Tag Archives: home building

Suburban Archaeology

The phone rang and with some urgency the voice on the other end asked, “where are you?” It was my daughter and at this time of day her call could mean only one thing. She had a problem. And needed me to fix it.

The city water department had called her at work. One of her neighbors had called to report that my daughter’s yard was flooding. As well as her street. The city had sent someone to shut off the water. And they wanted her to fix the leak before turning the water on again.

No. I am not a plumber. But I’ve learned a few tings over the years and my kids have come to rely on me to know what to do. I told her that as soon as I finished dropping off my stuff at the recycling center I would come over to look. The water was off. Any damage that was done was already done.

As I turned into her neighborhood I noticed water in the street. I’m still a block and a half from her house, and not even on her street. Can’t be from her leak. I was still hoping that the water department had called the wrong homeowner.

Rounding the corner I could see more water. But indeed it seemed to begin at my daughter’s house. Damn. Parking in the driveway I got out of my truck to take in the situation. Puddles in yard. Water running across the sidewalk that goes from the driveway to the front door. The garage door was open. My daughter was there. Nothing wet in the garage. Or in the house.

Seeing the dry indoors I was able to breath again. I had been through a flooded house of my own. Not a pretty sight. Years ago we were selling our house and had gone out of town for Christmas. Coldest day of the year. And a pipe in an outside wall burst. Flooding the living room, the bathroom and the garage. And no one knew. Until the skating rink appeared in my yard. But we got it all fixed.

Tapping my feet at the soggy ground and digging around the foundation a little with my fingers I decided that the pipe between the water meter and the house must have broken. In one spot or several I didn’t know. And where was the pipe? Gonna need a shovel.

Before doing any more research I called a plumber. He said it wasn’t worth digging until the water was back on. We also called the insurance company. They told us not to let anyone do any repairs that involved tearing into walls, or jackhammering the concrete slab that the house sits on until they approved.

Now there’s a nightmare scenario. Hopefully the break was not too close to the house and none of that would be necessary. Might have to tear the whole house down to fix the leak. Damn again.

The plumber came out and I told him what I knew. Not much. He turned on the water and said we would just have to wait to see where it appeared. Then dig.

He left me watching the ground while he ran off to do some errands. Call me when you see some thing he had said. It took about thirty minutes, but there it was. Making a puddle. I moved a little dirt around with my fingers to try pinpointing the leak. Shortly after I called, he reappeared. And started to dig.

An hour or so later I heard him working in the garage. Bang, clunk. What the hell? He was turning on the water heater. The job was done.

Going outside I saw the plumber’s apprentice filling up a big hole with the wet muck they had dug out. There were piles of tree roots. Big chunks of plastic that seemed to be the potting containers from the original tree that had stood there. And small pieces of PVC pipe.

The news was that the pipe was broken at an elbow. One piece of pipe had slid out of the elbow. Not a frozen pipe as I had thought. The plumber then produced another artifact that he had uncovered. An empty beer bottle.

The evidence suggests that the plumber who had worked on the house during its original construction had downed the beer, and forgotten to glue the pipe sections together. For twenty years they had been held together just by the dirt surrounding them.

I can conjure up many thoughts and images as to the situation on the fateful day so many years ago. But I won’t because that will lead me to ask what other disasters are waiting to happen here. Isolated incident. Won’t happen again.

Archaeologists sometimes classify items as religious artifacts when they are not sure of their actual use. I’m going to put the empty beer bottle into that category. For peace of mind. Further exploration may reveal a more accurate picture. But there is no digging planned on this site.

That’s part of my story. What’s yours?

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A Moving Idea

Sometimes an idea will simmer in your mind for a long time before you get the details worked out. Or even begin to take it seriously. Then some sort of trigger gets pulled and you feel compelled to act. Even obsessed with bringing this idea to fruition.

When I was a child my father’s employer transferred his job to another city. Another state. He loved his job, so he was going. And so were we. He was moving from the sprawl of Northern New Jersey to a manufacturing town in Pennsylvania. Not far from the Amish Country. He wanted to live in a rural area.

He and my mother looked at houses to make their new home. One of them was a farmhouse on a large hunk of acreage. In the middle of nowhere as farmhouses with vast expanses of land tend to be. He liked it. My mom, not so much. She was afraid that she would be isolated from the rest of humanity. And that her two young children would be stranded far from friends. Eventually they built a house in an upcoming new subdivision. Close to town, and shopping. The best schools in the state. A one-quarter acre lot.

