holy beaners that photo is old...so old I don't remember my house as white! I must have been five or six maybe??
by Bruce H. Mero
We had spent most of the first summer in our 1840s farmhouse tearing down and replacing the original cobblestone chimney. It had been a tedious and dirty job, each rock had to be chipped out of mortar and tossed off the roof onto the backyard lawn. This was done while balancing on the peak of the second-story roof, leaning against the chimney and beating on a cold chisel with a two pound, short handled sledge hammer. The trick was to loosen the stones enough from the ancient mortar to be able to grab them and toss them to the ground. This did not always work and two or three stones out of ten fell of their own volition, bouncing several hops off roof shingles and landing on the ground. With each bounce, cement chips, shingle shards and dust rained to the ground as well. I quickly stopped heroic stabs at catching the falling rocks; self-preservation outweighed roof-shingle preservation. I resigned myself to wincing at each rock bounce and letting gravity do the rest. Gretchen stayed clear of that side of the house while I was on the roof and the cats quickly learned to stay away also.
By the time the twelve feet or so of the exposed portion of the old chimney was below roof level, I had perfected the leaning, balancing, chisel smacking, loosening, catching and tossing routine to the point that only one or two rocks out of 50 were free falling to the ground. This gave me the confidence to look forward to removing a second, unused chimney the next summer.
This one would be a cinch, I thought each time I looked at the chimney. It was only one story up and only about ten feet above the roof peak. The portion through the roof was made of brick, many of which were missing or badly deteriorated. At the top were three cinderblock chimney blocks, put there, no doubt as a height extension to improve the draft of the old brick chimney. I’d not encountered these cinderblocks with my demolition of the first chimney, but I’d use the same technique, I thought. Loosen them with a chisel and hammer, lift them off and toss them to the ground. I mentally calculated them to weigh, maybe 40 pounds. Hell, I had been lifting 100-pound chicken-feed bags since we’d moved to the farm, so these would be simple. And the bricks under them would be much easier than the cobblestones. I was primed.
I started my project on a warm, blue-sky Sunday afternoon in early May. I figured I might be able to take most of the exposed part of the chimney down in one afternoon and had materials on hand to patch the roof once I was through. I could take down the remainder from either the attic, or the room below. I used my extension ladder to gain access to the roof and a six-foot stepladder was carried up and leaned from the peak of the roof to the chimney. As the chimney was fairly close to the peak, the stepladder was leaning at a comfortable angle and the top of the cinderblock extension only four feet above the top step. For safety, I nailed a 2 x 4 cleat into the roof at the base of the ladder with spikes, noting as I did that the roof board I was nailing to was a little spongy and might eventually need to be replaced. Stepping on the second step of the ladder, I jumped up and down a couple of times to assure myself that the ladder was going to stay in place. Confidently I grabbed my chisel and sledge, and climbed the ladder. The cinderblocks were only a couple of inches away from my face when I reached the second-to-the-top step. The mortar joint between the top block and the second block was slightly over my head, so I was contorting a bit to place the chisel in the mortar joint and hit it hard enough with the sledge to break the bond. With a couple of sound smacks, the joint cracked. The block was loose. I climbed down the ladder, put my tools at the base of the chimney and climbed back up to maneuver the block to a point I could toss it to the ground.
As I started to slide the block towards me, a car pulled into the driveway. Gretchen would greet whomever that was, I thought, and I returned to my task.
Working over my head and with my face pressed against the chimney, I had the block loosened enough to slide it toward me when I saw a man step out of the car. He walked toward me. Looking up and squinting into the sun with one hand over his eye for shade, he said “that he wanted to talk to me about the Lord.” I grunted and slid the block toward me. Cement dust showered my head.
The man moved a little closer. “I’m Brother Bob, from the New Redeemer Church, and I want to talk to you about the Lord,” he said.
“I’m kind of busy, right now,” I grunted, and pulled the block a little further. More cement dust. I blinked and spat a chunk of mortar out of my mouth. I heard the screen door slam and Gretchen warn our visitor that he was standing too close to the house.
Brother Bob ignored her and moved closer still and yelled “I want to talk to you about…” another tug, the cinderblock shifted and I now had all of its weight in my outstretched arms. It weighed a hell of a lot more than the 40 pounds I’d estimated it to weigh. More dust and chunks rained on my head. The ladder slid, only a little, but I could feel it moving. Holding the cinderblock over my head, I looked down and saw that the nails in the 2 x 4 cleat at the base of the ladder were pulling out of the roof. The added weight of the cinderblock was too much for the rotted roof board to hold. The cleat gave way and the ladder slipped. I let loose of the cinderblock and dove for the chimney. Somehow, the block missed me on its way down and hit the peak of the roof. It bounced once, thundered onto the middle of the roof, bounced once more and careened toward the spot where Brother Bob was standing, squinting, saluting, open-mouthed in mid-sentence. I slid down onto the roof on the loose shingles and caught the edge of the chimney. I looked over the edge of the roof in time to see the cinderblock imbed itself in the soft soil inches from Brother Bob’s wingtips and to see him turn and flee as the stepladder slid off the roof in a shower of mortar dust and impale itself upon the cinderblock. The extension ladder followed, and clipped Brother Bob on the left heal as he retreated. He never looked back. His car door slammed and he let gravel fly as he backed out of the driveway and roared down the road.
My guess is that Brother Bob went back to the New Redeemer Church to ponder his near-death experience. I also guess that his trip back included a quick re-fortification stop at Harley’s Tavern at the bottom of the hill. Whichever the case, he never again visited.
The remaining two cinderblock chimney tiles followed the trajectory of the first to the ground and the bricks were easily removed. The roof was weather-tight before nightfall.