Lee Utting, Sunset High School, 1965
Leahy Road, Cedar Hills, Oregon, about 1960
Lee’s family lived about a quarter mile from our house, down beyond the school, on a dead-end gravel driveway. It was not fancy, but there was plenty of room on the acre or so for collecting junk and for kids to play. His dad was a longshoreman, working on the docks in Portland. Apparently he had access to used building materials and a pickup truck in which to haul them home. Boards of various shapes and sizes, nails, a few windows… And he had lots of hand tools. I remember an old car that was being parted out, from which I was able to get the dashboard clock. It had an old six volt electric drive but ran with an all-mechanical movement. I had fun figuring out how it worked. A set of contacts detected when the main spring was unwound, which didn’t take long, and that triggered a little motor to rewind the spring quickly, with a kind of zipping sound. There was a heavy balance wheel (compared with the watches that my dad worked on as a hobby) that was driven by an escapement to drive the gear train that moved the hands. I remember looking for jewels in the bearings, but I don’t remember if I found any.
At any rate, Lee was a builder and handy with tools. He was tall for his age, we were both in middle school, and I was on the small side, a year younger. He was always wearing old clothes when I biked or walked down to visit him. Nice guy, decent, considerate, sensitive, kinda soft spoken, a bit shy. Wry sense of humor. He liked to exclaim out of the blue, in a pressurized half-vocal stage-whisper, “Sezza-bones!” drawing out the interjection’s last syllable like a pirate after taking a fiery swig of rum. Not much of a reader, more of the hands-on kind. It was an eye-popper, the first time I went there. He had built the most amazing playhouse or kid fort I had ever seen. Little rooms leading to other little rooms with doorways and hatches to walk or squeeze or stoop through on the ground floor. Indoor ladders to the second floor, and up another ladder to the third floor, with a lookout and a flagpole. It had a roof that kept most of the frequent Portland rains out. It was his brain child and the fruit of his own labor.
I asked him when he built it and how. He said it took a long time, and it grew little by little from a single room. There had been no grand plan, but an accumulation of extensions to what was already there. Sometimes a ceiling had to be strengthened to make a floor for a higher story, or a hole had to be cut for a ladder, or a wall had to be modified for a window. But those were the exceptions. Of course there were lots of opportunities for us to get splinters from the rough wood or for our shirts to get snagged on a protruding nail. But the little dangers were balanced by the fun. With no risk of earthquakes in the area, nor electric wires to spark a fire, the only serious concern was the strength of the structure, and it seemed just sturdy enough for a bunch of kids. I was so impressed that the memory has lasted more than 50 years now.
The weeks turned into months, and when I occasionally visited, Lee would show me a little addition he had made or a fix-up, like a roof patch or an improved ladder or a two-way corner door. He might explain an idea he had for a next phase of the building. But it seemed that the steam had run out on the project for him. Then one day he confided a bold new idea to me. He suggested that if he tore down the entire building he could rebuild it much better, with larger rooms, more windows, better roofing… And he wanted to try his hand at making a real stairway, which would take much more room than a ladder.
I felt honored to be asked my opinion, but reluctant to put my vision into his life’s biggest project do-date. So I told him a thumbnail version of my Erector Set story that had ended happily for me about eight years before, in which I had torn apart a Ferris Wheel that had taken me many hours to build, so I could rebuild it to be driven by an electric motor. I had done that after consulting my mom, who made it clear that the decision was mine to make, but in her view the rewards for a good job were in the memory and the process learned, not in the artifact that resulted. Anyway I told Lee that he should go ahead if he wanted to, and that I would help, at least in the tear-down, but that he had to decide on his own.
During the following week Lee contacted several friends, and on Saturday we formed a demolition crew that wielded claw hammers and crow bars for hours, preserving the boards as best we could, stacking them for reuse, and putting the nails in cans and jars, until dark fell and we had to stop. I took a bath and slept deep and long that night.
Next day I went to visit Lee. He was finishing the demolition in the sunshine, but he wasn’t his old self. Something was bothering him, and I knew what it was. The space where his amazing creation had been was just a back yard, with bunchy grass and stacks of old boards, but nothing rising toward the sky. No magic. I didn’t stay long. But before going I said he should get busy sketching out the way the new building should look. A floor plan. A front view. A sketch of where the stairway would go. He needed to fill the void, and quickly.
I came back the next week to see how it was going, but all I saw was a very rudimentary sketch on an old painted piece of board showing a perimeter with a couple of rooms in it. No dimensions. No enthusiasm. No dream. The plan was not coming together and no lumber had been placed.
The weeks became months. Within a year and a half my family would move to Los Angeles and I would lose track of Lee. The last time I saw him, it seemed that the only thing we had had in common centered on the memory of his stunning handiwork with wood and nails. And his perseverance to extend what he had made into what he could make.
Upon reflection now, I realize that at this point in Lee’s life, he was a builder, not an architect. He did not build according to a grand plan from a top-down idea, or even a drawing, but from the ground up. I have worked both ways in electronic and mechanical projects over the years, and he may have developed into both modes eventually too. It is too late to ask him; he died in September, 2011, four years ago. This story doesn’t have a happy ending. If I had realized how final the demolition would be, I would not have given my thumbs-up to it nor helped. As much as I appreciated the result of his labors, I failed to appreciate the immediacy of his process, his connection with the materials, the way a tangible shape could spark his imagination to cook up an enhancement. He was an improviser, not a composer. And it turned on his not taking himself too seriously. It was fun. It was love. It was Zen.
Maybe someone has a picture of Lee’s early triumph; I don’t. Except in my mind’s eye. He is standing tall, up on the lookout where the flag is waving in the wind.