The Colonel’s Plan – Inspection

May 16, 2018

Dear Daddy –

I took this week off to work on the green bathroom, among other things. It’s Wednesday at 2:52 in the afternoon, and I wish I could say I had gotten more accomplished. I suppose I’m too demanding of my time. So far this week, I’ve met the inspector for the new air conditioning system—more about that in a minute—I’ve bought window facing, because we were out of it again. I furred out the rest of the studs under the window, so the tile would have a 3/8″ overlap where it met the Sheetrock. I’ve cut the last piece of Durock to go behind under the bathroom window. That one was the most difficult, because it had to fit around the air duct. I’m still jealous of your ability to cut wall panels that fit exactly around fixtures, and with no odd gaps because something was slightly out of level. I’m picking up some tips, though. I used a cardboard mask this time to make the cutouts for the duct. 

I cut three pieces of Sheetrock to go above the Durock, and got all that hung. The walls are all covered now. And it’s time to begin tiling. I don’t want any mistakes, so I counted out tiles and did some test-fitting before beginning. I drew level lines at the top and bottom. I discovered that the tub was just slightly out of level—the bubble was still between the lines, but that left the bottom of the tile on the far left flush with the tub, while the bottom of the one on the far right was almost a half inch above the tub surface. That’s if I used a strictly level line. If I adjusted the tile’s level line to exactly match the slight pitch of the tub, all was well. I’ll have to cheat about 3/16 of an inch with those tiles on the right. 

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The Colonel’s Plan – Working it Through

May 10, 2018

Dear Daddy –

A few years ago, I called you one evening and asked how, in all your years of working with people, you had managed to not lose your temper—and probably your job—when confronted with outright stupidity and obstinacy. I don’t remember what event sparked my question. I think I remember who had upset me—well, I remember that it was one of two people—and I won’t name names. Both of those people are gone from my professional working days, and good riddance. 

But people still upset me. I have trouble working when I’m upset. Let me clarify that—I have trouble using my mind to work when I’m upset. Most of the work I’m paid for involves the use of my mind—writing, programming, problem-solving, project planning and managing people and resources. All of those involve using my intellect to solve problems, to lay plans, to see through the muck of obstacles, complaints and setbacks and decide what needs to be done next. I’m very good at doing that, by the way, except when I’m angry or hurt. 

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The Colonel’s Plan – Fighting Entropy, Stopping and Starting

May 2, 2018

Dear Daddy —

Entropy. Let’s talk about entropy.

The first definition is right up your alley. In physics, entropy is “a thermodynamic quantity representing the unavailability of a system’s thermal energy for conversion into mechanical work, often interpreted as the degree of disorder or randomness in the system.”

In colloquial speech, it’s “a lack of order or predictability; gradual decline into disorder.”

When I decided, last week, to talk to you about entropy, it was with a more hopeful frame of mind that’s lost to me now. Now I just feel beaten down.

According to the second law of thermodynamics, the total entropy of an isolated system never decreases over time.

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The Colonel’s Plan – Setting the Tables

April 25, 2018

Dear Daddy—

I cleaned the basement for about two hours last night—not that you’d really notice. It takes a long time to make a visible dent in rooms where so much storage has occurred. I worked on the room with the train tables. Remember the train tables? 

The train tables… Today.

It’s difficult to define rooms in the basement. There are nominally five. The cinderblock walls define four—two end rooms, about 24′ x 29′, and two long, middle rooms, each about 15′ x 44′. You added a darkroom early on. It’s not in the plans, but it’s about a 15′ x 6′ space with a laundry tub and the ability to double as a laundry room. 

The train tables are in one end of the long front room, under the dining room. Back around 1979 or 1980, Charles and I planned to start building an HO model railroad layout. We were each going to construct one 4′ x 8′ section of it. The book we had on scenery recommended an open-framed style platform on which to construct the plaster landscape. We had our design sketches ready, and I believe I came to you and asked if there was a stash of 2′ x 4’s not spoken for. (Trust me, as many mildewed 2′ x 4’s as I threw away last year, I’m sure there were, even in 1980.) 

You asked what we were up to, and then immediately grabbed a yellow legal pad and started designing 4′ x 8′ tables with storage shelves underneath them. I explained patiently—as patiently as my 14 or 15-year-old self could, which was probably not patiently at all—that that was not what the book said to do. 

