Center Barnstead man works on home to keep a promise to his father

  • Steve Vail, 68, stands underneath the bridge beam holding up the house his late father started to build in Center Barnstead. Elizabeth Frantz / Monitor staff

  • Steve Vail, who served in Vietnam, is finishing the house started by his father, a World War II veteran.

  • Steve Vail is raising money to help complete construction of his late father’s home in Center Barnstead. Elizabeth Frantz / Monitor staff

  • Steve Vail stands in his garage living space on his property in Center Barnstead on Thursday, Nov. 16, 2017. Vail is looking for help in finishing the home his late father started while living in the garage. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

  • Steve Vail stands inside the unfinished home his late father started on the property he inherited in Center Barnstead on Thursday, Nov. 16, 2017. Vail is looking for help in finishing the home while living in a garage on site. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 11/24/2017 10:26:10 PM

Four years ago, Steve Vail made a promise. His father, Lawrence, was coming to the end of his life with some unfinished business.

He had begun building a home decades before to share with his wife, but things didn’t go as he’d hoped. During a nursing home visit, the younger Vail took up a metaphorical hammer swearing “come – pardon my French – hell or high water, I will finish the house.”

The story of the house begins with Vail’s grandfather, who bought up property in Center Barnstead along a road that now bears his name. Parcels were carved out to his four children as wedding presents, including Lawrence Vail, who returned to the area with his wife, Rena, in 1972.

They settled into a pre-built garage on the lot and started building their dream home, but when Rena became ill, Lawrence put down the hammer and never picked it up again.

In the years after her death, the roofed shell of a home had become nothing more than storage space.

Since his father’s death, Steve Vail, 68, has poured everything he could into the little 900-square-foot ranch in true do-it-yourself fashion. He raised interior walls after watching hours of This Old House and other home improvement shows. He has no computer or internet, but he often turns to how-to books.

He taught himself enough masonry to build a false fireplace and mantel using a hand-hewn wooden beam he discovered cleaning out the house. He learned how to install electrical boxes, where to put them, and how to prep for an electrician visit. He modernized the entrance to the basement that features a genuine bridge beam in lieu of a central rafter. “Dad was in heavy commercial construction. ... Somehow he wound up with it,” Steve said.

He’s done it all on a limited income, taking advantage of any opportunities he can along the way – the biggest being a donation of kitchen cabinets, unconventionally installed before wiring and drywall could be completed.

“I’m looking here in the kitchen, and I can see my mother, right here. Just by the framing,” Steve said standing in the unfinished kitchen last week. His father had designed full-size windows for the room until his wife insisted on placing the kitchen sink in front of them, forcing a design change visible in the awkward stud frame that resulted.

“I’m at a point now where the money is gone. I’m using a few hundred dollars every month trying to just keep plugging away.”

Vail has tried to get various loans and isn’t eligible for a regular mortgage since the home is still unlivable. And even then, he’s concerned about monthly payments he couldn’t sustain on the fixed income he gets from a military pension and social security. The last thing he wants is to lose the house to a bank as a result.

“There are days I just wonder, you know, did I take on too much? Did I make a promise I should have not made?” he said. “Another part of me says, ‘No, dummy, keep your promise. You’ve kept promises all your life. Don’t start breaking them now.’ ”

To do that, Vail has started asking for some help in terms of both money and expertise. He wants to keep doing as much work as he can but needs professional guidance so the little budget he has doesn’t go to waste on mistakes.

The building needs plumbing and insulation. Cardboard mock-ups illustrate future placement of bathroom and kitchen fixtures. It is still very much an empty shell with a decades-old exterior sporting single-pane lead glass windows and a 45-year-old roof.

The only extravagance Vail is planning is a small solarium greenhouse that he can fill with plant life to enjoy with his border collie, Noah, on bad weather days.

“Through my years between the military and as a truck driver, I’ve seen enough death and destruction to last me a lifetime,” he said while wearing his Tactical Air Command hat. Vail followed his WWII-era father into military service and went to Vietnam with the United States Air Force.

People have suggested GoFundMe campaigns to Vail, something he’d seen only on television. Right now he plans to set up an account at a bank and hopes to make his case to strangers, something he admits is hard to do when you don’t have internet access or a target amount.

He’s unsure how much money he needs, but plans to track every dime through receipts. If there’s any money left over, even just a dollar, Vail plans to make donations to the New Hampshire Veterans Home in Tilton and to Children's Miracle Network Hospitals.

“They take care of my guys,” and “They take care of the kids, ” he said.

But that’s far into a future that may not m aterialize. Right now, Vail just wants a certificate of occupancy so he can deliver good news: “I want to get it done so I can go to the cemetery in Pittsfield to Mom and Dad together and say, ‘Hey, Dad, I’m done.’ ”

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