Life Began at Thirty-Three

Both the story below and the introduction are lifted from my latest anthology of science fiction and fantasy short stories, Between the Wall and the Fire. Unlike every other story in that collection, this one is not science fiction and it’s not fantasy. I will leave it to the introduction below to explain why it was included anyway.

In December of 2006, my sister-in-law Dani’s family invited my not-yet-wife Morgon and I to join them for Christmas in the suburbs of Chicago. Since our last trip to Chicago had been for my brother’s wedding and we’d enjoyed the trip greatly, we happily accepted.

The trip went pear shaped even before we left. As December waned, so did the health of Dani’s grandmother. Morgon and I debated skipping the trip, but then we got word that Dani’s grandmother had been specifically looking forward to seeing us. To this day, I don’t know why – we’d only met her once, at the aforementioned wedding. But I can suck up a lot to make an old woman happy, so we went ahead and made the trip.

It had already started to go downhill, and it only accelerated from there. The heat was broken on Dani’s SUV, and it was cold. The drive turned into a very long one, and by the end of it Morgon was literally shaking despite being wrapped in blankets and spare clothing. Then, of course, the trip got even more awkward as Dani’s grandmother continued to decline.

We did see her, and in hindsight I’m glad we did. She died a few days into our trip. At that point, Morgon and I decided to get out of everyone’s way. We rented a car for the trip home and decided to head out early. But since we were already most of the way there, we decided to stop in and see Morgon’s grandfather Verne in Galesburg. We had hoped to find time to make it up there anyway. Now that we were on our own, and had control of the transportation, we made it a point.

I had met Verne once or twice before on some of his previous visits to Huntsville, but I didn’t know him very well. He was old – in his late eighties at the time – and his hearing was very poor. It was hard to communicate with him. I wasn’t particularly enthused about the trip, but I knew it was important to Morgon.

We stopped in at his little house in the country. It was the first time I’d seen the place, but I liked it. It was cozy. Verne was pleasant and welcomed us, even though his hearing made it hard to communicate. Then the awkwardness of the trip continued. We sat on the couch and he sat in a chair across from us.

And he handed me this story. Worse, he clearly expected me to read it, right there in front of him.

I have to admit that my reaction was uncharitable. Here was a man I barely knew, on a trip that had already been pretty rough, handing me who knows what to read. But manners got the best of me. I expected to read a page or so, skim the rest, force a smile, and tell him I enjoyed it.

That old codger pulled a fast one on me. The story was good – really good.

It is presented here completely unedited, exactly the way he gave it to me nearly a decade ago. The language is simple. The story isn’t always told in order. It isn’t science fiction or fantasy. But it’s a good tale, and it tells a great tale about a simple man and his family.

Most of all, it’s True.


Life Began at Thirty-Three
by Verne Luvall

At age 33, having survived the war, free and able to do as I pleased, there seemed to be a lack of purpose or direction. All of my friends were married. I had dated girls forty miles north and fifty miles south, but none developed into anything serious.

All of that changed quite suddenly. I was a tool and die maker at Gale Products and part of my job was troubleshooting in the punch press department. Virginia Mureen worked in the time study department and her job brought her to the punch press department to post the piece work notes. The foreman of the department took a liking to both of us. One day he said, “Verne, you two should get together.”

I said, “Aw, Bud, I’ve known her all her life. I have played with her brothers, and we live only about three blocks apart, and I just don’t know about dating in the neighborhood.”

From that day on, we were one. We didn’t have one of those romantic courtships. She could always remember what I wore on that first date. It made no difference what we did as long as we did it together. I did considerable fishing at Lake Rice, and she joined me and became a very good fly fisherwoman.

One night as we were walking from the car to her house, without any forethought, I said, “Will you marry me?”

She said, “You know what the answer is.”

After our engagement, our thoughts turned to our future home. I came from a large family in the Depression, and there seemed to be so much dissension. My dad lost the house twice, and it became so ramshackle that I had people drop me off a block away so they couldn’t see where I lived. From all this, some very strong convictions were made.

