farther away from the target; (4) the sledge weighs seven times more than a framing hammer and ten times more than a regular 16-ouncer; (5) the sledge describes a much larger downward arc than a hammer and takes longer to get there, thus introducing even more chances for error; and (6) introducing yet more chance for error is the fact one of your hands is actually moving along the length of the handle during the downward swing.  So yes, using a sledge well is harder.

Here's the technique (for a right-hander).

(1) Grab the butt end of the handle with your left hand.

(2) Holding the handle near the head with your right hand, raise the sledge up in the air and over your right shoulder, then take a beat.

(3) If you haven't already done so, position your left foot ahead of your right foot; it's your left foot that will take your weight by preventing your from falling forward after the hammer blow, not your right.

(4) When you're positioned just right relative to the target, begin the swing by using your right hand to raise the hammer up away from your shoulder.  You want to get the head higher because the longer is the arc of your swing, the more time you have to let your muscles and gravity add up to a more powerful impact.

(5) Keeping in mind that at this point your right hand is still up near the head, just as you're about to swing, bounce up onto the balls of your feet a bit in order to get the hammer started down from an even higher elevation.  If you've never swung a sledge this might seem like overkill, but if you've swung a sledge a lot you probably don't even realize you do this, but you do do it naturally, every time, and you should.

(6) Then just pull that rascal down as hard as you can, using all of your muscles from your legs to your waist to your shoulders to your elbows to your wrists to your hands.  As you are doing so, allow your right hand to slide down along the handle toward your left hand.

There's a reason a mop handle is round and a sledge handle is not.  Whereas a broom or rake or shovel handle is circular in cross section, the handle of a striking tool's is usually oval, with the long dimension parallel to the direction of the strike.  When you're swinging a sledge hammer or a framing hammer or an axe or a pick, it's useful to have the tactile feedback through your hands of the orientation of the striking surface, and you couldn't feel that as well if the handle were round.

It might surprise you to learn that even though your right arm is the stronger one, most of the sheer power of the blow comes from your left arm.  It is your left arm that provides most of the brute downward-pulling strength, whereas your right arm provides more of the steering, more of the delicate, microsecond-by-microsecond adjustments that you make naturally, without thinking about it, without having time to think about it, because all of your mental energy is focused on the target, or it should be.

(7) Then just go ahead and finish the swing in such a way that (a) you strike the center of the target, (b) the center of the target is struck by the center of the face of the hammer, (c) at the moment of impact the face of the hammer is parallel to the target, and (d) at the moment of impact the motion of the face of the hammer is parallel to the direction you want to drive the target.

(8) Do this over and over again till whatever it is you're whamping on has been whamped on enough, then take a break.  (If you're a novice, the rule for driving a stake into hard ground is that when you're quite sure it won't go any deeper, hit it sincerely at least two more times.)

Ringing the bell to win the Kewpie doll at the Sledge-o-Matic game at the county fair is 10% strength and 90% technique.  That's why they use a short, skinny guy to run the booth.  He demonstrates how easy it is to ring the bell, so you figure you can do it too, and you're probably wrong.  The difference is that he has learned the technique, and now you have too.

The Habitat house labeled  2 , which is 3232 Highland, is the one I worked on from Tuesday through Saturday throughout July and August of 2000 as a paid H4H employee, if you call $12.50 an hour paid.  It was what was referred to as a gut-and-rehab, with emphasis on the gut.  The last group to have lived in this three-bedroom numbered, at one point, 23 souls, some of them drug-users or dealers and some of them small children and even infants.  The neighbors I talked to said the children would often "run around the neighborhood [and I quote here] 'butt-naked.' "  The house fell into disrepair to the point where it was condemned by the city, but they still wouldn't move out, they simply pried the plywood barrier off the front door and kept living there.  The city responded by turning off the electricity and the water, so all 23 of them took to seeing at night by candles and flushing their one toilet by pouring buckets of water into it.  Apparently the candles didn't work out perfectly, because there was fire damage along part of the inside of the north wall, to the point where actual framing members had to be replaced to make it safe.  And apparently the bucket-flushing method didn't work out perfectly either, because when I opened up the house for the first time since it had been abandoned, the toilet bowl was broken into entirely separate pieces, which were surrounded by a mound of.  The entire house stank of urine, and it was infested in one outside corner by hornets and in an interior corner by cockroaches.  Both exterior doors had been stoven in, and the west door also sported a bullet hole.  Think how desperate you'd have to be to live in such circumstances.  When I opened the house I found a one-foot-tall mound of trash everywhere, on almost every square foot of the floor of every room.  Books, letters, toys, clothes, food, furniture, dishes, electronic equipment, you name it and there was some of it on the floors somewhere.  For the next two weeks I and my various volunteer crews did nothing but remove and dumpsterize everything in that house that wasn't nailed down, as well as a lot that was.  For example, all of the Sheetrock on the walls and ceiling.  The ceiling was particularly interesting, because above it was a couple feet of blown-in insulation, which consisted of finely ground newspaper mixed with borate to keep away bugs and retard fire.  The way I got the ceiling rock down (we carpenters call it the lid) was to send a guy up into the attic to stomp on the top of the lid while balancing on the joists.  The entire living room lid came down in one spectacular, slow-motion swoosh, and I'm glad I was there to see that.  I remember that day also because that was one of the few times my boss (Hi, Ray) came by, and in his company were some dignitaries being given a tour.  Just as I was being introduced, a piece of ceiling rock in the kitchen that we hadn't gotten to yet decided to come down on its own, and it crashed, along with its load of insulation, right onto the head of the 10-year-old daughter of one of the guests.

