Letter From Langdon: Swallows

Every year, the swallows come back to Capistrano — and to Langdon. We found that the Swallow family was a good neighbor.

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There was no choice but evacuation. The water was coming. 

That’s why we flew the coop.

It’s been almost a year since the Army Corps of Engineers Missouri River Inundation Plan took effect. Levees, fields, animals, trees…our house!…were washed over and away by 120 days of a government controlled Act of God visited on us from up north. 

People here in northwest Missouri are still making repairs to farms and buildings, cleaning up, planting another crop where possible on fertile land, the land that wasn’t rendered barren by tons of sterile river sand. 

Basically, we’ve just been trying to cope. 

We lived all summer long in a borrowed house among other people’s belongings. That was tough. The aged couple that once lived there had both passed on. The house wasn’t for sale, but the couple’s kids owned the place and generously told us to move in and make ourselves at home in a house that was high enough to be out of the flood. We did the best we could.

We were not alone last summer up there on that hill, however. Another couple beat us to it. They were hard workers with a family to feed. Up at dawn like us, busy, busy, busy all day long until dark. It wasn’t bad as it sounds. Call them what you will: Itinerants. Migrants. Seasonal. Sun Catchers. 

I choose Reliable, because every year just like clock work, the swallows come back to Capistrano and to Langdon.

While it may have been my first summer on the hill, clearly it was not the first time for the Swallow family. Their mud nest was already on the front porch when we got there. That’s where we drank coffee most mornings, watching the sunrise and waiting for the water to recede.

Home is where the heart is. I sure can’t argue with that, and the irony of turning the water hose against them to wash away their home on the front porch didn’t escape my flooded conscience. So we practiced restraint and did the Corps one better by holding back the water.

Live and let live. Besides, the Swallows were there first.

The family inside shared space with the family outside and their nest under the eaves. 

They spent hours diving, circling, incubating eggs, devouring clouds of mosquitoes. We did some circling ourselves, waiting for the water to go down in the valley below.

Summer wore on. The couple on the porch raised several demanding chicks. At first tiny heads barely showed over the edge of the nest. Mom and Dad worked hard to feed the brood. As they got stronger and bigger we wondered how the nest could hold them all. As the bursting point neared, flying lessons started, until soaring offspring were hard to tell from swooping parents. 

It was peaceful coexistence for everyone — but the bugs.  

Richard Oswald
Our house in the valley was flooded, so we bought an old house on the hill, the house already occupied by the Swallows. Then we began fixing it. We’re still fixing.
Our place (home for all of my years, 44 with my wife, Linda) is still there. We took the worst the Corps and the river had to offer and came out better than expected. But with weather and rainfall patterns changing, and a system of flood control that no longer seems reliable — or reliably run — we decided to make last year’s move permanent.

It was a hard decision.

Flooding lasted from June through October. This farm couple decided that living under the eaves of big dams up north was no longer an option. As the migrants on the porch made one last pass overhead and moved to winter quarters, we promised the owners we would never tear down the house or turn the pasture into a cornfield. That sealed the deal and we bought the place. It was good for everyone, because we were sure that remodeling would be cheaper than building from scratch.

The first three commandments of real estate — location, location, location — provided motivation. Hill house was out of the flood zone, but “fixer upper” describes the 100-year-old structure to a T. 

We thought maybe we could get by just remodeling the kitchen and putting down new carpet and paint. But…one thing always leads to another. 

The closet-sized bathroom with its cockeyed door opening into the dining room called for change. There was cracked plaster, and the roof leaked into the dining room. Our furniture and most of our personal items (still in storage) wouldn’t fit into the house as it was. So maybe a small addition was in order.

Then we could have a second bathroom. 

And a new septic tank.

And central air and heat to replace an old electric wall furnace and three window AC companions.

The house needed siding. 

Hundred-year-old wire is rich in copper, but insulation poor. While we were at it, we put in a new electrical service.

If the bird couple outside operated the way we were about to, the old front porch would soon collapse under the weight of a 2000 square foot adobe eyrie. 

As it turned out that was not a problem.

Steve and Jerome, our carpenters, started to work in the fall. We all agreed the top priority was a good kitchen — ASAP. We called the kitchen cabinet guy Steve recommended while he and Jerome worked on the living room. 

Brad at the lumberyard drew up building plans. We considered making the addition bigger. Steve looked at the dining room roof. Not good. Gary stopped by to size up the foundation for the addition and left. The kitchen cabinet guy measured things and said he’d draw a plan.

We called Donnie, the plumber and HVAC guy, who stopped by, asked some questions, wrote down numbers, and left.

I started to thinking about doing more of the work myself to save money.

