Shared Stories: Spring on the DeSoto

Frank Novak and his siblings grew up in an old farmhouse in semi-rural New England. Time has given Frank a more complete picture of his father, who taught mathematics at a nearby college. Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center.  Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program.  Curated by Carol Kearns.

By Frank Novak

In the arrogance of memory, I had come to think of my dad as not being able to do things, to fix things. My father was an intellectual, a mathematics professor, a reader of Thomas Aquinas. 

He had been in the war (WWII), but was trained as a Morse code radio operator rather than a combat soldier. He was a photographer, and a pretty fair piano player. For recreation he played chess, and hardly watched TV except for the news or other special occasions. 

My memory of his talents and hobbies was shaped by the end game in the old house on Pleasant Street: the panel missing in the ceiling of the downstairs living room, the poorly constructed second floor joists exposed, and the drain pipes that ran flat and uneven below the second floor bathroom and dripped whenever a tub of bathwater was released.

Toward the end of their decades-long residence at Pleasant Street, my parents kept a large pan in the living room, and the pan, placed just in front of one of the worn couches, would catch the drip. They lived like that for years.

Even before that, throughout my youth and teenage years, there never was a shower in the house, just the old claw foot tube in that upstairs bathroom. Ten years after I left, my younger brother finally rigged a hose from the faucet to a shower head fastened to the wall to create a rudimentary shower.

A whole piece of history exists only in scraps of childhood memories. We moved to Orono, Maine in 1953. My parents were thirty years old. Broken windows had to be fixed, painting to be done. All I remember was a bright, pleasant little house that was warm and comfortable in the winter.

We were sorry to have to leave that little house to move back to Massachusetts, to my father’s new job at Merrimack College, and the massive rambling farm house on Pleasant Street in West Andover.

It was 1958. Farming in West Andover was ending. The creep of the suburbs had not arrived yet, but it was headed that way, and so land developers were buying up the farms. Farmers were cashing out and either retiring or moving to cheaper land in New Hampshire. 

This particular house on Pleasant Street was purchased from a couple who retired from farming, left the house in a state of disrepair, and built a new modern house around the corner and down the hill. So maintenance was an uphill battle from the start. My parents were thirty-five years old.

The first work on the Pleasant Street house was repair of the L-shaped, two story shed attached to the back of the main house. Rumor had this as the original building on the lot, built in the 1850’s. By the time we moved in, two additional sections, each larger than the previous, had been built, and the original building was now a shed whose back wall was ready to collapse. 

With the help of friends, my father first replaced the large beam at the base of the wall. Then some framing was replaced, and the outside wall covering filled in. Our family had little extra money, so a full restoration of the interior remained a dream.

But still the ground floor remained a storage shed for successions of bicycles and other tools. The two dusty rooms in the top floor were stages for numerous children’s projects and fantasies.

The main part of the Pleasant Street house sat on a fieldstone foundation, the top of which was a couple of feet above the ground level. The house was a full two stories, each ceiling somewhat higher than those of more modern construction. 

Above the second story was a full attic, with a steeply pitched roof at the top. The roof leaked, so early on my father, again with friends, re-shingled the roof. They laid tall ladders against the side of the house. The skinny ladders seemed dwarfed against the side of the house. 

Standing close to the walls, craning my head back to see the sharp edge of the roof cutting across the sky, the ladders seemed to ascend forever. Working from those ladders, my father and a friend laid down several rows of shingles. Then they fastened brackets on the roof, much like the metal shelf brackets that you would fasten to a wall to make book shelves. 

Long boards were hauled up the ladders and rested across the brackets. These boards kept the men from sliding off as they worked their way along the length of the roof and up toward the peak with row after row of new shingle.

By the time I left for California in at the age of 22, my father was 47 years old. He had replaced the plaster ceiling that had fallen down in the front study. He built a new set of kitchen cabinets. Along the way he had built a rowboat in the cellar, and started a bigger boat, a shared project with me and my brother, that never did get finished.

Now, looking back, reflecting on my father’s influence in my life, my vision of him has come into sharper focus.

I was 14. It was summer. The grass was growing unkempt on the edge of the gravel driveway. The left rear spring of the black hand-me-down DeSoto had begun to sag dangerously. It was morning: the light still slanted across the front yard and the dew sparkled on the grass. 

My father and I jacked up the left rear really high with the bumper jack. We blocked up the frame and rear axle with cinder blocks and an old beam from the barn. Our shirts became damp with sweat, and gravel and grass ground into our jeans as we wrestled the rusty nuts, shackles and U-bolts with breaker bars, hack saws, and a bit of cursing under our breath.

When the long, multi-layered leaf spring was finally free, we headed for Lawrence in the rusted-out Plymouth. We waited through the afternoon at the spring shop, a dark barn of glowing ovens, dirt floors, with light sifting through a haze of rust that floated up from wire buffers and grinding wheels. 

Men in grimy coveralls and damp gray skin disassembled our spring. Then they heated each leaf orange in a glowing oven, bent it back across a vice, just so by eyeball and instinct, and quenched it in a tub of oil and water to harden in its new curve.

By the next afternoon we had the DeSoto back together again. The left rear sat a little higher than the right, but good enough for a couple more years. 

I learned to drive in that car, up and down the driveway, kicking up gravel from a spinning rear tire and stomping on the brakes to cause a small but satisfactory skid. And I learned the feeling of physical work, the satisfaction of changing things. 

I have done plenty of physical work myself over the years – working on cars, and remodeling a house from the ground up. I feel like a fool for forgetting all of the work my father did when he was not teaching school, reading, taking photos, or playing music. 

The lesson my father couldn’t teach me, for there are some things that a person can’t learn from their parents, is that we all get a little tired. I am having to learn that lesson on my own.