Catching up

In the two weeks since my workroom/storage shed went up in flames, I’ve been dealing with that reality as well as reaching several other landmarks.

The insurance company sent a pair of adjusters to look at the damage and estimate the cost of repair and replacement. They indicated that contractors would probably prefer to raze the structure and build from the concrete slab rather than trying to replace all that was damaged by the fire. After considerable study, they estimated the cost of replacement, subtracted our deductible and depreciation, and handed me a check. The check had to be sent to the holder of the mortgage, since that company’s name is also on the check; someone will sign the check for the company and mail it back.

In addition to the cost of the building, my insurance policy also includes contents of the building. As a result, my family and I have spent much of the past two weeks listing everything that was in the shed, then researching the cost of replacement. That started the day after the fire, when I went to the hardware store to replace tools that I need to use this spring. The next replacement purchase was the lawnmower, which did not appear to be damaged, but which started once, ran twenty or thirty feet, and died, refusing to start again, even after I replaced the air filter. Children’s clothing and toys, which my family was gradually removing to donate to the church for its periodic rummage sale, now has to be listed, photographed, and in most cases discarded. Some homemade dresses are being saved for their nostalgic value. Then there’s the Christmas decorations. Many of the ceramic and glass figures were scalded by the fire. I will soon make arrangements with a professional cleaning company—recommended by the insurance company—to see what can be saved rather than replaced.

Meanwhile, I am inviting general contractors to place a bid on the work to replace the building. Many of my readers probably know a lot about general contractors, but some might not know about them. (Mrs. Dim didn’t understand them. When I asked her if she could recommend a general contractor, she told me not to use the one she had used. He showed up once, then took her money but sent other people to do the work.) General contractors oversee a building project, but they hire various specialists, such as carpenters, roofers, and electricians, to do the work. A person can save money by not using a general contractor, but that saved money is balanced by the time it takes to negotiate with each specialist, along with the necessity of knowing enough about construction to speak with those workers and to know that they are doing what they should be doing. The insurance company recommends a general contractor.

One general contractor came to the property the same day she was called and promised to email a bid. I haven’t received that email yet. A second general contractor did not return the phone call for two days, promised to come by on a certain day, and did not show up. A third came to look at the shed and wanted to know how much money the insurance company provided so his bid could match the insurance payment. I told him I planned to get several bids and compare them all to the insurance company’s evaluation, but he said he would submit a bid with a paragraph promising to adjust his figures. I’m hoping to receive one more bid, so I have three to compare.

All this overlaps wrapping up the school year and preparing to teach a summer class. At the same time, I have started my summer writing project, a study of the parables of Jesus. (I will post a few chapters, but since I plan to publish the whole book through amazon, I don’t want to share the entire work for free.) My car—a 1999 Ford Escort—crossed the 200,000 mile mark this month. I have seen license plates from forty-seven different states this year, but I am still looking for Maine, Rhode Island, and Delaware. And the exhibit I curated is open until the first of July. J.

Up in flames

When I went to bed last night, I wondered if I would think in the morning that the day’s events had been just a bad dream. But the smell of smoke was too pervasive and the memories too vivid for me to think that I had dreamed about the fire.

The day began normally. I had been at work for two hours when the phone rang. I answered it and heard a voice saying, “The storage shed is on fire! I’ve called 911, but they aren’t here yet!”

People like me want to believe that we respond calmly to a crisis. Sometimes people like me say foolish things calmly in a crisis. “Do you think I should come home, then?” I asked. Of course I was out the door and on my way home as quickly as possible.

The drive home takes twenty minutes. I spent those minutes praying two things–that no one would be hurt, and that the house would be protected. I also reminded myself to breathe and to pay attention to traffic. The fire trucks were there when I arrived home, so I parked down the street. The fire was contained by then, and the firefighters were preparing to soak the contents of the shed to ensure that no hot spots would reignite.

A family member had used a power tool in the shed that morning. She did nothing wrong–she used the tool correctly and put it away when she was done. But some fault in the outlet began a small smoldering that was not immediately evident. Twenty minutes later, the same family member took some garbage to the curb and decided to bring back the recycling bin–the latter task is something I generally do when I come home Friday evenings. Her spontaneous decision to do so yesterday gave the opportunity for her to see flames and smoke far sooner than they would have been noticed otherwise.

When we bought the house, the shed was already part of the property. It is about ten feet wide and twenty-five feet deep. The front end had workspaces with shelves underneath and pegboard on the walls for hanging tools. The back end had shelves on the walls for storage. To the right of the entrance we kept lawn and gardening tools and an area for potting plants; to the left was workspace for carpentry and the like, with hand tools hung on the wall and power tools on the shelf below. Beyond that was a work table with boxes of clothing and an antique, homemade dollhouse that had been given to the children. Beyond that were boxes of outgrown toys and clothing, disassembled cribs, and the like. On the back shelves were boxes of holiday decorations.

