B.J. Hollars

Editor’s note: ”Sawdust Stories” is a weekly column by local authors, who share their tales about people and places they love in the Chippewa Valley.

It started with the stars, dozens of which are stuck to the particle board in the crawlspace beneath the stairs of our Putnam Heights home. I’d have never noticed them were it not for my young children, who took it upon themselves to transform that crawlspace into a clubhouse, populating it with their toys, stuffed animals and sleeping bags. One night, as I crawled in alongside them, I noticed the stickered galaxy glowing down upon us. Who stuck them there? I wonder. And when?

After a visit to the Register of Deeds, I was one step closer to my answer, leaving with a list of our home’s former owners.

“Well I’m sure they preceded us,” says Rodney Venberg, our home’s previous owner, during a phone call to his current home in Fergus Falls, Minn. “Our kids were in college by then.” Rodney and his wife, Helen, spent 18 years in the blue-and-white ranch-style home along the tree-lined street, though in all that time, stuck no stars to any walls. The Venbergs first moved to Eau Claire at the behest of Bethesda Lutheran Church, who called Rodney to serve as an associate pastor. After 30 years of missionary work in Africa, it was a dramatic change, though one the Venbergs were willing to make. Upon speaking to the real estate agent, Rodney painted a picture of their dream home: one within walking distance of the church, and with a dining room and finished basement. Such requests, modest as they were, soon proved problematic.

“We found houses that didn’t have dining space, but had beautiful basements,” Rodney says, “and others that had beautiful basements but no dining rooms.” Dispirited, the Venbergs were ready to give up, when a friend mentioned that a neighbor was considering moving, and perhaps they ought to have a look at the house. The Venbergs immediately fell in love with the place, purchasing it before it hit the market.

The home soon became a regular meeting spot for Bible study. Rodney recalled how he and Helen, along with three other couples, regularly crowded into the living room to further their faith.

“The house served us so well, we just loved it,” Rodney tells me. “And we were so excited when you people came along ... it was just the right time for us.”

While buying and selling a home can be an impersonal experience, it doesn’t have to be. Shortly after closing on the house, Rodney reached out to me to show me the ropes of our newly-purchased home. We moved from room to room together, Rodney detailing every last wall socket and window pane, and pointing out which doors needed a little elbow grease. He showed me, too, the proper way to start the snow blower and the lawnmower — both of which he’d leave behind for us.

As our conversation winds down, Rodney jokes, “I just hope you have a better snow blower than the one I left you.” I assure him that his is just fine.

Since I’m no closer to solving the mystery of the stars beneath the stairs, I reach further into the house’s past, placing a call to Duane Hookom, who, along with his wife, Laura, and their two young children, lived in the house from 1991-96.

While the Venbergs were attracted by the home’s proximity to the church, the Hookoms appreciated its proximity to Putnam Heights Elementary School. They were attracted to the floorplan, too, and the friendliness of the neighborhood. “It was a good place for us,” Duane recalls from his current home in Eden Prairie, Minn. But at the same time, Duane explains, the home still conjures difficult memories. Shortly before his 13th birthday, Duane and Laura’s son, Jake, began complaining of abdominal pains. He was soon diagnosed with appendicitis. While the appendectomy was initially deemed a success, a bacterial infection soon spread throughout Jake’s body. As the infection worsened, the doctors informed Duane and Laura that their son required additional medical attention at the children’s hospital in Minneapolis. Jake was flown by helicopter, and under new care, eventually recovered. Jake’s illness became major news for WCCO-TV, Minneapolis’s CBS affiliate. So big, in fact, that shortly after his recovery, a camera crew rolled into the Hookom’s driveway to shoot a commercial detailing WCCO’s coverage of Jake’s story.

“It was like that scene from E.T. where all these government trucks pull into the drive,” Duane says. The film crew descended into the home with cameras, dollies, lighting, and reams of extension cords. Duane recalled being interviewed in the living room — the same living room where Rodney and Helen would later host Bible study, and where my own family and I now spin records and play games.

“They played that commercial almost every night during the 1994 Winter Olympics,” Duane says. It was our home’s 15 minutes of fame.

Much like the Venbergs, the Hookoms’ happiest times in the home were when they hosted others. Each spring they threw a party, gathering friends and relatives for an afternoon of food, fellowship, and sandlot baseball at the nearby school. Duane reflects fondly on that era of their lives, and though he gives the house some credit for their happiness, he attributes it mostly to “the people we got to share our lives with while in that house.”

I know what he means.

Before hanging up, I thank Duane for the wainscot bookcase he built by hand, as well as the American Linden, which, two decades after Duane’s planting, now provides us the perfect shade.

“You’re welcome,” Duane laughs. “I’m glad that’s all working out.”

When at last I get to my impetus for calling, the stars beneath the stairs, he gasps. I hear him shout to his wife — “The glow in the dark stars!” — before returning his attention to me.

“That was our kids,” he says proudly. “I think we had some on the ceiling in the bedroom too. I remember peeling them off when we sold,” he laughs, “but I must’ve forgotten the ones beneath the stairs.”

I tell him I’m glad he did, because those stars gave us a chance to chat. And a chance to learn about the lives in this house before it was ours.

As I hang up the phone, I begin to take stock of what we’ll leave behind: the crayon scrawl on the wall, the stain on the carpet, all our messes that double as memories. I wonder, What will the next owners make of our constellation of clues?

May they feel what we felt when we walked through the door: that this house was always a home.

Next Saturday: Columnist Patti See enjoys a Friday night fish fry and a trip down memory lane with her 92-year-old father.