The Habitat house labeled  3  was Billy house till he left.  Billy Duncan, a long-time Habitat supervisor, was a character.


Update of March 3, 2007: Remember that one bullet hole I mentioned?  Here are two pictures of the back of a house I worked on today, a rehab one block away from the Habitat headquarters.


At right is a close-up of an exit wound (taken under windy conditions just hours before I got a haircut).  In order for this bullet to go clean through the house, a through-and-through wound, here are the layers, in order, that it had to traverse:

Vinyl siding
 Tyvek house wrap
  7/16 inch of OSB-type plywood
   Three and a half inches of insulation
    Half an inch of drywall
     • Three layers of paint
      Some air in the room
     • Three layers of paint
    Half an inch of drywall
   Three and a half inches of insulation
  7/16 inch of OSB-type plywood
 Tyvek house wrap
Two layers of vinyl siding.

If you hover your cursor above, you might be able to pick out the entrance wound.  In this picture you can barely see 17 bullet holes, but there are about 40 altogether.

The angle of entry, which is the same as the camera angle, is such that, given the layout of the yard, the shots had to have been fired from within twenty feet or so, and they are all aimed into the master bedroom.  Talk about a rude awakening.

Immediately north of this Habitat house, which is the direction whence the bullets came, is an apartment house known as a "gang building."  One lovely winter day in 2000 I was driving past it when I was startled by an adult female on the street side of a car parked thereinfrontof, apparently talking to the driver.  She originally caught my attention because she was jumping up and down.  She caught it further when I realized, as I drove closer, that she was buck-naked.

Update of March 31, 2007: I helped redo the ceiling of the front porch of this 1992 house today, and when I pulled off the old soffit I discovered that all the framing members and roof sheathing in the attic were covered in soot.  When I mentioned this to the new homeowner (Hi, Monique), who'd already gotten to know some of her soon-to-be neighbors, she said that didn't surprise her, that the house had suffered fire damage.

Except what she said was, and I quote, "Yeah, I know.  It's been set on fire three times."

Not caught fire, mind you, but set on fire.

Three times.

Maybe I've just been lucky, but I almost always go a lot longer than five years between episodes of someone's setting my house on fire.


Here's a story of a different house on fire, one that proves the "unlucky three on a match" theory.  Some months back this particularly vicious and vengeful gang-banger (who shall remain nameless because I am not one) decided to "move into" a vacant house two doors down from a Habitat house I worked on today on Highland.  This individual was, as they say, "well-known to the police."  He was, according to my understanding, a thoroughly intimidating and awful example of humanity, a violent, drug-dealing, sociopathic predator.  So, also probably not a good neighbor.

A few weeks later "his" house managed to catch fire while he was asleep inside.  The fire department, along with the police, arrived immediately and put out the fire.  The guy kept living there, and a few weeks later his house managed to catch fire again, and again the fire department responded immediately and doused the fire.


Shortly after that the thug became the stand-out suspect in the murder of a neighborhood girl, but the police couldn't prove enough.

Shortly after that his house managed to catch fire again, and the police were called.

Extremely shortly after that, unluckily, the fire department turned out to be really busy, and the result is shown in the photo I took, at right.

It's like a yard sale in which the price of everything is zero.


Update of April 7, 2007: Remember the Forty-Bullet-Hole Habitat house?  I worked on it again today breaking up few tons of concrete driveway, and this time I got to play with a new power tool, a jackhammer.  You wouldn't think such a simple-minded and brutal tool would require much in the way of technique, but it does.  When you get it started on a new sector of concrete you have to lift or drag it into just the right spot at just the right angle, then you have to push down just right.  Push down too hard and the chisel grinds rather than hammers.  Push down too soft and the chisel skids and dances all around.  Get everything just right and you can chew off just the right size of concrete pretty efficiently.

h4hskylight03.jpg (12,087 bytes) 04-07-2007 (300 w X 384 tall)But anyway, it wasn't until today that I took the picture at left.  It might look like a speckled picture frame with some weird art in it, but in fact it's a photo, taken pointing straight up, of the skylight in the 40-bullet-hole room.

The morning sunlight is from the left, and the four parts of the "frame" are an extremely foreshortened view of the four sides of the opening from the room's ceiling up to the skylight lens.  The speckles are the "popcorn" treatment of the little sheetrocked "walls" leading up from the ceiling to the roof.  The background of the weird art is what the plexiglass looks like today.

And it got this way because, where you see the blue crosses of what turns out to be painter's tape, whose purpose is to keep out the rain, there are in fact two bullet holes.  This room has a second skylight, and it too has two bullet holes in it, so I guess this is the Forty-Four-Bullet-Hole Room.

Can you imagine the circumstances under which you would think it's a pretty good idea to let rip with a couple bullets into a skylight?

I can.


Update of August 18, 2007: A nice man named Fasika and his nice family are scheduled to move into this Habitat house in two weeks.  The air conditioner condenser was delivered to its new home and installed on its concrete pad yesterday, and it was turned on to cool the house for lots of painting today.

This is what it looks like now, only twenty-four hours later.  As you can see, the vivisectionists didn't kidnap the entire unit for sale or ransom, they skinned it in situ and absconded with the innards.

According to the site supervisor, John Gartin (shown at right inspecting the remains of the corpse), the thieves wanted the copper therein.  When I wondered why they didn't take the entire unit, he said they probably didn't know how to fence it.

An innocent, new-born condenser worth $1,000 in parts and labor sacrificed for maybe $25 worth of copper.  What a world.


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