It was a Saturday ritual for most of my teenage years and beyond. My father and I would rise early in the morning, load up our gear, make a quick stop at White’s Bakery, then head out to insulate a house somewhere.
It did not happen every Saturday, but it happened most of them. For instance, I believe it was in 1977 that we insulated a structure somewhere 50 of the year’s 52 Saturdays, with a few weekday nights mixed in.
No doubt, I did my share of complaining about having to work many Saturday mornings, especially as I grew older. But the jobs meant I always had spending money, with some left over to stash in the bank, so I did not complain a lot.
I was paid $5 an hour, the same hourly wage I agreed to when I became a sports editor at this very newspaper in 1983, so all things considered, the insulation gig was a pretty good deal. Sometimes, especially when my dad grew tired of messing with fiberglass insulation rolls, I took side jobs on my own and earned a much better wage.
Insulating left me with a long list of memories that I will likely carry with me for the rest of my life.
My dad’s favorite is no doubt the one where I almost put a mouse in my mouth.
We used mostly what is called cellulose fiber insulation — basically ground up newspaper treated with chemicals to make it fire retardant and the like — and sometimes mice would get in the insulation bags we stored in barns. The insulation process we used involved dumping bags of insulation into what we called a hopper that ground the insulation into finer particles so it would pass more easily through a hose that blew the insulation into the attics and sidewalls of homes and businesses. When we insulated sidewalls, we drilled holes in the side of homes, then had a nozzle attached to the end of the hose that narrowed in width so it would properly fit into the holes we drilled.
Sometimes, as the hopper blew the insulation through the hose, the nozzle clogged up. When that happened we’d use a remote switch to turn off the hopper. Then we’d pull the nozzle out of the hole and try to blow it clear with our mouths. That worked most of the time. But not always.
This particular day I was up on a ladder when the hose clogged. So, as usual, I turned the hopper off, pulled the nozzle out of the hole, and aimed the nozzle at mouth. To blow the hose clean you had to place the nozzle in your mouth, wrap your lips around it, then blow as hard as you could.
It was such a routine part of the business that I suppose we did it without thinking — or looking. On this particular occasion the nozzle was probably already partly in mouth when it registered in my mind that I had briefly seen something that did not look usual approaching my face. I jerked the nozzle back, and when I took a closer look saw that a partially ground up mouse was what had clogged the nozzle. To be more specific, its ground up body was partially hanging out of the nozzle’s end.
Now, to hear my dad tell it, in one swift motion I threw the hose and remote cord, screamed like a woman, and leapt off the ladder. I like to think he has embellished the story. But I can tell you that it is not a very good feeling when you’re several feet off the ground and suddenly realize you had a bloody, ground up mouse halfway in your mouth.
There were many other mishaps over the years. Sometimes an exterior wall would not have an interior wall behind it (that the homeowner did not tell us about) and other times, especially in older houses, the bottom of a stud wall might not be capped. From time to time we’d blow a lot of insulation into a basement, or a pantry, closet, under a stairwell, or wherever.
But the dangerous part of the job was blowing insulation in the attic. From time to time we found snake skins. And let me tell you, when you’re crawling in a tight space on your hands and knees, with insulation swirling in the air making it hard to see, a snake skin is not a fun thing stumble upon.
Sometimes there would be bees nests. As both my dad and I grew older, I was usually the guy in the attic. But when I came across a bee nest with bees swarming around it, I’d hit the remote switch real quick and tell dad it was his turn to take over.
In all those years of crawling across 2 x 4s or 2 x 6s on my hands and knees — and sometimes flat on my belly — and dragging a hose, remote cord and light cord with me, I only damaged one ceiling.
Some customers had built a brand new addition onto their home and asked us to insulate it. I was going about my usual routine in the attic when a foot slipped off a 2 x 4 and went straight through the brand new room’s ceiling. To make matters worse, the woman of the house was watching TV in the new room when it happened. So there I was, with a leg dangling precariously through the ceiling, about embarrassed as could be, listening to a woman loudly rant about what I had done to her new room.
I don’t think my dad made much money on that job.
There are other stories that could be told, like when my dad was home for lunch from his regular job one day and was working on the motor that attached to the hopper. He was wearing a tie and when he turned the motor on it caught a hold of the tie and pulled it tighter around his neck than a noose. It was pretty scary for a bit as his face turned purple, but somehow he eventually got loose.
Yes, I might have complained from time to time on those Saturday mornings. But looking back, they were priceless.
Jeff Gilliland is the editor of The Times-Gazette. He can be reached at [email protected] or 937-402-2522.