Sometimes I find myself standing in the middle of a field surrounded by a wrangle of hobbyhorses, or driving down the highway where I spy dilapidated railcars poking through winter’s defoliation every few miles – rusted, still, forgotten. Curious things, with an edge of creep and an air of mystery that cause my mind to bristle with obvious questions, all which need to be answered before I can rest.
My career requires me to be a bit of an archaeologist, to dig – both literally and figuratively – into the homes and lives of complete strangers. On occasion, when cleaning out a basement or an attic, I’ve had the pleasure of discovering and recovering entire histories of a family or institution long forgotten. I always have to take the stories as far as I can, figure out as much as possible about the where, the why, the who. I like puzzles; it’s how I’m built.
My most recent find was in my neighbor’s attic, pre-remodel, where we uncovered the story of the original owners: a family that migrated from Kansas to California in the late 1800s, surely arriving via the Santa Fe Railway Line just after its completion in 1885.
Piece by piece, for weeks on end, we removed dust-covered trash and treasure from overhead and began laying out their forgotten history before us: school readers, illustrated children's books, and texts on etiquette and human geography; a Kansas driver’s license (complete with a citation handwritten on the back); family photos; holiday decorations and heirlooms; news clippings and magazines reporting on everything from Lucille Ball’s pregnancy, to the latest war, to the rise and death of JFK. She shopped at Piggly Wiggly on a monthly account, paid on time and in full. He liked to tinker in the garage and was extremely organized, down to the last nail. We found the original blueprints for the house. We found a little piece of human history.
We were mesmerized and inspired – enough so, we reclaimed every salvageable piece of material possible and repurposed it anew into the latest construction, going so far as to expose certain elements of the original structure, rather than cover up the history of the home.
I eventually went on to dig a little more, trying to round out the final bits and puzzle pieces, and have since been able to trace the family back five generations. Additionally, I know a lot about this neighborhood, so I’ve also been able to make a few educated assumptions when documentation eludes me. In the 1930s and 40s, Howard Hughes created an aerospace empire a few miles down the street, where he designed and built the “Hercules,” also known as the “Spruce Goose.” The original hangar is still located in what is now the Playa Vista development – also known as Silicon Beach – and it houses part of Google. The house next door was built in 1942, and this particular neighborhood was originally built to accommodate the need for housing and industry as related to WWII. In fact, two streets over was previously a landing strip that ran through the middle of green bean fields. My best guess is that great-great-Grandpa Alvin was a mechanic or engineer working in the aerospace industry. His son, Leon, born in 1941, eventually came to inherit the house along with his wife Lodema, where they raised two more generations of family before selling. Leon was a bit of a scientist himself, with a patent on a fish bait and lure illuminator, and he loved to race sailboats.
I know all this simply because I care about what came before me. I like to find purpose, as well as a way to repurpose, whenever possible. Every thing and everyone has a story, and someone has to remember to retell those stories, lest we forget. In times like these, especially, it’s important to me to remind myself – and one another – that we all came from somewhere else and we are all connected by the fragile thread of being held human.
Yes… sometimes I find myself standing in the middle of a field surrounded by a wrangle of hobbyhorses. It’s a curious thing…
...and a story to be told another day.