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An Engineer in the Woods, Installment 38: Growth of An Engineer; Part 2 – The House, and the Family Effect

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Since this issue ends with a couple Christmas stories, I decided to publish it a week early.  May you have a beautiful Christmas!


I have had people read my home improvement and pet stories and say, “That’s not engineering.”  I disagree.  EVERYTHING I do is engineering.  As I’m writing this, I am taking Therapy (PT) from Matt at Athletico for a mostly destroyed left rotator cuff.  My daughter Aileen (PT, DPT) diagnosed me over Facetime and once I understood the mechanics of the tendons, muscles, bones and nerves I realized why this was not something that I could fix myself, as Aileen had already cautioned.  Thinking about this latest health problem like an engineer helps me to understand the PT and have confidence in the process.  Medicine is engineering.

Likewise, all of my stories are actually about engineering.  My pet stories almost always involve engineering the responses of a “dumb” animal.  I approach every issue like an engineer – define the problem, define the goal, define the challenges, design the solution, implement the solution.  If you reread those “non-engineering” pet stories, you will see that that is what happened in most of them.

My story telling is a little different, because I engineer my stories.  I have a place that I start, a place that I want to end, a few details that I want to sprinkle in and some emotional pictures that I want to paint during the story.  For an engineering design my tools are physics, chemistry and mathematics.  A story design needs vocabulary, grammar and a little poetry or humor or both.  Same process, different tools.  I didn’t intend my writing to be that purposeful, but it’s the way I am, and there is a reason that it is effective.  You can read about it in The Science Behind The Art Of Storytelling.

The majority of my house stories have obviously been engineering related, and the house is probably the number one reason that I am the engineer that I am.

My family started building our house in the woods right about the time I was born so I suspect that I had been baptized as a future engineer at birth.  I’m sure that I had seen blueprints and had visited the property that would become our new home before I was even baptized as a Christian (Richards Street Methodist, Palm Sunday 1963).  Our house in the woods is in my soul, and the engineering that created it is in there too, along with my heritage.

                                                          Newborn Howie home from Silver Cross Hospital
                                                           February 1963, 657 Whitley Avenue Joliet, IL
                                                                    (Mom was 40 when she had me)


My Grandpa James Flack Hamilton was born in Michigan during the Civil War and passed away at the age of 91, 6 years before I was born.  He had caught pneumonia on a duck hunting trip.  For much of his working life he was a successful partner in Hamilton Brothers Construction in Texas where, toward the end of the 19th century and over the first ¼ of the 20th century, he designed and built sewer and water systems for towns throughout the southwest, but mainly in Texas.  

                                             My Grandpa, His “State of the Art” Sewer Trenching Machine, 
                                                             and the Hamilton Bros. Construction Crew


Around 1910 he met a young Joliet woman, Vida Leontina Krans, who was working for a hat company in the Lone Star state, and they were married.Several years later they moved their family to Joliet, allowing Grandma to be close to her family.  Her parents were first generation immigrants from Sweden, and she had five surviving sisters, all born in the USA.  
Grandpa built their expansive house on Cowles Avenue himself and over the years three of Grandma’s sisters (and one husband) moved-in with them.  My father was born there in 1922; the oops child, youngest of four (three surviving past infancy). Dad caught the construction bug from Grandpa Ham and, after serving in WWII, Dad earned his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Civil-Sanitary Engineering from the University of Illinois.  Dad’s older brother Jim was also impacted by Grandpa Ham’s passion for construction because he had graduated from the University of Illinois before the war, married my Aunt Millie, and became a civil engineer for the Louisville District of the Army Corps of Engineers.  His sister, Helen, married a Chemical Engineer (Uncle Jack) and moved with him to Connecticut.
My mother’s youngest sibling, Bill, went to the University of Illinois after recovering from his war injuries, became a Civil Engineer and moved to New York with his wife (Aunt Priscilla) where he formed a successful company that sold water and wastewater treatment equipment.  Mom’s younger sister, Janet, married a Civil Engineering student at the University of Illinois (Uncle Hal, also a veteran) who graduated “Bronze Tablet” (top of his class), and became a top bridge engineer for an international Structural Engineering firm in St. Louis.

