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Wednesday, October 27, 2010


A Cautionary Tale

He had taken the Wall Street Journal since he moved here in 1974 after retiring as a major in the Air Force. He also took the local paper, New York Times, and an Air Force magazine. Since his mother died in 1984, I know he had not thrown anything away. He described his house as having trails. He slept on a cot in the living room, a narrow little space left in there. His bed fell down, and he could not repair it because there was too much stacked around it. He refused to sleep in his mother's room, still the way she left it in 1974. Nothing was moved or changed, nothing at all.

There was a trail to the sink and to the refrigerator. Then, the trail to the sink became filled with bags of trash. The microwave was sitting on the counter near the handle side of the refrigerator where one trail made both microwave and refrigerator accessible. He packed trash in bags and left them indoors with the intentions of taking them to the road.

He had not vacuumed since his mother died 16 years earlier. Yet, for all that time he had at least a dog or cat in the house, often both. Of course, he did not dust either. He smoked heavily, so the stench from anything brought out of his house was overwhelming.

He reported to me that he had not opened a Wall Street Journal in ten years, but there might be something of interest in there, so he was keeping them until he got around to reading them. The local newspaper was opened sometimes. The Air Force Times were stacked to read. He did open each one of those just to see if a hated member of his group in Vietnam had died yet. Otherwise, they all were left in pristine condition.

People blamed the hoarding and other housekeeping quirks on his alcoholism, but when he quit drinking, the trash kept increasing. He was a perfectionist in all areas of his life despite what others thought. That kept him from cleaning out the trash because he had to have the plan perfected before he could start. In his words, "I need a flow chart to do this." (Screaming to myself in my head as I listened.) I suggested three boxes to toss things in--keep box, toss box, and decide box. (He thought I was brilliant to suggest that.) You see, he would never get the job done if he pondered each piece of mail. He could easily decide some things were trash--20 year old grocery ads, dry cleaning receipts from 30 yrs ago. He could easily figure what he should keep--car, house, bank, savings, stocks, and personal letters. The rest would have slowed him down--unopened envelopes from anywhere, receipt from car repairs on car he did not own (would want to discuss the price with me and reminisce as we talked on the phone), any reason to procrastinate.

I was not allowed in the house, so I sat on a box in the carport. When I needed to pee, I had to go to the sawmill and squat on the dirt floor. When I had to poo, I got in my car and drove a quarter of a mile to a store. When it was too cold to sit in the carport, I sat in my car and he stood and talked through the crack in the window of the car.

The kitchen table was stacked about two feet high, conical, like a volcano with papers, change and bills. He ate on a place where the clutter was only an inch or so high and drifting down, always. He reported he was walking six inches off the floor and had not seen the floor in more than ten years. It was true. I saw for myself after the accident.

When he changed his clothes, his underwear and socks fell on the bathroom floor. When he went to a Laundromat, he reported over a hundred pair of black nylon briefs. All clothing, including t-shirts, was dry-cleaned and put on hangers. I had helped him buy some of those t-shirts as seconds, shirts bought for around the house only--75 cents apiece. Some days, he just went to the PX at Redstone Arsenal over 30 miles away to buy dozens of pair of underwear. He kept them in the trunk so he would know where they were when he needed  a clean pair.

One day in 2000, the night before Thanksgiving, we were watching Who Wants to be a Millionaire when he kept mentioning the dog was lying with his nose under his tail. Pup had never lain with his tail over his nose. The dog kept glancing at the space between door and TV. My friend kept commenting and telling me what his dog, Pup, was doing and exactly where Pup was looking. I suggested he heard someone outside or wanted to watch TV. No, Pup was not looking either place. Pup knew something.

Suddenly, John said, "Linda, I have a fire." I thought the phone went dead because I heard crackling.

(By the way, we often watched TV together, each of us in our own home, and talked just like we were in the same house. When we watched Third Rock from the Sun, neither of us wanted to miss a syllable. So I screamed "Third Rock," slammed the phone down and called him at commercials. Then we would laugh and repeat the lines.)

