/ Nonfiction /
Arriving for my shift, I climb the stairs directly up to the low-ceilinged third floor. Once servants’ quarters, these cramped spaces with their wooden clothing pegs and tiny windows now function as dressing rooms for the staff. Sliding out of my jeans and pulling off my T-shirt, I step into a late-Victorian high-necked, cinch-waisted floor-length gown of ruffled, blue-flowered muslin. My job at the Alexander Ramsey Mansion, home of the first territorial governor of Wisconsin and Minnesota, is both tour guide and doppelganger, requiring shifting readily via voice, practiced recitation, and body language between the present and the presumed past. On-the-job training includes mastering a ladylike walk – smooth and deliberate – speaking clearly but not loudly and learning to gesture and not to point. But I really have no idea what I’m “playing” – the lady of the house? a daughter? a servant? Still, I jump into the performance.
Another in a long line of part-time day jobs has me training as a guide leading tour groups through Thomas Jefferson’s house at Monticello. Interviewing with the Foundation director, a dignified middle-aged white man in a trim gray suit, I’m informed that I have the right look to work there. I’m briefed concerning proper dress for female tour guides – skirts and dresses below the knees and natural colored hose, no bare legs – and handed several books about Mr. Jefferson that I’m required to study. I’m also directed to memorize a script detailing and celebrating Jefferson’s exploits and accomplishments, particularly in the founding of the University of Virginia, said to be his proudest achievement.
* * *
It was a visitor who first made me aware of Sally Hemings and her children; the slavery experience wasn’t then included in the approved narrative of the house, nor in archaeological studies undertaken on the grounds. And despite repeated visitor queries, it would be decades before staff are allowed to address the “difficult” issues surrounding the property. Still, in the six months I worked there, I became obsessed with the many myths, legends and allegories surrounding Mr. Jefferson and his family, black and white, at Monticello. When I led groups through the rooms, pointing out Jefferson’s engineering marvels and architectural innovations, I followed the script I’d been drilled to recite. But the questions I had, and those asked by tourists, went unanswered on my tours. Not because I wasn’t interested or intrigued or beginning to be somewhat knowledgeable, but because the answers weren’t part of the history that I was schooled to convey.
* * *
Glenda lives with her family in the north-central Minnesota farm community first settled by our Norwegian great-grandparents. She’s been saving old buildings for years. She bought and moved a clapboard Methodist church to the same small town where she also runs a locals’ bar and restaurant. She turned the town’s general store, closed down since we were kids, into a homemade museum chronicling the lives and histories of neighboring farm families. She can tell you exactly who once owned what: the luncheonette, the auto repair shop, the creamery.
Some years back she bought an old country school – but not the land it was built on – intending to move it to join the church and store and café. Some of us drove over to see it; a stark treasure of Scandinavian-inspired simplicity with its lofty pitched roof and rows of austerely elongated windows. Standing inside I recalled how as children we’d played in another vacated one-room school near the farmstead where Glenda grew up. My mother attended her first eight grades in that building. I remember the hollow feeling I had handling the tattered children’s textbooks left behind in piles on bare plank floors. I even grabbed a few – though they weren’t mine to take – with the idea, I suppose, of saving them, but for what I can’t say. Similarly, I’ve puzzled over my cousins preservation projects; I wonder what it means to try to recreate an entire village from memory.
Glenda needed to raise money to relocate and settle her schoolhouse in the village among the other structures she’d rescued and opened up to occasional summer tourists. For a few years she tried to pull the funds together. Not long ago, during a brief visit, I watched as she and her son and daughter and brothers and a sister-in-law carefully extracted windows and doors, woodstove and blackboards. A couple of weeks later, for a practice drill, the county volunteer fire squad burned the building to the ground. It was a liability, sitting empty and open to any kind of foolishness. It had to be removed, and what better, more practical way to do it? The last time I was up there, I paid a visit to the site. I stood roadside as high weeds along the shoulder swayed and shushed in a hot mid-summer prairie breeze. All that was left of the schoolhouse was ashy-fine gravel carefully leveled out: a ghostly footprint delineated.