Your relationship to books was the same as your relationship to the Internet. Your relationship to the Internet was the same as damn near every other person born before 1960’s relationship to the Internet—that is, you didn’t believe a word that appeared on it. I recall you saying more than once that you knew more about the subject at hand than the author of the book I was referencing. And yes, you said it once about a veterinary manual—by a veterinarian!. And no, you never attended a veterinary school, nor did you have any practical experience in the field beyond once contemplating removing a tumor off of Old Susie’s foot with a pocket knife and a match. Susie, here, refers to your mother’s hound dog, not my sister. I would never refer to my sister as “Old Susie.” I’m less sure that you would not have contemplated removing a tumor from my sister’s foot using a pocketknife. 

Suzie on Ma’s back porch, c 1973. Suzie was the mother of our dogs Benji and Lady. I believe Suzie lived until about 1985.

You dismissed Bill McLanahan’s knowledge of framing for model railroads, and further declared, “I’m not just thinking about model trains. I’m designing something sturdy that can be of use after the train fad is over.” I guess you didn’t realize that model trains are usually a lifelong hobby, even though you’d just bought a model train for your father for his 80th birthday. We still have that train. And it will be going on one of those tables. 

So you built the amazingly sturdy tables, and Charles and I took over that section of the basement for the next three years. I built a couple of buildings for my layout—one by hand out of found materials. I smashed it in anger after Charles got mad at me about something else one day and left me a note saying that, by the way, the building “stinks.” We filled the floor behind the tables with discarded Fudgsicle wrappers until Mother threatened to stop buying Fudgsicles. I believe, when tossing them back there, I would often sing the idiotic space hippie song from Star Trek about eating all the fruit and throwing away the rind. We built airplane models. I was working on a B29, like you flew in the War. 

And, eventually, I got over my anxiety of starting a project—because once you’ve started it, you have to work on it, and you might make a mistake. While you’re planning, it’s perfect—and began constructing a hillside out of plaster. I had that well underway when I was struck with graduation, complications of which led to my being institutionalized at the University of Maryland. 

As soon as I moved into my dorm room, you took over my bedroom to be your new corporate offices, and you took over the train room to be your conference room. Our hobby supplies were removed from the Very Sturdy Tables, including my plaster hillside, which you carried to the second floor and leaned up in a corner of my general purpose room. I think I finally threw it away. 

Your prophecy was self-fulfilling. The “train fad” ended because you ended it. I think that was your plan all along. The conference room lasted until the late 1980s. Your chalkboard is still on the wall, with diagrams for fighter planes and radar images—the last project you worked on for the Pentagon was how to fool the seeker heads on air to air missiles. 

After that, the conference room filled up with junk, like everything else. The space in the “L” formed by the two tables was impassable. The cubicle you had set up for interns to use wasn’t visible behind the towers of equipment. The equipment was moved out last Summer and Fall, leaving that end of the room largely clear. I think there’s still a big laser on the floor behind one of the tables. Christian cleared the tables of junk and began bringing over his collection of game consoles. The room was coming back to life as a hobby space again. 

And then we emptied Mother’s office so it could become her bedroom, and, well, all her boxes of files had to go somewhere. In a “Greater love hath no man,” move, Christian stacked them on his tables. So I spent two hours last night beginning to transfer the files into one of the eleven file cabinets you left behind, eight of which are now also in that front room of the basement. It will take many more hours, and I really need to focus on bathrooms until they’re finished and inspected. 

But we’re getting there. And, as God is my witness, there will be trains on those tables again. 

Love, Steven

The Colonel’s Plan – The Old Hunt Club

April 18th, 2018

Dear Daddy –

I still have a house, too. I’ve talked so much about yours, you might have forgotten that I don’t live in your house. I’m just there a lot. And it’s not your house anymore, in a legal sense, is it? Legally, it’s Mother’s. Spiritually, you gave up on it long ago, and I’m renewing it now. So I guess there are two houses in my life—our house, yours, Mother’s, the family’s and mine, and my house, mine and Renee’s, anyway.

My house is 148 years old this year. It was 126 when I bought it. You were our home inspector. You checked the foundation, the structure, the wiring, the plumbing. Ethan was three years old. Christian wasn’t born and wouldn’t be for three years. Renee and I weren’t intending to buy a house that day before Christmas Eve in 1995, but there it was. I was on my way to a meeting at the Elkridge Library (now just renovated and re-opened, then just four years old) and I decided to take the back way to get there. I passed this beautiful old house on a hill. Renee was working in real estate, so I called her and said I’d like to see it. She set up an appointment. We went by on the way to the grocery store to buy Christmas supplies. There was snow on the ground. 

