The House on South Blakeley

Note: The story below continues “The Log House in Monroe” (September 6, 2020).

June 1968

We were moving back to Monroe, Washington, the town we left December 1961, a place we left because Ben hated his job and could find no other work in the area. We left hoping that someday we would be able to return, and now, six years later, we were fulfilling that dream. I had a brand new B.A.Ed from Arizona State University in Tempe; a contract to teach English at Monroe High School for the 1968-69 school year, and a house to move into when we arrived.

I had signed the teaching contract the previous summer while on a visit to see old friends, one of whom was the Reverend George Kopper, the former minister of the First Mennonite Church which we had attended back in the early 1960s. When Reverend Kopper learned that I was finishing up a teaching degree and that we wanted to move back to the Northwest, he made an appointment for me with the Superintendent of the Monroe School District. Before I left the superintendent’s office I had a contract. When Ben and I went to Reverend Kopper’s house to tell him the exciting news, he said there was a house in his neighborhood that we might be interested in. It was currently rented, but he knew that the the Zergers, who owned it, were thinking of putting it up for sale.  

We immediately set off, walking down the street to an old house set among a veritable forest of trees and over-grown shrubs. As we got close we saw a good-sized front porch set close to the street. No one was home, but we walked around the house, noted the corner bay windows that flanked the porch and a solid looking foundation with basement windows. Around back, a big wrap-around porch looked over what I could see had once been a beautifully landscaped yard with a rock garden and fish pond—all overgrown, begging to be rescued and restored.

I loved old houses, and Ben and I had long wanted to buy one and fix it up. I had wanted a two-story house, but with its wrap-around back porch and the corner bay windows in front, the house looked like it had real potential. What sold us on the place, though, was the neighborhood and the lot which backed up onto the wooded back yard of the nicest house in Monroe, a place with beautiful, park-like grounds. This neighborhood, close to the Lewis Street bridge over the Skykomish River was exactly where we had always wanted to live. We were more than interested. We wanted to buy it.

We knew the Zerger’s, who befriended us when we first attended the First Mennonite church back in 1960, and immediately drove out to their farm. They were delighted that we wanted to buy the house and decided that $10,000 was a fair price, with $100 monthly payments, payoff in ten years. They owned the house outright and would hold the contract. The purchase would be finalized when we returned the following summer, the current renters staying in the house until we returned the following summer. We were elated. We still had not seen the interior of the house, knew the house would need work, but were confident we would be able to make it a beautiful place, a wonderful home for our family. The image of that yard and neighborhood was with us the whole following year.

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As soon as I finished my exams the following June, we hit the road headed for our new home. All our earthly goods were loaded into a big camper shell Ben had built on the flatbed of a used, one-ton truck. Ben’s 1954 MG-TD was hitched to the rear of the truck; I followed the truck in our ’64 Mercedes, another of Ben’s deals. Beni and Renee, who were ten and almost-twelve, took turns riding in the truck with Ben, the other sitting in the front seat of the Mercedes with me. Phoenix to Monroe is a long, long trip: the first 400 miles through the desert west to California then up the entire length of that long, narrow state to Oregon before heading up through Washington State to within 70 miles of the Canada border, a total of about 1,700 miles. We would take this journey in two steps, our first destination my sister’s place in Malibu. Nita and her husband had recently purchased a house and two acres on the California coast just north of Malibu village, and this would be our first chance to see it.

We left Phoenix in the early evening, just before sunset, intending to drive through the night to avoid the desert sun and the strain the intense heat would put on the marginally adequate engine of the truck. While it was still dusk, maybe sixty miles out of Phoenix, I suddenly saw the tread peel off one of the tires on the back right side of the truck.  I flashed my lights, and Ben, who could feel that something had happened, edged over to the side of the road.  Investigating, Ben found that not only had the tread peeled off one of the dual tires, the force of that peel-off had damaged the tire next to it.  The overloaded truck was now resting on one tire on the right rear side that was completely bald, had no tread whatsoever. We were out in the middle of the desert and had no choice but for Ben to drive that truck until we came to a service station that had a tire we could buy.

