THE DAY THE LORD WORKED IN A VERY MYSTERIOUS WAY
I deeply loved that big, old, rambling Victorian house. It tried to kill me once, but my ardor remained undimmed for all the years we lived there. Besides, it wasn’t the house’s fault it had a century’s worth of dust-mite crap underneath its carpeting, or that I had a previously unknown Widow Maker allergy.
You would have thought I hated the place the first time I saw it in Watertown, South Dakota. The grand old house was completely empty. I had been given a tour and when it was over, I sat right down on the stairs and put my head in my hands. I had wanted the house to be trashed and hideous. Instead it was so incredibly beautiful. “How am I going to tell Gloria about this?”
My wife Gloria and I had come to my boyhood state of South Dakota from Los Angeles to open up a series of linked, little town tech support offices for our software business.
We lived in L.A. for so long that I had practically forgotten how different things were in South Dakota. Our first week there Gloria was introduced to the cultural differences when we were stopped one day by a road repair crew. A big coveralled guy, and yes he actually had some visible dental problems, walked up to our car. He carried a stop sign on a pole. “You’ll have to wait.”
I lowered the window and gazed at the rolling fields, now turned and black for spring planting. “Pretty lonely out here,” I opined. “You ever see any UFOs?” Gloria started punching my arm, “Stop it, stop it!”
“Why yes,” said the guy with the sign. “I see flying saucers all the time. In fact, I have ridden in them.” The Mid-West is known for its wonderfully dry sense of humor, but as Road Crew Guy started describing saucer interiors in loving detail, I could see that he wasn’t kidding. Gloria leaned over and whispered in my ear “Roll. Up. The. Window.” As I began to comply, Road Crew Guy leaned fully into the car for a final, sotto-voice shot: “And I know the location of every whore house in South Dakota.”
We were later introduced to wonderful people, made great and lasting friends and found you could buy a nice house in a little South Dakota town for the price of a car in Los Angeles. But the Saucer Guy, as we came to call him, did start things off with a certain vibe.
Pre South Dakota, Gloria and I had already had some real-estate adventures. These in the main consisted of building a log house in Malibu, California and a separate purchase which included a huge house, a guest house, a pool, and a massive, unreported, previous owner tax lien. The overall result was our blood oath to “never, never, ever again get involved with a complicated real-estate deal or buy a big house.”
The hundred-year-old Victorian house I was sitting in had three floors and a huge basement with a bar, wrap around porches and was 6,000 square feet if it was an inch. Plus, we couldn’t live where it was located. But then again, it was breath-takingly beautiful with its old, hand carved wood and God help me, a working, hand-pulled dumb waiter complete with functioning pulleys and three floor access.
I blame the whole adventure on Gloria. We had purchased a lake lot on a body of water close to our South Dakota headquarters. Our thought was to put up a little cabin and rest our shanks there when in the Mid-West. I envisioned plaid shirts and a stone fireplace as main features, along with a chain-saw artist rendition of a bear statue by the door. Then, one day when we were driving around looking at some really neat older houses, Gloria clapped her hands and said “let’s just move one of those to our lake lot!”
In the Mid-Western states, house moving is done frequently; in California folks look at you like you’re insane to even consider it. And what with the California freeways, if you did give it a try, you probably were wood-tick crazy.
We were introduced to a number of old-line groups and ranchers when we first arrived in South Dakota. One of these was a family that ran the biggest, and reputedly the best, house moving company in a seven-state area. The patriarch of the company, who had taken over the firm from his father, was now turning the reins over to his son. The patriarch had built the company from a small outfit into a huge “don’t ever mess with these folks” kind of operation. He had the aura of legend surrounding him. One of these legends, confirmed to me by a participant, involved the time a grumpy farmer in an old pick-up truck would not move out of the way for a house that was being trundled down the road. The Old Man and owner of the moving company solved the problem by the simple expedient of knocking the driver out cold, punching him through the driver’s side window. With the driver inside, they then pushed the pick-up out of the way into the ditch and finished moving the house.
It was the son of the current moving company owner who called me one day. Obviously, he had been listening to the unseen, but faster than light small-town grapevine. “I hear you’re looking for a house. I just got word that one my Dad moved 40 years ago is available. If no one buys it, they’re going to dismantle it or burn the place down.”
“The house is perfect for you. We can move it to your lake lot; it’s only 60 miles.” He neglected to mention the move involved shutting down entire roads and hoisting power lines out of the way, which inadvertently shut down one entire small town. The move also involved hauling tons of house and garages across a final two miles of bean fields.
Gloria was in L.A. taking care of some business. When she arrived back in South Dakota, I nervously babbled on to her about the beauties of the big, old, rambling house. Our “Never Again” vow lay between us, lashing its tail. She didn’t say a word during the entire hour’s drive to see the house.
As we started walking around the house, the only thing she asked me was “how old is this place?”
“A hundred and ten years,” I replied. She then held up her finger and said “ssssh” as I started to ramble on about its beauty. When we were done, we sat down together on the same stairs where I had sat holding my head after my initial, solo tour just a few days previously.
“Well?” I admit, I was kind of nervous due primarily to the reality of our pledge never to get involved with another weird-ass real estate deal.
She looked at me. ‘We are NOT going to let this beautiful lady die.”
The house and its two acres of wonderfully landscaped surroundings had been purchased and were now owned by a father-son team of some local repute. Their ancestry went back generations. Family members had run things for a long time locally in an iron fisted sort of way. But, quite unexpectedly for the father-son duo, times had changed.
