Deck Dreams appeared in the June 22, 1995 edition of Berkshires Week magazine, as The Last Word feature. Re-reading this, well, I feel it’s kind of quaint. We do have a deck now. An Azek deck with a railing + a slider from the kitchen. The whole thing ended up costing $15K. I have to laugh. We didn’t want to do it when it would have cost a lot less. But then, back then, it would have been pressure treated lumber. (And now I’d be complaining about having to clean, restain + waterseal the deck.) All we have to do for our Azek deck is find someone with a pressure washer. There is a forest of moss growing all over the thing. We never go out there. To wit.
Bandit is long gone. Sniff. Our current dogs, which we got when they were puppies, are pushing 14 + 15, so … gosh, the 1990s. What a swell time that was. How carefree we were. How not jaded. Gah, who remembers Babbages? Who even remembers THE MALL?
The photo at the top is of some youthful volunteers from Camp Taconic repainting the handicap ramp at the back of the Habitat office in 2014. Now, if I had a team of ambitious young volunteers, what I could do.
It started five years ago when the dog, Bandit, fell through the rotting wood on the small deck off the kitchen. We heard a hapless yelp and looked out — the dog was nowhere to be seen, but his run (to which he was attached by the collar) seemed to indicate he was under the deck. Our deck is (was) only two feet high, so Bandit (big Husky-Keeshond mix) survived, no worse for the wear, but we, that is, my boyfriend and I, looked at each other and sighed.
“We could nail some plywood over the whole thing,” Don suggested.
“Oh, there’s a solution,” I said sarcastically.
Later that summer we found the carpenter ants. “Deck’s gotta come down,” I said. Don agreed. But we didn’t want to tear the old one down without a plan for a replacement, so like good little consumers and computer freaks we went to Babbages — forget pencils and blueprints — forget also the fact that Don’s an engineer, and designed and built a still-working Tesla coil when he was 12 or something — we needed a program to design a rectangle for us.
We stumbled upon Design and Build Your Deck, and I think it cost less than $15. “This is a really cheesy program,” I said at home later, with the program up and running. “There are two designs in here. This thing won’t let me put stairs there and there’s only two railing styles.”
“Well, it was only $15,” Don said. “By the way, how many square feet are you designing for there, anyway?”
“That’s bigger than the house, and we’ll have to dig 24 four-foot deep holes for the footings.”
The cheesy little program also informed us that it would cost in the neighborhood of $4,000 for materials alone for a deck of this size.
“Deck’s are too expensive, and anyway, it’s too late to do anything about it this year,” we agreed. It was August 1. Over the course of the winter the dog fell through the deck several more times, and it got to the point where he would venture no further than a few feet from the door before squatting. “Bandit! Get off the porch!”
“Let’s start letting him go out the living room door,” Don said helpfully.
The next summer Don uncharacteristically took the lead, and came home with a circular saw (his father’s), and we spent a weekend tearing down the deck. Don sawed and I carried the pieces into the backyard for burning. When the decking was all down, we saw that there were no cement footings — just thick wooden posts, which by now had decomposed nearly completely, driven four feet into the ground. They fell over easily with a little kick. We surveyed the end of the house for ant damage and found none. That supreme effort complete, we settled in for the rest of the summer with margaritas and talked about the monster deck we were going to build (someday.) We encouraged the dog to jump for it from the kitchen door.
Well, that didn’t last long, so we took the old porch stairs and balanced them under the door. This proved more precarious than jumping for it, be it the dog, or one of us.
The only one who had no problem with this arrangement was the cat. Because the stairs are not actually attached to the house, if you stand on one side or the other, you get pitched in that general direction. It’s quite thrilling coming in our kitchen door, really. Like a ride in Don’s imaginary Insanity Amusement Park, where all the rides are death rides. The catapult that flings you three full miles — if you’re lucky, you land in a lake. Or the Bubble Wrap Bramble — “We wrap people in mongo layers of bubble wrap and roll them off the Thunderbolt up on Greylock.” This is usually followed by deranged laughter.
