This Old House – Chapter 1


“John! What the… John! Come look at this! You have a secret passage in your house!”

This is not the way this job was supposed to go. When John and Tim asked me to come look at replacing the kitchen floor and one wall in their Victorian home in the small town in Indiana where we live, I almost said no to begin with. I told them it would stretch me to my limits. In fact, I would probably have to hire someone to help me do the heavy carpentry. But they insisted I had to me be.

Let me introduce myself: my name is James Worthington , to my friends, Jim. I own Worthington Plumbing and Repairs. It says plumbing first, and it does come first. But I do a lot of carpentry too—light carpentry that is. Not because I’m some kind of wimp:  six foot, two-fifteen, curly brown hair, brown eyes, pretty good looking (if I do say so myself) and I’m good with my hands. I’m 36 years old and single (O.K., divorced, but that’s another story). After the divorce, I moved to Freiburg to start over, and I’ve done pretty good for myself. Overall, I’m in pretty good shape, but still, I have my limits.

This house, on the other hand, is not in great shape. The roof and siding are good, as is the foundation. In between…. You name it, it could use work. I mean, it’s structurally sound but it needs windows, insulation and lots of moderately difficult mechanical things: pretty much all the wiring needs replacing, the bathrooms (there are three) need re-plumbing. And then there’s the kitchen.

The kitchen—there are three of them, too: the place is big and at one point it was divided up for three apartments—the one on the main floor, the one they wanted me to work on, has no cupboards, has four doors in and out of the room (traffic patterns, anyone?) and the floor is so worn under the old linoleum that the boards themselves need replacing. It was that floor, and a wall in the adjacent pantry that they had called me about. As I was estimating the job, I got the feeling that the wall was ‘designed’ like something I had never seen. I couldn’t put my finger on but when I tore into it—well here we are in the story.

I’m no great shakes at estimates to begin with, and I told them that. Told them there was never any telling how much things could cost when you work on houses this age. You open it up and find out afterwards there is rot or carpenter ants or some old repair done so badly you have to re-do that, and then you can begin to do the work you planned on doing. So, between the normal ‘unknowns’ and this feeling something was wrong, I had padded the estimate extra. Good thing I did.

I had the tin ceiling removed (that stuff is close to irreplaceable) and as carefully as I could, I was removing the shelves from the pantry wall when a chunk of plaster three feet wide fell off the wall. Or rather, it swung open. On hinges.

For a second I just stood there gaping back at the hole that was now gaping at me. It wasn’t a doorway—not quite tall enough to walk through upright. It was more like a hatch, or a half-high access panel, but on hinges. You’d have to stoop to go through it or to even see it when the shelves are in place. I saw now that the lower shelf was cut to swing with the hatch, to make it easy to get through but still difficult to see when the panel is closed.



John arrived, out of breath and apologizing.

“Had to finish that paragraph. I finally got the wording right and had to get it on paper –or on screen, I guess, actually–before I forgot it. What’s going on?”

John Green is average height, mid-50’s and walks with a slight limp. Sometimes he even uses a cane. His shirt is tight around his belly but the size of his shoulders and neck warn you he is far from soft or weak. He looks like he was a high school wrestler, maybe college as well. And I know he grew up on a farm. A shock of pure white hair, kind blue eyes completes the picture, with a voice that seems soft even when he’s angry–not that it often happens. And he can be painfully polite and slow to say what he really wants to say. He and his partner Tim Brown share ownership of the house, “partners in the crime of owing it’, as John often said. Neither of them is mechanically inclined: John is a genealogist, speaker and community advocate and Tim is the organist and choir director at the nearby Episcopal church. They are good people, good friends of mine. They have good money-making skills, but no hammer-and-saw skills. I’m ok with that: it’ a good arrangement for both of us.

“Remember I said there is no telling what we might come across when we begin tearing into the old girl?”

“Yes,” he nodded, his eyes on me, but his mind obviously still on that document. “So, what did you find?”

I hate it when people don’t see what’s right in front of them. Maybe it’s just a pet peeve, but there is a gaping hole in the wall right in front of him.

“Look,” I said, trying to not sound annoyed and point at the hole in the wall or the door or hatch or whatever you call it.

“Yes? You found something in there?”

