Charlie and the Bat

3 Sep 2011

Our house was built in 1923 by a guy named Charlie Washburn. I’m not sure what year Charlie died, but the deed records show his wife was still living here when the house was finally sold to its second owner in the early 1980s.

I do know a little about Charlie for three reasons: (1) my neighbor Laura, who died last year at age 96, told me what she remembered about Charlie, after we moved in; (2) Charlie shows up here and there in history books about our town; (3) we’ve been fixing up Charlie’s house for 13 years now, so sometimes we find remnants of him in the walls.

I wonder sometimes what Charlie would think of his old house today. It’s changed a lot since he lived here. Thanks to the Soules, i.e., the owners who bought the house from Mrs. Washburn (or her estate), the attic is now a real third floor, complete with a full bathroom. Thanks to my mate—and the requirement of our homeowner’s insurance policy—the front porch and steps now have a bright white-and-red railing, whereas before there was no rail. After years of toil, the front yard no longer has a lawn, but is instead full of flowers. (It does still have the big Norway spruce Charlie probably planted.)

Thanks to Bob the Builder, who is virtually a member of our family at this point, Charlie’s crappy, dark, little kitchen is now a big, beautiful, cook’s kitchen, executed in the style of a chemistry lab. The second floor bathroom no longer has Charlie’s low-end, big, cast iron (long since rusted) tub, but instead sports a “European” glass shower and cherry cabinets. There’s a real two-car garage Bob added on to the back of the house for us, with a lovely deck on top of that, coming right off the kitchen. (I call that deck “the community room of the neighborhood.”) The mate has built-in bookcases and cabinets in the living room, lining the doorway to the sunroom with beautiful handmade tiles. And then, of course, also thanks to Bob, there’s the addition of my writing cottage in the far backyard, with its fenced cottage garden.

I expect Charlie would like a lot of it. I think he’d particularly like the back deck, with its big shade tent, and the lush and productive front and back gardens we now have, after a decade of work. I know from Laura that when Charlie lived here, our backyard had much more sun—the trees were not so gigantic as they are now—and Charlie had an enormous flower garden out back. Laura said Charlie’s back garden supplied all the churches in town with flowers. She also told me that the reason our backyard soil is so good is that when the city was widening the main road three blocks away, and the workers hit a big pocket of peat, Charlie had them bring the peat over to his yard.

By all accounts, Charlie was an operator. He owned and ran The Smokehouse downtown—not a restaurant, but a place where you could go to buy all forms of tobacco. Grainy old pictures suggest his “smokehouse” also had a soda fountain, and sold little things like gum. A 1921 college yearbook I found recently hints maybe Charlie’s place sold clothing, too? The yearbook features an ad from Charlie, showing a photo of a guy helping a woman up a ladder, so she can climb in a window, with the caption, “Many an Aggie [i.e., college student] hides calloused shoulders won by nightly assisting his ‘fair one’ in the Terrace window.” Below that, it said, “Charles Washburn [...] Athletic Goods, Haberdashery, Tobaccos, Candies, Soft Drinks.”

One book about our town’s history suggests that Charlie was a big promoter of our college’s sports. It appears he was the guy (before the NCAA rules) who literally paid cash to high school players whom the college’s coaches were trying to recruit. I suppose he probably also gave them all smokes.

I don’t know whether Charlie was a cheap S.O.B. when it came to the house he built because that was his nature, or because his situation required it. I’ve always had a feeling it was the former—that he was cheap by nature—perhaps because I can’t imagine such an operator not earning a comfortable living. In any case, our house wasn’t built as well as it could have been. Where other houses in the neighborhood have stained wood molding on doors, windows, and crowns, we have painted poplar. Others have beautiful staircases where we have a utilitarian one.

Luckily oak and maple flooring was cheap in 1923, as were plaster walls. I find it amusing sometimes, when I look out our front windows, to realize that that wavy glass must have been what Charlie picked out, because it was cheap. Or maybe that’s all there was. I sometimes look at the cracked window in the sunroom and wonder how many owners have looked at that before me, thinking, “I should probably fix that.” I wonder if it’s been broken since Charlie. (But it’s just a small crack...)

Literally the last big thing we need to do to this house is replace the fireplace mantle, and we’ve now undertaken that. When we moved in, we had the impression that the mantle we saw was not the original mantle; it seemed much too cheap and cheesy to be from 1923. It looked slapped-together and sported about 10 coats of white paint. For years, we harbored fantasies that, if we pulled it off, underneath we’d find some gorgeous old original mantle. Maybe in oak. Maybe even mahogany!

