Domestic Disturbances: The Amsterdam Cowboy

Courtesy Geoff Currier.

They say it takes a village to raise a child. Well, it takes a village plus a lot of summer residents to raise a barn, especially a barn the size of the new West Tisbury Agricultural Hall.

By 1994, the old West Tisbury Ag Hall, or Grange Hall as it was known, had been the scene of countless farmers’ markets, fairs, weddings, parties, and much rousting about for decades, but it was beginning to show its age. Not only that, the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society Fair, which was traditionally held on the old Ag Hall grounds every summer, was out-growing the tiny West Tisbury village center and so it was time to think about a bigger venue and a new location.

Coincidentally, a magnificent old post-and-beam dairy barn with more character than Calvin Coolidge was being offered for sale in Vermont.

Piece by piece, the whole barn was disassembled, beams and boards were numbered and everything was loaded onto trucks and sent off to its new home at the corner of Panhandle and State Roads in West Tisbury.

And the call went out for volunteers — “barn-busters” who would help put the barn back together again.

Let it be known that I will never be asked to host “This Old House,” although I once built a shed. I had to. All the lumber was sitting in the middle of my driveway and had to be cleared out so I could park my car.

What happened was this: When we first moved to the Island my mother wanted to give us a housewarming gift, so she asked if we would like a shed. She said she’d been looking through a Grossman’s catalog and saw a nice “Shed Kit” that probably wouldn’t be too hard to put up. Thinking it was pre-assembled and that all I had to do was nail the sides together and drop on the roof, I said “Sure, that would be great.”

The Shed Kit arrived one day while I was in the kitchen making lunch. I heard the high-pitched beeps of a large truck backing up and I went outside to see a tractor-trailer rig inching its way in reverse down the hill at the top of our driveway. On the back was a big load underneath a brown tarp.

The driver asked me where I wanted it and not seeing a lot of alternatives, I told him to drop it right there in the driveway. He unstrapped the load, took off the tarp, tilted the flatbed a few degrees and stepped on the gas. When the dust settled, it was apparent that this was a “shed kit” in the same sense that a tree is a “lumber kit.” What lay there were bunches of boards, bundles of shingles, boxes of nails, and a couple of windows. Well, at least I didn’t have to make my own glass.

Somehow, through trial and error, over the next month or so I managed to build the shed. It was far from perfect, but not bad, I thought, for someone whose previous building experience had never progressed beyond making bookends in seventh grade shop class. So when the call went out for  volunteers to help put up the new Ag Hall I thought to myself, “A barn’s just a big shed, I’m the man.”

I pulled into the parking lot at the construction site, grabbed my hammer and my little nail apron and headed over to the barn. The work was coming along nicely. The main structure was already framed and sheathed and you could see that it was going to be a thing of beauty. There was also a very good turnout; the whole area was buzzing with people and crews were being assigned to various tasks by the site boss.

Then, it hit me. Probably half the population of West Tisbury is involved in the building trades. These people had work boots, carpenter’s pencils behind their ears, those leather hammer holster belts and lots of calluses. They were the real deal, not just guys whose mother had given them a Shed Kit, and I suddenly had a flashback to a bar in Amsterdam where some years before I’d been present for what was being billed as “Cowboy Night.”

The place was owned by an American and he thought a theme night would be good for business, so Monday became “Cowboy Night” and all the locals were encouraged to come dressed in their finest cowboy regalia. It probably never occurred to him that the average Dutchman doesn’t have a Roy Rogers outfit stowed in the back of his closet, or if he does, he’s probably not talking about it. In fact about the only cowboy gear that was in evidence that night was a bunch of those little felt cowboy hats you might have had in the third grade — the kind with lacing around the brim and something like “Little Buckaroo” stitched into the side. Who knows where they found them all.

By Texas standards these Dutchmen didn’t cut much of a figure, but what they lacked in authenticity they more than made up for in Heinekens, and the bull riding machine was smoking all night long. Well anyway, standing there amongst all these construction types with their gunslinger tool belts, I felt like an imposter — I felt like an Amsterdam Cowboy.

I walked over to the site boss and asked him what I could do to help. He looked me over and thought about it for a minute and then said, “Why don’t you grab a brush and help out over there where they’re painting windows.” He didn’t come right out and say “Little Buckaroo,” but I could hear it in his voice.

So over to the window-painting station I went, but the guy who seemed to be boss there took one look at me and said, “Why don’t you grab a scraper and go over there and scrape the old paint off those windows.” This wasn’t working out the way I’d planned. I wanted to be up on the staging putting on courses of shingles with a nail gun; I wanted to be up on the peak of the roof snapping a chalk line and sharing carpenter jokes with the guys.

But no. There I was in the back of a shed with a putty knife, an endless stack of windows that hadn’t been painted since the Truman administration, sitting on the floor next to Ernie and Nan. Ernie and Nan were my fellow scrapers. They were a nice enough couple, probably in their seventies, but Ernie’s bursitis was killing him and Nan wasn’t crazy about sucking in all the lead paint fumes.

Morale wasn’t good at the window scraping station.

But if there was one thing that got me through the afternoon it was the thought that some day I’ll be driving along the road with my grandchildren and I’ll be able to pull over next to the Ag Hall and say, “You know kids, a long time ago, Grandpa worked on this beautiful building.”

“Really, Grandpa, did you really build the Ag Hall?” they’ll ask.

And I’ll look down at their sweet, innocent, eager faces, pause a moment and give them a self-effacing smile and say the words they want to hear:

“What do you think kids, shall we get a little ice cream?”