Thursday, January 27, 2011

Furniture Fandango

You know me.
I'm the guy with the basement and the house and the life filled with an infinite quantity of stuff.
When we planned our part-time move to the Carolina shore, we determined that most of the clutter would stay behind.
"Let's travel light," we said sagely. "If we really need it, we'll get it there."
So we did, taking just our "camping box," a large plastic tub filled with most of what you might need to pitch a tent and sleep under the stars, plus a couple of new inflatable mattresses and enough clothes for about a week.
With an unfurnished dwelling awaiting us, we envisioned a spartan, zen-like existence, freed from the bonds of our five-generation collection of chaos. Our initial exploration of our new digs--the much-smaller half of an elevated multi-story duplex--seemed to offer just that, with three floors filled with nothing but cool, stale air and last season's tracked-in sand.
After about eight seconds, though, I wondered just where I was going to sit.
Or how we were going to see where we were going to sit, since only the kitchen area has built-in lighting.
So after unloading the carful of clothes, crates, the ubiquitous blow-up beds, and the coffeemaker and bedding a couple of wise neighbors kindly insisted we take, we set off in search of a few of the things we think we'll need to survive this latest adventure.
It's been a slow, step-by-step process, as our desire to get it done battles an even stronger wish to do it on the cheap. We paid full price for a couple of new floor lamps that first day, plus dragged in our fold-up beach-and-camping chairs to serve as a living room furniture grouping. We collected a smattering of kitchen essentials to go with the few things we brought along
After that, it got kind of fun.
Our kitchen bar is now surrounded by a mix of new, thrift shop and borrowed stools, which means we can feed family and friends in a single seating, though in close, elbow-bumping proximity. The Salvation Army store yielded a small settee of indeterminate age and origin, while a resale shop called The Basement, in an eerie reminder of the one I left behind, provided a true prize, a pair of wicker basket chairs that remind me a little of the one in that famous photo of the well-armed founder of the Black Panther Party.
"We sit in those, we'll be like Huey Newton and Angela Davis," I said to my 60's-hip spouse.
"Yeah, or like Huey Lewis and Angela Landsbury," she replied more realistically.
Our search has led us to to many of the used furniture outlets in Jacksonville, North Carolina, which, as the home of a huge military installation, has more than its share. We even tried our hands at a bit of modified dumpster diving the other evening, as one of us was determined to examine a discarded beach bike in front of an opulent shoreline mansion.
Me: Get back in here, I think that's a police car.
She: Maybe he can help you load this beauty in the trunk.
The bicycle was, alas, too far gone to make the cut. And the cop was kind enough to look the other way, so we emerged from that bit of action with our police records and reputations intact.
We're about wrapped up now, with our last real need a futon or some other piece of furniture that'll double as a bed in anticipation of visits from friends and family. We bit the bullet and signed up for internet service the other day after I was unable to find a stray wifi signal to latch onto, but so far, we've resisted television in favor of breathtaking views and the books we've always been meaning to read.
Just as long as I've got a soft place to sit.
Here's the thing about living very near a 246-square-mile U.S. Marine Corps base and a couple of Marine airfields.
They like to practice from time to time.
Distant artillery fire and steady streams of helicopters and Osprey aircraft are often a part of the sights and sounds that surround us as the 40,000+ Marines at Camp Lejeune train and prepare for deployment and defense.
Some folks probably find the added noise a little annoying. And I admit, I sort of jumped the first time I felt a large-caliber cannon rattling my world. But we're getting used to it.
And while I am opposed to all wars, I'll always support the young warriors who fight them for us.
So make all the noise you want. And come home soon.
Call me buzz.
Those who know me in person know I like keeping my thinning hair pretty short. I was overdue for a trim when I walked into a barber shop just up the street from the Marine base main gate the other day.
"Cut it short, please," I said, as I slipped into the chair.
"Uh, you said short, right?" said the barber after he made his first pass with the clippers.
"Yep," I said confidently.
Let me just say that Marine Corps short is a little closer-cut than my usual style.
But it'll grow, I hope, if I didn't scare it off.