First, I wanted a brick house in the country with a fireplace and not heavily mortgaged. The only way some of this could be accomplished was to do as much of the work as possible myself. I didn’t want the wife to work outside the home, and there was to be no bickering.

So, we began looking for a home site and searching for house plans. Gale Products owned Gale Lake, and it had a nice fireplace, and we spent many evenings working on house plans in the lighthouse.

Since the inside of the house was where the homemaker would spend most of her time, we wanted it to be as efficient and labor-saving as possible. Once this was accomplished, we had an architect put it all under one roof complete with nine closets.

Unfortunately, we found that the land promised to us could not be sold since a brother had a chattel mortgage on the property and would not ell. Time was running out since it was April, and we set October for our wedding, so we pigeonholed those plans and settled for a simple, two-bedroom house with crawl space and bought a lot in the Mast Addition on Farnham Street. We were the first to build their own house.

We had the foundation laid and the house framed and I took over from there. Virginia helped me do the shingling. The siding was delivered to her mother’s double garage, and we spent our evenings priming it on both sides. After I installed it, it was time for the final paint job. While working on the original plans at Gale Lake, we liked the color of the fireplace and decided to use it on this house.

The man at the paint store furnished a basic color plus the necessary material to produce the desired color. He did not mix the two. A relative had been wanting to help us, so we decided to let him do the painting. He did not mix the paint, either, using only the basic color. When we stopped by after work, it looked like the sun was setting in the east. It was a bright orange red – a shock at first, but it sort of grew on us. It really stood out among all those white houses.

In time we added a white picket fence, and one evening I was down behind it pulling weeds when two girls riding horses came by. One remarked that she sure liked the color of that house, but her horse didn’t and wanted to shy away from it.

In time, the fence was no longer needed for our children, Jeff and Missy, so it was again time to look for that home site in the country. At last resort we were about to settle for a piece of ground near Shanghai. One evening we had some friends over for dinner. It was Glenn and Mabel Glass who lived on the Alexis Angling Road. Virginia had gone to school with their daughter Cynthia, and I had hunted ducks on their pond. Imagine our surprise when they said, “We heard that you were going to buy land near Shanghai, but we can’t let you do that. We knew you wanted to buy in the country, but we wanted to be sure you wouldn’t sell out to some chicken thieves in a few years.”

We had choice of three locations, and we chose a five acre patch of brush on the southwest corner of their property. We called it “Stillwood.” There were times later when I thought Wit’s End might be more appropriate. We have always felt a deep gratitude to them for their generosity.

The first improvement had to be a well. The cost of a drilled well seemed too expensive, so I decided on a dug well. A water witcher marked two locations, and I drilled two test holes fifty feet deep with a two inch hand auger. Fred Kelly, who owned a service station, loaned me his wrecker to lift the auger. No water was found on either location, so a 135 –foot drilled well furnished plenty of water.

Eventually, the basement was dug, blocks laid, and the house framed, this by professionals. This was per our original plans. All my weekends, holidays, and vacations were spent finishing it. To be closer, we sold the house in town and moved into a log cabin a few miles from the home site. This was fine, but the log cabin was sold suddenly, and we had to move into the basement of the unfinished house.

The lavatory at the head of the basement stairs was connected to the septic tank. The shower and sink to the floor drain. The four inch drain pipe to which the upstairs bathroom would be connected protruded through the foundation to the trench to the septic tank.

There were no eaves and that night (our first) a four inch rain fell. The trench filled and water began coming in through the pipe. All night and part of the next day was spent catching the water in 50-gallon cream cans and pouring down the drain. Just when it seemed finished, a large piece of soil loosened and fell into the trench causing more water.

The heat convection for the basement did not arrive until after Thanksgiving, so the only heat we had was from a fireplace and a small laundry stove. After work, I had to cut enough wood to last the next day.

