Ashes to Ashes, Dirt to Dirt

We were an Air Force family. Technically, only my father was in the Air Force, but military service encompasses the entire family. I was born at an air base in Japan, picked up a brother at a base in California, and then acquired a sister at a third base, in Maine. After three years in Europe, we landed at Mountain Home Air Force Base, in the wild desert of Idaho. The nomadic lifestyle of military brats seemed normal to my siblings and me — we had never known anything else.

Our first few weeks in Idaho were less than auspicious. We had to live for a short time in a small mobile home in the town of Mountain Home, ten miles from the base, while we awaited base housing. On a chilly October night, a malfunctioning heater set the trailer on fire as we all slept. My parents woke up and ran directly through the mass of flames that filled a tiny hallway to the back of the trailer, where the three of us children were asleep. They didn’t know what they would find back there, or even whether they would survive the experience. Fortunately, we all escaped without injury. That burned-out trailer sat at the edge of town for the next year, a chilling reminder of our close call each time we drove to the little town of Mountain Home. No one who has gone through a fire will ever forget the smell of the smoke and ash.

My father was nearing the end of his twenty-year military career, and my parents sought a place to settle down. They decided to build their long-planned dream house in Boise, Idaho, fifty miles northwest of Mountain Home Air Force Base. I remember watching my father working on the floor plan for his house long before he retired. Clearly, he had put a lot of thought into designing just the house he thought the family should have.

In 1964, my parents bought an acre of land on the southeast edge of Boise. There was nothing there at the time but dirt and sagebrush. Throughout 1965, my father’s dream home gradually took shape on that acre. It was a classic 1960s split-level, with white siding, green trim, brick facing, and a pea gravel roof that regularly shed small round pebbles onto the lawn. We moved into the home in September of 1965; Dad retired from the Air Force a few months later.

It was exciting to have our first permanent home after spending so many years in transitory base housing. Each of us children had a private bedroom, painted in our chosen favorite color. I lived there until I graduated from Boise State College in 1973; my parents remained decades longer.

Over the years, my father greatly enhanced the property with an asphalt driveway, a big lawn, landscaping, trees, and a huge vegetable garden. He added an airy summer house for picnics and a storage shed, all built with his own two hands. He installed central air-conditioning, replaced the pea gravel roof with asphalt shingles, and made numerous other upgrades to the house itself.

While working in the soil on his acre, Dad had unearthed numerous old metallic artifacts: nails, mule shoes, some old tools. We couldn’t imagine where they had come from. A little research revealed that the Oregon Trail had passed precisely through our property on East Boise Avenue, just above the Boise River. Perhaps those discoveries helped stimulate his interest in archaeology. They certainly bound him more tightly to the property. Dad could imagine living nowhere else.

In 2004, my father was diagnosed with brain cancer. He died just two months later. His last few days were spent not in the home he had built and loved, but in a hospice at the Boise VA Medical Center. Mom remained in the family home for three more years, but she rattled around in its 2,000 square feet. Eventually it became too much for her to handle. With some difficulty, we children finally persuaded her to move into a nice independent-living apartment in a retirement community just a few miles away. Mom sold the home to a man — let’s call him Marvin — who said he planned to upgrade the vintage split-level home to have a contemporary interior.

Marvin apparently changed his mind.

My brother, Bruce, had lived in the Boise area his whole life after college; our sister, Kathy, and I had lived in several states over the years. Bruce frequently drove past the old homestead on his way to or from home. One day he called to say he had seen workmen ripping sheetrock out of the old house and piling it in the lawn. He didn’t know what was going on. This seemed like a pretty drastic remodeling activity.

A few days later, Bruce called me again, this time with shock in his voice. “They burned the house down!” he exclaimed. The property now contained nothing but ashes and charred fragments — not a structure stood intact. When Bruce stopped to talk to workmen there, he learned that Marvin had decided to build a brand-new house rather than upgrading our old abode. Marvin had arranged to have the house burned down as a firefighting exercise, which probably earned him a nice tax break. That was doubtless cheaper than having it demolished and the debris trucked to a landfill. He had to tear out the sheetrock before the burn because it contained asbestos.

“How will we tell Mom her house is gone?” Bruce wondered. He occasionally drove Mom down East Boise Avenue on the way to his house for a visit. He didn’t want her to be shocked when she saw that the home she had lived in for forty-two years was no more. Bruce and I brought Kathy into the discussion. We agonized over how to feed Mom this news gently, to minimize the trauma. In the meantime, Bruce took another route to his home whenever he gave Mom a ride.

Someone else solved our problem before we did. A man who lived in the same retirement facility as Mom walked into their dining room one day and blurted, “Hey, Ruth, they burned your house down!” So much for easing her into the new reality. She survived the shock but was mystified about just what had happened.

It was apparent to us that the new owner, Marvin, actually coveted the acre of land, not the house and outbuildings that sat on it. Boise has grown enormously since 1965. A buyer who wants some elbow room simply cannot find plots that size close to the city anymore, except for those rare occasions when a lot like my parents’ comes onto the market.

Within a very short time after the burn, Marvin had eradicated every fragment of our existence from that acre. None of my father’s construction efforts, driveway, lawn, garden, or landscaping remained. The land had been restored to exactly the same condition it was in more than forty years earlier, just dirt. Marvin built up a large privacy berm on the frontage along the street, and eventually he constructed a million-dollar home on the property. It’s an attractive house that fits the contemporary housing environment that has grown up around our old homestead more appropriately than did our dated split-level.

Every time I drive past that palatial new house on East Boise Avenue, I remember how the lot appeared right after we bought it and how it looked after every trace of our family’s lives there had been erased. Those two recollected images are identical. In our case, we literally can’t go home again. It’s not there.

Author of 12 books on software, design, management, consulting, and a mystery novel. Guitars, wine, and military history fill the voids.

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