   The University of Illinois "Bronze Tablet"


Only Aunt Pris remains from that generation – and ALL of them, and my cousins, would regularly come to Joliet to help build our house!  You can imagine what family get-togethers were like, especially when they revolved around building a house.  My earliest memories involve my father and engineer uncles talking about engineering while they hammered and wired and landscaped and painted and shingled and plumbed (and drank beer).  I think the beer tabs that I found in some of the walls during our remodel explain why it appears that they occasionally forgot to use a level!
“Howard, why did you become an engineer?”
“I dunno.  What else is there?”

My older brother Bruce (15 years my senior, I was an “oops” like my dad) was a University of Illinois Civil Engineer and his wife Marsha has a mathematics degree from the University of Illinois.  My younger sister Helen (also a U of I grad) is married to a University of Illinois Electrical Engineer, and my wife Kristen is also a University of Illinois Electrical Engineer.  My older sister Jan (contemporary of Bruce) is our favorite because she is different.  Her family is U of I and engineer-free.  She was a teacher and has retired to Lake Geneva where she works in a greenhouse and her husband Bob owns and operates Maple Park Antiques.

So, here’s the engineer count:
1    Grandfather
1    Father
4    Uncles
1    Brother
1    Brother In-Law
1    Wife
1    Me
10    7 Civil, 2 Electrical and 1 Chemical and all but Grandpa Ham and Uncle Jack went to the University of Illinois.  Engineering and “the Chief” are definitely in my blood…

All of that engineering background, but it was the house that really formed me.  Dad designed it. Dad built it.  Mom built, furnished, worked-out the room layouts, and decorated it. Bruce built it. Jan built it.  Uncles, Aunts and Cousins built it.  I was there for all of it.  When I was old enough that I could hold a hammer, I rebuilt some of it after it was damaged twice by tornadoes.  Helen was helping by the second tornado as well.  Kristen and I developed the plans, and provided some of the “sweat-equity” that completely rebuilt it in 2015 so now it’s in Kristen’s soul as well.  The challenges of building and maintaining a home will give anyone some of the traits of an engineer, but with my heritage it just made the drive to be an engineer stronger.  Here a just couple of the stories about two of my engineer uncles and the house.

The Chamois (pronounced “shammy”)
I think it was my Grandparents 50th wedding anniversary (Howard and Maybelle Morse).  The party was going to be at the Big House (ours), so the windows needed to be washed.  The house has more windows than wall space!
My Uncle Hal (the smart, detailed, perfectionist engineer – all four words are redundant) was given the window washing task, “I can’t do a decent job without a chamois!”  I was probably 5 or 6 at the time and I had a literal lifetime of experience washing those damned windows, but I had never heard of a “shammy.”  We had used squeegees, and sponges, and old bed sheets, and old bath towels, and newspapers – all of which left streaks, but our family was definitely not in a financial position to have something with a fancy French name.  Uncle Hal needed a fancy French piece of tanned goat hide though.
Dad responded, “I think I have one in a box in the Workshop.  I’ll go look.”
Dad never told me, but I suspect that he had the same “car-guy” tendencies that passed on to both my brother and me.  Not strong enough to be talented mechanics, but able to enjoy the beauty of an automobile, the performance attributes of a car, an interest in driving, and just enough mechanical knowledge to be able to take something apart before hiring someone to put it back together.  Some of the old high school and college snapshots of Dad are of him standing next to cars.  As I cleaned-out what is now my workshop I found several boxes of old car parts.  I remember an old water-stained cardboard box that contained scrub brushes, old rags, buffing compound, and a metal Simons paste

wax container that was rusted shut and rattled like it was full of gravel.  I suspect that it was Dad’s “detailing box” from the 1940’s and that that is where he found the chamois 25 years later and 45 years before I pitched the box and contents in 2015 (including several generations of mouse poop).
“Here you go Hal,” Dad exited from the “Shop” and tossed Uncle Hal a hard grayish-tan sphere that looked like a crumpled dusty-brown paper grocery bag.
Uncle Hal fielded the ball with his left hand with the skill of a Cardinals shortstop (he was a St. Louis guy).  He flipped it to his right palm and considered his prize despairingly, “What is this?” 
“Shammy,” was the response.
Engineer discourse: request made, request fulfilled, clarification requested, clarification provided.  No further discussion needed.
Uncle Hal appeared dubious, but he returned to his window washing task and tossed the chamois into a bucket of warm water to rehydrate.
Five or six minutes later the house shook with a high-pitched, slightly southern-twanged bellow from my uncle, “BOB!!!! What the Hell is THIS!!!!”
Dad sighed and stood-up from whatever house disaster he was fixing.  Unfurling his gangly legs, he strolled toward the source of the bleating.  “You asked for a chamois.”
“Not like THIS!” Uncle Hal pulled shredded strips of useless chamois material from the bucket.
Dad shrugged, “It’s all that I have.”

