Recently, I refinished some old oak floors. I’d been through the floor wars before, having done a similar job years ago. Then it was summer and I lost 10 pounds and surprisingly did not get a standing ovation when the floors were done.
This time, after ripping up the brindle brown carpets, removing the wooden carpet strips and oohing and aahing over the 70-year-old oak floors that, even distressed, were a thing of beauty, we rented a drum sander (one room had a layer of glue on top of the floor).
“How heavy is the sander?” I asked the man behind the counter at BSE, the equipment rental store.
He looked at me before answering. He sized me up, the way Jack LaLanne, the late fitness guru, had after I interviewed him 20 years ago: “Have you ever thought about getting in shape?” LaLanne asked.
“The sander is heavy,” said the man at BSE. “You may want to ask your kids and your grandkids to help you.”
Grandkids? I’m not offended you think I’m old enough to have grandkids, I’m offended that you think I’m old enough to have grandkids who are old enough to help lift a heavy sander.
I don’t need kids or grandkids. When I got to the house, I wrestled the sander out of the back of the Jeep and nearly tore both arms out of my sockets. It was like a Monty Python skit. If I kept up this tomfoolery, I’d be 2 feet high, all trunk and the sander would come with two arms already attached for subsequent renters.
I dragged the sander up the steps and into the house. Before threading in the 24 — the roughest grit of sandpaper — and plugging in the sander, I looked at the floors so I could remember the before-picture. I thought, as I am wont to do, deeply, sensitively, historically and with some appreciation for our common destiny.
The story of a house can be read through three things, the kitchen table being the first. Plans are made, bread is broken, coffee is drunk, tears are shed and laughter makes everything all right again. This is the music of the breakfast table.
The ceiling is next, especially if you have a two-story house. The ceiling on the first floor is a history of leaks from torrential rains, toilets, baths and sinks.
Oak floors tell another story. Small, padded footsteps, businesslike steps with hard-soled shoes, angry steps, joyous ones and those signaling the fare-thee-wells and good-to-see-yous.
Refinishing floors is like going to work-church. While working on the floor, as well as your soul, be prepared to spend a certain amount of time on your knees praying that God does not desert you in your hours and hours of need.
I fired up the sander and moved forward as if I were mowing a lawn. After traveling 5 feet, the sander quit. I had tripped one of the breakers and fried the electrical outlet because of the sander’s amperage. The sander was not only heavy but required a nuclear power plant to run.
I flipped on the breaker and started mowing the floor again. Why was the wood so bumpy? I felt like I was flying the Spruce Goose in turbulence.
“You know, you’re supposed to be walking backwards with the sander,” said Ray, who was helping me with the project. “What you’re doing is making waves on the floor.”
I turned off the sander and studied the floor. It looked like a topographical map of the eastern part of Kern County, with farmland abutting rolling hills. If I kept going, this floor would have a new story to tell: The story of a guy, perhaps a knucklehead who thought he knew what he was doing, but didn’t.
I started walking backward pulling the sander, which yearned to go forward. Work-church wasn’t going well. Where was Jack LaLanne when I needed him? Jack or a grandchild old enough to help rather than just eat mint chip ice cream.
An hour later, I was so tired, I could barely see. I’m surprised I didn’t stumble, fall and sand off my foot. My hands trembled so much I could barely hold my car keys. I thought about putting the key fob between my teeth and head dipping it into the ignition in order to start the car.
Two days later, I was finished sanding. Some of the boards had a lovely pink cast and some were still a brooding gray color. The floor wasn’t perfect but neither was life, humanity and especially me.
Golden oak, the stain I chose, looked darker on the floor than it did in the picture on the side of the can. The instructions mentioned that the stain would have an amber cast to it once it dried. Give me amber as in the amber waves of grain.
The floor is ready for a new story. Ready for parents, children and grandchildren. Ready for goodbyes but mostly for “Hello, come on in.”