My cousin did her best to save a 19th-century schoolhouse – long ago closed-down but in near-pristine condition – original blackboards still hanging, behemoth woodstove still in place and sheathed in a fleur-de-lis-studded pressed-iron shroud, and rows of lean double-hung windows stretching high up, refracting icy northern light for families of farm children who would never again read in their glim.
* * *
We’d driven past it many times on our search, an old white colonial set right up to the road at the edge of town. Relic and rambling, still, it struck me as somehow purposeful. But in the five or so years we’d lived in central Virginia, the place had sat empty and deteriorating. Asking around, we got the name of the owner and called him up, explaining we wanted to buy and restore the house; we’d do it justice. No, he said, he had to refuse our offer. It’s been the family homeplace for more than a century; he’s saving it for the next generation. Almost thirty years later the house is still there, though it’s now so far gone it’s doubtful it could ever be brought back. But every now and then, driving past, we notice someone’s painted one side or the other, mended a soffit, removed a section of raggedy picket fence, or replaced a length of lap siding.
* * *
I dreamed it: angular and high on a hill. Outside, positioned between two six-over-nine-pane turquoise-shuttered windows, I study the shambles. A snaggle-picket fence delineates front yard from rolling meadow. Wildly overrun shrubs and shivery-limbed trees obstruct the possibility of a far-off view. Inside, I absorb remnants of a distant 1960’s renovation: pea-colored and peeling flocked wallpaper, sun-bleached short-length oak floors, drywall bulge of a covered-over fireplace. Ascending the almost vertical risers to second floor then third, at either end of two slant-ceilinged dormer-less rooms, pairs of scaled-down and square, fly-crusted windows flank fieldstone chimneys. Pushing up hard on a brass-handled crank, pulling in on a casement, at first all I see through the wide-open aperture is green blur bordered in blue. Then green resolves to land and blue to water.
* * *
Mark’s been coming to our house off and on since just after we bought it. Early this morning he stopped over to look at our latest project. Most of the wood framing around the new windows – installed a decade ago – is rotting. And the lintel – the horizontal beam spanning the thirty-two-foot length of the new veranda – holding up four widely-spaced columns on the river-side terrace, is starting to sag. We have a discussion about how the wood of the original house – two-hundred-and-thirty years old and counting – has held up so well. A fair amount of the lumber used for the new addition already needs to be replaced. When we mention that we think the house was hauled up to our land from Bridgeport along the Slate River, he doesn’t seem surprised. Twenty-eight years after we first hired him to rebuild parts of it, and assuming the house was constructed on site, he says he still questions why each post carries a carved roman numeral to match the same number on a partner beam. He remembers how, when he gutted the third floor, he found that some beams and joists are notched and pegged – apparently reciprocals – while others appear mate-less; evidently repurposed and repositioned.
* * *
I recently heard the term for the first time – ruin porn – used to describe those coffee table tomes with tantalizing photographs of wrecked homes or farms or dilapidated palatial manors, even obsolete and forsaken shopping malls. I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I’ve collected a few of them: The Vanishing Country Houses of Ireland features Irish great houses in various stages of decay, Vestiges of Grandeur: Plantations of Louisiana's River Road exposes the unoccupied remains of mansions moldering among the magnolias of the deep South. Closer to home, City Abandoned, with its hundred or so reverently composed large-format pictures made by an artist friend of mine, highlights once grand now crumbling public buildings in Philadelphia, revealing the city of brotherly love at its bleakest. A few months ago, walking past a newly renovated Center City Philly rowhouse, I grabbed a hefty volume teetering at the top of a free-please-take stack on the sidewalk. Entitled GONE Photographs of Abandonment on the High Plains, this melancholy album documents destitute homes, shops and businesses lining wind-weathered main streets in emptied-out towns of the American Midwest: Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, the Dakotas, and Texas.