I was thinking about whining online about another chillier-than-normal Carolina morning the other day when I noticed a picture message wailing on my cell phone. It was from son Colin who lives near Fargo, North Dakota. He took the picture on his way home from work late the night before. It was a close-up shot of the outside temperature reading from the gauge in his car.
Fifty-eight degrees below freezing.
Nearly seventy degrees colder than the temps I was complaining about.
Glad I kept my mouth shut.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Onward and Outward

The day we were supposed to leave, the weather forecast scared us off. It was a week ago Monday when we planned to pull away in our packed-to-the-gills vehicle and head to our new part-time digs in coastal North Carolina. But January hit the southeast with a vengeance, producing unheard of levels of snow and ice in places where it's tough to find a snow shovel or a bag of salt, much less the fleet of snowplows and other equipment needed to address a real winter storm.
So we waited.
We knew full well that, by waiting, we were going to let yet another winter storm catch up with us; one that was predicted to sweep through the Mississippi and Ohio Valleys along the first half of our route to the south.
So we gambled.
We gambled that we would be able to beat the worst of the midwestern storm, while giving the mess in the southeast a chance to melt or at least swing up the coast and away from our path.
It was slow going at times, but it all worked out, as we made it to southernmost Indiana on the first day before a sudden blinding snowy burst just after dark drove us off the road and into a Super 8 motel. It was an odd little spot, perched on a hill overlooking the main route, but with a winding, backroad entrance that required equal amounts of navigational skill and luck to make it into their parking lot.
Day two got us to and through the mountains via the "southern crossing" from Knoxville to Asheville, North Carolina, skirting a continuing storm that had mountain regions like Johnson City, Tennessee, virtually shutting down, with schools and businesses calling it quits for the rest of the week, though it was only Wednesday. We made it across the state to Raleigh, where we decided we'd rather get our first glimpse of the new place in the daytime and settled in for a second night along the road.
It's kind of a scary-odd feeling to make a year-long commitment to a spot where we plan to spend at least half of our time based on a few emailed photos and a last minute look-over by son Paddy and daughter-in-law Susan, who declared it to be our kind of place.
We trusted their judgement, and couldn't argue with the location, which puts us within view of the ocean and the intercoastal waterway, and minutes away from kids and grandkids. But I, at least, was still haunted by a bunch of concerns that could only be assuaged by both a first glimpse and a thorough inspection.
Will we like it?
Does it leak, creak or smell funny?
Did we even really rent the place, or were we somehow hookwinked out of our deposit by some Carolina crook making his living taking advantage of unwary yankees looking for a place in the sun?
Well, yes, no and, yes, we seemed to have actually taken possession, with the key left for us fitting perfectly and the mailman already leaving bills from the water and power companies..
It is an unfancy place in a wonderful location.
It is, like us, more dedicated to great views and an uncomplicated lifestyle than to luxury and upscale living.
We felt comfortable and at home immediately.
We'll spend some time getting used to things and developing a day-to-day rhythm of sorts.
Eventually, we'll head back to Galva for awhile, which is a good thing, as we already miss many of the people and things that will always make it home. Because if there is a downside to this whole back-and-forth adventure of ours, it is that we can't have all the people and things we love, all in one place, all at one time.
Meanwhile, though, we saw dolphins jumping no more than fifty yards offshore this morning.
From our kitchen window.
I think we're gonna like it.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Indiana Jones and the Second Street Basement

I always thought it would be kinda cool to be an archeologist.
It was a dream that faded a bit when I mentioned it to my high school guidance counselor. He, not unkindly, reminded me that archeology, like rocket science and brain surgery, required some talent, or a least interest, in subjects like science and math. Gently wiping tears of laughter from his eyes, he sent me toddling off to typing class and my eventual alternate career path.
But I still thought it seemed like it would be interesting and fun, even, to dig up mummies, old bones and pieces of ancient pottery.
I finally got a taste of what it would be like last week when we began taking down our Christmas decorations.