It seems an ill-tempered gene of some sort ran through the family’s progeny. This resulted, shortly before our purchase of the house, in a Restraining Order being issued against the father due to threats of violence at City Council meetings. These threats were due to the City Council’s intransigence. Newly elected Council members insisted on enforcing a recently enacted state law requiring a certain percentage of new development land to be left in dirt and open. This was legislated so ground water could drain back into the city water system without being toxically filtered through blacktop or concrete.
Obeying this new law, while quite beneficial to city residents and their growing children, seriously cut into parking lot space for the new Condo development the father-son team planned to erect on the property. The ongoing uproar resulted in their building permits and construction loans grinding to a halt. To deal with the resulting cash flow challenges, the father-son team decided to dismantle the grand old house located smack in the center of the property. What couldn’t be sold for architectural salvage would be burned, as fortunately, there were no anti open-burn laws to match the pesky new drainage requirements.
We cut a deal with the house moving company, and made a low-ball offer on the house, with a commitment to move it. I think the father-son team viewed us as a minor miracle, if the father’s heartful, deep sigh when he got the bank check was any indication. Unfortunately, this reprieve just seemed to embolden the duo to ratchet up their fight with the local building authorities. They never got permits and their condos remained unbuilt. Eventually they lost the land to their original lender.
We were in full accord with the new drainage requirements and loudly praised the City authorities for standing firm…then they came knocking on our door. After we had closed the purchase of the house, which we now had to move.
The city official, rather cheerfully I thought, informed us that another new regulation stipulated that basement foundation holes under houses which were moved had to be totally filed in. The side walls of the old basement were to be pushed down into the basement hole prior to dirt being added. “When everything is done, It has to be perfectly flat and match the level of the surrounding land.”
He then quoted a regulation sub-paragraph which further addressed what could be left in an empty basement hole prior to it being filled in. Simply put, what could be left in the hole was nothing, in particular no old furnishings or debris. He closed our rather short meeting by announcing that as owners and soon to be movers of the house, complying with this regulation was our responsibility. He mentioned fines. Plus the fact that compliance was now an iron clad requirement if we were to be issued a permit to move the house along city streets to get it out of town. And yes, there would be regular inspections.
We had no objections to this really, except for one minor issue: along one long wall of the basement was a huge, antique bar and back bar. Its age clearly indicated it had not been built in place, but I was perplexed as to how the two massive items had gotten into the basement to begin with. Our moving company solved the mystery; it had been lowered into place 40 years earlier by mules and a huge crane.
Gloria looked at me. “Mules?”
“It’s not a problem, really” I responded with faux cheeriness. “It’s just a money maker for us in disguise. I’ll call around. I’ll find someone who wants the bar and back bar. We’ll give it to them provided they move it. Then we’ll write off the whole thing as a donation.”
I contacted everyone I could think of. VFW clubs, very active in the Mid-West even now, turned out not to be prospects. I had thought them to be a dead-bang cinch. Their officers just laughed when they heard the dimensions and probable weight of our proposed donation. In growing desperation, I quickly ran out of possibilities.
The Mayor of Watertown was a florid, cheerful guy. It was his last month in charge, sadly, as we had I thought hit it off rather well when we first met. He heard me out as I bemoaned our fate, and then he solved the problem. “Salvation Army,” he said and gave me the name of the local Captain.
Frankly, I thought the Mayor was nuts. One of the Salvation Army’s founding tenets was temperance. And I was going to ask them if they wanted a free bar?
I called the Salvation Army Captain and made my pitch. “Sure,” he said, interrupting my rather rambling presentation. “We’ll take them. And we’ll move them both.”
I just didn’t have the courage not to disclose the hugeness and estimated weight of the two items. I even relayed what I had been told about how the bar and back bar originally came to be placed in the basement.
“Glad you told me, but not a problem,” he responded. “I’ll bring help.”
A date and time were set for the pickup, mid-morning on what turned out to be a blustery November day. The pickup was timed to be the day after the house was moved off the foundation so the basement hole gaped open. That morning, right on time, the Captain, in full uniform, and a driver appeared in a large semi-trailer truck with “Salvation Army” emblazoned on it. They were closely followed by two packed, blue buses with “County Jail” rather sloppily painted on each side.
The buses emptied out and the Captain started barking orders at his rather ragged group of miscreants. There were only two deputies overseeing the event, each one of them having driven a bus. Obviously, they did not expect trouble, which was a comfort.
“These guys are all volunteers,” offered up one of the county deputies. “We like to take them on field trips, if we can.”
They swarmed over the bar and back bar, probably savoring memories of happier times. They had those huge and heavy, heavy pieces of furniture out and placed in the Salvation Army semi-trailer quickly. So quickly, in fact, that the bar, back bar, and inmates were loaded and gone well before the local city constablery rolled up to see why thirty or forty county jail inmates were milling around by an open hole in the ground.
As his driver hopped into the truck’s cab, I walked up to the Captain.
“Mind if I ask you a question?”
“What?” he replied, clearly impatient to leave.
“I really hope you can make use of this,” I replied. “But wasn’t the Salvation Army founded on not drinking?”
He stared at me for a moment, grim faced. Then he looked up at the sky. Snow was starting to flurry. He looked back at me. “The Lord,” he intoned solemnly “works in strange and mysterious ways.”
He banged on the truck. “Saddle up!” he shouted and as he turned away I could see he was smiling.
Copyright 2019, Wayne D. McFarland. All rights reserved.