Friday, March 7, 1997
Carpenters build an ark
for optimism

The Cincinnati Enquirer

The road they take to work is closed. Their neighbors have been washed away. Six feet of river water splashes in their basement.

Yet Dennis Shearer, Walt Obermeyer and Gary Huff keep pounding nails, painting boards and cutting lumber. They have a job to do. A few million gallons of water are not going to stop them.

They're putting up the River City Restaurant on Kellogg Avenue in California. And, on the side, they're building hope.

Every nail they drive is a reminder that floods don't last forever. The water goes away and the people come back to see the river, not as a deadly torrent of rust-colored water, but as a place for peaceful fun.

Even the sign out front is hopeful. ''Coming soon'' is the promise it makes despite where it stands, along Kellogg, and, until the waters recede, in the Ohio River.

''Oh, is that what the water is from?'' Dennis joked as he jabbed the claw of his hammer into a two-by-four. It was time for a smoke break.

''We were wondering where all that wet stuff came from when we got here this morning. We thought somebody left their hose on over night.''

Walt and Gary laugh. Dennis hides his grin behind his hand as he reaches to adjust the bill of his baseball cap.

These guys are used to being ribbed about doing some construction in the face of so much destruction.

On Wednesday, they drove down Kellogg with roofing materials on their truck. The diehards up the street came out of their houses - the ones with the Ohio River in their back yards. They pointed at the truck and had a good laugh.

Someone called out, ''You guys building an ark?''

The three carpenters waved and went on to work.

''You do what you gotta do,'' Dennis says. ''We don't get paid if we don't work.''

''We wanted to keep dry,'' Walt added.

''So,'' Gary said, ''we put up the roof.''

Break time

The carpenters stopped work to smoke and watch the river. They listened in silence as the waves of the Ohio licked ominously at their building's foundation.

At least, to me, the waves were ominous. The carpenters didn't look too worried.

''It'll hold,'' Walt insisted. ''Foundation's strong. This flood is a good test.''

If it fails, Dennis can't swim. ''But I can drive,'' he said. ''So, if that river gets too high, I'm in my truck and gone.''

Gary can swim. His folks used to have a summer camp along the river.

''I'd swim across that thing,'' he said of the Ohio. There was an embarrassed laugh, but no brag, in his voice.

''I was 15 then. I had lungs. And no brains.

''Now,'' he said, flipping his cigarette butt into the water and hearing it hiss before going out. ''I couldn't make it to that stop sign.''

The sign - a good 500 feet from where Gary stood - normally stops traffic funneling into a playfield's parking lot. Today, it's ordering the river to stop, and it's not being obeyed.

Back to work

Break time over, the workers returned to their spots in the unfinished restaurant. On his way to retrieve his hammer, Dennis tried to make some sense of working in a flood.

''I built a doctor's office once during a blizzard,'' he said. ''There hasn't been a building built in America that hasn't been put up under stress. A flood is just another kind of stress.''

He swore it's all in a day's work. It's also his life's work.

''I've been at this 25 years. I'm 45 now. I've got an eighth-grade education. It's all I know.''

He knows the work is unsteady. ''It's feast or famine, the Maisonette or White Castle. There's no in-between.''

But he also knows it gives him a fundamental sense of accomplishment. Some days, it comes from being ''five or six stories up, walking on a thin two-by-four that I just put in.''

Other days, he's satisfied working in the middle of a flood. As I watch him drive home another nail, he gives off an early ray of hope amid waters that are only beginning to recede.

Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Available to speak to groups. Tips and comments most welcome. Call 768-8379 or fax at 768-8340.