Exercises for building biceps are common.
But this past Saturday, I was introduced to one that will not only improve my physique but also aid Valley Forge National Historical Park.
I worked for a few hours with Gerry Liebling and his Network of Volunteer Associates (NOVA) on a project to construct new huts along the Muhlenberg Brigade. Most of the heavy lifting (literally) had already been completed. The walls were already in place, with large logs already stripped of bark, notched and assembled Tinker-Toy style. And shingled rooves provided shade from the beating summer sun.
Liebling begins every day's volunteer session by providing a light breakfast (bagels, cream cheese and orange juice) and a quick overview of that day's goals. Our crew of 11 would tackle the two-part process of turning stacks of timber into true shelters.
The process begins with installing "wiring," wire mesh that is nailed into place between the timbers.
"This stuff will bite," Liebling warns, showing me the jagged edges that result when it is cut using tinsnips. "Gloves are essential because this stuff is just like razor blades. Even if I just brush up against you, you're going to be hurt."
Once the wiring is in place, a second crew applies daubing. Daubing mimics the mud/sand/hay/water mix used by the Continental Army to repel rain and cold from the huts. To ensure that the sealant lasts, however, the modern recipe comprises sand, lime and cement. The final outer coat will also incorporate either sand or dirt, to give the huts a more authentic appearance.
"The recipe is three-two-one," Liebling tells his mixing crew. "Three parts sand to two parts lime to one part cement. And water to taste," he jokes.
"This is clearly not what the Continental Army used," he continues. "But we're after longevity here. Sometimes that compromise between historical accuracy and practicality makes things a trade-off."
The wiring crew mounts ladders and begins pounding broad-headed nails to hold the mesh. Intimidated somewhat by the sharp edges, I opt to tackle daubing.
Armed with a hod - a square plane with a handle on it, used to hold mortar - and a trowel, I line up. Two scoops of the 3-2-1-water mixture are plopped onto my hod, and I'm set to work.
"We're all about empowerment here," Liebling tells me. "If you see something that needs doing, and you'd like to give it a try, feel free."
I enter a hut that has most of its wiring in place and see large stretches in need of the goopy, white sealant. I begin filling in the gaps, using a technique that something like spreading spacke and something like spreading cake frosting.
I'm working alongside Ken Saler, who gives my efforts a quick look. "You're doing great," he tells me. "We had some kids in here volunteering their time at a recent session," he tells me. "They had a lot of fun, but they weren't too accurate about what they were doing. So the goal is, see these specks of sunlight?" He points out several holes through which the summer sun is streaming. "You want to plug those up. If you can't see any sun, you know you've got it."
I work away, reporting for more material when my hod runs empty. It's heavy as I return, giving my left arm a workout, while packing in the goo is testing the muscles in my right arm.
After a half hour or so, I swap my trowel-hand for my hod-hand and keep going.
"It helps to be ambidextrous," I say. Saler agrees.
Along the other side of the hut, mother-daughter team Jeanne and Jonelle Miller are also daubing. I ask Jonelle why she commits her time this way. "We live in Royersford," she replies. "And when we drive into King of Prussia, I always ask my mom to drive through Valley Forge. We love the nature. We call it ‘our park.' This is our site."
As I work, I can't stop thoughts from floating to the soldiers who took on this task more than 230 years ago. Bloodied, ill-equipped, tired and hungry, they nonetheless worked to build their protection from the cold, without the benefit of modern tools or building materials. This frame of mind made it difficult for me to complain even when an angry gnat repeatedly flew into my ear.
NOVA has been part of volunteer projects for decades, Liebling tells me. Initial projects included things like landscaping and maintain wildflowers. But in 2006, when a cabin was burned in an act of arson, his group was asked to step it up. "We were called on to rebuild that hut," he says, motioning to the unit next to the one we're currently constructing. "There was some doubt as to whether we could actually do it. Whether we had the know-how. Whether we could manage a tight timeline. But we did."
He continues: "At the dedication ceremony, when we were being thanked by park officials over and over for our work, I couldn't help thinking ‘No. It is I who should be thanking you. It was my privilege to do this work. It was my honor. Instead of you thanking me, I thank you.'"
Like him, Liebling's onsite colleagues at the hut brigade are also Lockheed retirees. "I was a computer systems analyst," he says. "We're all former rocket scientists," he says.
The closeness of these volunteers shows in their good-natured ribbing. During the making of one batch of mortar, the mixing crew gets somewhat confused about the ingredients and, indicating two powdery bags, asks Liebling which is lime and which is cement.
He wryly replies, smiling: "The stuff that came out of the bag marked ‘cement' is cement; the stuff that came out of the bag marked ‘lime' is lime."
I continue my task. Daub-daub. Scrape-scrape. Get more filler. Squish. Pack. Push. Fill. I look for little pinholes of sunlight and make them disappear with a flick of the trowel.
The impact of the work begins to make itself felt. The huts at Valley Forge are iconic. They are most likely more recognized by the general public than the Washington Memorial Arch or Washington's Headquarters. They symbolize the struggle to survive the difficult winter of 1777-1778 and the commitment to the cause of liberty.
As such, they will be part of the imagery of the park for generations to come.
The huts that I'm working on will outlast me. And perhaps my children. And perhaps even my children's children.
It's a little awe-inspiring.
But at the same time, very satisfying.
And well worth a sore muscle or two.
The best part about the NOVA initiative is that they are always seeking additional hands. In general, they work every other Saturday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., and all that's required to join is some free time, a pair of heavy work shoes or hiking boots, jeans or long work pants and a willingness to learn. The park will supply all tools, materials and instructions.
The current project associated with the Muhlenberg Huts will continue August 22 and, owing to the Labor Day holiday, August 29. Volunteers should be older than 16.
To get involved, send an email to Gerry Liebling and get ready to enjoy the task of literally... making history.
The huts provided accommodations for the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. Fortunately, accommodations in Valley Forge and Montgomery County, Pa., have come a long way since then. For a list of primo hotels that covers the four corners of the county and everything in between, see our website.