A little over a year ago, I was in Englewood, Florida, a beautiful town right around the corner from Venice Beach and world-famous Siesta Key. It was my second trip in just a few months, as I helped my parents move up to Mathews, Virginia, where I make my home and operate my business.
We had planned the move for some time. The initial trip was to help my dad make some upgrades to the house. (Dad is a one-man construction crew — there are few things he can’t build!) This second trip was to take on the chore of packing and making the long haul back. To say it was daunting is an understatement. We spent the better part of two days packing up a huge U-Haul with everything from a Harley Davidson to petrified logs. It’s not the most fun thing to do, but when you’ve waited as long as I had for a family member to move closer to you, all the typical frustrations of such a big move just don’t get to you as much.
As usual, it was a very hot day in Florida, and the heat was getting the better part of us. In and out of the house, up and down the truck, box after box, we were finally just about ready to close the door and begin the drive up. As I was coming out of the house and through the screened-in porch, I saw my dad inside the truck, moving backwards to navigate his way down and out. He missed his footing, and I watched my father fall and hit his head very hard. He went limp, and I feared the absolute worst.
Time just stopped. It all happened so fast, but it was like I was watching it in slow motion. That was easily one of the scariest moments of my life.
One of the items on my huge bucket list from when I started my company three years back was to work side-by-side with both my dad and my son Riley as a three-generation pond-building team. Riley had already begun getting his feet wet at the age of 15, spending his summers helping with everything from cleanouts to a few small builds. With my dad’s extensive background in construction and project management, I knew that this would not be some ragtag team of undesirables. We were a three-generation family of quality pond builders — certainly not the first team to span multiple generations, but definitely a little outside the norm, especially in the United States.
But the moment I saw my dad fall, my bucket list was the last thing on my mind. I just wanted him to be OK. I still wanted to share my love and knowledge of the pond world with my dad and have the opportunity to work with him on projects, but at that moment, none of that mattered.
Thankfully, in the weeks that followed, although my father had some difficulty recovering, he took it like a champ. He would lose some mobility in his hand and to this day lives with pain in his shoulder, but otherwise he’s OK.
After the move, the winter months arrived, but soon spring came, sending our country into a bit of chaos. Fortunately for us, business did not slow down. Riley was out of school, so he was available to step in and help out early in the year.
Finally! After years of dreaming and planning, the Bells were breaking ground on our first project together — a beautiful new koi pond off an existing deck with natural stone bridges, floating steppingstones, waterfalls and an all-new wetland concept I’d recently dreamed up. A multiple-level wetland filtration system with multiple-tiered falls created an incredibly natural look.
This was no easy project — probably not exactly ideal for what would be a first-time build for my dad, but I’m not one to run from a challenge. Thankfully, we were not alone. I flew in my friend Jacob Ryan Deshone from Colorado, who was in the middle of his Atlantic Water Gardens certification testing. He needed some on-site training, and I was happy to provide the opportunity. Along with Jacob was my right-hand girl, Jamie McBride. I’ve never seen anyone learn anything as quickly as she can. She is a natural when it comes to our profession — I often just find myself in her way when it comes to stacking stone.
With a solid team, we were ready to execute this amazing (yet very difficult) design. Aside from very limited machine access and rain that caused nearly nine days of delays, we also had to contend with the fact that the client’s 30 prized koi —most over 20 years old — were quarantining in an above-ground swimming pool.
Time was a factor. Rain was a factor. Limited access and overall project difficulty combined to make a recipe for disaster. This was not your romanticized pond build with all great moments and perfect execution. We hit snags and setbacks daily. The wetland was a new concept and took longer than originally estimated. I made a rookie mistake in misjudging my overlap and ended up below water level. All eyes were on me, and it was not at an easy fix.
This was not the dream job I had hoped for. This was every pond builder’s worst nightmares all on one project. Some say it builds character, and I have to agree.
In the end, the mistakes were corrected, and the client was ecstatic about the end product. If I didn’t have my son and dad with me, it would have been so much worse. The team I built came together and overcame all the issues, creating a truly beautiful new home for our clients’ koi.
This experience prepared us for the next install, which would end up being the most challenging project I’ve ever attempted. Why not, right? I had a great supporting cast around me and the talent I needed to take on any build. Long story short, we found new ways to make mistakes, but in the end, we created a beautiful outdoor oasis for some longtime clients and friends. In fact, they have already booked Team Bell next spring for some additions.
We’re doing some amazing work together! Three generations of my family already have two incredible builds under our belts as a team. If I said I haven’t shed a tear or two, I’d be lying.
For me, building ponds has never been about money — it’s about a lifestyle. (Money is just a consequence of operating a good business.) Having the ability to look over and see my father and my son laughing and working together on plumbing connections while I’m navigating through boulder placement is a dream come true.
My father is retired and does this out of pure joy in the opportunity. My son has plans for better things (using his brain and not his back). For now, though, at least for a moment in time, I get to make memories doing what I love with those whom I love the most.
But not to worry — I also have two daughters, and one just may take over the family business one day… until then, the Bell family will keep enjoying the moment and living our best pond life.