Category Archives: This Damn Old House

Homes Sweet Homes

This morning in early conversation with my wife I came to the realization that I have lived longer in this damn old house than any other. The realization made me feel somewhat gypsyish. Had I no roots? Is this normal?

My wife and I have lived in our current abode, in the Texas subtropics, above the brown Brazos River, for 10 and a half years now.

My parents indicated to me that I lived with them in an apartment in Cleveland for my first year or two. I don’t remember, but have no reason to doubt. The first thing I remember, I was a full-grown 3-year-old and was standing in a driveway with snow piled around me higher than my head, watching my father clear the stuff out of the way with a snowshovel. That was at a big old house in Chesterland, then a small town at the outskirts of Cleveland, now pretty much indistinct from the rest of that city, which swallowed it up in amoeba-like fashion years later.

Then at age 4 we moved to the little town of Salem, Indiana, where I lived until age 9. Then we moved to Twin Lakes, Ohio, where mom still spends her summers. But I moved out at 18, to better soak up the, um, atmosphere of college and post-adolescent life a few miles away in Kent. So only nine years in Twin Lakes. I did move back briefly at one point, but only nine years of continuous occupation.

During my first marriage probably the longest I lived in one location was this apartment in an old converted schoolhouse in Bellaire, Ohio, for four or five years while I mostly worked at a Wheeling newspaper across the Ohio River. Then a year in South Carolina, then a year and a half in Phoenix, then a year and a half in San Diego. Then maybe six years in a house in the country outside Little Rock, Ark., before I got divorced and moved back to Phoenix, got married and lived in Tempe, Ariz., for maybe the usual year and a half, then back east to Houston, where we occupied one particular house for four or five years before moving to the outskirts of the Houston megalopolis, and into this damn old house, 10 and a half years ago.


By contrast, I’ve met farmers in Lavaca County near our Polka Farm who live on some of the same land their fathers and grandparents lived on. That still happens in places.

All of this makes me think, although I must confess that it does not really make me conclude much.

Also posted in Family, Writing

Tearing Down, Building Back

It’s been a week since the fire. That night (early morning, really) firefighters pulled out our electric meter and turned off the natural gas and water lines. The first order of business was to get them back on.

Toyota Camry Remains Ready For RemovalWe found a master electrician who was at the beach on vacation when I called, but drove two hours with his assistant, on the spot, to help us get the power back on. He disconnected a line running to the workshop, and another line running up the back corner of the house, which was encased in pvc pipe that had burned along one side. So far I haven’t figured out what this second line did, as everything in the house seems to be running as normal. It appeared that three major lines above the electrical box may have been damaged in the fire, which is apparently why the meter was pulled, but our electrician explained to fire officials why nothing was wrong with the lines, and a guy from the utility company miraculously showed up with a new meter. So before noon the day of the fire, we had electricity.

The rest was trickier. On Sunday, my brother-in-law and I got the water turned back on, but the main effect this had was to cause a double fountain, as water poured from two valves on top of the water heater which, of course, was located in the work shop and had been heavily damaged. We ended up calling a plumber to cut and plug pipes running to the water heater. By the time this was accomplished, it was the end of the day. But we had water. Cold water, but water nonetheless.

On Monday morning the plumbers came and plugged the gas line running to the water heater, tested the gas line for leaks, found the line was solid and turned the gas back on. They also plugged another leaking pipe by the water heater. This gave us the ability to turn on the gas stove (and to run the furnaces, but hey, it’s August).

530i BMW Off To The ScrapyardWe have to relocate the water heater, and for numerous reasons, it would be difficult to do so inside the house. So we’re having a small free-standing structure built to hold the heater. However, this requires two permits from the city, and time. Thus we have no hot water, although I have been filling a large pan and boiling water to do the dishes, and to serve as the basis of an occasional warm bath. But the usual for me has become a cold shower. This would be much worse in February than it is now, however, I do recall with great fondness and longing the wonderments of warm showers.

Meanwhile, we were able after several false starts to get tow truck drivers to arrive with trucks that actually fit through our back gate so that they could remove the burnt-out hulks of metal that used to be our vehicles. With this accomplished, we’ve been able to schedule a crew to bring in a big dumpster tomorrow and start cutting up and hauling out the remains of the workshop and its contents. I am led to believe that they will cart of each piece of shattered glass and then power-wash the remaining cement slab and driveway.