* * *
When my sister-in-law lived in the Hill Country, we often drove down to visit her. The shortest and most direct route from the Twin Cities is a twelve-hundred miles straight shot south on I 35. We’d also set up a little side business, purchasing clean classic cars and trucks to resell up north. Once, in Austin, we tracked down a beauty of a 1959 GMC straight-axel half-ton pick-up truck. The short bed would have been worth more, but this one was a totally original rust-free step-side model with an inline six-cylinder engine and two-tone factory paint in cream and baby blue with just enough surface rust to make it legit. Showing up at the lot on South Congress just as it was about to close, we low-balled the salesman who laughed and said it’s Friday night and I’m already half-drunk and you caught me. We handed over a stack of bills – $800 cash – and drove that truck off the lot before he could change his mind. But this time we’re headed in the opposite direction, northbound toward Minneapolis, in a rust-free 1966 Mercedes-Benz 200 Diesel we bought in San Marcos for $1500. The trip takes twenty-one hours if you don’t stop except to pee, grab some road food and fuel up.
* * *
We’ve passed it before, and each time I have an odd feeling of being pulled or prodded. I slow down a little and before I know it, I’m headed off the interstate and onto the frontage road, sending up dust sprites on the gravel Farm-to-Market Texas County Road. Pulling off at Exit 250 past Pflugerville, checking our fold-out map, we’re not far from the town of Bartlett. Assuming we can wend our way back around, I want to check out the dilapidated farmhouse, exposed and sagging into a slight rise, its windows looking out over the Interstate. Following a macadam track, I don’t recall how we knew where to go, or which roads to take leading up to it; there was nothing straightforward about it. But I do remember that the house wasn’t hard to find, despite winding and backtracking; a compelling roadside ruin; a classic low-lying Texas dogtrot farmhouse, unpainted and weathered to a silvery sheen. Anyway, wrestling a heavy, slow old diesel sedan down the interstate – no power steering, no power breaks – is excuse enough to pull off, clamber out, and take a look around.
It’s easy to get inside. The front door is latched but unlocked. A bedframe and springs, a rusted skillet, a pile of old clothes and a couple of pairs of flattened stiff leather boots; it’s all mixed together in a mound of papers and trash heaped in the middle of the front room floor. Nothing here valuable enough to worry about. Anything good has already been hauled away. Only bits of personal stuff – worthless junk – left behind.
* * *
In 1969 I was fourteen years old; Sugar Bear would have been nineteen. When I found him, I was twenty-six, though I couldn’t know then that I was only a few years older than he was when he wrote the letter. Reading it for the first time I was drawn to the earnestness, or maybe the simple openness, the everydayness, of the voice, as though moving through the jungle and engaging in firefights with the enemy were the most normal things in the world. I think of the letter-writer as eternally young; a cliché, I know.
I’ve carried it with me through every permanent move, from Minnesota to Virginia to D.C. to Georgia to Philadelphia. I suppose I couldn’t bring myself to get rid of it, never knowing what happened to the writer. Maybe he came home and resumed his life, but the letter left for trash in an abandoned farmhouse overlooking the Interstate seemed to suggest otherwise. Shortly after I fished it out of the rubbish pile, and many times along the way, I thought about tossing it. Instead, from time to time I’ve taken it out of a file drawer to reread it. And with each reading I think I can very faintly hear the writer’s voice or maybe his thoughts, something like might-have-been or wish-I-could-have. A delicate contrapuntal lament interwoven above and below the blotchy blue ballpoint impressed into two dog-eared and stained pages.
