1972 – The Box Car House

941 21st Ave SW

After we got home from England in 1971, we moved out to the country by the airport. The rent was cheap out there, but we had to pay for our own heat. The house had LP gas and after a month or two of winter, we realized we were paying much more for heat than we were for rent. We couldn’t go on like that, so in the dead of winter we moved back into town.

I had been a Boy Scout leader and one Scout’s father was on the Troop Committee. He had a house for rent and let us move in without a deposit. That was something we were concerned about because of some problems we had with our previous landlord who tried to cheat us out of our deposit when we left the house in the country.

Anyway, leaving when it was so cold caused us a couple of problems. First, we had tropical fish. They are very sensitive to even the slightest change in the temperature. We transferred them to a travel tank for a couple of days while we set up the main aquarium at the new place. So far, so good. On moving day we got the car all heated up, covered the traveling tank with a towel or blanket or something, and made a mad dash across the 6 feet from the house to the car. It was a disaster. By the time we got to the new house all the fish were dead and we had to start over from scratch.

Our tropical fish

The second problem was that when we tried to move the sandbox we made Lance for his second birthday, it was frozen solid to the ground. We had put a lot of effort into that sandbox. We bought 8″x8″x16″ concrete blocks and spent a lot of time painting them bright red, orange, and yellow with really high quality paint.

Lance and his sandbox

Our friend Ray Baragary helped us get the sand for it. He had to pickup. We drove to the sand quarry and told them we wanted some sand for sand pile. The guy laughed and said maybe he could do that. He was used to loading dump trucks, not pickups. We drove up so the back of the pickup was under the sand hopper. He pulled down on the lever and immediately shut it off again. That one short burst of sand filled Ray’s truckbed from the floor all the way up the side walls to overflowing. The back end of the pickup bottomed out on the springs. Total cost, maybe a dollar or two. We drove back to our place, and used about 5% of our sand to fill Lance’s sandbox and spent the rest of the afternoon, shoveling the other 95% into the ditch out front. All we could do was wait till spring when the ground thawed and go back to pick up the sandbox blocks then. When we did go back, a later tenant had made off with them, probably for a bricks and boards bookcase.

The house  on 21st Avenue was a little rundown. You could tell it had had an addition or 2 over the years. One of the first times we used the bathroom, Karen realized it was so small it didn’t have a sink. We had to go around the corner into the kitchen to wash your hands and brush our teeth.

We thought the layout of the rooms was a little strange but we didn’t think about it too much. From time to time, we wondered why the wall between the living room and the kitchen was 15 inches thick. Maybe it had some kind of utility in there, we didn’t know.

The next spring, we were puttering around in the backyard. Lance was on his swing and I looked over at the house and noticed an access door in the gable of the long side of the house. I dragged the swing set over to it, climbed up, and looked through the door. I expected to see a squirrel’s nest or something, but what I did see was even more unexpected. I yelled, “Karen, we live in a box car.” She came over but didn’t climb up and have a look because she was pregnant. In front of me was the ribbed, arched roof of a railroad car receding towards the dark, far end of the house.

The access door

Once you knew it was a boxcar, things started to make sense. That 15 inch wall was a 2×4 wall fastened to the outside of a boxcar’s structure with another 2×4 wall on the inside. The mini bathroom had to fit a tub and a stool and still have enough room outside it for a hall to get from the front of the house to the back.

Lance and new baby Wendy

This house is where we lived when Wendy was born in 1972. Lance was so excited when we brought her home. All too soon he discovered the realities of not being the only child. He had to share Mom with Wendy now. During the day, we would often have Wendy sleep in a bassinet we put on a couple of chairs by a sunny window. One morning when we got up, we saw that Lance was sleeping on the 2 chairs where we usually put the bassinet. It nearly broke our hearts.

Lance asleep on the chairs

We moved into 941 when I worked for the City of Cedar Rapids. Steve Ovel and Dick Kvach, two of my coworkers, had waterbeds and were enthusiastic about them. The mattresses only cost $35 I think, so I talked Karen into trying one out. For my birthday my folks gave me the money for lumber to make a frame for one. The frame had 3 sections; base, pedestal, and rails. The base was a coffer-work of 1x12s. This orange crate assembly raised the mattress off the floor and distributed the bed’s considerable weight over a larger area than four legs would have. The pedestal was made of a couple of pieces of plywood. That provided a smooth flat surface for the mattress to lie on. The rails or frame were 2x12s bolted together and contained the mattress and kept it from expanding outward. The frame and pedestal also held the liner to keep leaks from being such a bad problem and the heater, something we learned was an absolute necessity the first time we slept on the bed.