I was already doing triage in my head while I drove home. The tools were all replaceable and probably covered by insurance. The children’s clothing and toys were things we were slowly removing, donating them to the church for its rummage sale. The Christmas decorations would be the saddest loss, but I was resigned to that loss already so long as no one was hurt and the house remained safe.

No one was hurt. The house remained safe. The fire fighters had been delayed because they were giving a program at a school. One of the children had asked them what would happen if there was a fire somewhere while they were at the school. They had said they would leave to fight the fire. A minute or two later they got the call about our fire.

The lieutenant told us there was a clear V-shape of damage from the outlet where the fire began. It traveled up and then crossed the length of the shed, following the air flow. The lawnmower was on the floor of the shed. Although charred boxes fell onto it, it was undamaged. A tank of gasoline, half-full, was on the floor of the shed about five feet from where the fire began. It survived unscathed. The power tools, on the shelf under the work area, were likewise unharmed. The hand tools that had been hanging on the wall were gone. Our grill for cooking with charcoal was, of course, unharmed, but the electric starter for the coals melted completely and will need to be replaced.

After the firefighters left, I called our insurance company. As they began the claim process, they advised me to take pictures of the building and its contents, then to begin removing contents that were not damaged. After taking pictures, we started at the front, taking out the lawnmower and power tools and other items that had survived. The antique dollhouse was, ironically, harmed much in the pattern of the shed that contained it–most of the damage to the roof and upper structure. As we worked our way to the back of the shed, moving aside charred and burned boxes, we could see that the boxes holding Christmas decorations were darkened and soaked but not burnt. One by one we carefully carried those boxes to the driveway and inspected their contents.

We did not have time to do an item-by-item inspection. Some of the ceramic and glass decorations had been damaged by the fire, but we set all that aside to handle later. Most of the clothing that had been on the work table was merely soaked and smoke-scented. We spread those items out on the grass to dry and to freshen in the breeze. The day was dry, sunny, and windy, which made it ideal for rescuing the clothing. It looked much as if we were preparing for a garage sale, and we wondered if we should post a sign saying that these things were not for sale.

Some items came to mind before we could enter the shed; others came to mind as we worked our way through the shed. Four wooden folding chairs–probably older than I am–survived, although they will be to be refinished. Handmade children’s clothing of sentimental value was found and proved to be unhurt. Even a box holding a stamp collection was retrieved from a lower shelf, essentially unharmed. The primary loss was the building itself, but the insurance adjuster has not yet looked at it to tell us so.

In spite of the trauma of enduring a fire on our property, my family and I feel that we have been blessed by the Lord. No one was injured by the fire. The house was spared. (The corner of the shed where the fire began is about ten feet from the nearest corner of the house. Two large oak trees next to the shed could have spread the fire, but we’ve had a wet spring and they remained unsinged.) Insurance will cover most of the loss. I expect to order a dumpster and clear the remaining contents out of the shed. I have been hoping for a while to receive a job offer in another city; this event may have helped to prepare for a move by forcing us to deal with extraneous possessions before the urgency of packing. Many people (including some of our neighbors) can see only loss in a fire like this. My family and I see instead how all things work for good. J.

The basement

As I’ve written before, I grew up in a ranch house with a full basement. A lot happened down in the basement, including some spectacular floods.

The washing machine and clothes drier were down there, along with a chest freezer and a second refrigerator. My parents stored frozen vegetables and fruits from the garden in the freezer, and also had shelves of canned fruits, jellies, applesauce, and the like. One of my mother’s hobbies was ceramics, which she taught to 4-H children and also to ladies from the church. Year-round, the ladies would gather once a week in the basement to prepare items for their annual Christmas sale. Most of them were cast in molds; my mother had a large collection of molds, glazes, and a kiln for firing the ceramics.

Two of my father’s hobbies were woodworking and photography. He had a fairly complete work area in one corner of the basement with a table saw and other tools. In another corner he assembled a darkroom in which he printed photographs he had taken. When he built the darkroom, he also made a second room which he intended to be a recreation room. It had a tile floor and wood panel walls. A ping pong table was in the room, but gradually it accumulated various items for storage, so not much recreation happened there.

Twelve wooden stairs led down from the back entry to the basement. There were four steps and then a landing (which held the cat’s litter box), and then a turn to the right and eight more steps down to the basement floor. Next to those steps was the furnace that heated the house in the winter. When I was young, I kept some of my toys in the cubbyhole underneath the steps and landing.

My parents never threw away a cardboard box, because one never knows when one will need a box of a certain size. I remember a huge mountain of boxes in the basement when I was younger. Of course when the basement was flooded, the cardboard was ruined and had to be discarded. Most of the molds survived and were usable again after they had thoroughly dried. The freezer floated and tipped over, spilling its contents, which (needless to say) also had to be discarded.

Aside from the recreation room and darkroom, the floor of the basement was concrete. It had a number of cracks through which water would seep on rainy days. A sump pump kept the basement relatively dry except during major floods, but most summers the basement had a musty smell.