* * *
Once we decided to move, we began searching for places for sale in the surrounding counties – Green, Albemarle, Louisa, Price Edward, Buckingham – from nineteenth-century farmhouses to mid-fifties brick-faced stick-built ranchers. We made appointments to see them all, but we got especially excited if the properties included significant acreage with some kind of view. After a year spent looking in a fifty-mile radius, we wound up only a mile or so from our first house situated in a little river town a couple of hours south of D.C. Not too far from everything but not really close to anything, it was built in 1836 as a country store with rooms above let out to migratory laborers working on the railroad alongside the James River. Everybody says that’s why it’s called Bachelors Quarters. Squeezed onto a spit of land sitting next to the road, we later learned that our village, Bremo Bluff, got its name from its perch on the craggy, almost sheer slate ridge rising up from the river. Or perhaps from the nearby Palladian antebellum mansion – once rumored to have been designed by Thomas Jefferson but later attributed to his building manager at Monticello – Bremo Plantation. Our cottage was a favorite with everyone who ever visited us there. Friends from Richmond or Charlottesville – an hour’s drive either way – would come on weekends. We’d sit in our rocking chairs and robes on the stacked two-story porches stretching the width of the house, nursing our morning coffee and waving at folks driving by on their way to Saturday shopping or to church on Sunday. It was a magical old place complete with ghosts, and it was our introduction to rural living in Virginia. But it never felt like a home to settle into, a place to put down roots.
* * *
Here, at the easternmost edge of the Virginia piedmont, some of the oldest houses were probably designed according to home plans widely available in inexpensive early American architectural pattern books. Though often as not, many nearby vernacular houses were built from common knowledge by families planning to settle in for the foreseeable future. Cliff Eerie dates to 1790, but no one seems to know how it acquired its name, though it sits near the edge of a 300-foot slate ridge dropping straight down to the James River with a distant view of chimeric blue mountains. According to our property deed, we are only the fourth owners. And as we undertook a complete restoration of the house and grounds, we discovered that, over some two hundred plus years, windows and doors and even a staircase had been repositioned, perhaps to accommodate the needs of successive families. Or maybe, these changes were made after it was moved up to our land from the river and reconstructed.
* * *
A hundred-fifty years ago they took it apart post by beam joist by rafter. Piling marked parts in a cart they pulled it up the hill and reassembled it on this richly covered site. The only flat spot accessible enough along these bluffs for building. A workman’s house hauled up from the lowground – from the river village of Bridgeport – with an eye to the distant extraordinary. Regardless of weather or season helped along by heat and cold and unexpected clemencies of an occasional December warm spell, the picture always captivates; exquisite sweeps of chartreuse, aquamarine and viridian fringed in azure. And I think about the power of beauty and I think about the unfree who dragged this house here and I ask myself, when they looked out toward those cerulean-splendid mountains, did they think how lovely?
* * *
Today, our house bears the same slate roof installed when it was built, the kind that, with the quarry right here, would have been an inexpensive and routine local roofing solution. Buckingham County slate is the best in the world; remarkably durable but also very heavy, requiring a hearty skeletal structure to hold it up. Heart pine was generally favored for framing because, as virgin timber, it’s very dense and strong, oozing resins that resist rot and boring insects. And like the rugged construction supporting it, a slate-roofed house lasts longer and stands truer over time than most other wood buildings. A reasonably well-maintained slate roof will last lifetimes, notwithstanding rain, snow, hail and strong winds; violent bursts of weather common along the James River this side of the Blue Ridge. This is all very reassuring, even comforting.
But over the years, rambling the countryside, I’ve come across whole villages of neglected and abandoned slate-roofed structures – houses, tobacco barns, cabins and outbuildings – stationed steadfast roadside, standing square, level and true. And I can’t help contemplating what the circumstances were of the families that once owned them. What became of their hopes and aspirations? What caused them to live and work in these places for decades, even centuries, and then just let go? And I can’t help feeling melancholy, seeing an upright old house’s innards exposed, its mathematically precise stone tile roof shielding a sun-paled scaffolding of pegged posts and beams. Gallantly erect but vacant – siding fallen away, doors and window frames agape – it’s as though I’m looking beyond the flayed skin and muscles of a corpse, right down to bones.