Ben inched that truck along slowly and carefully, and we made it to a service station without further incident.  At the station we were stunned to learn that all the tires had way too much air in them. All of the tires were probably damaged.  Ben and my dad, who was an experienced trucker, had filled those tires together. They put in the amount of air my dad said they should have, and Ben trusted him. All those tires now needed to be replaced, but we couldn’t do it there in the desert. We kept our fingers crossed that the new-used tire, the only tire now on the rear right-side, would get us the rest of the way to Malibu where we could park the truck and Ben take the Mercedes to look for bargains. No eighty-plus miles-per-hour over the desert on this trip. We drove slowly, slowly, through the hot desert night, hoping fervently that the tires would hold until we got to Nita and Ernie’s. 

We arrived at the house in Malibu early in the morning.  Nita and Ernie had given us good instructions, and, though the house wasn’t actually visible from the highway, we had no trouble finding their place.  The plot of land was fairly narrow, perhaps 200 feet wide, and very long.  The house and gardens were on the lower acre, which ended in a bluff face that dropped down to the beach. The upper acre, that which was closest to the highway, was undeveloped except for eucalyptus trees planted along the fenced borders of the property. Masonry walls flanked an entrance gate that had been left open for us, and we turned with relief onto the long, asphalt driveway that sloped down to a large parking area in front of the house and double garage, an area big enough for us to park the truck and both cars.

The front bedroom of the house in Malibu

The house was white, built low to the ground, concrete block like many of the houses built close to the ocean.  Nita said it had been built as a second home, a beach house. The house was attractive, but not spectacular if considered by itself.  But I doubt that anyone just looked at the house-as-house.  What you saw as you drove up were beautiful gardens—mature coast Cyprus, lines of blue agapanthus, palm trees, tall tree ferns and other tropical plants too numerous to list—and in the distance the ocean a brilliant blue. There was so much to see, so much to explore on that property, and Beni and Renee were just the right age to explore every inch of it, investigate all the outbuildings, walk down the wooden stairs to the beach and explore tide pools, live their own girls’ life while the adults lived theirs.

The wood steps to the beach

Renee and Beni slept in the front bedroom in the main house. Ben and I stayed down in the guesthouse, sleeping on a hide-a-way sofa, one that was actually comfortable. We could see the ocean from any spot in that big room. At night, we could hear the waves washing the shore below as we lay in bed. Ben, a very unsound sleeper, was able to sleep soundly through the night lulled by the rhythm of the surf. 

In the evening all of us would gather down in the guest house, drinking mai-tais and fruit punch as we sat in low, cushioned, rattan chairs around an equally low, glass-topped rattan table set in front of the windows. From that table we would watch the sunset over the water, see ships in the distance, watch brown pelicans fly past at eye level. Later, Ernie would barbecue hamburgers on the masonry fire pit with a glass hood that separated the dining area in front of the windows from the back of the room where Ben and I slept.

Even though there was no bathroom in the guesthouse, we loved staying there.  It was better than any resort we could ever hope to visit.  We could sit and watch the ocean from the shelter of the guesthouse; we could walk down the stairs to the beach; we could walk the paths through the pink and white spreading geraniums up to the terraced lawn behind the house; we could explore the beautiful gardens tucked away on each side of the house.  

