News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Local & Bistate

November 1, 2010

Lunsford: What I did on my summer vacation

TERRE HAUTE — One thing that many of us probably have in common is that when we were kids we were given the annual “What I Did On My Summer Vacation” writing assignment on the first day back to school. And, each fall, I imagine, most of us had the same trouble coming up with a few lousy paragraphs.

Since I didn’t go anywhere or do much of anything in my childhood summers, I rarely produced work that, let us say, would have intrigued publishers. But, boy, did I do something this summer. Get out your red grading pens. This may not be on notebook paper, but here’s my report…

I built a cabin this summer. Well, my friends and I built one. Call it a studio; call it an office; call it “cute,” as a few of my buddies’ wives have done, but we started from scratch on June 22, and by the end of August, I had something that I have yearned for and dreamed about for a long time.

I was originally determined to spend this past summer writing a book — a real, write-from-scratch story — a memoir of sorts about growing up in the country amidst a kooky menagerie of relatives and animals and friends. But late last fall, I submitted an application for an Eli Lilly Teacher Creativity Grant, and lo and behold, by winter I was informed that I had won one on my very first try. The grant, a generous sum, would go a long way toward making my own crude floor plan, scratched out on the back of a church bulletin (sorry, Pastor), a reality.

The proposal I sent to the Endowment folks called for me to build a “Cabin in the Woods.” I wanted to use their money — for which I am eternally grateful — and a good-sized chunk of my own change, to drive my family to Walden Pond in Concord, Mass., walk the walk that Henry David Thoreau took, take a long look at his famous “experiment in living,” and then get myself back home to build something just about like the small cabin he had built on property owned by his good pal, Ralph Emerson.

My cabin isn’t actually in the woods. My heart originally told me that it would be located well away from my house and that I would walk a beaten path to its vine-covered door. But when I discovered exactly what the cost would be to run electricity to the building, and the difficulty of getting materials down into my woods (the Creator personally designed my property to train Big-Horned Sheep for life in the Rocky Mountains), I opted instead for a location much closer to my house. After all, I want to be able to get to it in cold, snowy weather without a team of Huskies and an ice pick.

Duplicating Thoreau’s cabin board-for-board never really entered my mind. Although my cabin is within a few inches of having the same measurements as his (10 feet by 15 feet), has a cedar exterior, and a similar pitch to its roof, there is little else in common with the great man’s place. Thoreau hardly had triple-pane windows and a heat pump; I have no fireplace or bed. Instead, my cabin is really a reflection of my wants and needs, and a certain kind of improvisation that led to wall-to-wall bookcases, a small deck, a Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired entry door, and a floor made of Douglas fir planks that were recycled seats from an old high school gymnasium (one of the cabin’s conversation pieces; a special thanks goes to my Virostko family friends for those).

Before I ever saw any of the grant’s money, I made my way to my big brother for a floor plan. Brother John has never let a lack of actual training keep him from doing things, and he soon produced a more polished design for me. For help with ramrodding construction, I considered no one else but my buddy, Joe Huxford. I mention Joe often in my stories because the man knows tools, never shies away from hard work, and is always willing to lend a hand; we enjoy our time together. Along with his capable assistant, Torre Lynn, a former student of mine who has already forgiven me for my rather rough treatment of his English essays, we laid the cabin out and had most of the posts in the ground in a single day. It was blistering on that first day, but it proved to be just the first in a long succession of cruelly steamy days in a long Sahara-like summer.

My son, Evan, soon joined the crew on days he wasn’t working; it is always nice to have someone on hand who is 6 feet, 5 inches tall and can bench press small automobiles, so making Evan a “material handler” was a perfect fit. Another friend, Joe’s brother-in-law, Dennis Weber, soon came to the job site, too. Dennis is an amalgam of perfectionism and common sense, of mathematical accuracy and creative craftsmanship. Considering myself more a student manager than an actual player, I knew the team needed at least one more all-star to make the roster complete. I called Charlie Wheat, an old school buddy who knows more about electricity than Victor Frankenstein; he wired my building, most often in the hot late hours after his work day was done.

By the time the cedar siding went up, Jared Weber, Dennis’ younger son, entered the picture. Jared, an engineer, runs job sites considerably larger than a cabin, but he says he doesn’t get to wallow in the dirt and sweat enough doing that job, so he got involved with mine. I’m not suggesting that the cheese has slid off Jared’s cracker, but on a few days when the temperature was pushing 100 degrees, he stood on a stepladder in the withering heat and said with upturned arms, “Come on Sun, you can get hotter than this.”

This story couldn’t be complete without mentioning one other assistant, and he was there from the very first day. As I stepped around the east side of my barn in search of a tamping rod on that initial first shift, I came across — or he came across me — a skinny, little striped kitten, who stood at my feet and seemed to announce, “Well, you’re surely going to pick me up.” So, Henry, named in honor of Thoreau, not only joined my work crew, but also joined my family, too. His work mostly involved inspecting our daily progress, then napping on building materials.

Well, my assignment is pretty well done. I’ll admit, it’s incomplete — I can’t fit my whole story in this tiny space. I can’t tell you much about how Dennis built a gorgeous work table out of wormy oak for me (and totally disregarded even a modicum of ladder safety); how Joe cut my trim out of sassafras and didn’t want paid for it in honor of his dad, Herman, who would have given it to me, too; about what an honor it was to work with friends and my son and never have the first cross word; about how beautiful the changing season is through the 5-foot picture window that sits before me right now. I now have, as Gaston Bachelard said, in reference to the best reasons for owning a house, that it, “…shelters day dreaming, protects the dreamer, and allows one to dream in peace.”

His line is perfect, but I think another is just as appropriate. In an early scene in Frank Capra’s “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,” Gary Cooper’s Longfellow Deeds stands on the rear platform of a train car and says, “Gosh, I got a lot of friends.”

Now, I have a place in which to dream, and I most certainly have a lot of friends who made it happen.        

Mike Lunsford can be reached by e-mail at or by writing to him c/o The Tribune-Star, P.O. Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. Read more of Mike’s stories at, and visit his website at to learn more about his books. Check out the website soon for more cabin photos.

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    March 12, 2010