You Can Wait Too Long To Go Home


Because I spent more than 20 years in the Air Force, I traveled around quite a bit.

I can sit back and picture places all over the world, some of them wonderful places like the Taj Mahal, Stonehenge, or our own magnificent Grand Canyon.

Mostly though, what I picture are the homes my wife and I and our two kids, now in their 40s, shared over the years.

There was our first home in Karachi, a two-up-and-two-down apartment building that we shared with a captain and two majors in the Pakistani Army.

It was a block and stucco structure, with a flat roof and tall, filigreed walls in each apartment. It overlooked a high-walled terrace where the Muslim wives of the officers could go unveiled.

Fourteen-foot-high ceilings and fast-spinning ceiling fans fought summer highs that matched, and at times exceeded, the blazing temperatures here in Arizona.

Polished terrazzo floors gleamed underfoot, cool, smooth and delightful to a bare foot during sweltering summers, but icy cold underfoot during winters in a block-and-stucco house that went unheated for lack of furnace or fuel, a national problem in Pakistan.

Delicate snail-shaped sconces circled the walls, lighting up each room at night, each pastel pink fixture controlled by a small separate switch on a masonite wall panel 18 inches square.

Every few feet around the concrete interior walls were black, surface-mounted, single-plug electrical outlets the size of biscuits, each with its own on/off switch and wire-wound fuse.

Water poured into a concrete 500-gallon ground tank and was hand pumped by servants up to a smaller concrete roof tank. From there it flowed by gravity to kitchen and bath.

There was no hot water in the bathroom unless the tenant installed a 220 volt water heater on a shelf in the bathroom. The heater was connected to the system with soft lead pipes. The lead pipes were fitted, to iron pipes on the wall and the hot water tank, by jamming lead onto iron and praying that it stayed that way.

There was no hot water in the kitchen at all, a problem the cook dealt with by heating a great pot on the kerosene-fired cook stove. It wasn't really extra work for the cook because the water system that supplied the ground tank was only turned on for an hour each day. The rest of the time the water pipes beneath the streets, which ran side by side with sewage pipes that leaked like sieves, had no pressure in them to keep out the sewage.

Our drinking water, as well as water for brushing teeth, or any other water that entered a human mouth, was boiled for 25 minutes. By the clock, and not a minute less, unless you wished to risk typhoid fever or amoebic dysentery, both of which, together with cholera and smallpox, which killed as many as 20 people a day in Karachi, were endemic.

I only had dysentery once. It was enough.

The only wood in the building was in the doors and windows. Wood was incredibly expensive. I was told that over the centuries, as in most Muslim countries, goats had denuded the land of trees by eating anything that dared stick a shoot out of the ground.

But it was our first home, and we loved it as much as we loved each other, and that was -- to say the least -- a great deal.

We've never been back to that first home of ours in Karachi.

We've never been back to the solid concrete house we bought on Okinawa, one with a sloping concrete roof and inch-thick wood shutters over every window, nailed shut at regular intervals to keep out howling typhoon winds. We saw 18 typhoons during our 30 months on the island. It wasn't as bad as it sounds.

We've never been back to the small brick homes we bought in Natchitoches, La. and in Port Arthur, Texas, either.

Nor have we been back to the apartments we lived in, mostly on base, in California, Ohio, Utah and Missouri. And we've never been back to our large four-bedroom house in Phoenix or our modest three-bedroom town home in Mesa.

No, Lolly and I will never go back to any of them.

One day in 1961 I brought my beautiful new bride and my 6-month-old son David back home to New London, Conn., where Mom and Pop had rented a small house after Billy, and Frankie, and Charlie, and I bailed out on them by running off and getting married.

I wanted Lolly to see the house in which I had grown from a skinny 11-year-old to a skinny 21-year-old. It was an old Victorian, a house which stood as four-square and solid as any structure in this nation.

During the 1938 hurricane, which devastated New London, a 100-foot-tall elm tried to wreck that old house. All it did was punch a small hole in the roof.

The foot-square, oak cap beam, supported by eight-by-eight oak uprights, simply shrugged it off.

The foundation of that old Victorian, which stood three full stories above the road below, was solid granite. Each salt-and-pepper granite foundation stone was beautifully hand dressed.

Gables were everywhere. So many that even now I can't quite count them all in my head. The eight-inch-thick walls were sheathed with pine shiplap, finished with overlapping clapboards. Inner walls were hand-plastered and painted in delicate pastel tints.

I drove up Huntington Street with my bride that day, a big smile on my face as I waited to see Number 220 show up around the next curve -- tall, and white, and gleaming in the sunshine.

A minute later I stood outside my parked vehicle, struck dumb by the sight of low, single-story quadraplexes sheathed in cheap, garish, green siding.

Outside one of them sat a black woman shucking peas in a dishpan. She eyed me like someone from outer space as I walked up the sidewalk running along the face of the building, wanting to establish a connection with my past by finding a place where I could turn and see the familiar view of the river, a mile away. I couldn't. The bulldozer blade had cut deep, leaving no level which matched that of our old front yard.

There was nothing left of that magnificent old Victorian. Nothing except my broken-hearted memory and a deep sense of guilt that I had not been there when it needed me most.

Never go back! Never!

See other stories by Tom Garrett on his blog at

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