Pack Up and Go to the Steam Show

by Howard Faxon

Tags: Fiction,

Desc: : I'm an old crippled-up retiree who likes to bid on government auctions. Due to budget cuts Wisconsin auctioned off an old sawmill property. I won, and things snowballed from there.

I’m always looking for a deal. That’s why I watch the government auction sites. Being from rural northern Illinois and of limited mobility I had a lot of time to pursue my usually fruitless hobby.

Lately some properties had come up for sale which intrigued me. The state of Wisconsin was selling off parks and sections of parks that had the least use or utility. The state forestry was selling off their Wisconsin River unit, broken into three chunks. It interested me so much that I sent away for the terms of sale. It was a rule of thumb to watch the fine print when dealing with the government, and this one was a lulu!

The southern unit of three was about seventy acres in size. It was listed as a historical site and any changes would have to go through a thorough vetting before it was approved. There was a stripped-down sawmill with a diesel donkey engine to drive it, a coal-fired railroad yard engine, two stake-sided gondolas to carry the lumber and an old diesel crane mounted on railroad tracks used for transporting and stacking raw logs coming out of the river and loading finished lumber onto barges for the trade down river. The exhibits were kept out of the weather in a huge pole barn. The stone chimneys, ovens and drying kilns with rail lines for feeding and emptying the lumber were still standing.

The only other modern building on the site was a state-run garage where some road-maintenance equipment was kept and worked on. It had a propane-heated office built into it with telephone service and electricity. Since workers might be sent out to the facility for a full shift there was also a heated restroom with showers. The whole building was heated in zones with overhead blowers to keep active work-spaces warm and to keep the engines of the snow clearing equipment in starting condition as winter took its toll.

The contractual riders were an eye-opener. No buildings could be built without board approval. No lumbering was permitted without board approval. The site could not be sub-divided. Insurance had to be carried on all structures. Upon resale the state had first right of refusal.

Why would I want the damned thing under those terms? First, the price would be low because there was little utility to be had in owning the place. Second, it was fenced off already so it could be inexpensively locked up. Next, the taxes would be minimal as all it was good for was hunting since I couldn’t even build on it. Last, was its location. It was four miles by river or seven miles by road to Wausau. The biggest reason was, though, that I’d be living alone in the middle of seventy acres of unimproved woods without a neighbor to be found.

I would never have thought about pursuing the property but for the fact that the place was to be sold ‘as is’. The diesel road and grounds maintenance equipment and the maintenance shop were listed on the document of particulars. I made my living doing mowing and snow removal for Kishwaukee College, just down the road from me to the West.

The only hang-up I could see was keeping the insurance paid. I investigated with my local provider, giving them all the property keys that I could find. They priced it out by size and function. The garage was 40x80 and 16 feet to the eaves. The exhibit barn was 60x180 and 24 feet to the eaves. It had a center line of poles to hold up the roof. The engines were kept winterized so no fuel was stored in the hall. There was a blacksmith exhibit at one end of the hall but by the pictures it looked as if it had been mothballed for years.

With the place being sold into private hands the risk of industrial accidents and arson went down dramatically. I was given a quote of eight hundred and twelve hundred for the barns, and a property insurance for fenced-off unimproved woodlands of twelve hundred a year. So, it would take me thirty two hundred plus fuel plus electric plus garbage service to operate. I put in a bid of five thousand dollars then sat back to watch the fools that couldn’t or wouldn’t read the contract get themselves into trouble. Hell, I could afford the five grand out of my savings, and my monthly disability checks came out to almost two grand a month. On bad days I rode a wheelchair, and I legally owned a handicapped placard for my pickup truck. I’d been whacked just hard enough with the business end of a bucket loader to not cut my legs off but enough to come THAT CLOSE to losing them in surgery. I was still in AIT in the army when it happened. I ended up with two fake knees out of the deal and really screwed up lower legs. Sitting in the cab of an earth mover, a tractor, a skid loader or a Bobcat was just up my alley.