I will be happy to see this sight, while peering out the laundry room window, draped in a towel and still a little wet from a hot shower.

Down but Not Out

Workshop up in flamesAt around 12:30 Saturday morning, I awoke suddenly out of a deep sleep for no apparent reason. The bedroom door was shut, and I saw light coming in from underneath. I opened the door and saw the living room lights were still on; one of my sons had been watching TV, went to bed and forgot to turn them off. Or had he? I thought I heard him in the kitchen.

I walked in and, although the lights were turned off, a bright orange glow filled the room, from the windows. I blinked, not comprehending, then walked to the back door and opened it.

Fire Inspectors Sift Through The RemainsSuddenly my vision was filled with fire – flames running along the entire length of our garage/carport, and underneath. At least two of the three vehicles already were aflame. The fire roared and was quickly growing. Still not awake, I did a double-take.

Then I ran inside the house, hollering. My wife ran upstairs and woke the boys. My elder son woke my daughter and got her downstairs; they all assembled out front. I ran back out the back door and yelled for Bosco. The dog sleeps under the house in warm weather. He would not come, and the fire was too hot and moving too fast for me to go around the corner to the place where he usually exits from underneath. I called 911 and unlocked the back gate for the firemen.

Former 2002 BMW 530iThey came in about five minutes, about 60 seconds before the fire likely would’ve consumed the back of the house. But they got water on the conflagration just in time and kept at it as more trucks continued to arrive with more water. I don’t know if it was a misjudgment over how big the fire turned out to be, but they didn’t attempt to connect their hoses to the hydrant, and instead emptied the water from at least two and possibly three trucks before bringing the fire under control.

The Richmond firefighters worked hard and saved our house. I am eternally grateful to them. Two windows broke from the heat, and three sets of window blinds warped and melted, but other than that the inside of the house suffered just a little smoke damage. Outside, some wood may have to be replaced, but the old asbestos shingles prevented the house from catching.

Back of the House was SingedThe workshop, however, burnt to the ground, along with numerous tools, two mowers, a nice barely used kayak, a gas generator, chainsaws, weed eaters, ladders and various other things. The farm van and our two cars looked liked they’d been fire-bombed in Iraq. Many of my tropical plants, including seedlings from a rare plumeria, were roasted and toasted.

But what we lost was just stuff. That which could not have been replaced remains intact. The sun will come up, tomorrow.

Also posted in Be Afraid, Self-reliance

Peace Through Manual Labor

As I’ve worked through my grief over dad’s illness and death, I’ve found quiet relief, oddly enough, in rote, menial labor. This is good, because we’ve been spending so much time reclaiming land and renovating the Polka Farm that I’ve neglected the grounds here at the One Acre Ranch for weeks. Long enough that unwanted trash trees have sprung up around the yard, some more than 8 feet tall. Long enough that the 20-foot-diameter circle formerly occupied by our giant Brown Turkey fig tree, which succumbed to a deadly fungus, now is occupied by a bunch of unwanted elderberry bushes.

These tasks and long-overdue mowing and weed-eating, I have found, require just enough concentration to prevent my mind from wandering away, and enough physical exertion, apparently, that some amount of endomorphins are produced, and a certain level of calm ensues. So I’m making progress in returning the yards to their once excellent condition.

As our house here is 97 years old, there’s also near-constant renovation under way inside, too. Kitchen tile and counter tops that need replaced, inexplicable water damage behind the upstairs bathroom sink, rooms painted 10 years ago that need to be redone, and two rooms in this Damned Old House that we still haven’t gotten around to renovating in the first place. So, no lack of rote. Now is a good time to get on with it, because in a few weeks I will loathe such tasks more completely once again.

We have a vague 10-year plan through all of this: Fix up the unfinished portion of the Polka Farm house before this winter, and spend the next decade gradually restoring the grandeur of yesteryear to our almost century home at the One Acre Ranch as well as paying off the loan for same, at which point we’d love to retire to the farm and either sell or rent the One Acre Ranch. Of course, by that time the One Acre Ranch house will be so delightful that we might not want to leave, and our kids have informed us that *they* have no intention of leaving in any event. So there’s that potential fly in the ointment. Another involves financing the improvement of two properties while simultaneously saving enough money to put two more kids through college.

That latter will prove to be a good trick, if we can learn it. But I read somewhere that a great journey starts with a single step, which reminds me there are trash trees nearby that require uprooting.

Also posted in Farm, Metaphysics