Who is John Canivan?


I ask myself this question every day...I’m no Charles Dickens. I like to write, but all my characters sound the same so I try to confine myself to how to or what if books. One thing all my characters have in common is their desire to build things. If they’re not holding a hammer you can be sure they have a tar stained Craftsman drill on the front seat of their pick up. I was brought up in a construction environment. My father built houses on speculation during the depression to keep food on the table. He worked so hard that I rarely saw him. As much as I loved dear old Dad I vowed I would never be like him and work that hard at anything. Banks often foreclosed on his new home constructions before they were sold, but somehow dear old Dad managed to maintain a crew and a family during the depression years. As a child I spent a lot of time digging holes and playing pirate. In 1952 at age nine I decided to bury my prize collection of Davy Crocket cards inside a mahogany treasure chest behind the backyard playhouse. My neighbor, Ned and I spent the better part of a day digging.

“Is it deep enough, Johnny?” Ned would say.
“Deeper,” I would say.                      

When the sun got low in the sky and supper time was near Ned threw down his shovel and said: "I quit." As he walked home I wanted to say something like: ‘What kind of pirate are you?", but somehow I managed to remain silent and watched Ned disappear behind the spruce tree in his yard. I was still digging when Dad came home from a long day on the road and a tedious time at the Canivan Brothers Hardware store office.  

“Digging’ a hole to China, old man?” He said.
“No, Dad,” I explained I just want the Davy Crocket cards to be safe.
”I see”, he said, as he lifted his hat to scratch the top of his shiny head. “You’ll fill the hole in when you’re finished, right old man?”
“Oh yes” I said as I brushed some mud from my face.  

At the supper table Dad told mom I was digging to China , but I corrected him on the spot. “What will we do with that boy,” asked Mom?
“Don’t worry mother we’ll find something to keep him out of mischief.”
In the following year after a difficult time in school, I was looking forward to summer vacation and two months of blissful goof off relaxation, but Dad had other plans. After breakfast he led me outside and grabbed the shovel off a hook in the garage.
“I know how you love to dig, old man,” he said. I’ve got a wonderful job for you. We need to make a space room under the backyard sunroom extension for Grandma and Grandpa and I believe you’re the man for the job.”


I was really looking forward to goofing off, but Dad made me feel important. He gave me a mission. He helped me understand the glory of purposeful digging. I stood there for awhile in awe at my new found purpose in life, and when Dad’s car disappeared down Pine Street I jumped on the shovel. By noon the pile of dirt in the driveway sloped directly into the hole, but I managed to wiggle out for lunch. By the end of the day a nice pile was ready for inspection. Dad was impressed but Mom just shook her head.

 The next day was almost as much fun as the first but I missed my friend, Ned, so I invited him to play in the clay and sand. He liked throwing dirt bombs at me, but digging was not on the top of his “fun-things-to-do list”.
“I think my mother needs me, Johnny” he said, and when I turned around Ned was gone.

As summer progressed I lost track of my friend because I was too busy breaking through hardpan with a pick and chipping out an 8” thick reinforced concrete wall with Dad. Mixing cement and learning how to make concrete forms from scrap wood also took up a lot of my time. After the basement room was excavated and the foundation walls were secure Dad taught me how to glaze windows and frame walls. Soon I learned how to use all the tools in Canivan Brother’s Hardware store and before long I was working with Tom, Harry, Peat, and other members of Dad’s construction crew. I enjoyed learning how things were put together. Sunlight energy fascinated me from an early age.

Pens were easy to melt with grandmother's magnifying glass. The Coindre Hall Boarding School boys asked me why my pens looked funny, but when I explained they lost interest. In Junior high school I designed and built a conceptual model of a solar power generator that used grandma’s magnifying glass. The lens tracked the suns position with a crank shaft made from a curtain rod attached to a string that attached to both sides of the lens suspended in space with steel supports made from hacksaw blades. The focal point of the lens was a steel end cap. Water was fed into the end cap with a copper tube a little at a time from a V8 can. I figured a small amount of water would boil faster than a large amount of water. This is the principle of modern vaporizers used today. My science teacher liked it and couldn’t understand why I didn’t win an award at the science fair.

“You should have had a poster to go with your exhibit.” he said.

I didn’t care so much about winning a prize I just wanted the tools to build a working model.  Shortly after graduating from high school I was given an option of inheriting the Canivan Brother Hardware/Construction business, but my ambitions were too lofty to be held down by the responsibility of the family store so I decided to attend college, master the sciences and become a teacher. This was a decision I soon learned to regret.

 My college experience during the 60’s were beneficial toward gaining a better understanding of chemistry and physics and biology, but I never did fully comprehend the social disorder of that time, and when it came to finding a part time job I soon found that college was useless. Muddling through three schools was a long, tedious process. It was fifteen years before I finally became a certified high school science teacher, and an additional five years to realize that teaching unmotivated students was not my forte. During this 20 year time interval I worked in the Plastic Products Laboratory of RC Hooker, cut lawns, sold encyclopedias, pruned trees, built and repaired boats, installed driveways, delivered flowers, built welding transformers, delivered furniture, repaired furniture, made and sold furniture, installed roofs, drove a dump truck, built a few houses and generally regretted not taking the offer to own and run an established hardware/construction business.

Since 1980 I became a self employed home improvement contractor and grabbed what ever work came my way like: Dry walling, extensions, dormers, house jacking, block work, foundations, walls, floors, ceilings, roofs, doors, windows, kitchens and bathrooms. Fortunately, I had the opportunity to designee and build a few solar greenhouses, some collectors and some solar hot water systems along the way. I also transformed basements, attics and garages into energy efficient living spaces. Home improvement jobs supply food for the table, but my soul hungered for more fulfilling projects. Many things can be done to improve the energy efficiency of a drafty, un-insulated dwellings, but the challenge of building new cost effective energy independent houses was all I could think about. Now I understand why my father was so obsessed with building during the Great depression. In a way I had become like my Dad, a man I had vowed I would never to become, a man obsessed with a do-it-yourself way of living.


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