Shutdown Survivalism

It’s week 7 of our lockdown and as I write this I’m eating lopsided homemade bread, my son is feeding me experimental jalapeño kombucha and I’m about to undergo my first alarmingly-unskilled home haircut. At this present course it appears that I’ll be churning my own butter by late May. I don’t mean to sound unappreciative for all our home-sheltering has taught us but I, for one, am ready to turn the page.

This was my complaint until I was encouragingly bucked up by a fellow Vermonter who reminded me that we are, by definition, a Do-it-Yourself State. We improvise. We adapt. We self-rely! Sure, the rest of the world might freak out when services shut down, but we’re Vermonters. We soldier on!

This was, of course, exactly what I needed to hear. Truth be told, the phrase “Let’s call in the professionals!” doesn’t easily roll off the tongue here even in the best of times. Our regional reluctance to call in a plumber or carpenter, I’m reminded, is kind of like those drivers who refuse to pull over to ask for directions but on a much grander scale.

I’ve certainly heard folks reference the popular coinage “Yankee Ingenuity” or that Emersonian “Self-Reliance”, but these genteel expressions, I’m afraid, really don’t capture the militant spirit of the matter. Ours is a brand of “Do-it-Yourselfism” that’s more like religious dogma. Letting your tools get rusty in these parts is a sin that might only be pardoned after penitently re-shingling your roof single-handedly over the summer.

To be fair I had some inkling of this already during a return trip to suburban western Michigan. By stark contrast, home maintenance there is largely a matter of check-writing. The good folks in Michigan weren’t even doing their own lawncare for goodness sake. Here was a world were servicemen edged your lawns, installed underground sprinklers, and whole teams of jerseyed landscapers would roll in on a Saturday morning that you could watch comfortably through your window.(One might pray for unskilled folks like that during a Pandemic Lockdown.)

But if the Vermont brand of Self-Reliance had a true champion it would have to be my former father-in-law. He was the uncontested Patron Saint of Do-It-Yourselfism. His motivating mantra might have been something like “How hard can it be?” (Carpentry? Masonry? Home dentistry?) His do-it-yourself chimney, for example, might not have been the straightest, but as another can-do Vermonter was apt to say: “I never saw smoke that doesn’t bend.” I suppose the thinking was that if the house caught fire you had no one to blame but yourself.

Legend had it that he even dismissed his own lawyer half-way through a court trial — preferring to represent himself. By all accounts Grandpa would have thrived in our current corona crisis. Like Jack Thornton of “Call of the Wild” he could “with a rifle and a pound of salt fare wherever he pleased, as long as he pleased.”

The miracle of Grandpa’s self-reliance was even visited upon us posthumously, when, years after his passing we discovered an unfortunate dampness in his basement. In a decision I’m not proud of, we broke down and called in the professionals. After pulling back a few panels, our plumber friend discovered some rather creative do-it-yourself pipe-work configurations. Astonished, he took a few pictures which he immediately sent to his plumbing buddies. (This time around no one was offering clever phrases about water bending -the steep cost of retrofitting pipes heavy on our minds.)

But if there was a truly remarkable display of Grandpa’s self-service wizardry, it would have to be his homemade cornfield runway. Shortly after moving to the area with my wife, it became apparent that Grandpa had bought himself a plane, taught himself to fly, and had converted the back field into a homemade runway. (All of this done in a full-service, non-Pandemic economy, mind you.)

Clearly this was a case of Do-It-Yourselfism gone too far.

“But isn’t that the cornfield?” I said to my wife?

“Not anymore!” she responded and the subject remained somewhat academic until a large family gathering shortly thereafter.

“So, do you want to go for a ride?” my father-in-law tossed out over Sunday pie. In the plane. Down the cornfield runway.

A rather indescribable eternity of silence followed. And not much breathing. The (unspoken) family consensus was that Grandpa’s can-do bravado may have finally crossed the line. Sure, we could laugh at his crooked chimneys. Hoping to clear the hedgerow of trees at the end of a homemade runway in a single-engine Cessna with a self-taught pilot was not presenting any humor anyone could see.

Somehow I heard myself saying “yes”.

My wife gave me one of those desperate, clinging hugs you might see in a farewell scene at a train station in some WWII movie. I found myself missing Michigan.

I suppose it came with some relief that Grandpa’s flight preparation went beyond simply kicking the tires. Methodically he checked his instruments, made radio contact with someone. I suppressed the feeling that the cramped cockpit reminded me of my college Volkswagen Beetle.

Suffice it to say we cleared that menacing tree line. And landed safely.

I guess I’ll try to recollect that courage as I go under the inexperienced scissors of my wife. And pray for those services to turn back on.



English teacher, father and monthly columnist for the Brandon Reporter, a small Vermont rural newspaper. The following are reprints of my monthly contributions.

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David Praamsma

David Praamsma

English teacher, father and monthly columnist for the Brandon Reporter, a small Vermont rural newspaper. The following are reprints of my monthly contributions.

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