Renovating and reuniting

With his son Chris back home in Oregon, all Bob Ehlers had to do is unretire to help turn a fixer-upper into a renovated home that’s now on the market.

By Bob Ehlers

A little over a year ago, my son Chris and I purchased a run-down house with a wildly overgrown yard. Our intent being to buy, renovate, sell and make a profit. But first, since this is also about reunions and reuniting, I want to share the following recent episode in my life.

A few weeks ago, I had plans to attend my high school class reunion in Oelwein, Iowa. I was really looking forward to once again reuniting with old friends, as I have every five years since graduating high school,  Since I live in Salem and the first leg of my travels was a 6:00 a.m. flight out of PDX, I got a room for the night at a hotel near the airport. The reception clerk at the hotel asked me if I needed a wake-up call. I accepted his suggestion of a 3:30 a.m. wake-up call in order to catch the 4:20 hotel shuttle to the airport.

I wouldn’t describe my room as nondescript. More accurately it was in need of updates of surfaces and furniture. But appearance and ambience weren’t high on my list. I was asleep by 11:00 p.m. Hours later I awakened to noises in the hallway and the sun peeking through the window blinds. Whoa, too much sun for 3:30 a.m. To my extreme dismay, the clock said 6:30. I grabbed the room phone to call the front desk – NO DIAL TONE. Scrambling around in a confused, frustrated, angry state, I stuffed my belongings in my travel bags, raced to the front desk, where the clerk listened to my rambling rant about the non-functioning phone, said the manager would be in at 9:00 a.m., and got the shuttle driver to take me to the airport.

I’m pissed off, it’s Thursday and the reunion events start on Friday, and I may not make it until the weekend is over.  Woe is me, goddammit. On the way to the airport, about a mile from the hotel the shuttle stops at a red light. I glance down the intersecting street and see several police cars, fire trucks and an ambulance. The traffic light changed, we continued on to the airport, the good folks at Delta booked me on a later flight at no extra charge, and I arrived in Iowa seven hours later than I was originally scheduled.

I read later that the accident involved a motorcyclist who had missed a curve, hit a tree and was hospitalized with life-threatening injuries. Whatever residual anger I had about my morning misadventure immediately dissipated. I was stewing over an inconvenience and the motorcyclist was in a fight for life. At the end of the day, I received my wake-up call — that I need to keep my personal dramas in perspective. Someone else somewhere may be experiencing real drama that matters.

Back to the story of the house.

After living and working for eight years in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, son Chris decided to return to Salem. His mother and I were thrilled that he would once again be within eyesight and hugging distance. Although we had a lot of phone and email contact during those eight years, we had only seen him once for a few weeks when he had come back for a visit. He had been employed teaching English and managing a restaurant in HCMC. Now he was back in his hometown, and wanted a totally new direction in his life.

Before retiring a few years ago, I had been a building contractor and had purchased and remodeled several houses over the course of thirty years. Chris had contemplated working with me but his wanderlust was a stronger draw. Jobs working for a sports tour company in Torino and Dusseldorf, and eventually working in HCMC, provided unmatchable experiences and enduring friendships, especially in the huge international ex-pat community in HCMC. But as with many ex-pat communities, the original group of pals usually has a lot of turnover. People move on to the next place, following a love interest or a new travel itch, or they return to their roots wherever that is. 

Evaluating job possibilities, Chris determined he was best suited for and happiest in a work environment with a lot of autonomy and control of the decision-making. This pretty much rules out most employment. Ownership was the remaining option. After watching a season of HGTV with Johanna and Chip Gaines doing fabulous renovations in Waco, Texas, he knew what he wanted to do. Find the right renovation project, get me to unretire and be the experienced foreman/worker and join the fun. It took a while to find the right project, a house needing some TLC, priced below market, in a good neighborhood and in a good school district. The search took a while, fixer-uppers get snapped up as soon as they come on the market. We lucked out and found one a few blocks from our home.

A wildly overgrown yard and a dead fir tree in the front yard were just two things that needed the attention of the father-and-son team.

Within a couple of days of cleaning out the previous owner’s detritus, we discovered more than TLC was necessary. The existing electrical wiring was suspect, not all the plumbing repairs had resolved whatever problems led to the repair, pets had been kept inside for long days, the place reeked of animal smells. There was a huge dead fir tree in the front yard. The back yard was a jungle of overgrown black raspberry vines and ivy thick enough to choke the life out of trees. I suffered so many scratches on my arms and legs removing the blackberry vines, I had to temporarily stop using blood thinner medication. 

Our investment project (flipper house) became a “what were we thinking”. Eventually, we gutted the interior of the house. At no small expense, we had the house rewired, replumbed, installed a new kitchen, bath, roof, heating system and every surface covering — floors, walls, ceilings — was replaced. We had the dead fir tree taken down and extensively landscaped the yard with a new lawn and shrubs. We are on a first-name basis with the staffs at Home Depot, Lowe’s, Ace Hardware and several local building supply businesses. A year later we have finished our work on the house and it is now for sale. (Photos of the house interior and backyard can be seen on Zillow or Craiglist Salem –3345 Hulsey Ave SE, Salem, OR).

After months of work, the result is a beautifully renovated home in the Morningside neighborhood of south Salem

Chris and I have worked well together, we know how each other thinks, he appreciates my know-how, and I love having him for a partner and as a trusted companion. Plus, he is a fun guy to be around. He wants to do another project soon, after a few weeks break. He also wants to return to HCMC for an extended visit to see friends. For myself, unretiring to once again do a lot of physical work on a daily basis meant rediscovering muscle groups, sometimes painfully. I want to recuperate.   

Author’s note: My wife, Deborah, and I met George and Lori in May 1980 at Salem Hospital a few days before our sons were born two days apart. Nathan was first on May 3, Chris was born May 5. The boys have done well raising two fine sets of parents.

Editor’s note: I’ll second that. Bob and Deb are fine people with a Midwest friendliness that is genuine. We bonded forever as first-time parents and now we’ve known them for nearly 40 years. Over the years, Bob has been a regular at my poker nights and joined me at a number of Trail Blazers games.

Tomorrow: Jennifer Brennock |The way men sit in chairs

7 thoughts on “Renovating and reuniting

  1. Bob, I keep on thinking I need to ignore the “retirement work itch” but reading about your project makes me think I should just give the itch a scratch! I gotta admit, I like your son’s style – gets you off your bike and into the blackberry brambles so he can then head back to HCMC for some r&r!

    • Al, some people are much smarter going about the unretirement thing than I am. George seems to have mastered the art of keeping himself gainfully employed without doing harm to his body. And as you may be aware, he artfully dodges blackberry brambles.
      Hope you can make it to PDX for the VOA get together.

  2. “The boys have done well raising two fine sets of parents.” Haaaa!
    I’m so glad you and your son got to see each other from new angles. And the house transformation is top-notch!

  3. That remodel, both inside and out, looks fantastic! A huge bonus to being able to work alongside your adult son, and he alongside his father. This is a memory you and he both will cherish forever.

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