We rearranged how the house was laid out a number of times when we lived there. One of the later approaches was to swap our bedroom to the back of the house. That room had been a separate addition to the house and was a foot or two lower than the other rooms. While I was at work, Karen got the waterbed set up and start filling it. A friend, Keith Andrews, dropped by just after Karen started filling it. They were talking and after awhile, Keith asked, “Do you think you ought to check that water bed?” Geez, the mattress was inflated inches and inches above the frame and water was cascading onto the floor, ankle deep. But this was not to be our last or even worst run in with the water bed.

Plowing the garden

We also got bitten by the gardening bug when we lived there. It wasn’t the first time. We had a little patch when we lived with my folks on Southland Street. In the spring we hired a guy to come and turn the sod over. We planted corn and brussels sprouts, tomatoes, cucumbers, some peppers and Karen thinks, maybe even some onions. I wonder why. Even as far back as then, I hated onions. We tended them and watched them grow, and were excited about a harvest. One weekend we went to visit Karen’s sister in Wisconsin, when we came back we went out to look at our crop and some vile veggie-thief had come by, and stolen all our produce.

Brussel sprouts

All except the brussels sprouts were gone, which we didn’t think anyone but us would even eat in those days. The cauliflower was also spared but we didn’t know how to grow it properly. I guess you are supposed to tie the leaves around the newly forming head, which keeps it white and fairly balled up. If you just let it grow, it first gets fairly leggy, like broccoli, then all stemmed out like purple dill weed. I suppose the thieves didn’t even know what it was.

Speaking of thievery, once, I had my whole camera setup stolen from our car in the driveway. I had slowly but surely started my collection of cameras, lenses and accessories. We had gone over to my mother’s house for her birthday. A light snow was falling and when we got home the kids were asleep, so we just took them inside and tucked them into bed. We decided not to go out and bring in the other stuff, but to get it in the morning. When I went out to do it our van had been broken into. They must have been out shopping because when they stole my stereo speakers, they left a crappy set that they had stolen earlier in the evening. Not only did they get my entire camera bag (handed to them on a silver platter complete with the shoulder strap), the speakers, a pea coat that they used to bundle things up in, but they also took a screwdriver and broke my dashboard apart in order to steal the radio. The dashboard repair cost the most to fix because it was auto body work and the whole thing had to be replaced along with getting a custom paint job and all the instrumentation had to be reinstalled. When I was cussing and looking things over, my next door neighbor, Ron Brooker, came over and asked what was going on. I told him and he was enraged that we had that type of thing going on in the neighborhood. He started looking around and noticed footprints all around the van and said he was going to follow them. The footprints went up the alley in the next block and eventually lead up to, and inside a garage. He called the police but they told him that wasn’t sufficient to get a search warrant, so that was the end of that. It sounded like it was enough for a search warrant to me. I did have insurance so it wasn’t all bad, but still it fries you.

Lance  had lots of adventures in that neighborhood. He was out playing one day and when he came home I asked what sort of fun things he had been up to. He said, “Do you want to see an alligator?” I said that I did and he led me down the block to this guy’s house. The guy saw us coming and said, “Lance, you weren’t supposed to tell anyone!” Lance told him it was OK, that I would like to see the alligator. It was in a heavy cage in the garage. I asked the guy where he had got the alligator from. He said he had had him for years and that he got him when it was very small, only about a foot long.

Baby Alligator Ad

When I was young, you could order alligators through the mail from the back of comic books or you could even get them at some pet stores. This was the case here, only years had passed, and now the alligator was 4 or 5 feet long. I was quite impressed so I asked if I could bring Karen to have a look. When we got back the guy had taken the alligator out of his cage and it was running around the backyard. We stayed safely outside the fence while the critter gave us the eyeball and hissed at us.

Lance said he met the guy when he was riding around the neighborhood on his bicycle. The fellow was sweeping up sand on his sidewalk and had a neat pile of it. Lance couldn’t help himself and rode his bike right through it. The guy yelled at him but Lance kept on going. After a minute or two he said he felt guilty and went back to talk to him. They got to be friends and the man asked Lance if he wanted to see the alligator. Lance thought, “Yeah, right. He doesn’t have an alligator.” But eventually Lance called him on it and was pleasantly surprised. He also said the guy had real, wind up, balsa airplanes; the kind you built and not just  the kind you slide the wing through a flat fuselage.

We lived in the Boxcar House for 5 years, much longer than we ever expected. With Wendy there were now 4 of us and at times it started to feel a little cramped. We started looking for a new place and found it at 3019 Mansfield Ave SE.  That house is the subject for a whole new story.

This post is part of the StoryWorth project that I am participating in.
At the ButchieBoy main page click the “StoryWorth” category to see the rest of the entries.

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