What's Buried

In a scene worthy of Norman Rockwell, early afternoon sunlight dappled the front yard of a venerable house, and a light breeze that can only be called a zephyr made pleasant the labors of a small group apparently engaged in a dig. Matrons with trowels and hats notwithstanding, you could tell it was a dig, rather than the garden club, because there were wooden stakes and sheets of plastic where nobody would put a garden, and the garden was where it ought to be anyway. It looked like volunteers from a historical society to me, with a sprinkling of high school kids, and I would have looked some more but the traffic light turned green. As it turned out, I was about to dig up some things too, but as a matron with a pencil, rather than a trowel.

Later that afternoon, I was in a house north of Gloucester, Massachusetts, across the street from the houses that overlook the water. It was built in 1799, the owners said, but by the time of the War of 1812, gunboats had been in the waters along the cove and had shelled their house. How did they know? They had found a cannonball inside the house--way inside, beyond the wall under the staircase and buried in the closet's far wall beyond that. The front door, original to the house, was untouched, however, leading them to believe that when the little town was evacuated because of the shelling, the people who had lived there then left in such a hurry they didn't close the front door. There it stood, wide open, and there the cannonball entered and buried itself deep inside the house.

The next day, I was in a first-period house that had some antique New England redware on display. The owner bought her first piece, a combware plate, after moving into the house and dealing with its formidable restoration; she bought it because she really liked it and thought it seemed right for the house. Her eight-year-old, digging in the yard soon afterward, came in with something in his hand. "Look, Mom," he said, showing her a shard he had dug up. It was a piece of combware.

So on Sunday, when I was sitting at a Skinners' auction with a friend and she asked if I'd ever heard of a Revolutionary War cannon being buried in a house, I thought to myself the week is definitely taking on a theme. "Listen to this," she said with understandable relish, having been party to the dismantling and reconstruction of a 1705 house on Cape Cod. It seems there's this likewise early-eighteenth-century house on the Cape that's undergoing a renovation for an adaptive reuse as a professional office. Pretty sensitively done; care has been taken to have windows specially milled and bricks cast to reconstruct the chimney. The stairs had to be taken out because they didn't meet code. But when the carpenter was working under the staircase, he found beneath the floor a Revolutionary War ship's swivel cannon, the kind that is mounted on the gunwales. It was without its iron cradle, about thirty inches long, and probably American made because it has no British marks. Nobody knew it was there, but to the amazement of all, it was.

Twenty-one empty morphine bottles were found, too (someone who lived in that house must have been in continual pain), and mocha shards. But it's that still there part, whether the thing itself is relatively common, unusual, or downright unique, that jostles our sense of ownership, knowledge, and management into something more tenuous, a sharing, perhaps. Certainly less control.

One more. In the process of finding out everything they could in order to restore and renovate their Greek Revival house in the Finger Lakes region of New York State, Tom and Betsy Salm discovered a pocket in the wall near the bake oven that held a piece of wire. It went through the wall to the outside, tunneling under the yard then under the road to connect the house to a general store that wasn't even there anymore. The wire had been put in long before the invention of the telephone as a kind of signaling device between the house, where the storekeeper lived, and the store where he might be needed--if he were home for lunch, for instance. Now, in an age of satellite communications and junk e-mail, it remains buried. It's gone more than a hundred years without a twitch from store to house or vice versa, but it's still there. It conveys a message. The name of the town, wonderfully, is Covert, as in secret, hidden away. But we all live there if we just dig.


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