Monday, March 28, 2011
A Losing Battle
Our house at 928 North George Street met at least one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s criteria; it was an organic structure, always coming into being, always returning to the earth. In the fifty-one years that Mom and Dad lived there a silent war was being waged between their desire to make a home and the pernicious climate that resisted every advance they made. Summer, and soil, I’d say, were the forces arrayed against anyone who chose to erect a lasting edifice. They joined forces, an atmosphere permeated with moisture, and a soil sodden with goo. Hot, humid summer nights preserved the moisture in the sticky clay. The clay reciprocated by feeding moisture to the air. Even in winter the night air held you in its clammy grip.
Human artifacts fare poorly in such conditions. Rust and mold and rot race to ruin new construction. Cement basement walls are slowly turned to powder by incessant dampness from without and from within. Treasures, thought to be preserved, are later found in tatters, victims of an enemy of all that wants to be. Repairs upon repairs bear witness to the never ending struggle. Generation passes to generation the depressing heritage of decay. Only the optimism and energy of youth gives hope to those who wish to make a home in such a place.
Dad was thirty-six, Mom thirty-five, when they began to build in 1940. I was too young to know, and subsequently too careless to ask, what impelled them to do so. The times were hard. The New Deal had brought some life back to the economy, but the war, which would ultimately end the Great Depression, was still only a dark cloud on the horizon, if anything, another reason to fear, to take no chances.
Dad had worked through the late 20s and part of the 30s as a farm hand, then later, for a brief period, on the WPA. As the 40s dawned he was an entrepreneur, though he would not have known the term. He was a collector of paper and rags, glass, and metal; a handyman and stove repairman. He owned a fleet of two push carts that he wheeled from store to store collecting cardboard boxes and any paper he could bale for sale. His toolkit consisted of a few tinner’s tools, a supply bolts, asbestos, and stove cement. How he scratched enough from those activities to support a family of six is a mystery; how he found the fifty or one hundred dollars to buy a lot and build a house is almost beyond belief.
Granted, the house was not built in a day, and when it reached something like its final form, it was an embarrassment to the neighborhood and, regretfully, to some of its inhabitants. (It is easier to look back on poverty with some kind of perverse pride than it is to live in its immediacy.) The neighbors (most of them) came to see, in Dad (and Mom), a dignity – a decency – that belied the humble house Dad built. I look at his accomplishment and remove my hat, knowing now what heroic stamina it took to be the husband, father, man he sought to be.
Our house still stands, as do most of the others on the block. Some seem to be holding their own better than others, but there is no sign that they are regaining ground previously lost. Aluminum siding has helped to hide the scars that time and climate have inflicted on our house. Frequent painting gives others the appearance of some stability. Some have fared less well, have not been able to attract the youthful inhabitants, infused with the hope needed to stave off decay. One has the feeling, walking through the neighborhood, that the enemy has withdrawn his forces, knowing that the wounds already inflicted are sufficient to finish his work. He is training his guns now upon the new, upscale developments, south and west of town. It is only a matter of time.