“You have to be joking,” I said with raised eyebrows. My husband Ed had just mentioned an item of news he had read. I hadn’t read the paper yet. I had been helping Charles, the fourth grader, with a project for school. Finally, Charles joined his sleeping brothers, James, a second grader, and Alan, only three.
Ed assured me that this report was no joke and that it would indeed affect the bright spot in this bleak December. With Christmas approaching and the house only partially remodeled, the family needed all the sparkle and bright spots possible. The entire fall had been a nightmare compared to the years preceding this move to Marshall. Before this, the Phillips family had lived in a normal ‘70s neighborhood in Independence. Now they lived in this 100-year-old dilapidated house in a neighborhood that could go either way.
Just yesterday I wakened to a gnawing sound somewhere below our second-floor bedroom. Upon investigation, the animal — a rat, I was certain, could be heard in the wall of the hall closet on the first floor. Except for an hour break, the rat must have had a rest, the gnawing continued all day. By afternoon, the rat was in the floor below my closet, just next to the bed. That’s when Alan and I went to Count’s Lawn and Garden and asked about poison. Even though Ed refused to consider poison or even bug spray, enough was enough. The rat poison was put just inside the cellar door along with the water suggested in the instructions. “One dose will do the trick,” Mr. Counts assured me. “This better work,” I thought. Otherwise, how can I ever sleep in this old house again?
But there was no other place to go, of course. The Independence house had sold. After numerous June days looking for a farm house with land as the original plan had been, we decided to look at houses in town for a temporary residence since we must be settled in before Ed started his new position as a Marshall High School science teacher.
Riding with real estate agent Cilff Lear west on East Vest Street I saw a For Sale sign in a large front yard. The house empty and forlorn, would have looked like a joke the week before, and even now. “We could buy that,” I said jokingly. Cliff stopped the car and pulled to the curb; no one thought I seriously considered this house, so no one else got out of the car. As I went up the creaky porch to peer into the large front window, I noticed the weathered house number, 310, barely visible on the peeling porch post. Each front window revealed a large empty room, fairly intact. There was no sign the roof leaked. I recall saying, “At least, we could store our stuff in that.”
“And I could walk to school,” Ed added.
“Old Yeller,” so named for its peeling coat of banana peel yellow paint, was a two-story farm house type on a street with graceful houses — many in need of repair. Ed started work immediately, but it was the end of July when the family finally moved the last of our stuff into one of the sturdy rooms at the front of the house, and the house still wasn’t fit to move into. I tried to run errands for Ed’s carpentry supplies and clean up the work sites; and from a camper in the back yard, I cleaned, cooked and took care of the boys.
Camping experience came in handy in this entire experience. Ed and I had take the older boys to the East one year and to Illinois the next. The previous year, they had lived in the camper three weeks while Ed attended classes at Valley Forge, Pa.
The neighbors must have wondered, too, and they stayed away. Later I found out that between Mrs. Barker’s long residence in the house and before we had moved in, the house had been rented to a family who had been the scourge of the neighborhood; the neighbors didn’t know but what the new family would be just as bad. Gradually we were accepted.
Unique challenges continued daily. I cleaned the front upstairs bedroom on the west as much as possible and bought carpeting. This was a large bedroom which the boys could share. The night before school, the boys moved mattresses onto the new carpeting and as I made their beds, I declared, “We can’t send boys to school from a tent camper.” Ed’s and my bedroom was set up in the other huge upstairs bedroom, alongside the rolled-up carpeting, under the peeling paper from the ceiling. From our window, I could see the courthouse dome above the trees, and its lights made quite a view each night.
Before it turned cold, a new furnace was needed. The old furnace was terribly inefficient, especially in light of the recent national fuel shortage and escalating gas prices. That furnace had to come out before the up-to-date, efficient one could be installed. Ed started, but the start of school slowed his progress, and the big dark house was cold. That September was the coldest on record.
The rat must have eaten and drunk and gone off to die. He was never heard from again. The new furnace ran well, but gas prices skyrocketed, and the President urged the American people to set the thermostat at 65, so no room was ever cozy. The furnace vents in the floor became popular places to warm up.
The fuel shortage which caused gas prices to rise also prompted President Nixon to call for a 50-mph speed limit for cars and 55 for trucks and buses. That nation faced a crisis. However, even though the Saline County Courthouse was having a face lift scheduled to be completed by Dec. 15, the Christmas lights hung around its dome burned each day, offering a touch of holiday spirit. Those lights visible from the front windows of Old Yeller had prompted the stringing of Christmas lights at our home. They certainly seemed to brighten the family’s spirits as well as Old Yeller and the neighborhood. Now this:
Today, Dec. 1, 1973, The Marshall Democrat News announced Nixon’s request for the elimination of decorative Christmas lighting. Imagine. Citizens are asked NOT to burn their Christmas lights this year. Our lights, burning for the first time right now, will have to be turned off. What a sad note. I looked out the bedroom window at the courthouse just blocks away. Surely those lights will continue to burn. “No,” Ed explained, “public places are the first to be asked to save resources.” The Christmas lights on the Marshall courthouse would not be lighted. It was no joke.
Authorene Phillips is a retired Marshall High School English teacher and one of the founders of the Marshall Writers’ Guild. This revised story first appeared in the Guild booklet, “Reflections” (2000).