I am not very handy. I have tremendous admiration for those who can build, repair, and create. I can recall three times in my life when I put my hands to the test with DIY projects. The first time was when I dropped the engine out of my Volkswagen Beetle to replace the clutch plate. The second time was when I rebuilt the engine of my Datsun 510. And the third time was when I built a backyard deck. On the first two occasions, I was essentially my friends’ apprentice; the third occasion I went solo, and it nearly killed me.
We had a modest deck off the kitchen of our home; the patio furniture filled its space, leaving little room for anything else. This house was split level, with the kitchen located on the top floor. I had a vision to expand the deck space by creating another deck closer to ground level and connecting the two with stairs. On the lower deck, we would put a garden swing and barbecue; I could build it large enough for some lounge chairs and potted flowers, too. I got further carried away in planning stairs from this lower deck which led to a ground surface of large, flat rocks. It was an ambitious vision, and I was ill-equipped to build it, both figuratively and literally.
In a time before “You” was Person of the Year, the skills I lacked were somewhat addressed by a couple of short, live tutorials with my friend Gary. The tools I lacked were supplied by the same carpenter friend. While I had my own hammer, I had to borrow pretty much everything else. My friend let me borrow tape measures, levels, squares, plumb lines… and saws. Power saws. Of all the tools, the circular saw intimidated me most. Although I took woodworking courses in junior high and had a healthy respect for power tools, I never felt a true comfort with them and doubt I ever will.
I chose to build this deck in the early weeks of July. At the time, my wife worked for Parks Canada, and summer months were very busy for her. This meant that I was home alone with our children who, at the time, were barely school-aged. We made our home in the Columbia Valley where summer temperatures creep well into the thirties, and our south-facing yard offered no respite throughout the afternoon. So, I would start this project early each day, right after breakfast. My daughters would spend the morning outside with me, keeping out of my way for the most part. I had a fair bit of yard preparation work to complete before I began to construct the deck. By lunch, it would grow very hot outside and the direct sunlight would drive our girls inside to play in the cool basement. Each day, I would keep at it, outside, on my own.
Our back yard offered no shade, nor did the empty field which extended beyond my property line, all the way to the hospital about 200 metres away. When our youngest was born, my wife was able to look across this field from her hospital bed and, through our kitchen windows, watch me make coffee. The sun was unrelenting this July, drying up both our yard and the hospital field. I had plenty of water on hand to keep hydrated, and I shed as much clothing as was reasonable, with my hospital friends likely watching me. Several days into the project, this is how I came to be all by myself, wearing only a pair of athletic shorts, while handling a circular saw.
I had made good progress. The concrete blocks and supporting posts were in place. I had cut and formed the base of the deck with all its joists. I had treated all the wood, including the surface planks; these planks were now evenly spaced and secured to create the deck surface. It was looking great! One of the last tasks would be to trim the ends of all the surface planks: they were hanging beyond the deck’s edge, bared like uneven teeth. One pass with the circular saw would do it.
The plank ends were all pointing east off that side of the deck. Fortunately, I am right-handed which meant I could make the cuts from the deck’s front corner, straight along the edge toward the house wall. So, resting upon my left palm and kneeling my left leg on the deck, my right leg standing on the ground, I began to cut the ends from each over-hanging plank. One by one, the short ends fell to the ground. Suddenly, the saw blade caught something and kicked back with force.
It traced a line across the inside of my right thigh.
It is quite difficult to recall my thoughts in that moment. First, it was many years ago. Second, I do not like to think of it… in fact, writing this is a challenge. When I turn my mind to that day, my knees react with the sensation one feels leaning over a balcony from the 20th floor. I feel my muscles tense and spasm. I tightly shut my eyes, suck in, and hold a breath. I might grab hold of my leg and squeeze. I brace. This experience lives still in my body. Everything which has passed through the minds of friends reading this passed through mine that moment; there is no need to inventory my mistakes nor speculate on ‘what-ifs’. It is, however, worthy to note and bless John Everette Tompkins and his friends for their foresight.
To say I have been traumatized by this near miss may be a stretch… or maybe not. Based on my experience, it is unlikely I will ever be handy. Carpentry shops are not a comfortable place for me: these spaces set my “body’s threat thermostat higher”: “Any situation where you feel overwhelmed and unsafe can trigger a trauma response.” I am lucky that my place of work is a school, and not a construction site where I would be exposed to chronic stress. This would exhaust my body and deplete my reserves until I learned how to heal the impacts of trauma.
In wrapping up this year and preparing for the next, I know our members keep Trauma-Informed Practice foremost in mind for their students, staff, and families. My wish in sharing this story of a long ago summer project is that Principals and Vice-Principals also see themselves through this lens, and connect with a friend for support if they could use a little help.
This weekend at the final Chapter Council of the 2021-2022 year, I will meet with friends and will listen to their stories of challenge, learning, and success. In the remaining weeks of the year, I have planned further travel and will check in with more of our school leaders on the road. It is important to share our stories, to talk about our experiences, and – when needed – to lean on our community of leaders who make up the BCPVPA. Until we connect, keep well and safe.