It had been awhile since we'd done a thorough "sort, discover, file & pitch" procedure in the vast, winding depths beneath our house, so one of us (guess who?) decided the time was right before we returned our holiday trappings to the room where they belong. Our basement, like the rest of the house, is old and extensive. And while we've cleaned it many times before, there's always a lot of stuff to go through. Part of it has to do with the fact that my sons are the fifth generation of Sloans to live in Galva. My mom's family came to town in the early 20th century, which just added to the accumulation of clutter, plus we inherited a plethora of papers, letters, books, photos, household items and other miscellanea after my mother-in-law passed away a few years ago. My wife and sister-in-law attacked a few tubs full of those treasures during the holidays, spurring, I think, a more comprehensive bit of exploration.
"I feel like I'm one of those American Pickers in my own basement," she said, as she waded through a pile.
I, on the other hand, felt more like I was finally getting to live my high school dream.
"These are the ruins of the Galva people," I intoned in my best professorial voice. "They were hunter-gatherers who never, ever threw anything away."
Best, though, was my sudden inspiration for a new Indiana Jones movie. I couldn't help imagining the evil Nazis pinning Indy against the hot water heater, while grasping the valiant cat Max by the scruff of his neck.
"Zo, Dr. Jones. You vill tell us ze location of ze 1928 Galva phone book, or ze little cat dies."
Yep, there was one of those, and more. Lots more.
Among my favorite finds this time were my grandfather's 1882 high school autograph book and a leather bible cover inscribed with the date of my great-grandparents' wedding day, December 27, 1864. But the real prize among the basement bins and boxes was a letter written to my wife's parents in 1950 from a World War II Army Air Corps friend who was flying in China for an airline known as the Civil Air Transport. My fellow explorer remembered hearing the name when he wrote to them in later years.
"He's a spy," said her dad when she inquired as to the identity of the letter-writer.
Megan always figured her dad was pulling her leg, but, as it turned out, the Civil Air Transport was covertly owned and operated by the Central Intelligence Agency.
According to one source, "CAT maintained a civilian appearance by flying scheduled passenger flights while simultaneously using other aircraft in its fleet to fly covert missions. During the Chinese Civil War, under contract with the Chinese Nationalist government and later the Central Intelligence Agency, CAT flew supplies and ammunition into China to assist Kuomintang forces on the Chinese mainland, primarily using C-47 and C-46 aircraft. With the defeat of the Kuomintang, CAT helped to evacuate thousands of Chinese to Taiwan."
The letter tells of the friend's life in China as an expatriate pilot, and accurately predicts the political changes that were to eventually occur in the region.
Fascinating stuff. And maybe he was a spy, after all.
We've just about wrapped up this most recent foray into the dark, dank depths, with the Galva garbage and recycling guys no doubt wondering what the heck I've been up to this time. And while I won't claim that cleaning a basement is akin to a trip to Disneyland, it does have its interesting moments.
And Indy would have loved it.
My columns from the last couple of weeks have been kind of controversial.
First, I claimed an undying love for snow. Big snow.
Then I bragged about toughing it out in a cold, cold house.
I wrote those columns with all sincerity, but with a mild sense of guilt, too.
You see, we're heading south this week.
Or at least, that's the plan.
After lengthy negotiations, planning, fretting and dreaming, we've rented a place near our beloved beaches and, more importantly, within a few minutes of our even-more-beloved youngest grandchildren. It will be an experience and an experiment in a kind of bi-coastal living, as we bounce between the shores of the Atlantic Ocean and those of the North Branch of the Edwards River. Our plan is to take advantage of both places, enjoying the best weather, activities and company both coastal North Carolina and Galva can offer. And while they've had a colder-than-usual winter season, we've been anxious to head down, set up housekeeping and--literally and figuratively--get our feet wet.
Then came Monday morning's weather report.
Big snows, ice, sleet and generally paralyzing winter weather conditions throughout the southeast.
North Topsail Beach, our destination, reported four inches of new snow, a happenstance that occurs about as often as what one-time weatherman David Letterman once called for when he predicted "hail the size of canned hams."
I guess we'll just have to deal with it. We are, after all, midwesterners who should be able to adapt to just about anything Mother Nature throws at us.
But I can't help thinking one thing after those columns I wrote lauding the joys of snow and cold.
