Living in the past

| 21 Feb 2012 | 10:48

    WANTAGE-Outside, a warm, driving summer rain dances across the tattered and patched tarpaper roof then flows heavily down a gutter and into a cistern. Inside, Walter Blair coaxes his once muscular frame up from a worn easy chair that has provided comfort for decades. Once tall and limber, now, at the age of 82, he is bent over in a permanent hunch and moves slowly. Blair smiles at the rain, which will save him drawing water to wash the supper dishes from a well. He tosses a log into a century old pot-bellied stove that doubles as the water heater. His sister Lois, younger at 68 but also burdened by a life of hard work, had prepared a dinner on their propane stove worthy of a woman who learned to cook from a mother renowned for her work at the stove. They don't know their mother's real name, having never known her by anything other than "Mama." Long gone in body, the memories of her remain frozen in time through her children. Both were born in the simple house. Both will likely die there, too. Neither wants it any other way. here is no running water. No sink or bathroom. No shower or bathtub. No direct TV. No washer or dryer. No car. No microwave. No Internet. Water is drawn by hand from a well or falls as a gift from the sky. Heat comes from the well-used cast-iron stove. Nature's calling on a cold winter night might mean a trek through snow and ice in subzero temperatures to the outhouse. It's not a scene from Appalachia or the deep south. The year isn't 1870. It's 2004. Against all odds and social movements, Lois and Walter Blair live a life uncomplicated by the 21st century on a road that still bears their family's name. For at least four generations this road has been home to the Blairs, who are one of the older families in Wantage and the oldest black families in Sussex County. Not that race ever mattered to the Blairs. "No one ever treated us differently, and we were good to everyone," Walt recalls. There are cousins and nieces and nephews of the Blairs scattered across the county and the country, but at the house seemingly skipped over by time there are just the two siblings. Neither ever married or moved away. They have been lifelong companions in the only home they have ever known. Photos worn by time and the pervasive wood smoke in their home take a place of honor on one wall. Their long-departed brother Herbert and his family smile down at Walt and Lois. Neither sibling can comprehend why their story would be of interest to their neighbors and fellow citizens of Sussex County, why their lives are different. "There wouldn't be much story here," Walt says in an initial attempt to shrug away from attention. "Wouldn't be much to tell, I think." Then the former boxer indulges in a few stories. "I didn't bother to advertise my life or anything like that," Walt said. As a youth he kept in shape by running up Route 23 to Fountain Square in Sussex. He'd circle the fountain once or twice and return home to his road and the only home he's known. Walt spent much of his working years doing odd jobs, but he always worked as hard as he could. He still does. Though much of his strength is long gone, his hands remain powerful and his grip is firm and steady. The work necessitated by his lifestyle keeps him in shape - cutting firewood for heat and hot water, hauling the wood inside, drawing water from the well. His health is not damaged by drinking or smoking, vices he never aspired to. "Never wanted to take any booze," he said. What he had already was always just what he wanted. Like his sister, he never complains or questions why his life is harder in a softer modern America. Looking back, Walt smiles contentedly. "Tell you the truth, I'm satisfied," he said. "I'm satisfied with the way it all went." "We're happy. We're satisfied," adds Lois. She admits that the chill of winter takes its toll. She sleeps in the room near the fire, and usually tends it through the night. And she says she wouldn't miss the trips to the outhouse if her home had plumbing, but otherwise she is also a portrait of contentment. Both siblings attended the old Pond School. Both remember when electricity came to their simple home. Before then, kerosene lanterns gave light to their world. Their home speaks of function and simplicity. Stacked firewood fills one whole wall of their main room, and Walt continually replenishes the stockpile. A faded portrait of John and Robert Kennedy graces another wall. Tattered, child-like "The Empire Strikes Back" curtains hang near Lois's bed. On a shelf, a small Christmas tree awaits their favorite holiday. For those who have never met the siblings or ventured into their home, they are perhaps best known as the owners of the "hub-cap house." Stacks and rows of hub caps cover much of the lawn, with a faded American flag on their house as a backdrop. At nearby Wallkill Valley Regional High School, the little house and the piles of hub caps have long fueled urban legends and rumors about the Blairs, none of which are true. The hub caps arrived almost out of the blue too many years ago for Walt to remember exactly when. A stranger simply drove up with a truck load of hub caps and gave them to Walt, who sorted and cleaned them and put them out for sale. Hundreds remain, but he figures he's sold about two-thirds of the original shipment. "I still sell quite a lot of them," Walt smiles. Whatever money he gets is nice, but he and Lois don't have to rely on it to survive. In one of their few connections to modern America, both receive social security benefits and both have medical care and access to any needed prescription medications. Lois sleeps in a hospital-style orthopedic bed. They have friends and neighbors willing to take them to the store or the doctor. They have a telephone and electricity. They cook with propane gas. Both claim to enjoy television news, but that assertion may be dubious given that the rooftop antenna is now on the lawn, rotted by rust and fallen in a long ago storm. It is only when they were interviewed for this story that they learn of the attacks of September 11, 2001. They know of the World Trade Center, but live in a world where it toppled only last week. Despite the fact that almost three years have passed in America since that dark and terrible day, anger flashes red and vivid in Walt's eyes when he learns of the attacks. But only for a moment. Anger is one of many emotions that have no place in the Blair's more simple world. Lois gazes in amazement as a 256-megabyte photo flash card is laid in her aged hands. She seems scared to hold something so small, but likes the golden contacts. They look at each other in suspicion when told the fingernail-sized chip holds their pictures and can hold many more. "No film," Lois says, not believing her own words. They delight in seeing their pictures on a tiny LCD screen. Neither sibling has ever used a computer or sent e-mail. There was never a need to learn. Walt admits that their life is harder than many of their peers would choose to live. It's a life that would reduce many a contemporary teenager to tears. But it's a life that offers a bedrock of stability in sometimes tumultuous times, a life with which both are familiar and comfortable. "I'm satisfied and happy," Walt says. "I don't want to change. I'm good enough now. I have what I need." "We want to stay here," Lois echoes. "We're happy like we are."