This particular area was still considered to be in the country, and there were vast cornfields behind the house. And across the street, in the still undeveloped portion of the neighborhood, there were open fields. Up the road was the farmhouse and red barn to which all of this land had once belonged. So my father got a little of what he wanted, and my mother got everything she wanted.

That’s where I grew up. From age five until I graduated from high school. The day after I graduated, my parents moved out. They had bought my father’s dream home. An old stone farmhouse on ten acres of land. With a barn. They lived there for the next thirty-eight years and although I had grown up in suburbia, I have ever since considered this second home, Shadowlawn Farm, to be my real home. Like my father, I too loved the country life.

Fast forward to twenty years ago. My life takes many turns similar to my fathers. My wife and I had started a family and were living in an urban subdivision. The schools were failing and we wanted more for our children. We started to look in the neighboring county. Which happened to have the best schools in the state.

We looked at existing subdivision homes. We looked in the country. Every Sunday we would drive out to the country and ride around looking. One neighborhood had particular appeal to my wife. Best one in the county. We had always heard that you should buy the worst house in the best neighborhood you could afford. That was her plan. I was still holding out for the farm.

Finally it was my father-in-law who caused me to take action. He shamed me into it. What he said to me one day was that my kids needed to move. They needed to be near other kids. And I should get off my wallet and do right by my family. Of course I was going to take care of my family, but I didn’t have to do it at the expense of my life. But I did.

Time was passing and a new school year was approaching. If we bought a new house, or piece of property in the next county we could enroll the girls in the best schools available. There was a vacant lot for sale in that best neighborhood. So I bought it. And my wife and I got together with a builder and proceeded to construct a new house. It was exciting, but a story for another time and blog post.

Fast forward once again. This time to 2016. For the past twenty years I have been poring over real estate books looking at houses. Moving has never been a consideration. The kids were still in school. Then college. My wife was content. I was antsy. Then my back failed. Two surgeries later and I was having real difficulty with the stairs in our three story house. And walking. Moving suddenly became a consideration. But where?

To be continued…

That’s part of my story. What’s yours?

www.personalhistorywriter.com

 

 

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The Staircase

Back in the day people weren’t terribly concerned with building codes. You took pride in your work. Maybe you were building the family farmhouse, or log cabin on the frontier. This was your home. You did your best and hoped it didn’t either fall down or burn down. Not everyone was a good builder and a lot of houses fell down. Or burned down. Or were abandoned. Driving through the country I see a lot of what I like to call fixer uppers. Collapsed piles of brick, wood or stone, far beyond any salvation.

Building houses has always been expensive so you used available materials. A tree you used for a wall in the cabin was just a tad beyond ripe. That rock in the foundation wasn’t quite flat and the house seemed strangely out of kilter. These kinds of things made for funky imperfections. Character. Along comes electricity. We replace gaslights, and their danger of burning down your house and the whole block, with electric lights. A miracle. And a jumble of wires running everywhere through the house. Now the danger is bare wires and overloaded circuits.

And who builds their own house nowadays? You rely on builders being professional, experienced, and ethical. You have no idea what lurks beyond that sheetrock.

I watched in amazement as my aged parents navigated the staircase in their old stone farmhouse. Sixteen stairs. Creaky old wood. Covered in carpet. On either side of the staircase was a handrail. Rickety on both sides. The stairs were steep. And narrow. Not up to code I would say. But good for their day.

My mother would go up ok, hauling herself all the way using the handrails. It was coming down that was so scary. She’d come down sideways. Holding on for dear life. One foot down, then the other. Two feet on a step. Then to the next step. Until she reached the bottom. At age 87 she seemed quite comfortable with it. But she’d been up and down these stairs thousands of times over the past thirty-eight years.

The stairs hadn’t changed a bit in those years. But she had. And I had visions of her tumbling down from top to bottom. Ending up much like the fixer upper I mentioned earlier.

I love the house. And the stairs. But I was glad she and my father were moving to a two-bedroom apartment. All on one floor. In a building with an elevator. But damn if they didn’t take the stairs to their place on the second floor! Tough old bird.

That’s part of my story. What’s yours? www.personalhistorywriter.com

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