Looking back at the house from the path to the guest house

We did more than just explore and sit around, though.  Nita and I cooked meals and shopped for groceries; Ben used his restless energy to do various repairs around the place including one very big project.  It turned out that all those beautiful properties along the Malibu coast shared a very unromantic problem—sewage. There were no municipal sewer lines out there, and all the houses had to have their own septic tank and drain field.  The problem was that the topsoil along the coast was thin, underlain by a layer of impermeable rock. The result was inadequate drain fields and overflowing septic tanks.  One of the realities of that beautiful place in Malibu was rationed toilet flushing, rationed showers, being careful about putting any water into the drains.  It was annoying, but it was also funny.  We all now knew Malibu’s ‘dirty little secret’, made jokes about swimming pools having to be kept full of water so that the sewage underneath would not pop them out of the ground.  Ben, of course, was sure he could fix the problem.  He worked on it all the time we were there and came up with a solution that, though probably not up to code, actually worked.   

We stayed with Nita and Ernie about two weeks before heading out again. Our time at Malibu had been wonderful break, but our journey was not over. We needed to get back on the road. Ben had been able to find used tires for the truck. However, our travails with that over-loaded vehicle were not over. About an hour north of Santa Barbara, not long after we left the coast and climbed into the coastal hills on Highway 101, I saw black smoke suddenly pour out of the truck exhaust.  Both Ben and I put on our flashers and pulled to the side of the road.  The truck had blown a cylinder.  Ben got out his tools, disengaged the piston, and we drove the rest of the way to Monroe that way.  We drove straight through and arrived exhausted and relieved to have made it without further incident.  That the old, under-powered, overloaded truck made it all the way up to Washington, over the Siskiyou Pass as well as all the other steep grades, still amazes me. We pretty much drove straight through from Malibu to Monroe, stopping only for gas, fast food and a few naps in the truck and car. We arrived in Monroe just after sunrise, exhausted, but eager to see the house that was to be our new home. It was too early to go out to the Zergers to get the key to the house, so we parked our vehicles on the gravel driveway, pulled a mattress out of the truck and put it on the porch, lay down and fell asleep.

We woke to a sunny morning—bright, but cold and damp, the overgrown grass and weeds around the house dripping with dew. As I walked around the outside of house while waiting for Ben to get back with the key I saw dirty, mildewed siding, all the wood worn and needing paint. And when Ben got back with the key, and we walked to the porch, unlocked the front door and stepped inside, my heart sank. This was not going to be a simple matter of paint and new wallpaper. Walls and ceilings were covered with thick layers of old wallpaper, painted white on the ceiling, a depressing institutional green on the walls, the layers peeling back in places to show rough wood underneath.  And the rooms were shaped all wrong. The living room was a long, narrow bowling alley of a room with a free-standing gas heating stove standing between the doors that opened into the two bedrooms. Doors, windows and wood trim were not simply plain, they had been cheap to begin with, were not worth the effort of restoring. And worse, when we got to the kitchen and bathroom at the back of the house we realized there was no foundation under them. The basement ended right where those rooms began. Like the front of the house, the kitchen and bathroom had been cheaply built. Nothing looked worth fixing. What in the world were we going to do with this place? What had we gotten ourselves into?

All of us were depressed by that house. But we were there, and there was work to do. We had to unload the car and truck. We had to set up beds. We had to unpack dishes and cookware and sheets and towels. We had to move in, set about making a new life. We were going to have to make the best of things. We were resolved to do that, but all our eager anticipation was gone. This was going to be a long, long slog.

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There was another funny/not-so-funny event that occurred on this trip, one that did not manifest itself until after we arrived in Monroe and started to move into the house–ringworm from a kitten Renee and Beni played with while we were in Malibu. Ernie was an M.D., and a patient had given him the cat when he and Nita moved to their new home. The ringworm began to show up on the cat after we left Malibu, a particularly virulent strain, the cat getting so sick it had to be put to sleep. We learned about this when we phoned Ernie to ask him about the ringworm, which looked to be more than the ordinary kind I got as a kid. Ernie said he would phone in a prescription to our local pharmacy and told me that I should wash all the girls bedding and clothes in hot water every day. The poor girls felt like pariahs as they tried to get acquainted with the kids in the neighborhood. It was definitely not a great way for them to begin life in their new home.

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© Loretta Willems, October 29, 2021