* * *
In 1981 there was no clear-cut pathway for tracking down the origins of a loose letter without an envelope and signed with only a first name. Anyway, young as I was when I found it, I can’t say that the full impact of its simple paragraphs moved me quite the way they did and still do decades later. I tucked it away and more or less forgot it. Around ten years ago, in the process of tidying my studio, I ran across the letter again. And because it’s now possible to research just about anything on the internet, I began hunting for an Elton who probably once lived somewhere near Bartlett, Texas, and served in Viet Nam in 1969. I was living in D.C. at the time, so I walked to the Mall to visit the Vietnam Memorial better known as The Wall. Finding him there was effortless; my research felt guided. The Wall helped me discover that my soldier was likely named Elton Davis, Jr. who died in Viet Nam on September 29, 1969. Digging deeper, I also discovered that Elton Davis Jr.’s father died not long afterward, of an apparent heart attack. Online, I found a memorial to Elton, written many years ago by a friend and fellow soldier who was with him the day he was fatally wounded. I found that friend in Florida working as a senior partner in a prominent securities and trading firm, and I sent him this email:
If you receive this email, I’m writing to ask if you have any objection to my using some of your words (from the memorial you wrote for Elton Jr.) in some poems I’m working on. I wouldn’t use anything but Elton’s first name and the details of his death, but I think it is so important that we remember those who served and be specific about them as individuals – especially as we are now, and again, sending young people to fight and die in wars far from home. As our lives move on in the everyday, it is easy to think of them in the aggregate, but I’ve kept Elton’s letter all these years as a reminder that he was once a young kid with his own stories to tell. I would like to be able to help him in the telling.
In the photograph, there are five boyish men, four White and one Black. Elton Davis Jr. is the one chewing on a cigar leaning into another soldier whose arm is flung around Sugar Bear’s shoulder. A few years back I sat down with Elton’s letter and this photo close by and wrote this poem:
Texas Squall/ 29 September 1969
for Sugar Bear
1. Texas Squall
This may be the longest ambush in history: walls floors
shudder windows doors splinter blown all to hell
defenseless as eyes in
I like things that aren’t much use.
Hit by the first incoming.
Died of an apparent heart attack.
2. Sugar Bear
September 29, 1969, Fox Company was heliolifted to Landing
Zone Mack, right below Mutters Ridge, near the DMZ. A few days
earlier, we talked a long time. You loved your family, your life
in Texas. I felt bad I never wrote them, but last year I learned
your real name. You were a happy guy, a good Marine.
I hope you didn’t die for nothing.
- from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall Page
I never knew if you were still alive when the Medivac chopper
Sunday 3 Dec
Our platoon is short 15 men. Some have gone home and [the] rest we are just short. If we leave this camp it will be on the 6th. We aren’t still sure we are going back out. Maybe not. That’s when our line companies move out. Glad to hear your about caught up on your farming. Can’t think of any thing else to write. Take care of yourself. Love
Mr. Elton Davis Sr. died Saturday morning of an apparent heart
attack, he was 58 years old. His son, Elton Davis Jr. was killed
in action in Vietnam. – Bartlett Texas Tribune and News,
December 10, 1970
The young can’t conceive of urging death.
Understand: we aren’t the same
all the way through. We tire of trying.
It’s the dribbling away it’s the way
it can only go one way.
I always wondered who he was and whether or not he made it home.
Do you have a mailing address for the family so that I could return
the letter? Or perhaps you would like to have it?
You were a happy guy a good Marine.
I hope you didn’t die die
Pop, go to Sears
Or Wards and order it if you can just put his
address on it that way he will get it before
More than a black granite wall or something
else: excuse evidence explanation what he
did or didn’t loved or missed any chance at all to
Somewhere off Interstate 35W
Across decades picked from a trash heap
in an abandoned farmhouse this is as good
as it gets or just better
29 September 1969. Quang Tri Province. Artillery
rocket or mortar fire.
