Filling the Gaps

Written for Riverbend Community News. Fall/Winter. November,2019.

Posey Brown Cabin c.1829 in 2016

“Can you say that PopPop?” my woke culturally sensitive 13-year old African-American godson–come grandson–asked.  I grinned. We were about to take on a major summer project of “chinking the logs” of the c. 1829 Posey Brown cabin. 

For a month, Buddyro (a southern nickname I often call him) and I worked together as we had for over 5 years, beginning in Philadelphia when he was eight years old.  The name Buddyro was given to me by my farmer uncle from Eastern North Carolina. It was a term of endearment for close companions. As a grandfather, there were going to be some life lessons in this project for me and for him.  We talked a lot while we worked and “Life is like that” was a phrase often used when pulling lessons from successes and failures in restorative projects.  

The Context

When I began the restoration of the cabin, there were so many gaps and cracks in the walls, windows and doors that the summer insects had taken up residence inside the cabin.  I’m inclined to consider reincarnation, often calling a lone wasp my Uncle Calhoun, a practice I developed to remind me that the insects and humans share the same life space; and to avoid retribution when I might go into a swatting fit. Yet, I didn’t want my entire ancestral genepool living with me.   I appreciated my Uncle Mark scampering across the floor, but I didn’t appreciate, as I would find out later, that he had invited his many friends to build nests and live within the walls of the cabin. If it had not been for Uncle Charlie, the 8’ indigo snake, who summarily killed Uncle Mark’s friends, and later Ms. Possey, the possum living above the ceiling with her brood of possomites, the cabin might just have ‘got up and walked away’.  Somehow my ancestors were working things out in preparation for the Big RENOvation.  

It was during the winter months while sleeping under three blankets in our flannel pajamas; as cold winds blew–not whistled–throughout the main cabin that I imagined what life must have been like in the hardship of early pioneer living.   I eventually bought a 10 X12 shed and converted it into a tiny house where we lived for the next two years, while completing the project on the main cabin with the help of family and friends. Filling the gaps in the logs was priority one. Repairing the bouncy floors, unfinished loft and a small stinky bathroom covered in insect wall-paper would be worked in as possible and necessary.

Some History on Construction

 PopPop?”  

“Yebo” [A Zulu affirmative response I often use.]

“Can you say chinking?” 

I knew where he was going with this question, I heard him the first time.  

“Buddyro”. I started a lecture in my professorial mode. He listened carefully like he always does.

“There was an English Middle Ages expression, a chink in the armor, that referred to a gap, crack, or vulnerability in armor.  Frankly, I had not heard of the term “chinking” before I acquired Posey Brown’s stagecoach cabin on Pheasant Street three years ago.  The verb, to chink, or the gerund and present participle chinking, has been used in log cabin construction since the semi-permanent structures on the US frontiers at the beginning of European settlement in the mid to late 17th century. Hand hewn logs from newly cleared land were stacked and joined into a basic structure and the gaps filled, or chinked, with small stones and local material.  In this case it was the rich and hard clay of our area. Mostly considered temporary structures, the flat hewn logs were often later covered with more permanent ship lapped pine planks and inside, pine wall board.”

We walked around the cabin, inspecting the conditions of the logs, and filler, or the chink and daub (the white washed substance covering the chinking).

“Once the gaps were filled, the exterior was “daubed” or covered with a mixture of mud, wood ash, and lime.  I had to make a decision whether to restore the cabin using traditional methods or modernize the methods to more contemporary standards and improve insulation while maintaining a strong structure.

I continued. “The original gap filler (chinking) of rock and clay is mostly still intact. The previous owner, Bill Gilden, who installed water and electricity about 25 years ago, only repaired the daubing, but had not touched the filler.  We are going to, maybe incorrectly to the purist, modernize by removing the filler, insulate with spray foam and insulation board, and daub with wire and fiber-based bonding cement. Again, our job is a five step process. We will clean the logs, remove the old chinking, or filler, insulate between the logs using spray foam and foam insulation board, then daub, or cover the filler with a fiber cement. Finally, we will treat and seal the logs.

Cleaned exterior logs, after removing interior wall boards and rock and clay filler of the gaps between logs.

“Restoration of an old structure is messy and dirty, especially if you are doing everything all at once. Every small project uncovers other small projects, and if one is not careful the “House of Cards”, as my wife Vickie calls it, is going to fall down. 

“Buddyro, Life is like that.  We all have gaps and cracks in our lives and personalities/character, and I might add our communities.  Filling those exposed gaps with good things is important for us to be good people. And, when you want to make something better than it is, it can get messy at first. There is no easy way or shortcut to clean that which is dirty, but take your time and do as little damage as possible.  This old wood has lasted nearly 175 years, and we want it to live another 175. Does that make sense, Buddyro?”  

“Yep, I wore my working clothes and old shoes.  I’m ready. It’s just like cleaning out my closet every spring.”

A gap in the log showing a rock filler and support with traces of the red clay.

We began the work in earnest;  every day, from morning to evening, with lunch and my nap, every day.  Okay, so we did take breaks to walk Zulu, my Ridgeback dog, around the mountain and to the old swimming hole.  And sometimes, another grandson would join us for swimming and fishing. But we worked steadily and patiently.

“Always leave something better than you found it. Does that make sense Buddyro?  “Yep” We just bought our own house in Philadelphia and I am already repairing the floors.” 

Wood Epox was used for some wood repair. It is a light pliable material and dries very hard. It will be painted to match the color of the logs. Etching the material also fabricates the log grain. Also notice the wire used to hold the cement daubing.
Spray foam was applied to the interior of the logs, then covered with insulation before returning the original wall boards.

The Question

“PopPop”?  

“Yebo”.  

“Can you say chinking?”  He was persistent and had his own life lesson for me.

“Yes, Buddyro, I was and am aware of the derogatory meaning of the term that refers to a group of Asian people.  A term I do not use. Yet, in the historic log building technical reference, it was and is an effective shorthand for an historic process, and one I had chosen to use, until recently.  

“I am not a huge sports fan.  But sports in our culture, because of the growing diversity of its players, have been and are at the forefront of what some negatively call political correctness, while others call it cultural sensitivity.  

“In 2012, writer Huan Hsu called for retiring the term A Chink in the Armor after ESPN used the term referring to Jeremy Lin and the loss of the New York Knicks to a much less qualified New Orleans Hornets team. ESPN fired the writer, took the post down within 30 minutes, and placed the broadcaster who used the phrase on suspension for 30 days.

PopPop? 

“Yebo.”

 ”Life is like that. Times change. The words we used to say don’t always fit the new times.  Does that make sense, PopPop?”  

“Yep.  I have to keep learning and change some words I use, even as an old man.  Let’s just say ‘filling the gaps of the logs’. How does that sound?”

He smiled, and simply said, “Yep”.

Everyday at dusk, covered in red dust and cement, we sat in our rocking chairs on our front porch with Zulu on his porch bed.  We were daubed out and in the words of the South, ‘Nothing more need be said.’  

We sat in peaceful silence. It was a good day, everyday.

The exterior completed project November 2019
Interior restoration

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