Built Like a Brick Pagoda

I don't actually know how tough a brick pagoda is, or how that phrase ever came into existence. But, back in my day, it was a commonly-evoked metaphor indicating extreme structural integrity. For instance, “Don't pull her ponytail, she's built like a brick pagoda,” would have loosely translated to, “If you mess with that girl, she will twist you into the shape of a pretzel and rub your face in the dirt, because she is much tougher than you are.”

The event that dug this lexicological buried treasure from my memory was the removal of a brick chimney from our house.

Now, to get the full picture of this chimney, one must understand that this is an old house. Our octogenarian neighbors are great-grandchildren of the builder. The house is considerably over a century old, and the portion of the house in which the chimney stands was probably added on about seventy-five years ago. This region was the domain of poor fishermen, so you can deduce that a long time ago, someone built the chimney with minimal resources.

That chimney has long since been out of business except as habitat for clamorous birds in the springtime. It has also been leaking for years, possibly decades. But that all ended yesterday.

It has long been on the bottom of my to-do list to take that chimney down, at least to the roofline, and patch over the space. It only leaked when it rained. And, as you may imagine, it actually rains here on the coast of North Carolina.

Then yesterday I awoke to the news that we have a substantial hurricane potentially coming to visit next weekend. Nobody has time for a hurricane, but nobody gets that choice either. So, I canceled my Saturday schedule and put the chimney project at the top of my list.

I have worked in all kinds of construction and own most tools known to modern man. However, I have never done much in the masonry department and I actually had to purchase a masonry hammer for the job.

When I finally had all my supplies in order, I attacked the chimney with some degree of uncertainty. Years ago I had observed an old guy “dig” through a brick wall to make a doorway. He was a pro and made it look easy. With that memory in my mind, my goal was to not look like a complete nincompoop.

My attempt to channel that old brickmason was actually successful. The bricks all but melted off the chimney as I tapped them one by one. The key was to deliver gentle but decisive taps at angles that create the greatest stress on the mortar joint. I whittled it down to the roof-line, then went into the attic and took it the rest of the way down to the ceiling. It took me about an hour or two to take down six feet of chimney.

All the time I was tapping and tossing those bricks, I kept thinking, “Are brick pagodas this fragile? Did the Chinese have some special ingredient in their mortar? Or are those monuments of ancient architecture about to crumble? Maybe they tossed in some powdered panda toenail clippings? Has my life been spent believing a hoax, that this is the gold standard of construction?”

I never did manage to get a handle on those deep questions. But I did get my roof sealed up. I also believe I avoided nincompoop status. And I will never again suggest something is built like a brick pagoda … unless I'm about to demolish it with a hammer.