The following Christmas, Aunt Jan and Uncle Hal gave a new chamois to Mom and Dad.  Mom and Dad had already wrapped the old chamois and had gifted it to them.  Both packages were, coincidently, opened at the same time. 

  Uncle Hall and the Chamois


The next Christmas the old chamois came back, only to be returned the following Christmas.  This was repeated year after year, each time wrapped more creatively or hidden cleverly within another gift.  One year, for Uncle Hal’s birthday, Mom baked the chamois into a cake and had it delivered to him.  The cake was decorated with the Bluebird of Happiness – another back-and-forth joke between the two families.

   The Chamois-Filled Bluebird of Happiness Birthday Cake


On the final Christmas that the chamois was gifted, Mom and Dad received it in a gold frame.  It hung in the hall by the downstairs guest bedroom for decades until we decided that it did not fit with our decorating scheme.

The Pranksters
I can’t tell an Uncle Hal story without adding an Uncle Bill tale.
My grandpa, Howard Adams Morse (yes, I am related to John and John Quincy Adams (Presidents) and Samuel Morse (telegraph, Morse Code) but by blood; not money, brains, or influence) was a prankster.  I knew him as an old man with whitened red hair and an impish grin.  My sister Helen and I would call him Grandpa Ape, and he would play along with his best monkey impression.  His humor and pranks were legendary, and that gene was passed to his youngest, Bill.  Uncle Bill was the gregarious, humorous and successful engineer (those four words are NOT redundant, and very few engineers earn even one of those adjectives).   He would often play pranks at Christmas, and the rest of us would reciprocate, and occasionally be the instigators.  

One Christmas at our house, the cousins (this was the Morse-side cousins (see pic), I don’t recall who all was there at the time, but I’m fairly certain that my brother Bruce was the ringleader) decided to prank Uncle Bill.  They had studied him for a couple days and knew the timing of his morning bathroom “call.”  At the scheduled time, two members of the prank crew went individually into the Master and Downstairs baths and locked the doors.  Uncle Bill tried each door unsuccessfully, and Bruce skittered into the Upstairs Hall bath ahead of his scurrying uncle. “Dammit Bruce!  You better be quick!!”
“I will be,” was the response.  In the locked bathroom, Bruce removed a sheet of nearly invisible Saran Wrap from his pajama pocket, stretched it tightly over the porcelain toilet bowl, and closed the lid.  He then flushed for effect and turned on the sink briefly as if he were washing his hands.  He exited the room, “All yours.”
“Hrmpff,” Uncle Bill liked to pretend that he was a curmudgeon, but he was actually a real sweetheart.
He latched the door behind him, lifted the seat and saw the prank.  Even with the exhaust fan on he could hear snickers from the other side of the door.  He smiled, carefully removed the plastic, looked around the room and saw a pair of my mom’s tan pantyhose drying on a towel rod next to the shower.  He had a plan.
The snickers crescendoed. 
He grabbed the damp hose and wrapped them inside the Saran Wrap forming a tight ball.  He dropped his trousers around his ankles (boxer shorts remaining in place), threw open the door and scuttled into the hallway.  “YOU’LL PAY FOR THIS!!!” as he swung the bag of fake feces in a circle above his head.  The kids scattered, “AND YOU CAN CLEAN THIS UP!!!!”  He launched the bag toward the back of Bruce’s head, Bruce ducked, and the projectile exploded onto the wall.  The entire house erupted into stunned silence.
Dad entered the scene, considered his partially clothed brother-in-law, his cowering son and other nervous pranksters, and the brown mass that had come to rest at the base of the wall.  He approached the pile and grabbed it to the disgusted gasps of everyone (except Uncle Bill).  He stood and flung it at Bill (further gasps).  The damp pantyhose unfurled and wrapped around my uncle’s neck.  As the witnesses began to process the occurrence, uproarious laughter began and continued for years after.

 The “Morse-Side” Cousins
 (L-R, B-F)  Jeanette, Ann, Marsha (Bruce’s wife), Bruce, Jan, David, Howie, Helen


To summarize, the house not only fueled my talents as an engineer but also as a humorist.  But not because it was/is a house, but because it is a home.  Home means Family.

I pray that 2021 allows some good “family time” for all of us!