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My First Home

Tinkering leads to a calling — handyman

Owen Freeman For the Boston Globe

It was 1958, an innocent time. The Korean War had ended five years before, there were no Green Berets or ugly Americans in Vietnam, I had a beautiful wife and daughter, with a son destined to be born in my newly purchased house.

So it was natural, in those days, to look for a house we could call our own, but not fix it up because the one we found was near perfect: A Cape-style house in Plainville, Conn. It had asbestos siding, but I didn’t know anything about anything then and figured the asbestos cement shingles were good insulation.

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Talk about innocent: I was so innocent and ignorant that I was afraid I wouldn’t get a mortgage for the $13,500 price tag, because I was 30, and any long mortgage would bring me into my 70s — way too old for a mortgage. But some nice bankers clued me in, and we moved in, all 3½ of us. My father-in-law, who spent a lifetime in construction, approved the house with one word: Good.

There was nothing wrong with the house, so I roused my latent handyman instincts to fix things that were a little askew.

The heating system was a huge open grille in a tiny central hall above the furnace, with another big grille in the floor in a hall between the upstairs bedrooms. It heated the first floor well, but the bedrooms were mortal cold. I figured those rooms had no air return, so I opened the door at the top of the upstairs and kept the bedroom doors open, for a giant built-in air return. Didn’t work.

Then I found no insulation in the attic, which I immediately put in. That worked. Then instinctively I installed triangular vents in each end of the attic.

These little things stayed my chores for a while, until I did three things that I didn’t have to do, but I wanted to:

‘Talk about innocent: I wasso innocent and ignorant that Iwas afraid I wouldn’t get a mortgage for the $13,500 price tag, because I was 30, and any long mortgage would bring me into my 70s — way too oldfor a mortgage.’

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First, I took down a supporting wall that needed a new beam to keep it from collapsing. My father-in-law taught me that one, with a very quiet chuckle as he knocked a gaping hole in the wall ankle deep in plaster, then called his daughter to the room: “Is this the wall you want down?”

Second, grandpa, who was a bricklayer in another life, also taught me how to mix mortar as he fixed some little brickwork at the front of the house.

Third, the final project was to build a room in the basement, which was dry in the six years we spent in the house. I put up vertical boards, and a ceiling of Homasote. On the floor, I laid plastic tiles. That was fun, but, as I have learned after 36 years of being a handyman, everything is fun except for ceilings.

All went well until I bought my second house, a 1768 handyman’s horror, which grandpa, who equated age with poverty, tried and failed to talk me out of buying. But that is another story.

Peter Hotton, the Globe’s Handyman on Call, can be reached at
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