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David Rubel’s Blog from Chiang Mai -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

David Rubel’s Blog from Chiang Mai

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Hump Day

Today was the day we finished the walls on our house and set the roof trusses. These are the triangular frames that span the house’s walls, support the roof, and tie the structure together. They’re twenty feet long and weigh over 350 pounds, so they’re difficult to work with and a little scary, too, because they have to be lifted up ten feet by hand.

The roof trusses finally go up. Photo by Julia Rubel.

 


Until today, the male Thai volunteers had worked on the back wall of the house and the attached bathroom, constructing these parts largely on their own using their own methodology. Or, viewing the situation another way, the Americans worked on the front and side walls, constructing these parts of the house largely on their own using their own methodology.

In setting the roof trusses, East met West, literally. That is, the walls that had been built independently by the Thai men and the Americans had to be fit together. Also, there was no way that any of us could set the trusses without the help of all the available manpower.

The sense of apprehension was fueled by a couple of mistakes that, I think, had undermined some of the Thais’ confidence in the efficacy of the project’s American leadership. In other words, rather than coming together, the people on our job site seemed to be feeling frayed.

Although we didn’t set the trusses until two o’clock, the hour felt a little like high noon. As it approached, one of the Thai Amway ladies who has been translating for us in between filling mortar holes asked me privately (and somewhat nervously), “Do you have a manual for this?” I think she wanted to be reassured that we weren’t making things up as we went along, but that was difficult for me because, for my part, I was.

When the time finally came to set the trusses, my fellow countryman Greg and I discussed staging a dry run, pretending to have the truss in hand and rehearsing its placement, as the house next door had. We abandoned that plan, however, quickly realizing the difficulty we would have describing the process to the Thai men and their likely preference for work over pantomime.

When we started to lift the trusses, I knew the first name of only one of the four Thais who have been working on the house since Monday. By the time we finished bolting in the purlins (the horizontal bars that tie the trusses together), I knew all four of their names, and I even had an idea of what each did for a living.

I don’t know whether they were just pulling my leg or not, but two of the guys told me their “nicknames” were Bert and Jack. Bert had been working hard all week, but today he really shined.

There were two small purlins that were supposed to connect the middle truss to the front and back trusses, respectively. They were supposed to be bolted in early; and by the time we realized our mistake, we had already installed and tightened most of the other purlins. When we finally put in the short purlins, we found that they didn’t reach the far end of the house because of a bow in the front wall. The only way to fix this, we were told, was to loosen all of the purlins we’d installed and try to pull in the bow.

The prospect of loosening all those recently tightened nuts and moving the heavy purlins back onto the ground was highly demoralizing, but then we rallied.

Bert, who is stronger than a speeding locomotive, leaped onto the scaffolding beneath the troubled purlin, grabbed it, and somehow pulled the house together, allowing the most troublesome bolt to be hammered into place. I really wanted him to know how much I appreciated what he had just done.

“Superman!” I cried, hoping, he would get the reference; and he did, smiling broadly. So did all of the other Thais on the job site. I think we all knew then that we were going to get our house done.

David Rubel is the author of “If I Had a Hammer: Building Homes and Hope with Habitat for Humanity.”