Every few years, I have slapped a new coat of paint up on that mantle, just to try to make it look a little classier. A couple of years ago, just before I was going to repaint it again, out of curiosity the mate yanked off one of the face boards. Turns out what we saw when we bought this house is exactly the mantle Charlie put in: a simple mantle made of cheap, painted boards.

So now that everything else substantial in the house is fixed, we’ve decided to tackle “that last thing,” the fireplace. We’re going to cover up the ugly old brick that makes the room look so dingy with beautiful handmade tiles—there will be a vine motif that wraps around the fireplace’s opening—and replace the cracked hearth with complimentary tile. Around that will be a new walnut mantle, with two small bookcases on either side of the fireplace, with little lamps on top of the bookcases, to add some more light to the room.

In preparation for this, as part of the planning, a few weeks ago, the mate and Bob the Builder pulled off more of the mantle. (We needed to see where the brick ended, to make some calculations.) This, in turn, exposed what was obviously once a chipmunk nest, as well as evidence of what might have been former nests of small birds. They’d been sneaking in through the siding, into this warm space between the mantle and the outside of the house. I tackled it all with barbecue tongs and the shopvac. Thunk, thunk, thunk, went the acorns up the vacuum tube.

Then last week came the bat. Our son was having a sleepover in the living room with his best friend. He came tearing up the stairs to get me at 4:30 a.m. “There’s a bat!” I thought maybe he was dreaming, but then the mate got up and the bat flew right into him. We couldn’t capture the bat, so we couldn’t test the bat, so the county health department decided we all need the rabies vaccine....

This meant that, rather than waiting for Bob to be ready to do our job (Bob does one job at a time, so we have to wait), we had to immediately take down the rest of the mantle and plug all the holes with foam. We can’t be sure that’s how the bat got in, but we haven’t otherwise had a bat since we got the chimney capped correctly four years ago. So it seemed like it might well have come in the newly-exposed holes caused by taking down the mantle.

And in the fireplace mantle, appropriately enough, we found more evidence that Charlie always bought the cheapest thing: there was a receipt, from 1923, for a coal chute, style #100, to be delivered “to Washburn, Sunset Lane.”

There was also a single playing card, a crocheting needle—very fine, as if for making lace—a 1926 Mercury dime, and a small, unexploded bullet. Huh.

Over the years, we’ve found so much of Charlie’s stuff, I almost feel as if we’ve met. There was his vitamin-medicine tin in the kitchen wall, his 1938 newspaper in the bathroom wall. It’s tempting to think the bat was the ghost of Charlie, come to tell us to stop messing with his house and just live in it.

But live in it, we do. Like Charlie, we grow thousands of flowers, and give them away. Like Charlie, I get caught up in city politics. Like Charlie, we talk to our neighbors. We sit on Charlie’s porch in the spring and summer, burn a warm fire in his fireplace in the fall and winter, and try not worry too much when the wind blows hard. It’s a sturdy old house. Bob says the foundation is still good, and the roof is doing okay.

I was walking today to a friend’s house, over to the more expensive neighborhood in town. She was widowed recently, and I needed to give her some information about how to dispose of her late husband’s prescription drugs, as well as to just let her know we were thinking of her. Over there the houses are “modern,” and generally much more grand—to me, huge and sprawling. Each has a giant moat of lawn. Those people cannot hear their neighbors’ TVs, or smell what is cooking next door, the way we easily can. I wondered if, over there, you only find out what is big in your neighbors’ lives by reading about it in the local paper.

Over here, you find out about new babies, cancers, deaths, unemployment, employment, and graduations because we are all in each other’s faces, literally. Our neighbors’ houses are maybe 15 feet away from the sides of our house. Five backyards back up on ours (our yard is bigger than most, only 50 feet wide but 225 feet deep), so we are always all talking over the low fences. My friends wander in to grab a beer and catch up, I wander into their houses when I am short an egg. When we’re hanging laundry out back, we can talk in normal voices to each other, and we do. We remark upon the bats together, when they come out at night from the big trees, to clean up all the mosquitos.

Maybe Charlie could have afforded a more expensive property. But I have a feeling, given the hints—the playing card, the smokehouse, the soda fountain, the flowers for the churches, the biggest front porch on the block, the bullet—that Charlie lived in this particular downtown neighborhood for the same reason we do: it’s the life.