SLIGHTLY OFF THE MARK
Over the summer I demolished my home’s chimney, as a result of the earlier discovery that the chimney was trying to demolish itself. Many people, when faced with such a chore, will bring in various power equipment, up to and including such things as portable generators and air compressors, and maybe a lift to get them up to the top safely.
I did it with a hammer.
The bricks about halfway down my chimney started deteriorating not long after I bought my house, which as nearly as I can determine was built in 1879 by two drunk teenagers and a trained monkey. The monkey did good work … for a monkey. I had the chimney patched at the same time a new rubber roofing was put over my kitchen twenty years ago, and they both held up longer than expected.
But over last winter the roof started leaking again, and when I went out in the spring (I don’t go outside during winter; instead I send a robot who looks like me) I discovered a hole the size of my head all the way through the bricks to the liner. I’m not talking a normal head, either: I’m talking a big head, like the swelled one I got after my book was published but before I realized I still had to work for a living.
Chimney experts – graduates of the Indiana School of Understanding Chimneys, or I-SUC – informed me it would cost more to fix the chimney than it was worth, something I’d already figured out for myself. They didn’t mention how much trouble it would be to vent my furnace and water heater a different way … that’s a whole other expensive story.
Faced with a chimney that could go over any which way in the next strong wind, and with election season promising many strong winds in 2012, I searched my heart and my wallet, and decided to take it down myself.
Okay, say it all together. Ready:
“What could possibly go wrong?”
Well, the thing was literally falling apart; how hard could it be to help it along? I determined to save what bricks I could for use later, possibly in a fire pit or an Occupy Wall Street protest. Then I armed myself with a hammer, chisel, and crowbar. My intention: To pry out each individual brick, saving them and doing a controlled demolition to prevent property damage.
Stop laughing; it seemed like a reasonable plan.
I put my 20 foot extension ladder against the flat roof, then hauled up a roof ladder borrowed from a retired fire truck. These ladders have hooks on them, and I was able to slide it up to secure over the top peak on my two story house. That put me about thirty feet in the air, although after I crossed the flat roof, climbed the short peak, clambered across the second pitched room, and got to the roof ladder near the edge, I discovered the obvious: it was a lot higher from that position.
I don’t need to add, this all happened during a heat wave.
At the top of my chimney was a cap, made of slabs of concrete much heavier than a single brick. Truth in advertising: I had already experienced all this up to that point, having been called to many chimney fires over the years. At least this one wasn’t puffing smoke in my face.
From then on the surprises started.
I put the chisel in one hand and experimentally tapped it with the hammer, trying to loosen the mortar under the cap. Nothing. No surprise: I hit it harder. Nothing. While clinging to the chimney, with the rungs of a ladder keeping me from sliding off the roof, I hit the chisel as hard as I could.
It put a tiny dent in the mortar. The mortar was, in fact, still has hard and strong as the same year the chimney went up. Not only that, but there at the top the bricks were so solid and whole that I suspect everything above the level of the pitched roof was newer than the rest of the chimney. Unfortunately that wouldn’t help, as it only made for one big solid hunk that could crash through my roof when the stuff below it finally collapsed.
It took me all day to get just the top cap off.
You’re no doubt wondering what I planned to do with the bricks once I loosened them. Thirty feet in the air, remember? Well, my solution was brilliant and without flaw: On the ground about fifteen feet behind my extension ladder was a pile of brush, thanks to my constantly shedding bushes and trees. I would throw the bricks onto that pile, which would help cushion their impact and keep them from bouncing into the neighbor’s yard. So, once I got that first capstone loosened, it was a fairly simple task to stand on the edge of the roof and completely forget how much heavier the capstone was than a brick.
The capstone didn’t arc. It dropped.
Dogs howled. People a mile away paused, their hands hovering over 911. Seismographs registered in Missouri. My neighbors shook their head and went on about their business.
I was left staring at my now lopsided ladder, which took the impact on its lowest rung with such force that one of the beams bent in.
That’s when I started laughing. Because, really, what else was I to do?
Next week: Demolition Part 2: The Fall.