IT ALL STARTED with the squirrels in the ceiling. They've always lived there, between the rafters over my office at home. For years, the squirrels and I got along fine, until late one night a couple of months ago, when two of them got into an argument. I don't know what the fight was about, acorns probably, but it was incredibly loud.
At first I barked at them to be quiet. Then I yelled. Finally, I took a tennis ball from the spaniel and bounced it off the ceiling as hard as I could. That shut them up. About a minute later I heard the dripping. One of the squirrels had relieved himself directly over my desk. A small yellow stain appeared on my ceiling. Squirrel urine dripped onto a stack of papers. I thought I could hear the little creeps laughing.
That was it. I decided to get rid of them. Two exterminators later, I learned that the real problem was the tin roof. It was riddled with squirrel-sized holes, the result of 100 years of rodents and neglect.
This did not surprise me. Just about everything in the house has suffered from a century of rodents and neglect. By the time we bought it, the place was fairly close to falling down. There was no air conditioning, no washer and dryer, no windows without cracks, no working heat in about half the rooms. The basement was under water. An entire side of the building was covered with poison ivy.
Rodents loved the place. We found them everywhere. And not just conventional rodents, like rats, but large, unidentifiable, call-the-zoologist-type creatures. In the wall of the second-floor bathroom we discovered a dead furry thing so big I still think about it. Even mummified, it was the size of a beagle. I have no idea how it got there.
Slowly we began repairs. By last winter, the house was almost done. Then one Saturday afternoon we came home from lunch to find it wrecked again. Two massive cast-iron radiators at opposite ends of the living room had exploded, soaking the ceiling, walls, and furniture, melting the varnish off the floors and sending untold gallons of steaming water cascading onto bookshelves in the rooms below.
I knew immediately what had happened. Just the day before, the contractor had been tinkering with the pressure-relief valve on the furnace. Obviously, he had disabled it. When the pressure built, the radiators burst.
Not so, the contractor explained when he finally called back from his weekend house. Actually, he said, both radiators, which had functioned perfectly well since the Taft administration, had blown up on the same day simply because, as he put it, "they're old." Bad luck. An act of God. His insurance company agreed.
By the first of October this year I was over my bitterness. That's when I decided to fix the tin roof over my office, the very last project in a series of costly, drawn-out renovations stretching back over four years. On the day the roofers showed up, I was in a good mood. I greeted them, then drove to work. Two hours later, one of my neighbors called me to say my house was on fire.
Everyone got out safely. My wife and children were in the kitchen when the alarm went off. Like normal people, they didn't take it seriously until they saw the smoke. By the time I got home, the firemen had put out the flames and finished hacking holes in things with axes. About six of them were sitting exhausted on the floor of my bedroom when I walked in. They could not have been friendlier.
Outside, the roofer who had accidentally started the fire with his propane torch was standing off by himself looking sheepish. My Spanish isn't very good, but I think he claimed to be sober.
I didn't stick around long. It was getting dark and we needed to find a hotel. The kids seemed content, looking forward to room service, and I felt relatively calm, too. Sure it's unpleasant when your house catches fire. But in our case it wasn't really surprising.