Off the Map Week 9: Clearing the Decks

There seemed to be no end to the refuse and relics of bygone years as I continued to haul load after load up the basement steps and out to the rapidly-filling dumpster. When I purchased this red stucco house in Anaconda, Montana, I inherited a godforsaken mess. Upstairs, the charred walls had been splashed by firemen’s hoses and turned into a gothic spectacle worthy of vampiric cinema. And the basement seemed to be where the vast majority of antique appliances had fled the smoke and taken refuge.

I yanked down another piece off the makeshift cardboard ceiling, and a paperback book fell out, nearly hitting me on the head. It was an autobiography of the legendary Playboy Playmate and actress Jayne Mansfield from 1963, complete with full color inserts!  How long had that been up there?  From the looks of the basement, including the clothes racks and the mildew-encrusted bed in the corner, someone had suffered a damp, dreary existence living below deck during his teenage years. A little light reading undoubtedly helped to brighten up his day now and again.

After the previous homeowner, Harry Hill, dropped a cigar and detonated his own oxygen tank, his relatives shuffled him off into a nursing home, and the soot-filled house was left untouched for months. The neighbors took it upon themselves to board up the broken windows so that more birds wouldn’t join the colony beginning to roost inside. The home became a time capsule… not so much because it was uninhabited for a long period of time, but because the basement steps probably had proved a challenge for Harry during his golden years. Once gravity pulled clutter and castoff items into the lower reaches of the house, they weren’t likely to see the light of day again unless some younger relative took initiative. But that hypothetical relative never appeared, either before or after the fire, and so the task of cleaning house was left to me.

I was surprised by the quantity of documents and personal effects that had been left behind. I found wedding certificates, birth certificates and bank records, and I gradually pieced together the life that Harry and Dorothy Hill made for themselves in Montana. A stapled-together high school yearbook hinted at Dorothy’s life before marriage. Military dog tags and Filipino currency spoke of the time Harry was stationed in the Pacific during WWII. Union membership booklets signified a career in the Anaconda smelters, which may have explained Harry’s poor health and the need for an oxygen tank. Buried in drawers were also countless old photographs of brothers and sisters, nieces, nephews and assorted grandchildren, none of which had caught the interest of their surviving relatives.

Steadily over the course of the summer, I gathered these relics and placed the most significant findings in a box, thinking I would bring them over to Harry at the Hearthstone nursing home and receive a few war stories in return. It felt sacrilegious to simply dispose of them in the dumpster, though I still had to wonder why they hadn’t been claimed before now. Finally, once the last drawer had been opened and the final photograph had been freed from its melted plastic frame, I felt ready to take my discoveries over to Hearthstone. But within a day of my completion of the memento box, a neighbor came by with sudden news: Harry Hill had died. I was too late.

A day or two later, a phone call tipped me off to the funeral reception at the Mormon church. I quickly threw on a black shirt, grabbed the box and drove across town to the reception hall. With some searching, I found Harry’s son, an only child and possibly the previous owner of the Jayne Mansfield paperback. I gave my condolences and presented him with the box. I wasn’t sure what would happen, because I had been warned that the family wasn’t big on tradition or family keepsakes. The man accepted the box with a look of surprise, as if their existence had been a total mystery. Perhaps it was, although unlike the racy paperback, none of the mementos had been hidden behind secret panels.

Later, I arranged some snapshots, photo albums, and family genealogies on top of a radiator, and Harry’s relatives clustered around the black-and-white photographs, trying to identify the figures within the beaten metal frames. In this way, Harry’s place within family history was being honored, I felt. I couldn’t say whether or not the photographs would find a new, permanent home, but for one day at least, on a day for remembrances, they would provide a link back to the past and help to bring Harry and his family a little bit closer together.


Bryan is a 1991 Norwich High School graduate and works as a naturalist at the Rancho Alegre Outdoor School in Santa Barbara, CA. You may reach him mid-journey at Look for Bryan’s columns on our Facebook page –

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