I called both his neighbors and raced 11 miles to his house. His neighbors had called 911 moments before my call because his television exploded. It was heard 400 yards away.

He lived in the country. As I sped to his house, I almost lost control of my car, driving 20+ miles over the speed limit on a two-lane roads with curves. When I arrived at his home, I could not park near it, so I parked in a ditch and ran the last 500 yards. His cousins stood motionless off to the side. Their expressions were not hopeful.

I watched as firemen dragged him across the lawn, naked, to be revived when paramedics arrived. I ran to him, stood over him, straddled him, begged him to get up for Pup, and furiously tried to get his attention. I beat his chest and stroked his face. His cousin put her scarf over his naked midsection.

This was surreal to me. I pondered how funny his hair looked. His beautiful gray hair was in kinky little red knots all over his head. How did I have time for this observation? I was definitely in shock and denial.

He had stacked newspapers near a wall heater. The heater came on because he had not turned it off in the spring. A stack of The Wall Street Journal had fallen against the heater. The hoarded stack smoldered until flames burst across the room, across the back door, and up the curtains. He tried to save his dog and was found with his arms around the dead dog, both coming out of the bathroom.

You might say that trying to save the dog killed him. You might say that the heater left on all summer killed him. You might say that his alcoholism killed him. You might find another cause. But, ultimately anything could have happened. It was hoarding that killed him. And, it was the hoarded paper that caught fire and helped the fire race from one side of the room to the other, blocking his escape. The other end of the house did not burn, so closing a door to the hall would have saved him. There are so many scenarios we could fashion.

After the fire I went into his home and pointed out his cot he described to me. His family who was not allowed in the house was confused. No one but I knew he could not sleep in his bed. He told only me the location and condition of his existence. For the first time, I saw the table where he ate and the cot where he slept.

My friend had a master’s degree from Georgia Tech. He flew 200 missions over North Vietnam and survived because of his caution, bravery, and precision, a Wild Weasel, an electronic warfare officer, and returned for a third time, flying 24 hour reconnaissance missions.

After the fire he was burned over 60% of his body but suffered the most from smoke inhalation. Most of the six months he lived,  he had his eyes stitched shut and was in an induced coma. I have never seen a human being in that shape or seen so many tubes. He lived six months in a burn unit.

Industrial dumpsters carried away his hoard.

Hoarding killed my best friend of twenty years on May 6, 2001. I still cry and hurt.

This and all my posts are never to be reproduced anywhere. Consult me for permission to do so.


  1. What a profound story. It says a lot about your friendship that you knew of how he lived. Most of the hoarders I knew find it deeply embarrassing and emotional.

    Unfortunately, I have someone like this in my life. This person does still go to the dump, but they are also collecting pets too. I really hope it never gets to that point.

    I can say that one person I know is also a perfectionist and part of the reason they're house is such a disaster is because it's crippling and it takes you 100 times longer to get your chores done..You spend 3 hours dusting your jade plant, for example.

  2. Hopefully, your friend's outcome will be better. Perfection was crippling. He could not start until he could do it exactly right. Oh, yes. I complained all the time that he was dragging his feet by taking so long for one simple task.

    When he made Jello, the extent of his "cooking," he would interrupt me mid-sentence because Jello had reached the "critical point"--exact time the box said to add fruit! It was maddening.

  3. What a post.

    I know people like that... I could be like that myself - luckily with my wife and family I'm not ... yet.

    The perfectionist side just can cripple you - it does me, I can't start many things cos I can't do them the right way.

    Thanks for reminding me how potentially dangerous that side of me might one day be

  4. Thank you. An online friend with OCD reminded me to call his hoarding by it's name, "hoarding." I had written this as an email post to a group and called it "clutter." It's not clutter. I never thought of his problem as hoarding or dangerous until the fire. Feel free to pass on a link to others who can benefit.

  5. I'm so sorry about your friend.

  6. I'm very sorry about your friend. Such a heart-wrenching story :(

  7. Thank you for reading the story. Thank you for the condolences. I wrote it so people would learn that it is not just a messy, stinky house that we are talking about when we talk about hoarding.


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