By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, April 14, 1945.
“Just look,” complained Jimmie Frise, “at that side drive!”
“Cement’s pretty well shot,” I admitted.
“Why, it hasn’t been down more than 10 to 12 years, cried Jim. “And look at it. It looks as if a V-bomb had hit it.”
“Well, it was pretty well shot last season,” I reminded him. And the year before that, if I remember right, you were complaining about it having gone to pieces.”
“Cement ought to last more than 10 years,” asserted Jim.
“Not if you let the frost get under it,” I assured him. “When you notice the first crack in your cement side drive you should have it patched right away. If not, then the frost heaves it and what you’ve got, after all, is a sort of V-bomb underneath.”
“It’s positively dangerous,” said Jimmie. “Last night I was backing the car out. The back wheel tilted one of those hunks of cement. Its jagged corner caught under the differential. If I hadn’t been quick I’d have torn the gizzard out of my car.”
“Well, you ought to have it relaid right away,” I agreed.
“Relaid?” snorted Jim. “And how would I have it relaid? I called up one of the concrete firms and they said I might have a chance about next August. Unless some priority job turned up. Then it might be never. In fact, they couldn’t give me a date.”
“Then the least you can do,” I submitted, is remove the worst of those big jagged chunks and put a few wheelbarrow loads of cinders down.”
“It burns me up,” grated Jim, “the way things go to pieces like this. What’s the world coming to? A concrete job like that should last a lifetime.”
“You’ve got the usual property complex, Jim,” I pointed out. “Nothing should last a lifetime. When you build a new house you should realize that it is going to be a race between you and the house to see which will be old and worn out first. In your youthful prime you are making money. So you do a little careful figuring and decide you will build a house. It costs you, say, $10,000. In 20 years it is old-fashioned, its plumbing is all corroded and crusted. So is yours. It is in a neighborhood no longer fashionable. A lot of strangers have moved in. It is worth about $5,000 now. And you’ve gone down in value, too.”
“In other countries,” declared Jim, “property doesn’t fall to pieces like this. In England, for instance. The stately homes of England. Why, some of those gracious old country houses of England are two and three centuries old.”
“Aha,” I cried. “The outer walls, maybe. The foundations and outer walls of the main section of the house. But if those stately homes of England haven’t been brought up to date with the past few years they are hardly fit to live in. Musty, smelly, fungussy old dumps. I’ve lived in dozens of them the past five years. And our boys have been billetted in them all over Britain. They’ll tell you what stately old homes they are.”
“That’s not my impression,” protested Jimmie.
Not the Original
“Look,” I said, “why were so many of those stately homes handed over to the troops as billets this past five years? Because either they were untenanted or the owners couldn’t afford, these past 10 or 15 hard-time years, to do the necessary repairs. Those old country houses have to be entirely renovated each new generation. The climate of England is easier on stone and brick than ours. They don’t have frost and fierce summer suns to contend with. So the outside shell survives century or two. Sometimes longer. But the inside has to be remodeled every few years. If it isn’t, then it is smelly and musty and fungussy and decayed. Don’t make the mistake that all those ancient buildings that are said to date back to Queen Elizabeth or Charles the Second are just the way they were in those days. What they mean is, the building, whether a church or a mansion or a famous public edifice, has survived as an institution since the days of Queen Elizabeth or Charles the Second. Generally, you will find the building was entirely reconstructed – in strict accordance with the original! – about 1830 or 1890.”
“Aw,” said Jim.
“I was billetted,” I informed him, “in several really old stately homes the past couple of years. And if they dated back any further than 1860 they stunk.”
“You have no soul,” said Jim. “You have no poetry in your make-up.”
“Property,” I assured him, “has to be kept up, whether it is St. Peter’s in Rome or the Buck of Dukingham’s old family estate or your side drive.”
“Why, I remember travelling through England, in the last war, and seeing those lovely old mansions nestled in their ancient beeches and oaks,” said Jim, tenderly.
“Those houses,” I assured him, “on closer inspection, would turn out to be exactly like the old mansions on Jarvis St. in Toronto, dating back to about 1880. The reason our old mansions in Toronto have fallen on evil times is that the district became unfashionable. The rich families moved out farther into the suburbs.”
“Or lost their money,” suggested Jim.
“Or had to divide it,” I submitted, “between too many children for any one of them to keep up the big family mansion. So the old mansions of Toronto are let go to decay. But in England, for obvious reasons, the rich men did not build their mansions in towns and cities. Before the industrial revolution, which was only 150 or so years ago, towns and cities were merely the congregating places of the poor, the landless and the hand-workers. Land was the only wealth. There were no factories. So the wealthy man lived right amid his wealth – his land.”
