The year was 1970. Fresh out of the service, Dick and his buddies looked for a place to rent. Some place cheap but with style. There were 14 guys, farm boys most of them, who had moved to the city to make their fortune. They held jobs in the trades, working with their capable hands and strong backs.
Lady Luck was with them because soon they found just what they were looking for: a three-story, one hundred-year-old, 14-bedroom mansion tucked away among towering oak trees in an old downtown neighborhood. Just a few decades ago this neighborhood had been the center of high society. The 15-foot vaulted ceilings, ornate hand-carved cherry woodwork, walk-in fireplace, six-foot mantel, and hardwood floors were all crafted during an era long gone by—a time when craftsmen took great pride in their art. The view of downtown was breathtaking and many of the city’s upper crust still occupied the surrounding homes.
There was just one little hitch. The current renters had been evicted, but refused to leave. The Landlord—a shortsighted man with shoddy people skills—had clearly lost control of the situation. At his wit’s end he agreed to lease to Dick and his buddies, “It’s yours for the taking, but you have to throw them out!”
The delinquent tenants hadn’t paid rent in six months and had literally trashed the place. Remember that this was the end of the sixties and it looked like the renters had fully participated in all the decade had to offer. These folks gave hippies a bad name. When Dick and his buddies arrived on the scene they didn’t know exactly what to expect, but what they found surprised even them. The hippies had trashed the place, but what was worse was that they were totally unaware of the squalor around them.
The mansion had the look of an indoor campsite. There were strung-out men and dozing girls and naked babies. Some were middle aged—some were teens–some were pregnant—all were barefoot—most were stoned. It was the middle of the day. Almost 30 people lived there in clutter and stench. The air was heavy with pot and patchouli and incense. There were filthy mattresses strewn about; even the kitchen was used as a bedroom. The front door had no lock, so friends and clients came and went, day and night. The windows were broken—wind and rain blew in—birds and bugs flew in and out. And it certainly didn’t appear as if the squatters knew of regular garbage pick-up.
Colored beads hung in the doorways as the only means of privacy between rooms. Ravi Shankar music whined from a scratchy turntable. This scene was a cliché of the ’60s counter culture.
After a little fighting and a lot of screaming and scratching, the farm boys succeeded in dragging the hippies out into the yard. After all, guys with Easy Rider eyes and poor nutritional habits are no match for big strapping farm boys just back from military service.
For days Dick and his buddies washed and cleaned and hauled away two garbage trucks full of trash. They asked their girlfriends over. Together they sanded and polished and painted and repaired windows and drywall and plumbing. Project by project the mansion was restored close to its original luster and dignity. Meanwhile, the Landlord was thrilled that the hippies were out and the farm boys were in. He executed the lease and collected a $500 damage deposit.
All went well for a couple of years until some of the guys began moving out, getting married, going to college, and in general moving on.
When Dick and his buddies gave notice according to the terms of the lease, the Landlord came to inspect the premises and told them they were not entitled to their damage deposit. The boys were shocked! They had really cleaned up for the inspection and had truly expected the full deposit and maybe even a little gushing about how great the place looked! But instead the cunning old businessman saw an opportunity for profit and a loophole in the lease.
“The lease specifically states that the premises be left in the same condition as when you moved in.” The boys could not believe their ears. They pointed out that the house was clearly in much better condition than when they took possession.
The Landlord replied, “But the lease doesn’t say the same or better condition, it says the same condition, or you are not entitled to the return of your damage deposit.”
He turned on his heel and walked out. The boys were stunned. They couldn’t believe what they had just heard. So this is how the big city works! Try to do a good deed and this is how we’re repaid? This stinks!
They looked at each other in disbelief, and then did what all red-blooded country boys do when faced with disappointment…they went fishing…smelting to be exact.
When they came back at the end of the weekend, they threw a big fish fry for their friends, sort of a farewell party. The next morning as they prepared to move out, they were reminiscing about all the good times they had in the house. About the day they had taken possession, conquered their castle so to speak. About the hours they spent fixing it up. About what a jerk the Landlord was. This stinks! It just plain stinks!
Then it hit them.
They looked at the wash tub full of leftover smelt. They looked at each other. They looked back at the tub.
What happened next places this story in the arsenal of the boys’ favorites for decades to come. Probably not a story they use as an anecdotal lesson when raising their children, and probably not something that makes their mothers say, “That’s my boy!” But nevertheless, it’s a story from their glory days that with each retelling delivers a sense of power for the powerless and victory for the underdog. It encompasses the spirit of the Boston Tea Party, American ingenuity, and problem solving at its finest.
Carefully they carried the warm sloshing tub up to the third floor. There in the hallway, they carefully cut a hole in the wall, and poured nearly 50 pounds of already rotting fish between the walls. They heard the slap, slap, slap of the little fish as they got caught on the beams and studs. They listened, as gravity pulled the gelatinous mess down from the third floor…to the second floor…to the first floor…all the way to the basement.
The boys then methodically carried in a new sheet of drywall, measured twice and cut once, set it in place, taped it off, sanded it, and painted the entire hallway. It looked just like new.
Then they cleaned up and moved out. They returned the keys to the Landlord who thought he had really pulled one over on those country boys. But Dick and his buddies couldn’t help themselves from chuckling when they drove by a few days later to see all the doors and windows in that mansion standing wide open. A week later…a month later…six months later …even into the dead of winter…all those doors and windows standing wide open. A year later …the vacant house stood empty in the summer heat…doors and windows standing open. You could almost see the thin wavy lines radiating up from the mansion, like in the cartoons when the really bad stench of something has taken on a life of its own.
Those boys never did get their damage deposit back but at $500 divided 14 ways, $35 was a small price to pay for such a story!