What I mean to say is
every living creature
wants a name to die knowing it was worth
in drifts outside my window as I write we’re eyeball
calling or naming or asking
* * *
Preservation, never mind restoration, is fantasy, as impossible to realize as it is to define. But in the process, I’ve become both investigator and conservator. Solid materials – wood, stone, brick, plaster – entreat me in ways I’m unable to resist. I’ve pried centuries-old undulant panes from dry-rotted window frames. I’ve scraped thick latex paint with a single blade razor from hand-planed heart pine doors, revealing faux walnut grain patterned by some long ago itinerant artisan. I’ve torn up linoleum tiles that, in our early days in the house, covered rough, wide-plank floorboards. But the more I try to expose what’s original and true, the warier I become of pulling up and patching, mending and grafting and smoothing. Of wiping the slate clean. Somewhere along the way, settling into this house, I got tangled up; it’s as though parts of me have dissolved into its nicks and sags and stains. Despite my ceaseless improving, I’m vested in this house’s bruises and broken bones. I’m the self-assigned keeper of the centuries’ span and of all the souls once and perhaps still in residence here; in its raw-planed posts and beams and deep-scarred floors, and its jaggy quartz chimney stones drug up from the river. But even more than that, I’m the custodian of the muffled accrual: the muted murmur; the disheveled yet exuberant voices of centuries of makers affirming the gist: of touch and taste, restraint and refinement, craft and mastery. Thirty years ago we began a restoration that’s still not finished. And in some ways, it probably never will be.
* * *
A little girl walking hand-in-hand with her grandfather passes a tall brick building that seems to swivel unmoored, careering toward the street. Covering a whole city lot, its half-round three-story corner tower hugs high curved window glass winking in the morning light. In this northern city known for its pragmatism and homogeneity, showy is rare, and for that reason alone this structure strikes even a small child as decidedly conspicuous. With its curved, curlicue-carved sandstone moldings and embroidered cornices it seems to beckon, inveigling and colluding, at once bleak and glamorous, menacing and enchanting, articulating an unfamiliar sensory vocabulary. I stop, staring up, and ask my grandpa what it’s for. A boilermaker by trade – by necessity a practical man – he says it’s just a house.
I was probably no more than four or five years old when I first noticed that peculiar Gothic revival pile, but I’d already begun to sense that some dwellings, especially old ones, safeguard spirits elemental to their substance. I was a sensitive kid growing up in a tempestuous and emotionally unpredictable clan. Looking back, what drew me to all the houses I’ve admired from a distance, lived in, worked on, salvaged and preserved, was both visceral and spiritual. Bastions of dimly understood but insistent promise, the houses I’ve loved seemed to me to pulse with the longings and memories and exploits and repercussions of people that once passed through them. As a kid I yearned to live in my imagination, yes, of course, but tempered by pragmatism and purpose, and perhaps the emotional and psychic boundarylessness of my family made me long for beautiful barriers – walls, ceilings, windows, doors – surrounding and containing but also checking the reckless desires and passions swirling around me. Most children rebel against rules and strictures. I wanted more and clearer parameters. All of my houses have embodied for me a sense of containment and safe harbor, binding me to them by their tactile, almost palpable material utterances, securing me in the fabric of their voices.
* * *
Sugar Bear’s letter, his words, and those of the man that was with him in the last few hours of his life, have echoed in my mind for decades. As a young soldier– little more than a boy really – he died fifty-one years ago in a Vietnamese jungle. I think about all I’ve done, the places I’ve traveled and lived in and loved, and the years that have passed since 1981 when I found him, and I’m brought to tears thinking of that nineteen-year-old farm boy dying so far from home.
Bartlett, TX 76511
September 21, 1998
Dear Mr. Davis,
This letter is 29 years overdue, but please accept my apologies. It was only yesterday while visiting the Viet Nam Memorial in Washington, DC, that I was able to learn that a Marine I knew in Viet Nam only as "Sugar Bear'' was really Elton Davis, Jr.
I was with Sugar Bear the day he was killed, September 29, 1969 and have thought about him many, many times since. Although he was a Lance Corporal and I was a 2ndLieutenant, we had a good friendship. Just two or three days before he was killed, we spent several hours talking about home and family. He certainly loved his family, friends and home in Texas. I am very sorry that I never wrote to his parents while they were alive. His name is on The Wall on Panel 17W and I stood there for quite a while seeing his smiling face.