Man was made to build.
That’s hardly news. Humans have been building ever since they realized that caves lacked basic necessities, like cable television, granite countertops and bathrooms with built-in Jacuzzis.
But, what I had failed to realize until I visited Narragansett Beach this weekend with three granddaughters, is how innate construction is. I suppose I’ve known that since my kids were little and assisted them with putting blocks on top of each other when the vocabulary was limited to “Mama.” “Dada” came along later, after they discovered money, but that’s an all-together different story.
Building for my sons, Jack and Ted, took on new meaning when they met our neighbor, Tom Fitzgerald. Tom was a font of local knowledge. He was in his mid-80s when we moved to Warwick in 1975. He grew up in Warwick and remembered Prohibition, knew which homes were speakeasies, and could name who was running the booze. In his youth, he was quite the athlete and raced bicycles in “cyclodromes,” which were round or oval structures with ramped walls that enabled the cyclists to defy gravity as they gained momentum and ride almost perpendicular to the flooring.
Tom said such a cyclodrome once existed off Strawberry Field Road on land that is now part of the airport. I can’t say that I have found anyone else who remembers such a bicycle racetrack in Warwick, but then, they would have to go back a long way.
One thing’s for certain; Tom was a master craftsman. He loved building clocks, not the mechanisms—which were bought or given to him—but the cases. His basement had several benches that usually held two or three cases, from grandfather clocks to mantle clocks, in various stages of completion.
Jack and Ted, not to mention me, were captivated by Tom’s ability to take what was on paper and, with a few mahogany or cherry boards and tools, convert it into an heirloom.
Tom was generous with his time and the boys spent many hours learning how to make things from wood. More than anything, they learned that successful projects take planning and patience.
I saw a bit of that at the beach, where the near automatic compulsion to hold back the forces of the ocean always captivated me. No one had to tell the twins or their cousin, 6-year-old Natalie, that sand makes a good construction material. They set to work as soon we spread a towel to claim our piece of beach. Their fortification was at the reach of the biggest wave, meaning that every so often there was a frantic scramble to reinforce eroded walls as incoming and retreating waves undermined their work. As the tide was ebbing, there was the impression that they were winning and that the edifice – a walled sanctuary in which they placed rocks and shells – was safe.
Other kids, total strangers, stood to watch and a couple assisted. The structure was avoided, maybe admired, by walkers and even detoured surfers, who didn’t seem to care who was in their path in or out of the water.
Naturally, my grandchildren weren’t alone in creating beach works. There were many other far more elaborate structures. All were on the edge of the waves’ reach.
“Who wants to build in a safe place?” my wife Carol asked. Indeed, it seems that’s the case. Houses crowd our shoreline, stand in flood plains and perch on mountaintops.
Is it the challenge? I think it has to do with the “risk factor.” Even at 5 years old, the twins are drawn to do what reason defies. There was no more compelling evidence than when the tide went out and the waves no longer reached the castle. They lost interest and abandoned the castle.
Caves are safe but boring. No wonder we became builders, although it has gotten out of hand at times and it’s good for Mother Nature to reclaim what’s hers every now and again.