concrete

David Behl mixes concrete to repair the author’s front steps.

GHENT, N.Y. — Hero is a term used far too wantonly these days.

But when you’re singularly helpless and hapless, as I am in virtually all manner of home repair and improvement, somebody who plucks you from the mire of your own incompetence and deposits you on the serene shores of achievement is a man among men, and also women, a leviathan of compassion. Such a man is Germantown, N.Y., resident David Behl.

Our shared adventure in concrete mixing, pouring and setting started about noon last Sunday and concluded five strenuous hours later. I’d actually put out feelers about whether David’s daughter Z (short for Elizabeth), a talented artist who has employed concrete as a sculptural medium, would condescend to help me refasten several flagstones that had come unstuck and remained that way through most of the pandemic.

Unfortunately, Z was unavailable — she was on her way to an artist’s residency somewhere like Nebraska — but her mother volunteered David. A dog playdate was the true incentive. Susan and David would arrive with their brown mix puppy Pippin to play with our dog Wallie.

But Wallie sprained her paw in the meantime — at least she was limping and licking it a lot — so we feared the raucous horseplay the pets typically engage in would inhibit Wallie’s recovery and called off the meeting. Yet even absent that incentive David came anyway, arriving alone in his pickup truck and with his own mortar, electric cement mixer, trowel, level and other tools of the trade.

I’d previously bought a fifty-pound bag of quick drying concrete, at least it felt like it weighed fifty pounds when I tried to lift it, under the fantasy that I could do the job myself.

I don’t know whether you’re familiar with Harvard developmental psychologist Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences? The professor (no relative) posits there isn’t one but at least eight types of intelligence — musical, visual, linguistic, logical, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, natural and existential.

I’m not sure what those most closely associated with problem solving are — probably logical and bodily-kinesthetic — but whatever they are when the creator, blessed be she, doled out abilities she overlooked me in those discreet areas of human excellence. I marvel at my inability to make and fix things, even though my daughter Lucy attributes my incompetence less to native ability than to my resistance to carefully, or even casually, read instructions.

David Behl, a professional photographer, suffers no such personality flaws. He’s built everything from barns, or things similarly ambitious, to supersized serpents for the New York City Greenwich Village Halloween Parade. His perfectionism was evident as soon as he started to prepare the field of battle, removing the flagstones as well as several more I wasn’t even aware were loose, and brushing the now bare steps of debris until they were spotless.

Next came the mixing of the mortar in a bucket; a challenging, labor-intensive process that required locating an electrical outlet for the handheld mixer and a water source, getting the ratio of mortar to water just right, and then applying it before it hardened. That seemed to work well until we ran out of the slurry half way through the project (even though you can’t tell for sure how well it went until the following day and the flagstones don’t shift under your feet, courting injury, the way they formerly did.)

So we resorted to the bag I’d bought — when in my wildest imagination did I believe that I could undertake this mission solo? — but upon examining it David discovered that it contained what appeared an equal amount of concrete powder and pebbles. He thought it best we sift out the pebbles – I wasn’t about to question his logic — which required a sifter.

We found one in the garage, the mesh dome for our copper fire pit. It seemed to suffice but then we needed a scale to weigh the remaining powder to make sure we got the all-important concrete/water ratio just right.

I was finally able to step up with a solution. I had just the thing. My baby scale. Yes, my Eisenhower era baby scale. When I was cleaning out my parents’ apartment in 2019 I found the scale on which my mother weighed me and my three younger brothers. Little did I realize it would eventually come in handy for a home improvement project more than half a century later, the bucket of concrete replacing a newborn on the scale’s weighing tray.

The bag of Kwikrete boasted that it was fast setting, but removing the pebbles somehow accelerated the process. We probably had no more than five minutes before it turned to stone.

Did I also mention that a few bluestones were loose around our swimming pool, several hundred feet from our front steps, and we planned to get to those, too? Much of what happened next is a blur but it involved running, or at least speed walking while lugging heavy equipment. Fortunately, there was a water source at the pool, the pool itself.

Several days later I’m feeling a sense of supernatural accomplishment even if I can’t take any credit for it. The front steps, once a gauntlet — we’d placed obstacles on the loose flagstones to prevent guests from stepping on them and initiating lawsuits — were now as solid as the Great Pyramid at Giza. The pool bluestones, too. I frankly don’t know how to repay David. I made him lunch but that hardly suffices. Perhaps multiple dinners or gift cards at his favorite local breweries.

What appeared to be a small chore took all afternoon. Perhaps my primary and only contribution in that whole dusty, dehydrating process was to cheerlead and confirm my own incompetence.

If I’d attempted the job on my own it would surely have ended in disaster, our front steps remaining a clear and present danger. For my newfound piece of mind there’s nothing I can do to repay my friend except to express my boundless gratitude.

Ralph Gardner Jr. is a journalist whose work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and The New Yorker. He can be reached at ralph@ralphgardner.com. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.