I forgot: not only is he not a carpenter; he also trusts that I know exactly what I am doing at all times. Apparently he is thinking that’s the way things are supposed to look when you remodel.

“John, this hole in the wall is not a hole.”

At that, he adjusted his thick glasses on his nose, moved the shock of white hair from one side of his high forehead to the other, and peered into the darkness.

”It’s not? What is it?”

I grit my teeth. I began to think he’s playing me.

“John, you have a secret passage here or something.  I took the shelves down and all of a sudden this door opened up.”

“I see.” He paused. “Does this mean… I mean, is this one of those things you said would cost more? I mean, what do we do about it? ”

“Dammit, John!” I exploded. “You are supposed to get really excited and hop up and down on one foot and say ‘Woohoo! My very own secret passage!’ Or something like that!”

“Oh. Well, excuse me if I skip the hopping. My leg…” He’s trying real hard now not to smile. Bastard!

“John, dammit! This is important! This is part of the history of this house, and you … This house has been in your family for a hundred years and nobody told you there was a secret passage in the pantry?”

He thought for a minute and then answered, “Not that I can recall, no. But what would it be for?”

“Man, c’mon! You’re supposed to be way excited and thinking genealogy and family secrets and all kinds of stuff.”

“James, I apologize. I am all wrapped up in that grant proposal and just can’t get excited about this at the moment. Sorry to be such a wet blanket on your excitement. But, find out more about this and if you need me to …”

I was on the verge of getting angry but I realize he’s right. I pulled him out of his workday, out of his office, out of his world and into mine as if mine was the only one that mattered.

“Tell ya what,” I said to him. “You stay here and I’m gonna see where this goes. If I get stuck or of I don’t answer when you call me, for, say 5 minutes, then…”

“Maybe you should wait until Tim… ”

“Hell no!! I’m excited! This is the first time I ever saw one of these! I wanna see where it goes!” And with that, I ducked my head and slid into the hole in the wall.

The passage was narrow, a full body squeeze for me, but smooth boards ran horizontally on the walls and sliding along it was easy. After a short passage, stairs led down. Probably into the basement, I thought, which almost made me turn back. Any plumber knows that the air in a long-enclosed space was likely be poison, or at very least oxygen-poor. If I passed out, there was nothing Tim or John could do for me but call the undertaker.

But then a puff of sweet smelling air—outdoor air!—moved across my face, coming up from the dim space below. I relaxed and began down the stairs, still cautious because they were narrow and dark and old as they were, they could collapse. The light was dim at the bottom of the stairs but I made out that the stairs ended in a room. And that there was no railing.

I called out to John what I discovered; he answered back that he heard me and asked if I was all right. I replied yes and kept moving. He was getting scared I could tell, and I wanted to find out what this room was before he panicked. If they just went to another part of the cellar, I could use the regular cellar stairs to explore later.

My eyes finally adjusted and I saw I was in a room about ten feet square, dirt floor or maybe dirt-covered concrete or brick. One small window with a broken-out pane of glass was set high up on the wall to the right of the stairs. The fresh air! Three of the walls were stone, same as the ones in the rest of the basement. The wall under the stairs, however, was different: half was stone, the other half was brick. The brickwork was sloppy and looked like an amateur job. Near the window but lower on the same wall some boards were leaned against the stone wall. I walked over and examined it: another ‘door’! The hinges were rusted and wouldn’t move (remember the WD-40 next time!) but it was open a crack and I peeked in. It was dark but I could see it was more than just an alcove. It was a tunnel! A tunnel tall enough for a little kid to walk through or a man to walk hunched way over.

“Holy Crap!  John! I found another secret passage!”

“Jim? Are you there? I think you better come up now. I’m… it’s almost time for Tim to come home for lunch. Do you want some, too?”

I cursed under my breath. No sense of adventure!

“Sure. Alright. I’ll be right up,” shouted. I glanced once around the perimeter of the room, checking the masonry for damage or anything out of the ordinary. I tried to peek out the window, to see where it looked out in reference to the rest of the house. It didn’t seem to fit any place I could figure, but the window was too high and the glass left in it was too dirty to see much. Maybe under the porch or bay window on that side of the house?

“Jim? Are you coming?”

“On my way, John.” This was going to be a lot more exciting job—and a lot harder to complete–than I ever could have estimated.