Our first major flood was caused by a heavy rainfall in the summer. The second major flood, a few years later, happened because of an early spring rain while there was still snow on the ground. We had no heat in the house because of that flood; the pilot light of the furnace was below the level of the floodwater. More floods followed. When the creek was high and water was seeping through the cracks in the floor, my parents and I would try to get items of value out of the basement. I, of course, was most worried about my toys; my parents had other concerns. My father eventually bought a second sump pump to deal with floods. The main sump pump was electric and diverted water into the creek. The second sump pump was gasoline powered; when my father ran that pump, he had to run the hose out the basement window. Of course when floodwaters reached the window, trying to pump water out of the basement was pointless.

My parents were legally required to purchase flood insurance. After a major flood, the insurance company would give them money to replace the furnace, washer, drier, and freezer. They did not cover craft materials or toys. Along with replacement money, though, the insurance also provided funds for cleaning the basement, based on the square footage of the floor and walls that had come in contact with floodwater. As my parents became older and major floods became more frequent, the basement was increasingly unsafe. I know that pockets of mold and mildew existed where they could not be reached to be removed. My father was anxious to move, but my mother was very attached to the house and the village.

After my mother died (a little more than a year ago), my father relocated as quickly as he could. A government agency was purchasing houses in the floodplain. Months of legal negotiations were involved in the transaction, but eventually my father was able to move, and the house was leveled.

I clearly remember many afternoons spent in the basement. I remember using a hand drill to drill holes in a block of wood, which kept me busy while my father worked on more complicated projects. I remember the gatherings of 4-H children and church ladies to work on ceramics, and I remember a few projects I produced at the same table. (One of them won prizes at the county fair and was exhibited at the state fair.) I remember playing with toys on the floor of the recreation room, and I remember frantically gathering toys to take upstairs because it was raining outside. I remember lessons from my father on developing film and printing pictures, many years before telephones were used to take pictures. I remember a sense of security while my mother loaded the kiln and my father sculpted cabinet doors for the kitchen and I played with my toys. All that remains today are the memories. J.

 

Nothing left but memories

The house in which I spent my childhood no longer stands. Nothing is left of it but memories.

Here is the history of that house. Late during the Great Depression, my grandparents bought a farmhouse on three acres of land; they also acquired a barn and a chicken coop with that purchase. Their house was half a block from a one-room schoolhouse, about two blocks from a railroad station, and several blocks from a tuberculosis sanitarium. The village had fewer than two hundred inhabitants.

My grandparents bought three acres because they wanted their son and their daughter to live next door when they were grown. After my mother (their daughter) and my father were married, they were invited to choose between the northeast and northwest quarter of the property. They chose the corner on the quieter street, and they had a house built. It was a ranch house with three bedrooms, one bathroom, a living room, dining room, and kitchen; it also had a full basement. A spring-fed creek ran along the property line to the north.

Over the years, the village grew. The sanitarium became a major regional hospital. When my mother graduated from eighth grade, she had one classmate; when I graduated from eighth grade, I had ninety classmates (separated into three homerooms). Since my grandparents, uncle, aunt, and cousins were neighbors, holidays and birthdays and wedding anniversaries were all family events. I walked to school, even in the rain and the snow, and at the end of the day I walked home again. Each of these uphill journeys involved passing three other houses.

The summer I turned ten, we had a forty-year flood. (Since there have been five such floods since that time, you can calculate my age.) Due to heavy rain, the creek rose over its banks, inundating the property. Four feet of water rose in the basement. I spent the next few days playing with “driftwood” that had washed onto the property. About the only benefit from the flood for my family is that it helped us locate precisely a leak in the natural gas line in front of the house by the bubbles that rose through the floodwater.

The next forty-year flood happened in the early spring after a winter of record-breaking snowfall. One day the temperature reached sixty degrees and it began to rain, melting the upper layers of snow while the lower layers remained frozen. Since the creek was also frozen, all that water had nowhere to go except for the property and the basement. Overnight lows dropped into the forties, which is memorable since the basement flooding had required my family to turn off the furnace.

After those two floods, my parents were required to purchase flood insurance. When flooding happened, the insurance company would pay money to replace damaged equipment such as the furnace, clothes washer, drier, and deep-freeze. They would also pay a set amount per square foot for cleaning what had been flooded. They did not cover furniture, hobby and craft equipment, or other improvements people might make in a basement.

By the time I was an adult, my father was ready to move out of that house. Understandably, my mother was reluctant to move. That difference of opinion created some tension in the family over their later years, although most of the time we handled it well. My mother’s opinion prevailed; the two of them remained in that house until the last week of her life, when she was hospitalized until her death.

Since that time, my father has moved to a different state. A government agency bought the house and property. Because it is in a flood plain, they have destroyed the house and will allow the land to remain undeveloped. I doubt that I will ever see the lot; I have no reason now to return to my hometown. Only memories remain of my childhood home. J.