Strange Houses I Have Lived In

Lou Ellen's underground house
Lou Ellen’s underground house

It recently occurred to me that I have spent my life living in strange houses. Well, if not strange, at best a bit extraordinary. My memory of this fact of life just leapt out at me when I was not even close to thinking about strange houses. From whatever spark of light that opened that memory drawer, sparks began to pop up.

I recall the first one because it was not so much strange as it was where I was taken home from being born in a hospital, unlike my brother and sister who were home born. That house was a really nice one, from the photos, because my dad had a good job that provided the house. He was basically a gate keeper and game warden as he opened and closed the gates which let water in or kept water out of a lake river area. At first I didn’t know any of that as my best memories there are from about two years old, and my pet goat pulled me around the garage or barn in my little wagon. Then one awful day the goat was not there and I learned that he had gone to dinner……..ours. He was eaten! Not by me, and crying did nothing to bring him back. That episode was only one of the events, and not the house itself, for not too long after, that house became a place of sadness, as we had to move out. It was the best house the family ever lived in, and the dam and waterway became a possible war casualty. WWII shut down all waterways, lakes and dams that could be targets in the area of a large military base, as the one at Wichita Falls, Texas. And my dad’s job was gone.

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We moved on, from a big house with a basement and a wall telephone to a crowded and unhappy house with my dad’s parents and I don’t recall how many others. There were five of us and two of them and many relatives coming and going. This house was strange for being almost in a cotton field, as we were now sharecroppers and did something called ‘pulling bolls.’Even my mother, a former teacher, pulled a huge cotton sack and I rode on the sack as she ‘pulled bolls.’ I was about three or four when my dad found a better job in the oil field and we moved on again.13

Our next place was a company house, and later I learned that it was called a ‘shotgun house.’ I did worry some about what that meant and finally, after living there for many years, it was clear to me why that name fit. My dad, the source of maybe real facts or if not what he made up was better facts, said it was called that because it was on long room from front door to back door and wide enough that all of the furniture needed could be on both sides with a few dividers for bathroom and kitchen, but basically open down the center. The shotgun was a colloquialism that quoted that “You could shoot a shotgun from the front door to the back door without hitting anything in between.” Only strange to folks who lived in non-company houses or were the bosses of the ‘leases’ where there might be as many as four houses to tend to the oil business of the wells and stations there. I spent my growing up years there, from the time I was four until graduation from high school in 1955. From our shotgun lease house it was twenty miles to anywhere else, most of the time on dirt roads, and two of three creek crossings were on bridges, but one was called “rock crossing” as we crossed that creek on flat bedded rocks. I rode a school bus all those years, and my older brother actually got paid to drive it one year. I had a good deal of alone time to think about things, and I read copiously, as the nearest public library was, you guessed it, twenty miles away. I could bring home as many books as I could carry, and take most back the next shopping day.

After that, housing was a dorm at North Texas State Teachers College, now the University of North Texas. Most of the unusual part of dorm life was that many people lived with me, or so it seemed to me. My freshman year I was scared to death, had no car, and my parents or a rich school mate who lived near my home would take me back and forth at the end of each semester. I had never been away from home, except rare times spent overnight with grandparents. The really strange thing about dormitory living was that some of the girls came to college to find a husband, as my first roommate had. She left before the end of the semester, and I was alone!

Life after dorm and shotgun house was to be an attic room on the other side of Denton, Texas, where the college was. I had met and married my first real boyfriend and we were privileged to live in a room that a sweet old lady rented out to Methodist college students, which we were, as he was a preministerial student, and I was hoping for a teaching fellowship. I was to have that opportunity to get a teaching position at the college as an English professor after finishing grad school. We lived in what was basically an attic, with kitchen privileges and another basement room where Ma Holcolmb and the two of us had evening prayers. Her house was safe harbor, or so it seemed. She was a marvelous influence on two lonely and confused newlyweds, and students who stayed there paid her a small rental which was almost all of her income, as she told us a really sad thing about life in the real world. Her only child, a son, had married a woman from a very strict religious persuasion and he had to turn his back on his mother and never see her again. Yes, it was cruel of him, and I learned that the church he sold himself to was a very rigid version of Church of Christ. Lessons were coming at me hard and fast from my simple isolated life in the oil field.

