Railroad ties make a good retaining wall. Heavy and thick, they’re impregnated with creosote so they’re nearly rot-proof. Peg them together with 3/8″ rebar and they’ll be there 20 years later (according to this picture. Neighborhood has sure run down since I lived there.)
The process is to lay down the first layer of ties, drill holes where the pins will go through, lay down the next layer, drill, and repeat. Somehow, I kept performing the miracle of drilling the holes exactly where they needed to be. Stupid confidence sometimes turns into wild good luck.
I’d finished the fronts of the walls, tied into the sides next to the steps. I do not remember why (trauma, perhaps) but as I neared the end, I asked my teenage son Tristan to come help.
“Here, hold this,” I said, with a 3-foot chunk of rebar placed in the top of the hole in the railroad tie.
A cooperative young man, he grabbed it with both hands. I turned around, picked up the sledgehammer, and when I turned back he was already at the front door, hands folded behind his back, with a funny look on his face.
I pointed out that I wasn’t stupid enough to take a full swing at the rebar with his hands there, I just needed the pin steadied so I could tap it gently into the hole, and I was too tired to tap with the sledgehammer in one hand. Once I had invoked both our fear of reporting a moronic injury to his mother, he realized I wasn’t a danger and came back.
Crouching on the top step, he held the rebar with both hands, about half-way down. He’s not stupid.
I picked up the sledgehammer, laid it on top of the rebar, and lifted it for a gentle tap.
Smacked him right in the forehead.
He rolled backward, and sat down hard.
Then he started laughing, and rubbed the smudge off his forehead.
I guess he could tell I still wasn’t breathing, so he laughed again and said he was okay, it didn’t hurt, just surprised him.
I did eventually breathe again. And yes, he told his mother. But that’s another story.