Outdoor Adventures: Time travel amid years of plaster and dust
On a clear, cool day on the cusp of autumn I wear a dust mask, pull a cap tight, adjust glasses. My gloves are leather but worn; dirt-stained, thin spots showing. I reach for a pry bar and swing it into old ceiling above my head; bar bites into plaster, dust rises like smoke. Bits of plaster fall on my head and face. I repeat. And again.
Chips of old plaster fall hard, the small shards hit like summer hail, the large ones drop to the floor, shatter like plate glass. Above the plaster as I work upward, thin strips of wood, lath, nailed in place, the base for the old concrete-like plaster. How old I wonder? How old the plaster and the lath?
It is very simple, very dirty work. Simple for the basic hammer and pry bar; dirty for the decades old dust that falls everywhere.
I rip out the lath and above that, insulation. Or what passed for insulation then; a light, fluffy buff material that may have provided a modicum of insulation but has seen its day. It falls like snow but brown and dirty and overpowering.
I pull more lath and more insulation falls and my glasses are clouded with breath-fog and insulation dust and I think to myself that on a nice day in early September there are better ways to spend my time. There is a bicycle to ride, there are berries to search for, there are sandhill cranes dancing in the fields where they are staging for fall flight.
There is clear Wisconsin air to breathe, far more desirable than the musty dirt of the ancient insulation and decades old dust.
But there is also the work and the work needs to be done and so I keep at it. More plaster cracks and falls; more lath splinters and is tossed aside; more insulation falls.
A sheet of paper falls to the floor; a fluttering, side-slipping fall like a bat in flight or a goose tilting wings to lose air in descent. The paper flashes color; lands in dust at the feet of the step-ladder.
I pause, consider things; the paper lies facing up; an advertisement in full color looks back at me. From where I stand on the ladder I cannot read it. I will, at this juncture, take any reason for a break so I climb down, lift the dust mask, wipe the glasses clean and pick up the paper.
There are actually several sheets of paper and the one I look at is an advertisement, full page, full color that suggests I change my house “…into a Victory Home” and that I best do that by using Earl May’s plant seeds to do so and offers a coupon for “New 1944 Nursery and Seed Catalog”.
And I think: 1944. Nineteen forty-four. Nineteen forty-four, when the country was at war and times were hard. Nineteen forty-four; history book times for me in school. Over a year before World War II would end but nobody knew that then.
I flip the page over; another seed ad, this time for Inter-State Nurseries located, as Mr. May’s seeds, in Iowa.
Another page, another advertisement; full page, color, expensive. A Norman Rockwell-style painting of a family in the kitchen; dad and son lifting bottles. Mother and daughter (or young man’s wife?) with plates of food; smiles all around.
It’s an ad for Coca-Cola: “Have a Coca-Cola=Here’s to old times…or welcoming home a sailor son”. For the bottles the men are hefting are, on closer inspection, bottles of Coca-Cola and the younger man, the son, is in his Navy blue uniform.
I carry the sheets of magazine to the kitchen table and call Sally; “Hey, look what I found”. But I’m dirty and dusty and no time to read so I go back to the room where the floor is covered with scraps of wood lath and pieces of plaster and, everywhere, billowy brown insulation. Then I climb the step-ladder and reach into a the darkness to pull out more insulation.
I let the insulation fall, reach again for more; but there is something else. I squint in the haze of dust and see more paper and I pull my work glove off and carefully reach in and feel the smooth touch of paper, a thicker bundle. I lift it out.
It is a magazine, Better Homes & Gardens. The back cover and a few pages seem missing; that is what I’d found minutes ago. But the front cover is intact and most of the magazine as well.
I climb back down, toss mask and cap and gloves to the floor, walk to the other room, head down, reading what I can.
Better Homes & Gardens: February 1944. Seventy years ago and then some. February, when winter still held grip in Wisconsin and war held its grip on the world. When the seeds from Iowa were more than mere seeds for carrots or onions, tomatoes or peas; those seeds were the seeds of optimism in winter that summer would come after the months of cold and snow and life would bloom.
[Indeed the ad copy for Deepfreeze freezers reads, “Glistening snow may blanket the spot that was last summer’s Victory Garden” as if it was written specifically for Wisconsin residents.]
And if the plant seeds bore optimism before they bore fruit so did the ads, for the advertisements were of better days ahead. General Electric promised women “..good-bye forever to K.P.—after Victory”; Wurlitzer pushed war bonds “…to speed their victory…:;Norge let on that they were “…planning new household helps for the women in the postwar homes”.
There was talk of rationing food, of conserving, of victory gardens. There were helpful hints (taking care of your vacuum cleaner; preparing dinners; upholstering chairs) but overlying it all, in ads and in stories, overlying it all was the war.
I paged through the old magazine on a sunny September afternoon. The pages were musty but in good shape; it was if the magazine had been put there a year ago, two or three years ago. But seventy years? Yet there is was.
There was no good reason for the magazine to be where it was. It served no purpose. It did not plug a knothole or serve as a crude patch of sorts. None of that.
It had been placed with purpose in a cavity between two ceiling joists, above the layer of lath and plaster and there buried under the insulation.
It had been placed there, hidden in the insulation, and then closed in; hammers drove nails, shut out the light, closed it in. And then the carpenters went away and for seventy years the darkness held it, held the old magazine until I cracked the plaster, ripped off the lath, let the insulation fall; and daylight broke the darkness
And I thought to myself; they did this on purpose. They put the magazine there with intent and in so doing did they say to themselves, Someday someone will find this and know something of our lives.
I paged through the magazine and an ad caught my eye; an advertisement for Balsam-Wood insulation, insulation the ad bragged, that would “Avoid those Fuel Shortage Blues”, insulation that looked, when I checked it out online, exactly what had been falling on my head on a nice September day when I ripped out an old ceiling and found far more than I expected.
I looked at the newly opened ceiling and the equally open walls where 2×4 studs will hold drywall in place. But behind that drywall, between those 2x4s would be a space, a cavity clean and dry and protected. A good place for me to stash a magazine, a newspaper, perhaps a note: “Greetings from 2014”. And then to cover it with drywall, lock it in the darkness, nail it shut, then walk away from it.
And leave it to the future.
An assortment of outdoor products is available at Mel’s Trading Post in downtown Rhinelander. Call (715) 362-5800. To comment on this story, visit StarJournalNow.com.