On Monday morning I came to work and listened to a reporter’s nightmare of a phone message.
Jackie Van Hook had called twice and was upset with me. He said I had screwed up a Nov. 1 Pokin Around column about a house on East Walnut Street, built in 1915, that still has a Cold War bomb shelter in the basement.
Dr. Gene Farthing never owned the house, Van Hook told me. In the story I had said he did.
I wrote that Dr. Farthing and his wife had the bomb shelter installed in the late 1950s or early 1960s.
Van Hook also told me it was impossible that Dr. Farthing’s son had once played in the three-car garage in the back of the house. In my story, I had referred to the garage and the second-story living space above it as a “carriage house.”
I had interviewed the doctor’s son, 76-year-old William Farthing, who lives in Maine, and he had told me just that.
But that would be impossible, Van Hook said, because the garage was not built until the 1980s.
“Why would he tell me that?” I asked Van Hook. “Why would he tell me there was a bomb shelter in the basement of his home when he was a boy?”
“Maybe he’s senile,” Van Hook told me.
Van Hook advised that I had better check the Greene County property records.
I told him I had.
In the meantime, Van Hook said, he was distressed because friends had contacted him and were now convinced he had actually rented the house with the bomb shelter when, in fact, he had owned it and lived there.
I cannot tell you how unsettling it is for a newspaper reporter to receive a call like this.
I’ve made my share of mistakes over the years. But this certainly would have been a doozy.
I tried to figure out how I could have been wrong.
Charity and Jeff Reeb bought the 4,500-square-foot house on East Walnut in September. The Reebs had shown the bomb shelter to someone I know and that person called me.
So last week Charity showed me the house, the bomb shelter and the carriage house.
My story ran in the paper.
In addition, I had talked about the house and bomb shelter at 6:45 a.m. that same day on KOLR10 TV Daybreak.
What went wrong?
‘I don’t see the little horses’
I asked Van Hook, who is 90, if we could meet face-to-face because I was not convinced we were talking about the same house.
We met at his assisted living residence and, in person, he was much nicer about telling me how I had screwed up.
“Let’s go look at the house,” I said.
He hopped in my car and once on East Walnut I asked him to point out the house that he was talking about.
“I don’t see the little horses,” he told me.
What? Little horses? Oh-oh.
And there they were. Black horse monuments – shaped like canes – near the street, flanking the sidewalk that leads to the stately front door.
“They twice were hit by cars so I moved them up the lawn and closer to the house,” he said.
But this was not the house I wrote about. Van Hook once owned the house next door to the one I wrote about.
Van Hook pointed out the three-car garage in the back of the house he once owned.
He assumed this was the “carriage house” I had mentioned.
Nevertheless, this would have to mean that both houses have bomb shelters.
“Do you mean to tell me that this house also has a bomb shelter?” I asked.
Well, let’s go knock on the door, I said. I wanted to see it. No one answered.
As I drove Van Hook home, I tried to piece together the series of events that had placed this man – “Jackie, like Jackie Robinson” – in my vehicle.
First, he thought it was his former house because his former house had a bomb shelter.
Second, he thought it was his former house because he thought the “carriage house” I wrote about was the three-car garage built in the 1980s.
Third, the house was on East Walnut, just east of National Avenue, just like the house he owned.
But what about the address? I asked.
In my story I noted the house was at 1235 E. Walnut St. The house Van Hook once owned is at 1231 E. Walnut St.
Was the address of your house changed?
“I don’t recall the address,” he told me. “That was a long time ago.”
Well Jumpin’ Jehoshaphat and strike me in the head with a ball-peen hammer – you mean you never checked the address?
No, he said, he did not.
My second bomb shelter in a week
OK. At least I now understood the chain-of-events.
The question that remained, at least for me, was how common are bomb shelters? Especially on East Walnut Street.
Did a contractor work the street the same way a window company works a street today?
“Hello, Mr. Pokin, I’m Jason with Nuclear Strike Bomb Shelters. We just put in a beautiful state-of-the-art bomb shelter next door for the Joneses. Are you also interested, like Mr. Jones is, in saving your family from vaporization?”
“No thanks, but I do need some new windows.”
Justin Baker, 43, grew up with four sisters in the house that Van Hook once owned. Baker’s parents owned it after Van Hook.
The house is still in the Baker family. It was constructed in 1894, according to Greene County Assessor’s records.
Yes, it has a bomb shelter. Baker showed it to me Nov. 6.
The space is small and the walls are made of concrete. The ceiling is low, about 7 feet.
A pipe enters the space; Baker thinks it was for air ventilation.
“If a tornado siren went off we would go down there during the storm. It’s very well built. The whole house could fall and you would be OK in there.”
Now that I’ve figured all this out, I officially retire from the Cold War Bomb Shelter beat.
These are the views of News-Leader columnist Steve Pokin, who has been at the paper seven years, and over his career has covered everything from courts and cops to features and fitness. He can be reached at 836-1253, email@example.com, on Twitter @stevepokinNL or by mail at 651 Boonville Ave., Springfield, MO 65806.