It took two weeks for the toilet stool for the lavatory at the head of the stairs to come from Abingdon. In the meantime, an outhouse donated by a neighbor had to be used. It was some distance from the house, so I would escort Virginia there at night. When I finally was able to install the stool, it had to be kept covered since there was no heat upstairs. The refrigerator was also upstairs, so Virginia had to wear a wrap when she visited it.

There was considerable overtime at the factory, so whatever time was available was spent on the house. Sometimes a job wouldn’t get finished until 2 A.M. We lived in the basement for two years. The brickwork and fireplaces were done by professionals.

Our life at Stillwood was full of surprises. Our road had only been graveled to a dead end road which ended a short distance from our drive. More gravel was added to our drive, but after that there were only two ruts.

One Easter morning, Virginia noticed a car stuck in front of the house and about that time there was a knock at the door. On opening, there stood a little black man. He said, “Missta, I’m stuck in the mud. Could you give me a push?” I told him it was useless because I had been through that before. We tried to no avail. Then, he asked to use the phone. He called a man in town who had a wrecker. “Elmer, this is Bob,” he said. “I’m stuck in the mud out here in the country. Could you come get me out?”

Elmer said no because he was too busy, but he said, “You’ve got to help me. I’ve got to get home and take the wife and kids to church, and I’ve got this chick in the car.” He finally got a neighbor to pull him out with a tractor.

One evening, the daughter of a Galesburg policeman and her boyfriend landed in the same spot. They were supposed to have been at a party on the southeast edge of town.

Thanks to friends and neighbors, Jeff had horses to ride. One was Star, a very large but gentle one. One day, we saw Missy tying this big horse to the bumper of our little Volkswagen.

When asked about Jeff, she said he was running Star down in the pasture and she fell. “I think he’s dead.” Just as we were about to look for him, he came limping through the yard, and we were relieved to find that he was not seriously injured. We never did find his glasses.

Then there was Tony the pony that was given to me by a man I thought was my friend. He assured me that fences would not be a problem, but Tony could always find a bad spot in my fence.

He would watch me prune a tree and after I left, he would finish the job to suit himself. The grafts I made on nut trees were just the right height to scratch his belly and he utilized all of them. One day two of our neighbors’ horses came to visit him. They were running up and down on either side of the fence having a great time. It could have been funny, but the horses were running in my new strawberry bed. He would also play hide and seek with Missy.

We had several dogs. Binky, a black Lab, was the first while we were living in town. We both took her through obedience school. She was also a good hunter.

Next was a collie. Virginia always wanted a collie, so I gave her a puppy for Christmas. We named her Holly.

Then there was Tika, a Doberman which Jeff sent us from Mississippi. She died suddenly after only two years.

One day an Irish setter showed up wearing a collar and broken chain. This we later learned was because he was afraid of storms. The back door still shows evidence of his attempted forced entry. Other than that, he was a pretty good ole dawg.

Last but not least was Boots. She was a spayed border collie cross which Missy could no longer keep in town. Ordinarily, a spayed bitch would stay pretty close to home. Not Boots, she had to be where the action was. One day, there was a knock at the door, and it was a neighbor who said, “Your dog has been killing my ducks and chickens.” He said he could replace them at the Salebarn for $20, so I turned it over to my insurance. After that she was tied unless I was with her.

One day, I didn’t think it necessary just for the short time it took for lunch. When I went out, there laid a lamb on the drive. I knew the neighbor would blame the coyotes, but I also knew that I would be driving past his house many times, so I confessed. The lamb cost $75, and this was billed to the insurance, and they canceled my policy. This wasn’t as bad as it seems because my new insurance was much less.

All our dogs were buried near a tree of some significance. Holly was buried near a maple tree which began as a tiny seedling on her grandmother’s grave. It had been transplanted to our place in town and then to the country.

Besides some fantail pigeons, we also acquired two white banty hens. A friend thought they needed some male companionship, so he contributed a gamecock rooster.

