THE LEAKY ROOF,
THE CHILDREN, AND THE FUTURE
by Marc Maurer
Marc Maurer is now in the full flower of his Presidency
of the National Federation of the Blind. Both he and his wife
Patricia are totally blind, but this does not interfere with
the raising of their two children, David and Dianna. If the
realization of the American dream means a full life of
satisfying work and busy activity, the Maurers qualify, and it
is not a passive life. Here is how Marc describes one of his
joint projects with the children:
Raising children is challenging, and for me at least, it
cannot occupy all (or even most) of my time because--like so
many other parents--I spend a major part of every week on the
job. This, of course, creates tension; but both the raising of
the children and the requirements of other work must be done,
and each of these activities is entirely worthwhile.
There are two children in the Maurer household--David,
who is twelve, and Dianna, who is nine. My wife Patricia and
I are both blind, but our children are not. We the blind
parents of these sighted children have many of the same
problems and frustrations that all parents come to know.
How can we provide our children a decent education? How
can we teach them to be independent? How can we teach them to
be honest and open and upright? How can we teach them to
recognize that there is danger and skulduggery in a sometimes
wicked world and that they must approach unfamiliar situations
with sufficient caution to avoid trouble? How can we teach
them responsibility? How can we teach them to be joyous and
free of fear? How can we teach them to embrace the exploration
of new things and to be aware of wonder and the splendor of
living in a world that, with all of its problems, can be
glorious and generous and exciting? How can we get them to
take out the garbage and do the dishes and pick up their
We have owned a house in Baltimore for many years. Last
summer the back porch roof began to leak. I asked a contractor
to give me an estimate for repairing it, and he said that he
But after a month, the estimate had not come, and I began
to wonder whether I would ever get it. Perhaps it would be
better, I thought, if I did the work myself, and I also
thought that this was an opportunity to give my children David
and Dianna a little education of a practical kind.
Sometimes my children appear to be more interested in
television and less interested in physical exercise than is
good for them. In fact, they are sometimes downright
lackadaisical. This is especially true of David.
The work that I do is frequently administrative. This
means that my children do not often see me doing physical
things. Although they don't say it (and they are probably
unaware of the tendency), they occasionally avoid physical
effort unless it is in the form of a game such as skating or
basketball. I must find a way to help my children understand
that physical exertion is enjoyable and productive. Maybe we
could fix the back porch roof together, I thought. They might
learn something about the value of work, and they might learn
how to put on a roof.
The first step was to climb onto the porch to assess the
extent of the needed repairs. We found a hole straight through
the shingles, and there were rotten places in the planking
underneath, which would have to be replaced. Precisely how
much of the roof could be saved would depend on what we found
when we began tearing into it.
We started demolition early on a Saturday morning with
the dew still on the grass and the sun beginning to warm the
earth. The first point of attack for our hammers and crowbars
was the hole in the shingles. Underneath these was rotten
planking. Our crowbars lifted a large portion of the roof, and
away it went, exposing even more rotten wood. Another piece of
roof was pried loose and dropped to the back yard. But there
was still more deterioration. After awhile, we decided that it
would be harder to fix the roof than replace it, so off it
Perhaps we should have anticipated the problem. The
shingles and planking were not the only damaged portions of
the structure. Several of the two-by-fours which had supported
the roof had rotted almost all the way through. I began to
feel most uneasy. I had been walking on a roof with a hole in
it. When we took the shingles away, the boards underneath were
rotten. When we took the rotten boards away, the rafters had
There I was--standing on rafters, wondering whether they
would hold my weight. What about the support for the rafters?
Not only did I feel anxiety for myself, but my children
were with me. Of course, they weigh less than half as much as
I do--so maybe the rotten two-by-fours would support them, but
I didn't really want to find out. We tore out the boards and
headed for the lumberyard to get more.
How does a blind person cut two-by-fours so that the
angles required for a pitched roof come out right? Measuring
the length of a board is no problem. A tool called a click
rule is used for measuring. This is a piece of threaded rod
inside a metal sleeve. The threaded rod has one thread for
each sixteenth of an inch. When you push the threaded rod out
of the sleeve, a little spring clicks against the threads to
hold the rod in place.
The threads on one side of the rod are milled off except
for one thread each half inch. By feeling the half-inch
threads it is easy to count the number of half-inch lengths.
With this tool measurements can be made to within one-
But how do you ensure that the angles are right? I don't
know what other people do, but this is what I did.
A sliding bevel square has a handle with a piece of
slotted steel in it. The piece of steel can be set at any
angle to the handle. The two pieces can be held rigidly at
that angle by tightening a thumb screw on the square. I got
out the sliding bevel square and put it on the roof to measure
the angle at which the rafters met the exterior wall of the
With the sliding bevel square set to the proper angle, I
put a straightedge on my two-by-four to guide the saw to make
the cut. We were using a portable circular saw--the kind that
you see on a construction site. The frame around the blade on
such a saw is about ten inches long and eight inches wide. The
blade is perhaps two inches from one side and six inches from
I measured the distance between the saw blade and the
edge of the frame and clamped my straightedge on the two-by-
four with enough space between the straightedge and the end of
the board so that the blade would cut the length I needed.
