Few things in life serve as milestones to mark the passing of time better than a visit to the old homestead of my youth. The house is now empty. Its windows broken and the door is standing wide with sand dunes spread across the floor. The roof on the cavernous garage has collapsed, and the rest of the building isn’t far behind.
What a rush of memories! This past week while filming an episode of Legends of Route 66, a program on the Fast TV Network, about Route 66 in western Arizona a scene was shot at the old homestead.
Pa mustered out of the service in the late spring of 1966. After sailing the Pacific during a stint in the navy during WWII, and years spent on the Great Lakes while serving in the Coast Guard, he was obsessed with living in a drier climate. And so he set his sights on the southwest and was enticed to buy several acres in a planned community west of Kingman, Arizona.
As it turned out the only plan in the planned community was to fleece buyers. The wide paved streets, utilities, shopping center, recreation center, parks and even water department existed only in the colorful brochures. And the land company had no plans to provide any of these amenities. Their priority was to fill the pockets, and high tail it before the law or a lynch mob of angry buyers caught up with them.
I can only imagine pa’s surprise when he gazed upon his acquisition. On our initial search for the property he buried the ’64 Ford Fairlane in soft sand and it took most of the day to get the car back to the main road, Route 66. So, being rather resourceful, he went with plan “B” and rented a house in Kingman. Then at a tax sale he bought the “model home” for the proposed planned community which was located along a section of Route 66 that had been bypassed in 1952.
The house was a shell. So, he set to work to make it livable. Suffice to say, as a kid from Michigan that had spent summers on family farms in Alabama and Tennessee my impression was that Kingman was the place warned about in Sunday school. As it turned out I was wrong. Our new house was the place warned about in Sunday school.
We had electricity but no running water, at least in our first few months. Pa soon rigged up an innovative system but it required hauling water from the site of the long abandoned Fig Springs Camp at the bottom of the valley. Not long afterwards, even though I was still years away from being old enough to qualify for a drivers license, one of my chores was to haul water every Saturday morning.
The garage was an interesting project. Pa an I tore down the old Episcopal church on Spring Street, and two houses, one on Maple Street and one on Grandview Avenue. The lumber and other components including sinks, toilets and bathtub were recycled and used in building the homestead.
I helped hand mix the concrete for the garage footing. As it turned out my pa would have saved a lot of trouble if he had hired a surveyor. The footing extended five feet into neighboring property. It remains as mute testimony to pa’s stubbornness and his steadfast refusal to pay anyone for something he felt he could do himself.
Well, we got the footing right and built the garage, the same one that is, one strong wind from falling down. And we finished the interior of the house, sort of. Chances are that circa 1890 it would have been considered luxurious. In 1970 not so much.
We heated with wood. We had concrete floors. For cooling we had fans and wet strips of burlap. And then later a small evaporative cooler in the living room. The unit required the hauling of water twice per week. It kept the living room moderately comfortable, and the rest of the house about 15 degrees cooler than outdoors. That meant during the months of summer it was often 90 degrees in the kitchen or bedroom.
I learned to ride a bicycle on the broken asphalt out front of this house. I learned to drive on that road. My little sister broke her arm climbing on the pile of used building materials. The first time I killed a rattlesnake was on the back porch. My first encounters with scorpions were in my bedroom. The first time I helped my pa bleed the brakes and tune up the ’53 Chevy truck were in that garage. I learned to saddle a horse at the homestead.
Sharing a bit of this story during filming unleashed a flood of memories. Some were good, and some were bad. And some were simple reflections on the passing of time, of age, and of changing times. There were thoughts of my little sister who passed away in the winter of 2010, just ten days after ma. And of course there were thoughts of my pa who passed away last February.
In the blink of an eye almost sixty years of life has zipped past. And that thought alone brought me up short. I now have to squint hard to see sixty in the rear view mirror, and seventy is looming at the top of the hill.