Several more bids were entered, all at quite a bit more than mine, but were promptly withdrawn after further research was done. Come June first mine was the last soldier standing. I won the competetive bid for the property! Hot damn! I walked a little taller and if I could have strutted I would have. I still had to get there though, and before the snow got heavy. That gave me a deadline of well before Thanksgiving.

Driving around randomly after work I passed a dirty Winnebago bus that was sitting in someone’s back yard for what must have been the fifth time. My back brain knew what I was looking for even if my front brain was too oblivious to see it. I stopped in front of the house, hobbled to the front door and rang the bell. A young woman answered the door. I gave her my best homely grin. “Ma’am, I’d like to buy your camper.” I got the damnedest reaction from her. She looked terrified! She backed away from the door with her hands in front of her chest, as if to push me away.

I put my weight on my crutch handles in my pits and held my hands up. “Easy, lady, easy. I just thought that you had an old camper you wouldn’t mind getting rid of. It’s half-covered by an old torn tarp, the tires are half-flat and it doesn’t look like it’s been moved in years.”

She calmed down a little and invited me in. Over a cup of coffee we talked. I told her about wanting to what amounted to a pre-fab house to sit inside a commercial garage.

She gave me the story on the thing. Her parents bought it well before she was born. They spent every vacation in it, usually down in southern Missouri at Bull Shoals and Lake of the Ozarks. She’d been in college when they took a thanksgiving trip to the Wisconsin Dells. The heater had poisoned them. She’d been alone for the past three years, totally unfit for dealing with it all. She looked pretty lost even after getting it off her chest. “All right, Let’s break it down. Keep in mind I’m still after that camper, though. What’s your plan from here. Where do you want to be in a year?”

“At college in Tampa. I’ve got relatives in town.”

“Do you have a confirmed place to go?”

“Yes. I could lease or buy a place near campus if I had to. Their insurance paid off. It’s all money in the bank right now.”

“That takes care of the next question, will you have enough money to live on while in school. So far it sounds like you’ve got to sell off here and head south. What’s holding you back?”

“I--I don’t know.”

“When do you need to be on campus?”

“August 18th.”

“That’s not long if you’re going to sell the house. Thank God DeKalb’s just down the road and there’s always a market for housing for grad students that want to live off campus. If it was me, I’d be getting the place cleaned up and sell it furnished to a campus housing broker. It’s a decent-sized place to live within five miles from campus on a major highway so winter access won’t be a problem. You’ll be out from under before you know it and on your way south.”

“Sort out what you want to have shipped to you such as favorite furnishings and a bedroom suite, sort out what you want to take with you in the car such as a little bedding and clothing, then let the brokers clean out what they don’t want. They’ll want some places furnished, some un-furnished depending on the market. Now, you still want to get rid of that old camper? It’s either take it along or lose it.”

She shook her head violently. “I’m not setting foot in that thing again.”

I asked again, “What do you want for it?”

She looked me in the eyes. I could see that she’d just crossed the Rubicon from the look in her eyes. “Three thousand as is.”

I goggled. “Is that all? Rather I should be asking if it starts and what the mileage is on it.”

“You’re right. If it starts, three thousand. If not, two thousand.”

I blinked, then stuck out my hand. “Sold. Got any keys? Are there any papers on it?”

We shook, then she brought out an old gray-painted sheet steel file box labelled “Camper”. I opened it to find the original title. It almost qualified as an antique as it was a 1988 model with a single pull-out to expand the living room. “Let me get my truck and we’ll see if we can jump the battery.”

Oh, it tried, but that diesel was over two years old in the tank. It had turned to water, grease and fertilizer in storage. “Nope. It wasn’t winterized before being stored. I’ll bet the water lines are split from freezing too. It’s gonna need new rubber all around and maybe a brake job. I’d get the belts and hoses changed out before taking it too far, and the oil definitely needs replacing.”

“Fine.” She held out her hand. “Two thousand as is.”

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