One of the hens became broody and tried to hatch a pile of rags in the garage. Feeling sorry for her, I found some banty eggs for her. When they hatched, one of the chicks was a husky black rooster. As he grew older, he kept testing the old rooster, and one day the feathers flew and the old rooster was banished from the flock. He immediately made friends with Shag and followed him around like his shadow.

Jeff belonged to the Warren County 4-H Club, and at the Prime Beef Festival, the 4-Hers got a chance to catch a greased pig. Jeff caught one, so it was necessary to build a pen. We were fortunate in having a hog house given to us. For feed, the whole family would glean the picked cornfields on a Sunday afternoon. There was also a person nearby who furnished popcorn to the numerous concessions, and he gave us the stale corn. One day, he said, “Here’s a treat for our pig.” He gave me a sack of stale cashews. He was right. The pig would almost climb the fence to get them.

This was just the beginning of our piggy experiences. Jeff worked for the neighbor farmers during school vacation, and he would bring home runt pigs that the farmers didn’t want.

He belonged to the Explorer Scouts. One summer they took a canoe trip in the Country Waters on the Minnesota Canadian border, and I was allowed to tag along. This left Virginia to care for some little pigs. When we returned home, she said no more.

Jeff’s project in 4H was bee keeping. A beekeeper friend helped him assemble the necessary equipment. Once I was working with the bees, and he was watching while waiting for Virginia to take him to some activity in town and was stung. On the way into town, he broke out with a rash and had trouble breathing.

Virginia had the presence of mind to go directly to the hospital. After being discharged from the hospital, it was necessary to take a series of immunization shots. The bees had to be removed until he left for college. I managed ten to twelve hives for several years after that.

We always had a large garden, fruit trees, and berries, so our freezer was always full. That is except when the neighbors’ livestock invaded. One day a couple of cows were sampling our sweet corn and an old sow and pigs were dining on the tomatoes.

Eventually, board by board, we managed to make the house livable. You might say I made the house, but she made it a home.

Virginia passed away on June 25, 1989, five days after being diagnosed with acute leukemia and is now resting in a little cemetery close to home. I pass her almost every day.

One of her last requests was that Jeff take me on his upcoming trip to Costa Rica. She knew how much I enjoyed the one in 1983. I can still remember how the gate keeper at the Peoria airport let her walk out to the plane to say goodbye.

She was active in a number of organizations and was an election judge during elections at the Townhouse in Kelly Township. It was heated with a hand fired stove and had outdoor plumbing.

I would take her there early in the morning and pick her up after the polls closed. It was a good place to catch up on the neighborhood gossip.

She leaves so many friends and pleasant memories. She should have been an ambassador because she could enter a room of people and be friends with all. This gift helped me overcome the complex I had acquired during childhood. She made me feel important.

During my younger days, one word that was never mentioned was love, so it was too difficult for me to say. However, I could give Virginia a big hug and say, “Boy! I could sure go for you.”

Upon retiring, I didn’t take a full pension, so she would be assured of an income after I was gone. I expected her to live to be a sweet little old lady, just like her mother who lived with us for five and a half years.

Nothing has changed within the house. Her sewing basket still sits by her chair. Her knickknacks are in place, and her many beautiful needlepoint samplers adorn the walls.

One is a replica of an old pair of my hunting boots which has a plaque beneath (not needlepoint) which says…

A husband is…
A husband is someone who takes your heart
and keeps it next to his forever and a day.
There is a particular brand of togetherness with
Husbands you can never feel with anyone else.
A husband is the only labor saving device
you can cuddle
His standing joke; the best thing you ever did
was marrying me is nearer to the truth
than he will ever know.
My husband is someone I love so much
that a lifetime is not long enough to share
with him.

Another sampler best summarizes my life after 33. It reads…

To Love And Be Loved
Is The Greatest Joy On Earth

~ VL ~

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