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The Colonel’s Plan – Plumbing the House’s Guts

April 11th, 2018

Dear Daddy –

I resolved one bathroom ago that I was never going to use all the tile you bought. You had planned what are now called “vintage” bathrooms, in many of which the soap dishes, toothbrush holders, toilet paper dispensers and towel racks were permanently mounted with, and made of the same color porcelain as, all the other fixtures. The pink bathroom will go in as you planned it. It’s a pink bathroom. It can’t be anything but what it is.

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The Colonel’s Plan – “Do Not Hit or SET On”

April 4th, 2018

Dear Daddy – 

A year ago today, you came home from your last visit to the hospital. You came in an ambulance, because you were too weak to even get in and out of a car. You had a foley catheter, because you couldn’t tend to your own needs in that area any longer. Gilchrist Hospice Services had brought you a hospital bed and a portable toilet. You refused to use that. You also refused to use a wheelchair, even though your doctor had told you it was shortening your life to walk unassisted. You liked the hospital bed—for a few days. Then you got bored with it and wanted your old, broken couch back. Susan and I had carried that out to the garage the day before you came home. 

As we began staying nights with you, I began working on the house in earnest. A lot of cleanup had happened before you were confined to a bed in the family room, and it continued. But I put up the dining room door facings that you had been “working on” for about three years. I straightened the French doors that you have never been able to level, because you could no longer concentrate on a problem for more than ten or fifteen minutes. I started finishing Charles’s old bedroom. From your bed, you gave me tips on hanging the closet doors—how to cut hinge seats was something the YouTube videos claimed was easy, but it was not, until you told me the easy way to do it. 

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The Colonel’s Plan – Close One Wall, Open… the Same Wall

March 27th, 2018

Dear Daddy – 

Aside from doing the joints and painting the walls, the blue bathroom is finished. All the plumbing and electrical are in place and working. I had a little snag this weekend, as I finished the electrical work. I once again had it rubbed in my face to check line voltage before putting in drywall. I think I get it now. Hopefully I won’t have to be reminded a third time. 

You had left two wires dangling down from the attic, inside the wall on which the sinks were to be installed. I knew one was for the light fixture which you had already purchased way back in the day. What was the other? I assumed it was for an outlet.

Of course, as I think I’ve mentioned before, there was no room for an outlet over the sinks. You had purchased a mirror that literally took up the entire wall over the counter, from just below the 16” allowance for the light fixture, all the way down to the 32” standard height of the countertop. I guessed that you had been planning to shift the outlet either into the shower wall (sounds dangerous!) or over the toilet (not much better.)

I should have known you better. In fact, I do know you better. 

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The Colonel’s Plan – The Thing Outside the Library Window – Part Two of Two

Sometime while I was in college, I believe, the dreaded metal cabinets arrived. These were, of course, surplus. They’re a blue-gray in color, with light gray doors and dusty orange shelves. Only they’re not shelves, they’re cross-bars designed so that wire brackets could be fastened into them, sitting upright. The cabinets were designed to hold reels of magnetic tape and were used for data storage in IBM Mainframe computers in days gone by. We have a few dozen of them, and I’m pretty sure we also have every. single. roll. of magnetic tape. that ever went in them. Well, we did. I’ve sent a lot of them to recycling now. But there are still hundreds in the basement.

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The Colonel’s Plan – The Thing Outside the Library Window – Part One of Two

March 7, 2018

Dear Daddy —

Two weeks ago, I wrote about The Thing out in the yard by the basement door. Last week I actually had hazmat experts come out and test it. I had asked a couple of people—our eCyclers, my friend Bob who runs a computer museum, the CEO of the National Electronics Musuem—what The Thing might be. They didn’t believe Phillips’s claim that it was a condenser that only held water. They were pretty sure it contained PCBs. Some of us also vaguely remembered that the reason you kept The Thing outside, sitting on its own special pallet which you had constructed, was that you feared it contained PCBs. 

Turns out it’s a 50-gallon energy drink. Seriously. The lab results came back, and the fluid within is composed of saccharine, caffeine, lactose and water. So, basically, it’s a giant steel Starbuck’s beverage. Why the fluid is bright green when it freezes and oozes out is anybody’s guess. But I’ve been told I can cart it to the landfill and tell them it’s not a hazardous material. 

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