It serves me right.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Baby, It's Cold Inside

As I think I've mentioned a few gazillion times before, the big old house we live in is kind of hard to heat. We've tried over the years to make it a little more energy efficient by adding insulation and updated windows, but in the long run, high ceilings, a lot of big windows and, for that matter, a lot of square footage, means it's a challenge to stay warm without a fair amount of cold cash.
But it's not just the money.
Most of the time, it's just the two of us, so it has seemed sort of irresponsible to heat an entire house when we do most of our day-to-day living in about three or four rooms. In an effort to be more thrifty and responsible, I vowed that this would be the year we would turn the thermostat down, down, down and silence--at least some of the time--the steam boiler that rumbles, rattles and roars in our basement..
But my fear was that instead of living green and reducing the size of our carbon footprint, the dominate color would be blue--with cold--like the friend of mine who spent a recent winter rambling around his own hard-to-heat barn clothed in stocking cap, muffler, winter coat and half-gloves that allowed him to glumly turn the pages of his book while wondering if he was, indeed, seeing his breath in the frosty confines of his sitting room.
One of our main living areas is the kitchen, which has no radiator at all, based on the theory, I guess, that it would be heated by the oven as it baked the made-from-scratch goodies that we seldom get around to making. For the past fews years, it's been warmed up from freezing to just kinda cold by one of those electric radiators, which works well enough to keep the sink from freezing, though the wall-mounted microwave oven sometimes needs to be warmed and coaxed into life by briefly turning on the gas range below. We like our bedroom cold, so that's no problem, except when convincing oneself to crawl out from beneath the covers in the cold dawn light to make coffee and let in the clamoring cat. The room that really needed help is in the back of our house. It actually used to be a separate apartment, converted from a semi-attached garage by my grandfather during the great depression in an effort to make a little extra money and save the house from foreclosure; an effort, I might add, that failed, as he lost both his home and his business during those hard times. When we bought the house in the 80's, that area became an office of sorts, until I was crowded out by my sons who turned it into a kind of "no-mom's-land" where they hung out with their friends, watched TV, played video games and music, and otherwise declared a state of semi-, but not total, independence from us, their parents. Now that we're a two-person-and-one-cat family, we've settled back into the area, which features surrounding banks of windows, its own bathroom, and even a small kitchen and refrigerator.
But it's cold back there, located, as it is, at the very end of the line, heat-wise.
Or at least it was, until I purchased and installed an electric space heater. But not just any space heater. This one is modeled after a small wood stove, complete with black enamel finish and faux log and flames.
I have been delighted by the look and feel of the thing as its fake fire merrily flickers and it pushes out enough heat to turn a real-chilly room into a kinda-cozy den.
But that's just one room.
The rest of the place is still pretty chilly, requiring a mode of dress that is often somewhat, er, polar.
Warm socks and extra sweaters do the trick most of the time, but it is in morning that our true cold weather fashion statements come to life. I usually go with a layered outfit that includes pajama pants, sweatshirt, heavy socks and the kind of grizzled flannel robe usually worn by someone's grubby great-uncle who hasn't left home since 1959. She, on the other hand, has been known to sport an ensemble that can, on certain special days, feature a red fuzzy robe and a candy-striped nightgown that do an fine job of setting off her dazzling leopard-spotted slippers.
It makes for an interesting husband-wife set of dynamics when the doorbell rings and we're left to squabble over who will startle the UPS man or an unsuspecting neighbor.
Me: "I think it's your turn."
She: "In your dreams, pajama-boy."
When the Christmas holidays rolled around, I gratefully abandoned my cold-house commitment and cranked up the heat for our kids and beloved grandchildren.
For a few days, it was like Christmas in Aruba or some other warm-weather spot.
The radiators hissed and heated. I no longer had to start every day with a search for wool socks and long underwear. All was well. All was warm.
Then they left.
Driven by my own silly conscience and the promise I had made to myself, I turned the thermostat way, way, way down again.
The boiler fell silent. The radiators were, once again, cold to the touch.
"I miss them," she said on the day after the kids and grandkids left.
I do, too.
I miss the joy of family on Christmas Eve and Christmas morning.
I miss late-night chats with grown-up children and early morning breakfasts with the younger set.
I miss the fun. I miss the laughter.
And I miss the warmth.
In more ways than one.