There wasn’t usually much going on, aside from waiting out winter, in the trailer I lived in on County Highway B, in Shell Lake, Wisconsin. Not much, that is, until the day I heard the words “pre-fabricated construction” and that we were going to move into town. Suddenly, there was a lot of activity. My dad explained that were we going to have a brand-new house, and it would be built in a way that was also brand-new. It would be “pre-fab.” He said there was some outfit in Wausau, Wisconsin, called Wausau Homes, that sold what was essentially a very large model kit. When this model was assembled, instead of having an airplane or train to play with, we would have a house to live in. Unbeknownst to me, my parents had already put money down on one of those pre-fab house kits, and as soon as the ground thawed enough to dig a basement, the project would start.
I was seven and not yet familiar with any outfits in Wausau, but I grasped the basic concept of pre-fab and wanted to help. I thought I could buy some parts for this “model” we were about to build, but I didn’t know if we needed flat or semi-gloss paint and I had no way to bring shingles home from the hardware store. Plus, I didn’t know how to build anything other than a snowman.
So, in the fall of 1975, instead of checking to see if the house dimensions on the blueprint corresponded correctly to the plat of survey, I monitored the progress of construction. I watched in amazement as a cement foundation was poured and then four individual, rectangular walls were somehow lifted in, attached to the foundation, and then attached to each other. The roof was delivered in sections, attached to the walls, and eventually shingled. Some redwood siding, which still needed staining, arrived and was used to create the final protective layer of the exterior walls. And after a “goddam whichamacallit,” manufacturing delay at Wausau Homes, the windows and doors were delivered and installed.
Luckily, we always had enough of the two main things that seemed to miraculously hold a new house together, nails and swearing, and before an inch of snow could accumulate, our particular style of pre-fab house had been fully assembled. It was a was split-level design, which meant that after coming through the front door there was a landing and a choice: you could go up one short set of stairs to the main living area or go down another short set of stairs to the basement. But we didn’t move in right away because the entire interior, upstairs and down, was unfinished. My parents explained that this is how it is with a pre-fab home, you finish it as you have the time and money.
My parents also explained that since my dad was really, really handy he would do the work himself when he wasn’t at his day job, with occasional help from assorted relatives who had varying degrees of home building skills. Because my dad did the finishing work in the evenings and on the weekends, there were several months where there was a landing and stairs going up, but no stairs going down. And then there were a few more months when the unfinished, pre-fab basement had walls that were half cement and half exposed 2X4’s with pink R-15 insulation poking out from between the ground level windows, but nothing else, only large piles of dirt where some kind of flooring would eventually go.
I wasn’t really confident we would ever have enough time or money to finish this pre-fab model, but I thought it was great to have a house where I could jump from the front door into a pile of dirt. I’m not sure my parents were having as much fun because they spent all their time in the upstairs unrolling linoleum in the kitchen, laying parquet flooring in the living room, bricking the fireplace façade, putting up sheetrock to form interior walls, installing appliances, cutting baseboards, painting and staining. I spent most of my time with my sister and our dog, Muttley, playing in the basement and doing small jobs like hauling boxes, taking out the trash, finding my dad’s thermos of coffee, and handing my gramma some cotton balls so she could soak them in fingernail polish remover and then use them to scrape the stickers off the inside of the upstairs windows.
Out of all the small jobs in the construction zone, the most important one was to stay out-of-the-way, and I was very good at it. One afternoon, I was in the basement imagining which pile of dirt I would clear to make my bedroom, when I suddenly had to go to the bathroom. Badly. I might have reasoned that I was standing in the exact spot where a toilet would someday be so it didn’t really matter or I might have stayed out-of-the-way just a little too long, and I couldn’t get up out of the dirt, onto the landing, and up the stairs to the only bathroom quick enough, but I dropped my JCPenney jeans, squatted down and did my business.
It’s possible the smell got his attention or that he was about to take a break from pounding nails anyway, but before I could start to figure out what to do next, I heard footsteps thundering across the finished part of the upstairs floor, coming toward the basement. My dad jumped from the landing into the dirt and demanded to know, “What the hell happened down here?!” My dog’s ears perked up and I ventured, “Muttley did it. He pooped in the dirt.” My dad looked at me and then looked at our dog. A familiar cascade of Italian language that I never spoke but definitely understood, ended with a vague “well, someone clean that up,” and as quickly as he had jumped down, my dad climbed up out of the dirt, onto the landing, and went back to work hanging sheetrock.
Keeping up with an erratic construction schedule and not using a toilet were very strange, but getting away with lying to my dad was downright baffling. I wondered if that was just how things were going to be from now on. Maybe everyone who ordered a model home kit from Wausau Homes lived like this? I didn’t know. I just knew that it seemed like a step up from living in a trailer and I was already enjoying my pre-fab conditions.