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  • Reverend James Squire

A Four Foot Level And A Plumb Line

My neighbor on the Chesapeake, Jack Buck, died two days ago at the age of 93. He retired at 55 as an engineer at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds. He has lived a great family centered life and was an accomplished sailor in open ocean waters. I wrote about his wife, Audrey, who predeceased him. I spoke at her burial as she was a good friend and gifted artist of renown who had painted an oil painting of our house on the Merion Campus of the Episcopal Academy.

Jack has been more than a neighbor and good friend. He became my teacher on all things related to building a home. Jack designed his home which is a modern structure beach front home which, like our home sits on a bluff, overlooking the Bay with a beautiful view of the changing nature of the Bay and the sheer beauty of the area including the sunsets. Eagles soar above. It is a bird watchers’ paradise. He built the home himself. It doesn’t have a right angle in the place. Jack wanted to live out his days in that house since he designed it with an architect and brought it to life. His children made it possible for him to do just that.

Tracy Kidder wrote House, a home that he had built by others but wrote a gripping tale of building an American dream and pointed out that houses have souls. Certainly, Jack’s did. Certainly, the home built by my family and me has one as well.

The then Bishop of Pennsylvania, Lyman Ogilby and his wife Ruth, invited Vicki and me to his home which is located a few properties down from where we built. We bought the land based on the view from his deck. There was no money to build a home on the property. We met a family legend, Chuck Goudy, who sold us the design and materials and was willing to “teach us how to build it.”

It took several years as the building could only be done around the demands of my position at EA. Like Kidder I learned as much about life in the process of building this home that has a front that is completely of glass surrounded by a large deck that looks into beauty of the Bay and surrounding nature. Chuck made good on his promise and taught us how to build a home that contains one of the designs and materials that are used all around the world with an emphasis on the view.

After we cleared the land, we began to build. We had no experience. Chuck was a great teacher but Jack was even a better consultant. We learned a lot building in the freezing cold of the wind shipping off the Bay in the winter and the unforgiving heat of certain days in the summer. The experience, thanks to Jack, sits on that peak of life learnings for me along with universities, steel mill, factories, and medical centers. I often say everyone should do it ONCE.

I couldn’t have done it without Jack. The beams in the house are massive. There are many angles to contend with as well so jack shared with me the most basic thing to guarantee success in the building process. One day he made one of his frequent visits to the job site to see how things were going.

He looked at me during one of those early visits and said, “What’s that?” I said, “It’s a level.” What I was holding in my hand was a level about eight inches in length with that leveling guide of the almighty bubble in the middle. “You can’t build a house with that. Get a four-foot level. I’ll loan you mine until you get one. While you’re at it, get a plumb line. You can’t build without that either.”

The way you start is the way that you will successfully finish and, according to Jack, these were the two starting tools. A plumb line is a lead weight that is attached to a string. When you hold the string up, the weight below creates an accurate vertical line. Plumb comes from the Latin, plumbum, or lead that replaced the use of stone. A short level is for small jobs not for building a house. The four-foot level gives the proper distance to get accurate horizontal lines across large spaces.

If the horizonal and vertical measurements are not accurate, particularly in homes with glass fronts forming a prow as well as right and non-right angles, the building will be doomed. Jack’s advice made the difference!

Where’s the soul work? During the time of King Jeroboam II in the Northern Kingdom of Israel the prophet Amos spoke out against idolatry and illegitimate worship. There was a complete lack of justice in that Kingdom. The prophet Amos said, “The Lord said to me, ‘What do you see, Amos? A plumb line, ‘I replied. Then the Lord said, ‘Look, I am setting a plumb line among my people Israel, I will spare them for no longer.”

At the heart of the ethical life are the plumb line and four-foot level, the horizontal and the vertical, love and justice. Without them there is little opportunity to live a life with purpose and meaning at a national or personal level. Love and justice are the foundation.

I have a friend who went to a morning conversation with another clergy person who he felt did not have love and justice in his heart. He was sitting among a group of clergy persons who were attending this meeting to express their grievances to this individual. My friend simply held up a plumb line to communicate what he felt the identified clergyman lacked. No words were needed.

Jack taught me about a proper foundation for building. But more important, he underscored for me the essential nature of love and justice as the necessary foundation for the good moral life.

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