David and Dianna observed what I was doing and asked
dozens of questions. David wanted to operate the saw, and I
reminded him about the safety rules. He took the machine in
hand, and the saw blade bit through the two-by-four following
the desired angle. When we put the board in place, it fitted
snugly, and we hammered the nails home.
With the two-by-fours installed, it was time to begin the
sheathing process. We used four-by-eight-foot sheets of
plywood to form the underlayment for the roof. Four-by-eight
sheets of plywood are fairly heavy, and my helpers David and
Dianna each weigh less than eighty pounds. We wrestled the
plywood sheets up the ladder and onto the rafters.
As soon as the first one was fastened to the two-by-fours
with epoxy-coated nails, I felt a little better. There would
be no more walking on open rafters. We would all still need to
pay attention--so that we wouldn't fall off the edge. But at
least there was footing.
Along about noon, we knocked off for lunch and a little
rest. The day had turned into a real scorcher. The temperature
on the ground was approaching the mid-nineties, and the sun on
the roof seemed hotter yet. We were all hungry and thirsty and
covered with grime. There was dust in our hair and down our
necks and all over our clothes.
We scrubbed as best we could and sat down for the
sandwiches. The job was far from finished, but we had
completed the demolition phase and were well into
reconstruction, and we felt good about it.
At the beginning of a job there is the excitement of
discovery and the newness involved to keep a guy interested.
As the project goes forward, the "new" wears off, and
determination is needed to persevere to the finish. I was
proud of David's work during the morning, and I appreciated
David had been with me on the roof using a hammer, a
crowbar, a saw, or some other tool all morning. But I wondered
at lunch if his energy, his willingness to take direction, his
interest, and his enthusiasm would flag during the afternoon.
The effort during the morning had been steady and demanding.
David had stuck with it, followed directions, remembered
safety precautions, and been anxious to do his part. But I
knew his muscles would be tired when we resumed in the
We took a break for a few hours to rest a little and let
the sun get farther west so that there might be a little shade
in the yard. About three thirty we went back to the job.
We finished the sheathing and started sealing the roof
with tar paper. A good seal requires overlapping the tar paper
a lot. So, there were many, many sheets of tar paper to cut
off the roll and tack into place.
As we worked, I was reminded that tar paper gets hot when
the sun shines on it. I told David how the pioneers on the
prairies of the midwest had used these same materials (pine
boards and tar paper) to build shelters against the sun, the
rain, the cold, and the snow.
After the tar papering was finished, we put on the
shingles. A row of shingles is nailed to the edge of the roof
with a little overhang to give the roof an edge. The second
row of shingles overlaps the first. This continues until the
entire roof is covered. Each shingle must be lined up, nailed
down, properly overlapped with its neighbors, and not damaged
in the process.
Hot weather is good for roofing; it helps the shingles
create a good firm seal. When they get hot, they get soft, and
they mold to the roof and close any openings. But a good hot
shingle can become so soft that it is easily ruined. We picked
a good day for it, but the handle of my hammer was wet with
perspiration during the afternoon and evening hours. As the
sun struck the roof, the shingles reflected the heat, which
seemed to boil up around us.
The final step was to cover the edges of the shingles
where they met the wall of the house with roofing tar to
ensure that there would be no leaks. It was late when we came
to this part of the job. David asked what was to be done and
requested the chance to do it. With the tar brush in his hand
David put the finishing touches on the roof. We cleaned our
tools, picked up the trash, and congratulated ourselves on a
job well done.
Two days later, it rained hard. We stood on the back
porch under the new roof--no leaks. The roof was tight, and we
were dry. Each of us took satisfaction in watching the rain.
Blind people often find it difficult to get jobs.
Sometimes we haven't been able to obtain proper training. Even
when we know the techniques to be used, the opportunity is not
always available because employers occasionally feel that they
would not be able to do the work if they were to become blind.
Because of this experience, I value work more than I might
have if it had always been easy to get. But this is not the
only reason I like it. Good work is its own reward--worthwhile
to do and productive for the worker and the community.
In the National Federation of the Blind, I learned that I
should not sell myself short--that I have talents which can be
used to help make the world a better place. This understanding
has served me well, and I am doing my best to pass it on to my
We must be prepared to be independent and stand on our
own. But we must also recognize that we need the help and
support of our friends. The only way to get it is to be
willing to give that same help and support to those who need
This is exactly what we are doing in the National
Federation of the Blind. This is what we are teaching blind
Americans to do in every corner of our land. This is the
education that I hope I can pass on to my children--along with
a tight roof and no leaks.