My Polish immigrant grandmother lived in a rowhome in a coal-mining town in eastern Pennsylvania. In making reference to the house and neighborhood she said that they all lived under one roof. Quite literally, every house on her block was connected to its neighbor, and each roof was contiguous one to the other. Her concern was taking care with fire. You see, back in the day in a coal-mining town in Schuylkill County the families used anthracite for heat, hot water, and to cook. It meant flames and living coals in wooden houses. Carelessness with fire not only damaged one’s own house but half the block, too.
One of the scariest sounds in town was to hear the fire sirens blaring something like a Morse Code, letting residents know on what street was a reported fire. Every refrigerator in town had the fire box numbers taped up; every front door frame had the number card tacked to it. Politicians passed out the cards at election time. The code for grandma’s neighborhood was “18.” When someone pulled the fire box handle, first came was the classic siren whine as a warning, then like the trumpets of Apocalypse the great fire horns sounded. The neighbors all stuck their heads out their doors to count the signals.
When you all lived under one roof you were careful with fire. I remember seeing my grandfather in his basement often checking the draw in the bucket-a-day water heater, or watching my grandmother cranking the “clinkers” out of her coal stove. When a house fire happened, even blocks away, the lurid orange glow on the billowing smoke make it seem as if the conflagration were right around the corner and bearing down on you.
The catastrophe of fire was the reason for the many volunteer fire departments in town. In my hometown, there were seven fire stations in a community of 7-8,000 souls. At times, it seemed that every able-bodied man (and nowadays woman) in town was a firefighter or dues-paying member of one of the fire houses—the Polish-American, West End, Hookies, Columbia, the Heights, Defender, and the Phoenix.
And because those rowhomes were old (my grandparents’ house was built in the 1870s), it seemed that the roofs were in a constant state of repair. My father told the story that when he was 17 and wanted to join the Army Air Corps, he had to get his father’s permission and signature. But to find him he had to climb a ladder to reach grandpa who was patching the roof. Grandpa signed the papers 40 feet off the ground on a 12-by-1 pitch.
One of my fond personal memories is working with my father and brother to replace the roof on a house near grandpa’s (that immigrant miner ended up buying the five row houses next to his, and eventually our family lived in one of them). I think that it must have been autumn on that roof with Charlie and our dad when I started daydreaming on rooftops. Our coal town was situated in a steep valley, and the fat, cumulus clouds coming from the west seemed to arise and swell right out of the ridge tops and they caught my fancy.
And the perspective from up there. The axonometric perspective from the roof onto the yards, back porches, sheds, and streets betrayed another dimension, a density—or as best as I can describe it, something that geometry calls a hypercube or tesseract. The cubist artist Max Weber comes close to explaining the phenomenon: “. . . there is a fourth dimension which may be described as the consciousness of a great and overwhelming sense of space-magnitude in all directions at one time, and is brought into existence through the three known measurements.” It’s looking at something familiar from an unfamiliar plane or axis.
Grandma and grandpa are long gone and their houses belong to other people now. When I’m feeling nostalgic, I log onto Google Earth and gaze down on my grandparents’ roof from space. But I’m working on other roofs now. Last year, I was invited to help at the Habitat for Humanity build in Troy. I had wanted to become involved with Habitat for a while, and having fixed up those old row houses back home I had become handy with a hammer and saw. In short order, I found myself on the board of directors—and I found myself on a roof.
On the weekends last spring and into the summer, a small group of volunteers and I snapped chalk lines, carried shingle bundles (very heavy), nailed three-tabs, and set ridge cap. I hadn’t physically worked that hard in years. It was great. The view from the top of the house was every bit as satisfying as that from grandpa’s rowhome. Many TROY Trojans helped with the build; in fact, several young women from at least two sororities were up on the roof with us passing around shingles. One precious image is of a young woman sitting on the ridge in the late afternoon light singing acapella in the spirit of the moment: light, air, life, and camaraderie.
As my grandmother said—we are all under one roof, even if we happen to be on it. Another saying I like is one hand washes the other, and they both wash the face. It is variously ascribed to the Greek dramatist Epicharmus or the Roman philosopher Seneca. I first heard it mentioned as a Hindu aphorism.
There are many opportunities at TROY to lend a helping hand to the community. I spoke recently with Jonathon Cellon, Associate Dean of Student Services, about several projects operating out of the university’s Office of Civic Engagement. I first got to know Jonathon by working with him on a Habitat for Humanity build in downtown Troy. For students handy with a hammer and saw, there is a university chapter of Habitat—but even if one doesn’t know a hammer from a hacksaw, volunteers are welcome on a build because there is always work to do—like throwing shingles.
Other volunteer activities that Jonathon talked about include:
- Growing Healthy Minds. It is a reading program in which our students preview a text and then conduct a reading lab with elementary students at the Washington Street school.
- Campus Kitchen in which student volunteers package donated food from the university dining halls and distribute on average 100 meals a day to groups such as Head Start and the Colley Senior Nutrition Complex.
- Backpack for Kids. Cellon’s office collects donated dry goods such as nutrition bars and snack-sized fruit, and then every two weeks assembles tote bags for needy youngsters.
- Garden to Schools is a project in which TROY students this spring semester help construct and maintain vegetable gardens at the Troy Elementary School. In the summer and fall, produce from the gardens will go to the Boys and Girls Club.
- Can Castle Contest. Is a competition geared toward the university clubs and societies to see what group can build the best “can castle” from at least 200 canned goods. Afterward, the donated canned goods go to either Backpacks for Kids or Campus Kitchens.
- Walk Hard, which has taken place annually for several years, in which ATO fraternity brothers walk to Panama City Beach during Spring Break to raise money for wounded warriors from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
More information about these programs and many others is available in the Office of Civic Engagement in Room 122 Eldridge Hall.
Some of my fondest experiences with my students take place when I see them in activities and capacities outside of the classroom—playing sports, working at a part-time job, at church—and volunteering in community service. Join them on the roof—the view will change your life.