“Do you lay awake at night thinking these things up?” I asked. This idea of his originated around the time that bungee jumping became popular. “Do you believe that? People just tie a rubber band to their ankles and hurl themselves off of cranes,” he said. “Half the time they’re so excited they forget to attach the band.” This is true, really.
The next year we decided that we needed to relocate three bushes that were going to be in the way of the new deck design. We dug one out, and nearly broke our backs trying to lift the rootball out of the dirt. “Ugh. I hate this!” I said miserably. Our soil is really rocky — and I mean big rocks, like you’d need a front loader to lift them out. “I don’t want to dig 24 holes in this dirt.” This is either me or Don, at various intervals over the years.
“When are you going to build that deck?” my father began asking that year. “When you retire and can come over and help us with it,” was my response. “I’m not retiring for another two years,” he said. “No problem,” Don said, “I can wait.” I scowled at him. We told our neighbors we were building a deck off the kitchen. Neither of them had decks. Now they both do. We still don’t. “This is getting embarrassing,” I whined to Don. “We keep telling people we’re going to build a deck and then we never do.”
“No, you keep telling people we’re going to build a deck. Just stop talking about it.”
We spent the next few years bickering in public over the deck issue. “You never do anything,” I complained. “Hey, I tore the old one down, remember? And anyway, you’re too uptight about this whole home-improvement thing. Remember the ‘Let’s aerate the lawn, honey’ incident? Life’s too short to angst over a stupid deck.” Well, that makes alot of sense.
“Besides, how much time do we really spend outside on that end of the house? It gets baked by the afternoon sun, there’s not a tree in sight, and then of course, there’s our bug problem.” And of course, he’s right. We live next to a swamp. We get mosquitoes, black flies, no-see-ums, and more. We really can’t go outside until October, most years. “And I don’t want to dig those awful holes in the ground. Remember how terrible it was just digging out that one bush? It’ll kill me, I’m sure of it.”
“Well, we need a place to put the grill,” I said lamely.
“Great. We need to build a $2,000 deck so the grill has a home.”
Over the years I designed and redesigned, and now our deck (on paper) is about 12 square feet. I’m exaggerating. It’s 200, but it seems like 12 compared to the original 670. “It’s pretty narrow,” I say to Don, furrowing my brow. “It’s big enough for the damn grill, isn’t it?” he says. “And look, we still have to dig 12 holes! Can’t you make it small enough so we only have to dig two holes?” “I have an idea,” I said. “Let’s hire someone to dig the holes!”
“Let’s hire someone to dig the holes and pour the cement footings, I don’t want to do that part either.”
I said, “I really don’t want to do the frame either. We’d have to rent a surveyor’s level and make sure that the thing sloped a quarter inch every few feet away from the house for drainage. We’d surely mess it up. Let’s hire someone to do all that.”
“Okay, then you and I can screw down the decking and put up the railing,” Don said.
We started to get really excited at the prospect of having a deck and not having to do much physical labor to get it. We relayed this whole scheme to our pragmatic friend Ian, over margaritas one sunny afternoon. Ian said, “That’s all the expensive stuff. Screwing down the decking and putting up the rail will probably only cost a hundred dollars more.”
I looked at Don. “Let’s hire someone to do the whole damn thing. Then we’ll have nice deck, a home for the grill, a safe walking surface for the dog, and that end of the house will finally look finished.”
“Listen, you don’t have a job. So what you’re saying is that I should hire someone to build a deck.” Um, well, yes.
It’s been five years, and I’ve decided this is not the year of the deck, at least for me. I have finally chilled out about it. My father is retired now, and from time to time asks about the deck plans. “We’re trying to relax, Dad. Go play golf or something, will you?”
Now I tell people, “Isn’t it nice to feel the grass between your toes as you sit here on our lawn?”
Ian says, “What difference does it make whether we sit here or if we’re elevated by two feet, and sitting on pressure-treated lumber?”
Don raises his glass in a mock toast. “Now that’s the kind of talk I like to hear. Anyone for another margarita?”