“No factories?” inquired Jim.
“No factories at all,” I assured him. “Well, maybe there would be a sail factory down near the docks. Or possibly some successful master mason would employ a lot of men in his stone yard, or a master shoemaker might employ 100 shoemakers under one roof. But since there was no power of any kind, except hand power, why, it was cheaper and more practical for the employer to let the workers work in their homes. Or hovels.”
“But the swells,” said Jim, “the really rich, were the land owners. And they lived on their estates. Distributed all over Britain.”
“That’s the picture,” I agreed. “And that’s how you have all those mansions scattered all over England. But now that land is no longer wealth, but a liability, except to the individual man who works it as a farmer, and since riches nowadays is in owning factories or being a broker or a business man in a city, why, property has changed its character, too. No more mansions.”
“Besides,” contributed Jim. “nobody stays home any more. It is just a place to sleep.”
“And keep your extra clothes,” I added. “And garage your car.”
“In which case,” stated Jimmie indignantly, “the modern side drive ought to be made of better concrete than this.”
Jim’s drive was, in fact, a mess. From away back by the garage right out to the street there was hardly a square yard of concrete that had not collapsed. There were large holes. There were patches of broken concrete with corners sticking up like the dragon’s teeth of the Siegfried Line. The past winter, while not noted for deep frost, had soaked an awful lot of snow into the ground. And that had finished what a few years’ frosts had started.
“Jim,” I suggested, “to lay a new drive here, with modern methods, should be a cinch. Even you and I could do it.”
“Mmmmm,” said Jim.
“Nowadays,” I explained, “these ready’ mix concrete trucks, with their big drums revolving as they drive through the streets, would simply back into your side drive, dump a load of concrete all ready mixed. With a wheelbarrow and a couple of rakes we could spread it out. And presto!”
“Say,” said Jimmie.
A Matter of Initiative
“The modern citizen,” I asserted, “doesn’t need to be half as dependent as he thinks he is. We are all still muddling along in the age of the stately homes of England, when, as a matter of fact, if we took advantage of the modern inventions already in use all around us, we could be really mid-20th century.”
“I’ve got a wheelbarrow,” declared, Jim.
“And I’ll bring down a couple of rakes,” I offered. “And we could rig up a good big plank, with scantling uprights on it for handles. We could pat the stuff down with that. Make it smooth.”
“Say!” said Jimmie eagerly.
“The only thing I’m afraid of,” I remarked, “is that you might need a work priority to get a load of ready-mix concrete.”
But Jim went straight in and telephoned. And no priority was needed. It was a straight case of waiting until Wednesday, as the company’s mixing trucks were all on order up till then. Jim ordered one full load.
So we had Monday and Tuesday evenings to clear the side drive of all the wreckage. Most of the concrete was in chunks that required no extra breaking. A few larger pieces had to be hit a few whacks with the sledgehammer Jim borrowed from the service station up the street. And Jim did the sledge-hammer work while I, with the aid of a pair of ice-tongs, slid the chunks of concrete into the wheelbarrow laid on its side. It was not easy work. But neither was it any harder than the usual gardening projects the average man undertakes at this season of the year. I’ve built several rockeries, in the past 30 years, that cost me far more pain than this. In fact, Tuesday night, seeing us carting the broken concrete back into Jim’s yard, two of the neighbors got ideas and came and offered to cart off several barrow loads for rockeries in their back gardens. Thus, by dark Tuesday, we had all the concrete moved and the under bed of gravel and sand nicely raked.
The load was promised for 8.30 a.m. So Jimmie and I were on the job bright and early to peg down the narrow planks we were going to use as margins or containers of the concrete as we laid it.
We had barely started laying these plank edges when we heard a truck coming noisily and knew it was our big adventure.
“Where’ll you have it?” inquired the driver heartily.
“I think,” Jim suggested, “we ought to have him dump it right there at the street end of the drive, and we will start laying back in at the garage. It will mean more carting with the wheelbarrow. But we can see what we are doing better.”
“Correct,” I agreed.
So with a grinding and a roaring, the big revolving drum started to pour concrete like a meat mincer squishing out hamburger. It went on and on as an imposing pile grew before our astonished eyes.
And away went the driver.
There, as simple as ordering a ton of coal or a load of manure, was the material for two simple citizens to toy with, saving scores of dollars in man-hours, giving healthful spring exercise and permitting free play to individual initiative, free enterprise and, above all, craftsmanship.
We stood and admired the pile. It was soggy. And it settled slightly. Even as we watched. And it certainly was big.
“There’s enough there,” declared Jim, “to lay a real, lifetime pavement.”
