Homer and Isabel live in a house with a history. Built by a young banker for his family in 1896, Faded Glory is indeed a gracious painted lady from a bygone era; and she still harbors some of the secrets of years gone by.
When the southwest corner of our shed collapsed and settled almost to the ground, Isabel and Hank were both quick to blame the previous night’s brief rainstorm. The trees and landscaping surrounding the Inn seemed to be intact and unscathed, so, understandably, Micah went looking for the true cause of the problem. Upon a more careful examination of the shed, it didn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that a combination of rot and termites had turned the main corner support posts into mush, and the shed simply collapsed from the sheer weight of the second floor loft and tin roof.
Our neighbor Randy Tipton’s oldest son, Jamie, was immediately hired to dig out the shed’s dirt floor and prepare a concrete footer along with a new cement floor in order to raise the shed above-grade. Luckily, Jaimie is a patient young man because most construction folks would want to demolish the present shed and totally rebuild it from scratch. Isabel wanted to save the old shed because it was one of the original outbuildings built on the property back in 1896 by Matthew Tate, Sr. when he built the main house at Faded Glory Farm.
Even as a casual observer I can tell you that digging footers and the subsequent concrete work required is not one of the more pleasant tasks related to repairing or renovating a building, and Isabel’s shed was no exception. Even though it was Hank’s day off, he grabbed a folding chair and watched as Jamie Tipton and two other young men began digging out the perimeter of the shed’s dirt floor by hand. I followed Hank to the site and curled up on the cool grass near his chair to observe the occasion. Cement blocks were used as shims to shore up the base of the building as shovels full of dirt were removed to form a foot-deep trench to accommodate the new concrete footer. Now I realize where the expression “dog work” comes from!
Later in the day, a monsterous, noisy, concrete mixer truck arrived on the scene and backed across Isabel’s pristine green lawn to fill the freshly dug footer with concrete. A truckload of cement block arrived soon after, leaving behind three neat pallets of gray concrete blocks along with several 90-pound bags of dry mortar mix. The scene was now set for yet another day of back-breaking work.
Two days later after Jamie Tipton was satisfied that the concrete footers had cured sufficiently, Jamie arrived on a Bobcat with a front bucket loader along with two men to lay block on top of the footer. Micah marveled at Jamie’s skill guiding the Bobcat in and out of the shed’s narrow doorway with its loader overflowing with dirt and debris. “Jamie handles that bucket with the skilled hands of a surgeon,” Micah remarked admiringly.
It must have been around 11 a.m., right after Jamie’s coffee break, when the small diesel engine in the Bobcat was shut down. Almost as soon as Micah looked up to see what was wrong, Jamie called his name from inside of the shed. “Hey, Micah, can you come here for a minute?” When Micah maneuvered around the machine and got to the business end, Jamie was already standing next to the partly submerged bucket blade examining what appeared to be the partially exposed corner of a stout wooden crate. “I don’t know what this is, but I reckon you and Isabel should look at this before I bust it up or dig any further;” Jamie intoned as Micah bent down to get a better view. Even though I suspected that it had been buried for a long time, the box had a pale yellow cast like that of green, unseasoned hardwood or pine. The box was not particularly large, probably less than two feet square, and it was rather crudely crafted of one-inch-thick lumber. Micah later surmised that the box had been made of cypress which abounds near creeks and rivers here in the mountains. The box was tightly nailed together with no hinges, lock, or anything suggesting that it was intended to be reopened, and I suddenly got the creepy feeling that it might be a casket of sorts – yuck!
Micah is definitely not a risk-taker, and his first reaction was to fetch Isabel and have her make any upcoming decisions relative to the box. Within minutes, Isabel, Hank, and even Louella, were standing over Jamie’s discovery awaiting the next step. “What do you think it is. Micah,” Isabel asked. “I guess we won’t know until it’s opened,” Micah replied. “Looks like a dog or a cat casket to me,” Hank added; “go ahead and open it up Ms. Whitlow!” Isabel winced, looked over at Jamie, and asked, “Can you pick it up with your loader, Jamie?” “Sure can,” and everyone instinctively moved out through the open door of the shed as he jumped into the seat and restarted the Bobcat. I had barely cleared the doorway when I heard the hydraulics wheeze as the bucket dug deeper into the ground to capture the wooden box that it had partially unearthed. Seconds later the beeping of the backup alarm signaled the movement of the Bobcat out into the yard. By now, the small group had been joined by Pauline Patrick and Rita Gonsalez, Isabel’s two housekeepers, and Jamie’s two block masons who had overheard the commotion. Heck, I was looking out of the corner of my eye to see if Sheriff Payne was going to roar into the driveway!
Jamie manuevered the bucket of the front end loader to a waist-high position in front of Micah and shut down the engine. Although the box was caked in dirt and debris, it looked to be unbroken and in relatively good condition. Micah had donned a pair of cloth work gloves and leaned forward to clean chunks of dirt and what looked like cinders from the outside of the box. I deduced that it must be very heavy because it didn’t move or shudder as he used his fists to break away the dirt and clay that adhered to it. It wasn’t until he reached into the bucket and gripped the box that Micah, himself, realized just how heavy the box really was. “If there’s something dead in this box, it must be an anvil!” he exclaimed as he quickly heaved and wrestled it to the ground.. “Boy, that little box is heavy!”
Until that moment, none of us had thought about the box containing any more than the remains of a pet dog or cat, but the sheer weight of the box aroused the imaginations of virtually all who were present, and I could see a growing sense of anticipation and excitement on the faces of Isabel’s staff as each moment passed. Hank broke the silence and said, “I’ll get something that we can use to open it,” as he dashed into the shed to retrieve a hammer and whatever else he could find. He returned almost immediately with a claw hammer and a crowbar and dropped them with a loud clank beside the box.
Micah looked up at Isabel, and she nodded her assent before he picked up the crowbar and tried to slip the tip of it under the top edge of the box. There seemed to be little rot or decay, and Micah really had to search for a small crevice into which he could drive the tip of the crowbar. Finally, finding a good spot, Micah got a purchase on one of the top boards, and we were startled by the squeal of nails being wrenched from the dry wood as the top center board moved reluctantly upward and outward. Initially, it looked like the box had been packed with cedar wood shavings, but it then became apparent that the shavings had been used for packing around four two-quart Ball household preserve jars. With a gloved hand, Micah gently started pulling out the shavings to reveal the tops of four intact jars that seemed to be filled with a dark brown fluid that looked very much like motor oil. It wasn’t until he removed the second and third top boards that he could obtain full access to the jars, and when he did, we were aready convinced that the jars contained used motor oil that might have been buried as a discreet means of disposal.