At this interval, another house became needful as my husband finally had church assignment and we would be living outside of Denton in a parsonage near Muenster, Texas. We were both more or less acting roles in a new life and there was a great deal to learn. I was to have a job also, teaching in Muenster High School, almost the same age as the oldest students! Again, only one car and husband commuting back to seminary on some days, I had to ride the bus to school. Not twenty miles this time, but embarrassing to be the teacher in the bus. The house was another story of strange houses, and the age of the churches we served also influenced the age of the parsonage…..very old. The best thing was the furniture was not too bad, but in some places the floor was sort of sloping and the dinner table was round. That would not matter at unless what I had managed to cook was not very moist. If it was something juicy, it was best to keep turning one’s plate to avoid a spill of lunch into lap. Perhaps stranger was what happened with the neighbors. One of the ladies was named Glee, last name forgotten. Glee had chickens and one day she offered us one she had killed and cut up for us. Thanking her and being grateful was simple and we managed to cook it. The punch line came when she later on offered us another one, and we said were happy to take one again. This time the joke was on us, as the chicken was alive. Neither of us had the intestinal fortitude to kill it, so we put the chicken under a washtub in the backyard. We checked it every now and then and we probably fed it, but in a day or two we decided to take it in the night and put it over Glee’s fence into her chicken yard. Again, neither of us knew that birds of all kinds roost and stay roosted all night and I feel sure to this day that the chicken was still sitting as it landed when the sun came up next day. When Glee asked later how the chicken was I told the truth: It was just fine!

Moving on, and a year of teaching and learning on the first circuit church, we went to another level and the strangest house, so far. It was another duplex/parsonage and I was in the second year of being a rogue teacher, that is learning how to be a teacher in a real paying job and completing the two years of real experience to receive a real teaching certificate. By now the urge to become a fully qualified minister had begun to fade and the trips to seminary in Dallas were beginning to cost more than money. But this house, a duplex, was a bit stranger and soon showed its oddness. Nothing was really odd at first, but one day I turned off a light switch and brushed across the wallpaper neat the switch and was surprised by a scratch to one of my fingers. I looked at the wallpaper closely and found a needle in the paper, pulled it out and threw it away. No big deal at the time, but I was curious as to its being there. To cut to the chase, I began to look around and feel of the wallpaper in that area. I have forgotten how many I ultimately found but there were pins and/or needles in the wallpaper all over that little house. It became sort of a game to find them, and I do wish I had written somewhere in my memory how many there were! At least I had something to do in my spare time, as we were still too poor to have television. So time passed and another house or two that were of little interest.

The passage of time was taking a toll on the ministerial ambition, and my dream to become a full professor at North Texas State in Denton was to end when I discovered that we were going to have our first of two babies. At that time, pregnant teachers were not permitted in the state of Texas, so my fellowship was gone and in the year following, so was the pastor’s job and we were basically penniless. My husband did take a teaching job which he hated and life was grim, the upstairs house apartment was inadequate and our baby girl was born in Flo Memorial Hospital in Denton. Because someone had to work, we found teaching jobs almost all the way to El Paso, and we had to sign a five year contract to go there as it was in a rather isolated part of Texas and teachers left very quickly. We loved it, as the view out the kitchen window was of a beautiful mountain range in Mexico. Many of our students walked across the river to come to school, and our second baby girl was born in Hotel Deux in El Paso. In the last year of our five year contract, my husband was killed in a problem car that accelerated without notice or being stopped by braking, and life moved on to another level. I finished my contract year in West Texas and moved again, to live in a place near my sister near Corpus Christi, and that was where my met and married my second husband. We have now been together for almost fifty years, and life has been good.

The in between then and now houses were ordinary, none haunted and some nothing more than boring, so to finish the cycle, in about 1980, we decided to build an underground house and go solar passive. So that is where we live today. Our decision was during the first round of solar heating and energy saving craziness. We discussed and decided on the octagon as the strongest supporting shape, and only recently did I discover that the houses in many parts of the Middle East and desert countries were built in the same shape, an octagon, as it was the strongest weight bearing structure support. Who knew? We didn’t, but it has been interesting, to say the least. Very few problems with cold or heat, nothing fancy, but livable, and nestled into a hillside in deep East Texas woods. Other than a few little glitches here and there, nothing to complain about. However, neither of us plan on being here forever, as we have purchased funeral plots in a regular cemetery and this house will go to the two daughters to do with it as they will.

It will surely stand the test of time.

Lou Ellen Brown

Lou Ellen is a 4th generation Texan. She taught high school 43 years in all 5 geographic regions of Texas. She is a Certified Lay Minister in the Methodist Church, and has strong ties to The US Constitution and The Bill of Rights and those rights are not negotiable. Lou Ellen taught secondary, 7th-12th grade, and some freshman college level classes in Texas schools, including English, Spanish, Speech, Theater and Civics. She was also girls' basketball one year. She says she intended to be a writer, "and my half-novel is still waiting, as is my book of poetry." Lou Ellen is very active in her community and recently completed her second term as president of the Sesame Literary Club. She is retired and participates in the Texas Retired Teacher Association, and teaches an adult class in the First United Methodist Church of Hughes Springs. Lou Ellen and her husband, Gene, attended a Tea Party bus stop rally where they were thrilled to meet and get a photo with Lloyd Marcus. "We are Republicans of the old fashioned variety," Lou Ellen says.

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