To raise our prospects,I get down and dirty

By

Bought my modest Maine home in the winter of 1988, just one year after a massive flood had brought water in over the countertops. The elderly owner was a veteran of several such inundations and had, I suspect, finally had enough. He sold me the house at a very favorable price. When he left, he never looked back.

I was a first-time home buyer. If I'd then had the discerning eye for problem dwellings that I now possess, I probably would have walked away. But when I first saw the old (100-plus years) white clapboard Colonial standing stark and lonely in its snowfield, with the Penobscot River as its frozen backdrop, I immediately imagined the gem it would become in spring.

I looked into the doubtful eyes of the realtor accompanying me and uttered only four words: "Where do I sign?"

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Each ensuing spring I have made it a tradition to go down to the river during ice-out and watch apprehensively as the floes jostle and edge their ways south, glistening blue-and-white on the brightest days. And I have wondered: When, oh river, will you rise again?

One day last August I was returning from a walk and stopped short when my house came into view. I looked hard at it, nestled low in its hollow, the Penobscot coursing serenely in the background. It suddenly occurred to me how readily the river would overflow the bank if there were a large snowpack and heavy spring rains. In that instant I came to a cataclysmic decision: I would have my home jacked.

Of course, it wasn't quite as easy as that. When I slipped into the mud-floored crawlspace under my house (a grim undertaking) to make my inspection tour, I looked around at all the hard-packed earth reaching to within a few inches of the floor joists. I took my pocketknife and chipped at the soil a bit. It crumbled in stout clumps. Five minutes later, I was at it with pickax and shovel, loading dirt into five-gallon buckets and carting it out to the yard to fill low spots and reinforce the bank.

By the end of an hour, I was sore but satisfied: I had cut a block of earth away the size of a filing cabinet. Reckoning 50 pounds per bucket, I had removed 500 pounds. A quarter ton.

This activity took me through the rest of the summer and fall. I had determined to clear out as much dirt as possible with the object of creating room to work, making things easier for future contractors. It was the filthiest, most strenuous job I had ever done in my life, but at the same time obliquely satisfying because it had an aspect of adventure about it.

Every so often I would uncover a modest treasure: a copper spoon, an inkwell, and, in the farthest recess of that dark, dank space, an old, old Moxie bottle in perfect condition. These small rewards gave me the incentive to persist.

By last week - after months of labor - I had freed up enough room to call in some local contractors for a look-see. Ike and Henry, father and son, rolled up in their pickup and alighted at my back door in lumberjack shirts and heavy work boots.

"I hope you guys like challenges," I offered, with a hint of apology.

Henry stroked his black beard and with a twinkle in his eye said, "We prefer them."

The three of us slipped under the house with flashlights in hand, our boots sloshing in the mud. I winced when I saw a busted floor joist here, a rotten sill there, a pool of water lapping up against the frost wall. But where I saw an infinitude of obstacles, Ike and Henry saw opportunity and, at its far end, a finished product.

"Yep," said Henry, "she'll come right up."

When my teenage son, Alyosha, came home from school that day, I told him the news. "What do you mean?" he said, unable to take it all in. "How can they lift a whole house?"

"With railroad jacks," I told him. "It'll be a sensation - the biggest thing to hit this neighborhood in years."

Alyosha considered this. "Yeah," he said as he waxed entrepreneurial. "I can sell lemonade out front. Fifteen cents a glass."

"Charge 25, if they want you to answer questions," I joked.

And so the thing has gone, exciting curiosity and neighborly chatter all up and down our road. One of my more-quizzical neighbors scratched his head and said, "I woulda thought you'd just tear her down and put up something new."

Perish the thought. I think of my house as having done a noble thing by persisting for over a century, for giving shelter and protection and warmth to generations of Maine families, for helping to define the landscape of my small town. It's not in me to casually erase that kind of history. Instead, I want to celebrate this house, raise her up like a prize pig for all to see.

That is, if the Penobscot River cooperates and lies low for just one more spring. And from the sight of her this morning, sparkling in the sun, rolling slowly and silently to the Atlantic, I think she intends to do just that.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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