Well, first we had to lay and peg down the wooden planks for the edges of the new pavement, and that took an hour. And to get the planks to stand on their edges, it was necessary to dig slight trenches or troughs in which the planks could stand upright.
“How long,” inquired Jim, “do you suppose that stuff will stay soft?”
“Don’t worry,” I reassured him. “You know how long you have to keep off fresh cement. We’ve got all day.”
So we laid the planks steady and true and pegged them down. And while we were at it we laid all the planks for the whole job. A couple of hours.
“I don’t like that warm wind blowing,” said Jim, anxiously examining the free grayish-yellow heap at the mouth of his side drive.
“Come on, brother,” I said, picking up the shovel. “Now for the first barrow.”
Wet concrete weighs more than dry concrete. And dry concrete weighs plenty.
Jim started to shove the barrow up the drive. But its wheel sank deep in the gravel and sand.
“We’ll have to have a plank walk to run the barrow on,” said Jim hurriedly.
So we got in the car and drove over to the lumber yard, a few blocks east, and got five long, cheap planks. With these, carried home on the car top, we laid a path for the barrow. Another hour or so.
“Hey!” said Jim as he picked up the barrow. “This stuff is getting stiff!”
It was not quite as pulpy as I expected.
“Take it up to the garage,” I ordered, “and we’ll flatten her out.”
Jim shoved the barrow up the planks very wobbly and dumped it in front of the garage.
It fell out heavily, and a lot stuck to the bottom of the barrow. I scraped this out with the shovel, and we set to work hurriedly to spread the big blob out. It did not spread very willingly. It broke into cakes and the cakes spread rather granularly
“I don’t like this,” puffed Jim, slapping with the shovel.
“Get another barrow load, it’ll be wetter,” I commanded, and we’ll sort of blend it.”
Jim went down to the front of the drive and got another barrow load.
“It seems a little looser,” he panted, as he arrived. “But I don’t think we have much time to waste.”
A Horrible Sight
The fresh barrow load, while looser than the first, which had been standing all the time we were over at the lumber yard, did not blend very easily with the first load. In fact, the first square yard of concrete in front of the garage doors was rather a horrible sight.
We patted it with shovels. We got our plank with upright handles nailed on it, and spanked it. We smoothed it. We laid the plank down on the concrete and jumped up and down on it.
But it still looked warty.
“Pour water on the pile,” I suggested, a little excited.
But the first pailful seemed to just run off.
“Well, all right,” snapped Jim. “Don’t just stand there? Let’s get it spread first. Then we can smooth it later.”
“But that would only…” I began.
“Don’t argue!” shouted Jim, charging away with the wheelbarrow.
So we shoveled and wheelbarrowed and spread and shoveled and wheelbarrowed and spread. A side drive is a much larger area, in square yards, than you would think, backing a car out of it.
When we had got about 15 feet done out from the garage doors we knew we were beaten. If we delayed to flatten it, the outside of the main pile, down at the front end of the side drive, grew stiffer and more granular and harder to handle. I tried stirring it while Jim ran in and attempted to borrow a couple of men from the service station; from the grocer; the butcher and the drug store. He even telephoned some of our friends downtown at the office.
But my stirring was as useless as Jim’s telephone calls. It only let the air into the pile and dried it quicker.
“Good heavens,” gasped Jimmie, running out of the house. There will be that mountain of solid concrete blocking my drive…”
“Let’s spread it, any old way,” I replied.
So we worked like mad, trying to reduce the Vesuvius out by the sidewalk. In random humps, lumps, mounds, we laid the stuff another 15 feet down the drive,
But the sight of that awful pathway only caused us to abandon the main pile in desperate efforts to flatten down the work already done. We could reduce it in one spot, but the immediately adjoining square foot would resist, bulging up
So by the time the neighbors were arriving home for supper, half the pile stood a slowly congealing and immovable barricade while the other half was scattered in a ghastly, lumpy, misshapen roadway half-way down from the garage.
And Jim’s car inside.
Today, if you hear what sounds like machine-guns, it will be only the gang of concrete workers Jim got on compassionate grounds, breaking down the barricade and the abortive pavement.
They say they’ll have the driveway done before dark.
Editor’s Notes: V-bombs were German V-1 flying bombs, an early form of cruise missiles. They had short range so were used against Britain between June and October 1944. They were still used against the Allies until the end of the war, but with different targets like Antwerp.
Dragon’s teeth were a form of fortification to block access by tanks and other vehicles.
Greg was worried that they would need a “work priority” to get the concrete. This was still during World War Two, so all sorts of things were rationed, and if concrete was on the list, they would have to apply to the government in order to obtain some. When writing of his time billeted in English estates, he is referring to his time as a war correspondent.