October 3, 2012

Plattsburgh octogenarian a master builder


---- — PLATTSBURGH — When Charles Hackel was a boy, he made model airplanes in Queens.

Once, he built a glider with a 6-foot wingspan. He went over to a cohort’s house to take advantage of a vacant lot to test it. He reared back and let go. The glider crossed the Grand Central Parkway into Corona, the next town.

Hackel never saw his plane again, but he’s never stopped making things.

“No one in my family did anything like that,” said the 82-year-old Hackel, who has lived the last two years in Beekman Towers.

His maternal grandfather, John Niederberger, was a German stonecutter who carved the eagles on the Empire State Building. He was among the thousands of European immigrants and Kahnawake Mohawks who worked on the building.

“He came here in the early 1900s. I probably got a lot of that from him,” Hackel said.

For Hackel, New York City was the best place to work. If he didn’t like a job, he would go to the employment office on his lunch break and have a new job when he left.

He worked in data processing for Cross & Brown Realty for two decades. Then, he took a factory job as a maintenance man.

“I just picked up things here and there,” he said.

When he retired, he wanted more property. He and his wife, Helen, relocated to Peru, where he and his son Dan built a three-bedroom, three-story Cape Cod by hand with a wheelbarrow. Every single board was cut by hand. All the cement was mixed by hand in the wheelbarrow. At the time, he had no electricity.

Hackel built a wind mill of stone on the property, which is owned today by his daughter and son-in-law, David and Cindy Carpenter. When he and Helen moved to the North Country, all three of their children — Dan, Charles and Cindy — followed.

“We were married 54 years,” Hackel said. “My sister set us up at the time on a blind date. My wife and I got older. We decided to sell the house. We moved to an apartment on Haley Avenue.”

During his retirement, Hackel worked for Green Thumb, a national senior employment program, renamed Experience Works. He was a caretaker of the rest areas in Beekmantown and Rouses Point.

In his free time, he built a tug boat.

“I was going through a boating magazine. I saw the plans and started building it in the shed. It got so big I had to build a car port,” Hackel said.

He worked on the 15-foot wood-and-fiberglass craft for two summers. He named the tug “Hannah” after his granddaughter.

“I had it on Lake Champlain a couple of years,” he said. “I got too old. I decided to sell it to one of the partners of the Snug Harbor Marina. He bought it and took it to California.” 

His latest project is a vibrant red, yellow and black stagecoach, a lawn ornament for his daughter, who is about to become a grandmother again.

“I was going to make her a little red wagon,” Hackel said. “On the computer, I saw this model. I drew up plans from a picture on the computer. I started to build the front wheels. This is going to be bloody big.” 

He cut the wood out at his old place. The stagecoach’s door is adorned with a decal of an eagle and the American flag. Patriotism runs deep in the family. Three of his daughter’s four sons — James, Matthew and Andrew — are U.S. Marines.

“It’s weatherproof,” Hackel said. “The whole thing is covered with epoxy.”

He purchased the wood on June 16, and it took him 10 weeks to assemble it.

The perky stagecoach will have a longer lifespan than his boyhood model airplanes.

“I didn’t have too much luck with them. I took it out to fly one day, and it was too much wind. I crashed it into a telephone pole. It hit the pole. It was smoking on the way down,” he said.

When Hackel was drafted during the Korean War, U.S. Army tests revealed his mechanical aptitude.

“I was sent to Wheel Vehicle School. They sent me to Tank School at Fort Sill, Okla. We did a brake job a day,” he said.

The young corporal served with the Allied Occupation Forces in Germany. He spent six months in Nuremberg and six months in Munich.

“On Oktoberfest, I got drunk as a skunk,” Hackel said. “I visited my stepfather’s people in Solingen.”

Hackel is a humble man with amazing skills and is his daughter’s pride and joy.

“I wish I could win the lottery and buy him whatever he wanted,” Cindy said. “He was the best father, the best husband. There is no one greater in this world than my dad ... No man could ever do what he has done.” 

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