I read the other day that the governor wants to build a security fence around the mansion in Pierre, and I made a joke on Twitter.
The proposed fence was supposed to be eight feet high. So I said I’d lived across from the mansion for 43 years and nearly always had a 16-foot ladder in my garage. That’s funny, see? Eight-foot fence. Sixteen-foot ladder right across the street?
A minute after I posted the remark, I felt bad for making light of security for an elected official. A minute later I forgot about the guilt because I remembered what a great ladder I had in the early days of my life in the mansion neighborhood. I have owned others through the years, but that first one was the best.
For one thing, it was light, no heavier than an empty pie tin. It came in two eight-foot sections that extended to 16 feet. Very practical. More than that, it spread out into a ladder. Either leg could be adjusted so the ladder sat firmly — not a trace of wobble — on a set of stairs. That feature was invaluable in the house we owned across from the mansion, especially in the early years when we were involved in a seemingly endless string of do-it-yourself projects.
The house we moved into in the fall of 1972 — Democrat Dick Kneip and his family lived across the street in the mansion then — was a two-story, built in 1906. The stairway had two landings, turned 180 degrees from bottom to top and had a high, high ceiling. The ceiling, and the lathe-and-plaster walls, had four coats of wallpaper — five coats in some rooms — and even the most recent layers were ancient — dusty, faded and long out of fashion. We had to strip it all down to the bare walls and start fresh.
I suppose we could have done like the last owner did and just paper over the existing layers. That would have been simple and quick. But my father-in-law had a special knack for home improvement projects, and he wouldn’t hear of it. He said he’d come to town to help paper the walls but only if we stripped away every last shred of the old stuff. Well, good paper hangers don’t come around every day. And he was good. So we spent weeks and weeks — mostly evenings and weekends — stripping away one layer after another.
The wallpaper that companies make these days seems to come off a wall almost effortlessly, not at all like the old stuff we encountered when we first moved in. That came off one layer at a time, and each layer fought all the way. I’d brush on a mixture of water and paper remover, wait a bit and then scrape and scrape. It came off grudgingly, a tiny strip at a time. It was slow work, tiring and time consuming. I should have hated every minute.
You know what, though? I actually enjoyed it. Being up on a great ladder near the stairway ceiling scraping off strips of moist wallpaper is like being close to Heaven. It was for me. I had time to drift away and contemplate things — family, friends, the future, the meaning of life. After a day at the office, a quick meal and a few minutes with the kids, I’d climb the ladder to a place of tranquility, you might say. For a couple of hours, I’d wet sections of wallpaper, wait a moment and scrape away the layers, working my way through the gaudy roses, the pastel flamingos, the truly garish red-and-brown argyle pattern (Who thought that was a good idea?) and at last a layer of muted gray stripes. If I’d been kneeling in dirt, I could have been scraping and sifting through a dinosaur burial ground,
I lost that beautiful ladder some years later. Trimming trees, I dropped a huge, dead limb on it. The replacements I checked out in the stores were heavier, less maneuverable and certainly not as good for stairways. I needed a 16-footer around, so I bought one, but it was never the same. I’m pretty sure that’s why we quit wallpapering.