The last time this scenario played out, I was upstairs, age 13, laying vinyl-asbestos (yes, asbestos) tile and my father and brother Craig were downstairs watching a 17-inch TV -- the Giants were playing. This time, 57 years later, my father was still watching the Giants, but on a 38-inch flatscreen, and I was also doing my thing -- flooring. Only he was upstairs and I was on the ground floor of his bi-level home. Some things never change.
I was the handyman -- even as a young boy -- in my growing-up family in Spring Valley-Hillcrest, N.Y. My father is not exactly all thumbs, but he certainly did not inherit the hands-on, do-it-yourself abilities of his father, a smoking pipe maker, and his grandfather, who fashioned cabinets. Since my dad subscribed to Popular Mechanics, sometimes Popular Science, too, and simply because I took a liking to things electrical, mechanical, to wood, etc., I picked up this or that skill. Local tradesmen and my shop teacher Mr. Carroll didn’t hurt, either.
Nor did my parents’ trust. How else can you explain allowing a seventh grader to install an electrical outlet so his mom could use her very first washing machine? I didn’t burn the house down -- in fact I was super careful -- and the word got around so that I was soon working in this neighbor’s house or that.
But back to flooring. It took some time, but my father found a few bucks here and there, and some scrounged materials, to finish two bedrooms in the expandable attic of his Cape Cod home. He and my mother bought the place in summer 1953 for $12,500, and the idea was that if later the family found need and had some savings and offered sweat equity, the attic could be finished. So, in 1955 the Gunthers were at that stage. Some wiring was in, set by me. Wallboard, a ceiling, doors, trim, paint, wallpaper arrived too, with labor from my grandfather and Ike Pfeffer, a neighbor. We were ready for the floor, and I talked my dad into buying a three-tone (light, medium, dark) 9 inch by 9 inch Armstrong tile, in a “cork” style. I would install it, first following instructions by measuring the width and length of the room and marking the starting point.
Tiling went easy, and to cut it, I softened the tile in a lukewarm oven, then used a knife. No cutting, no asbestos dust. My guess is the floor is still in that old house, safe for the environment as long as no dust is created by sanding it, breaking it up, etc. I must say that the overall look was grand, and I can see it still in my mind.
Now, decades later, I am laying new vinyl, non-asbestos tile, over, yes, vinyl-asbestos in my dad’s 1964 Pearl River, N.Y., home. He’s a single man now, our mom having passed away in 1999, but he’s with it at almost 90. I get to take care of the house, but the fact is I’ve always taken care of it, and the one before this one. It’s the DNA I was granted.
Whatever thoughts I had years back laying the Armstrong tile are long forgotten -- perhaps they were of girls, school, future, cars, electrical work. Today, now retired, doing flooring or otherwise, I still think a bit about girls, no school, though, not much about the future, not really about cars, but electrical work, yes, since I do some volunteering with that skill.
Most of all, downstairs cutting tile in 2012, I am grateful I spent time in 1955 doing the same job upstairs.