The addition grew. 

The back porch would have to be rebuilt. Bad plaster had to be removed from the dining and living room walls along with the lath so new insulation could replace the blown in stuff that had settled blown. We decided to rip out the old bathroom completely, all 24 square feet. We learned the floor under the bathtub was bad. My original plan was to leave all of it as-is.

We talked more about the kitchen. 

And the addition.

One day I drove out to the house to see if the kitchen had gotten started yet and found Steve and Jerome tearing off the front porch and the Swallow nest because the recently proposed addition to the addition would cover it up. Steve assured me that once porch demolition was complete they would finish the roof on the dining room and get started on the kitchen. 

Donnie came back, turned off the water, and tore out all the water pipes and drainpipes. Then he left. 

Chad the electrician stopped by, ripped out the electric service and left. Power to the house now consisted of a yellow extension cord plugged into an outlet on a pole. 

Brad measured up the latest new addition and left. He wrote up a blue print. 

Richard Oswald
Workers would come and go. Sometimes we made progress.
Gary laid the foundation blocks for the addition. We decided the sloping foundation on the backside of the house would need to be replaced. Steve and Jerome built the addition including a new master bedroom and put on the roof. Gary started digging again. 

I wrote checks to everyone.

In order to save money, my grandson, Ryan, and I tore out the bathroom and the old chimney ourselves. We pulled up carpet, tore off wall paneling, broke plaster.  Even if it did sag, I thought the ceiling looked pretty good and decided to save money by leaving it alone. 

Steve and Jerome put the roof on the dining room and knocked down the sagging ceiling. 

We talked about the kitchen. 

Gary finished the foundation work out back. 

The old master bedroom off the kitchen became the utility room. I thought it looked to be in pretty good shape. We could reduce costs by simply giving it a fresh coat of paint. Then Steve and Jerome broke out most of the plaster, and removed the ceiling. Ryan and I tore off the rest to save money. Donnie’s HVAC guys worked on the new furnace in the utility room. Steve and Jerome built a closet around it. They tore out the wall between the kitchen and the utility room and put it back again. 

Weather turned warmer. Steve and Jerome finished the vinyl siding. On the outside things were looking better. There was a new front porch, vinyl and white aluminum clad. It was almost swallow proof. Come May, the other tenants who had flown south for the winter would not be happy.

Chad and his guys strung new wiring. The plaster in the spare bedroom upstairs started to crumble under the onslaught. Steve and Jerome removed it, including the ceiling. The cabinet guy stopped by to talk about the kitchen. 

Steve and Jerome finished gutting the old kitchen. In deference to me, they left the ceiling. Chad’s guys installed wiring in the kitchen ceiling. They broke out most of the ceiling doing it.

The cabinet guy stopped in. He said the cabinets should be done in May. Because there was nothing else to do until the kitchen cabinets arrived, Steve and Jerome left to work for another flood victim who thought moving would be made cheaper by gutting their flooded house and moving it to higher ground. 

Richard Oswald
After a year, we’re finally making some progress.
In the meantime, I decided to replace the front sidewalk myself to save money. A walkway about 4 feet wide would be nice. I bought some paving stones and went to work. 

Four feet didn’t seem very wide. I bought more paving stones. The walk grew like black mold on river moistened sheet rock.

It ended up 14 feet wide and 30 feet long. I didn’t save as much as I thought I would.

We now call it the patio.

Flooding on the river bottom killed all our apple trees but one. We were told the hill place had a beautiful orchard once. I found a sale on fruit trees. I could save some money, so I bought a few to start an orchard on the hill. While planting trees below the house I noticed some friends had stopped by. 

The Swallows were back.

People tell us the new siding looks nice, but the couple from down south doesn’t like it much. They fluttered and dithered around the new porch searching for footing. I noticed fresh mud on the only thing rough enough for them to perch on — our new front door with its attached crystal sidelight panels. We bought a fiberglass door instead of wood to save money. It is textured to look like real wood. Mud sticks to it.

Richard Oswald
And the Swallow family returned.
I washed it off with the hose. The swallows looked frustrated. Then I noticed the door leaked on the inside. I was frustrated.

I started thinking of what we could do to get along. That’s when I noticed two birdhouses Linda brought from home.  I hung them a few feet apart under the roof of the new front porch while the Swallows watched. Linda says the houses are too small but last night they perched on one.  

There was fresh mud on the door again this morning.

Life is full of hard lessons, like flood, drought…and mud.  

And sometimes, like it or not, things just have to change.

Richard Oswald is a farmer in Northwest Missouri, president of the Missouri Farmers Union and a columnist for The Daily Yonder.

 

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