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Remodeler's Diary

Unearthing Solution to a Family Mystery

September 26, 1993|SHIRLEY LaBARRE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; LaBarre retired in 1985 after 25 years as an English teacher at Los Angeles Baptist High School

Forty-five years ago, my husband and I moved into our Westside home. It seemed a terrible comedown from our childhood homes in Hollywood, but the house was well-built and within our budget. Besides, we thought we would only be so far out for five years or so and then we would move back to where things were happening.

We finally got used to the ocean climate--in fact, dependent upon it. We planted a tree and put down our own roots, and we saw the Westside become one of the most desirable places to live in the greater Los Angeles area.

During the years, we remodeled twice, doubling the size of our tract house of two bedrooms, a single bathroom and den to four bedrooms, 2 1/2 baths and family room to accommodate our growing family of three sons.

In time we began to feel that the house was too large for us. Our children were all grown, and last year we decided to sell and buy a smaller single-level house. However, after a year of open houses and a few disappointing offers, we decided to take the house off the market.

We had earlier had a new roof installed, but when the winter rain storms hit, we found some unfortunate damage from wind-driven rain. With the insurance money as a boost, we chose to do some remodeling to make the house more appealing to younger buyers for a possible later decision to try again to sell. In the meantime, we would enjoy the changes.

We had made major changes in every one of the original rooms, but our kitchen and original bathroom were quite dated--and these, we learned, are the rooms considered the best investment for remodeling if you plan to sell.

Although I liked having the washing machine and dryer in the kitchen, I had always disliked having them near the door that opened onto the living room. The original bathroom had never had anything but cosmetic changes and although it contained all the necessary amenities, it was aesthetically dull and very crowded.

The contractor suggested that we take out the bathtub and replace it with the sink from the opposite side and a dressing table area. The stall shower would be enlarged and the walls and floor tiled.

This left the plumbing on the opposite wall free to install the washing machine and dryer on the kitchen side. These would be enclosed in a wall-long cabinet that would also include a broom closet--which I had always wanted to have. Where the machines had been, there would be a shallow pantry and desk.

I was experienced enough to know that the project would cost more than we planned and take, probably, twice as long. The walls were not wallboard but plaster and the bathroom had to be totally demolished: plaster walls, plumbing, tile floor and shower.

What I didn't expect from the remodel was the solution to a mystery that had become part of our family lore for nearly 35 years.

In 1959, our 13-year-old son was given the privilege of boarding and bedding a six-foot-long boa constrictor over the summer. It wasn't my choice of a pet, but mothers often have to bend a bit in the world of boys. I must confess, I appreciated Jim (for Jim Bowie, what else?) for his effect on unwanted solicitation at the front door. You would be amazed at the deterrent effect of a large snake draped over the shoulders when you answer the door!

My mother wouldn't come in the house until I double-checked every time she came to make sure Jim was secure in his cage.

There were some unfortunate responses from neighbors, one of whom appeared on my front doorstep hysterically screaming that she would do anything if we would just get rid of the snake. She was certain that it was going to crawl into her house.

But Jim stayed--until the first day of the new school year. Apparently, our son, or one of his brothers, had left the cage door open just a bit, and Jim disappeared. We searched every inch of the house again and again. I made my husband explore even the eaves of the attic and probe every corner under the house--several times. Jim was gone--for sure.

I confess to many nights of being doubly alert to the sounds from our youngest son's room. I knew that at age 3, he was too large for a meal, but Jim might squeeze!

We looked for news stories of found reptiles, but there was nothing. In time, we forgot about Jim and reasoned he had made a nighttime journey to field or sewer. He became a fading memory that we seldom thought about unless some visitor would ask, "Did you ever find that missing boa?"

When the work began on the bathroom remodel, our contractor informed us that the cast-iron tub would have to be cut in half to be removed; he felt it would be easier than trying to navigate it around the doors and hallway. The workmen began the process, and I was amazed that they were able to break the tub nearly in half with a large sledge hammer. We stayed outside the house to be out of the way and to avoid the sound of metal on metal. But suddenly there were horrified shouts in Spanish from the workers.

When the men lifted up the tub halves, there on the subfloor in a semi-coiled state laid Jim. No--not alive, but in a remarkable state of preservation. It is a wonder the workmen didn't drop the tub through the floor.

We reasoned that old Jim had enjoyed several months of freedom somewhere in the house. Maybe he had feasted on a bird or mouse and then during a cold spell had crawled up under the tub one night to get warm for a few days snooze. We had the house fumigated that January, and it must have been for Jim a sudden death, for he remained almost freeze-dried for all these years.

So the mystery of Jim was finally solved. Yet when I think that for weeks--months?--I sat on that live snake during my bath. . . . Well, perhaps it's better I didn't know.

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