Uncomplicated lives living out of the way of a complicated world

| 21 Feb 2012 | 10:49

    WANTAGE-Outside, a warm, summer rain dances across the 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. Walt 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 nice dinner as usual. After all Lois learned to cook from their mother, who was by all accounts a wonderful cook. A woman they knew only as, "Mama." When asked for her name, they smile politely but memories fail the siblings. Mama was the only name they really knew. 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. It's a harder life than many others would choose. There is no running water. No sink or bathroom. No shower or bathtub. No direct TV. No washer or dryers. 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 twenty-first century on a road that still bears their family 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 Blair family. "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 is just the two siblings. Neither every married of moved away. They have been lifelong companions in the only home they have ever known. Photos worn by time and the pervasive wood smoke 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, 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. Walt spent much of his working years doing odd jobs, but he always worked as hard as he could. He still does. Where much of his strength is long gone, his hands remain powerful and his grip is firm and steady. He still cuts his own firewood, but friends help with that task. He still hauls wood in for the fire. He draws water from the well. Walt never drank or smoked. "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 on his life Walt smiles. "Tell you the truth, I'm satisfied," Walt said. "I'm satisfied with the way it all went." Lois agrees, although she admits the chill of winter does take its toll. She sleeps in the room near the fire and usually tends it through the night. 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 one wall. Tattered child-like "The Empire Strikes Back," curtains hang near Lois's bed. On a shelf a small Christmas tree awaits both Blairs' favorite holiday. Lois likes Christmas and the decorations almost always bring a smile to her face. 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. The old duo and their home have long given flight to whispered legends and rumors among the students at nearby Wallkill Valley Regional High School. Stacks and rows of hub caps cover much of the lawn, with a faded American flag on their house as a backdrop. Walt can't recall specifically but one day years ago a stranger arrived with a truck full of hub caps. He gave them to Walt who sorted and cleaned his new treasure. Although more than two thirds have been sold over the years, hundreds remain. "I still sell quite a lot of them," Walt smiles. Thankfully, they don't have to depend on their hub cap trade alone to survive. In one of their few concessions to modern times, both receive Social Security benefits and both have medical care. They have access to any needed prescription medications. Lois sleeps in a hospital-style orthopedic bed. They have friends and neighbors who 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 the rooftop antenna is now on the lawn, rotted by rust and fallen in a long ago storm. It is only through this interview that they learn of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. They know of the World Trade Center but live in a world where it was only toppled last week. In their world until last week it still stood tall, glistening in the sun at the tip of Southern Manhattan. 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. But only for a moment. Anger is one of many emotions that has 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 asks, not believing her own words. They delight in seeing their pictures on the camera's 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 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 our sometimes tumultuous times. "I'm satisfied and happy," Walt adds. "I don't want to change, I'm good enough now. I have what I need."