Ken Hartke

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I'm retired and living solo "out west" in the New Mexico desert. I've been an observer and blogger for years and usually have four or five blogs going but wrote for myself or for friends. A lot of it was travel stories or daily random postings -- but it was a good experience. Red Room allowed me to share things on a wider scale and with its demise, I (maybe) found a more public voice.

The Shelf Fell Off the Wall (or The Rhyme of the Ancient Do-It-Yourselfer)

First, the shelf fell off the wall -- seemingly for no reason. There was no one in the room and no vibration or anything else that would cause it to fall. But it fell.  On its way down, it gouged a dent in the edge of the antique mission-style desk and put a hole in the carpet about the size of a half dollar. If someone had been sitting at the desk they would have been injured, maybe maimed for life, who knows. All of the stuff on the shelf, mostly office supplies and general odds and ends like paper clips and mailing labels, etc, landed on the floor. The computer sitting on the desk took a glancing blow but wasn't damaged...just traumatized.

So I needed to clean up the mess and try to put it all back together. I got the shelf back up and got it secured so it would stay in place. I picked up the mess and then decided to try to clean up the floor so I got out the (big) vacuum and started sucking up the small debris, dust and cat hair and other stuff that accumulated on the floor. And then I sucked up a bunch of the carpet.....the brushes on the vacuum caught hold of the loose damaged threads of the carpet and --- brrrrizzzzppp --- there went the carpet. Once it got started there was no stopping it. What once was a hardly noticeable little hole became a large bald spot on the carpet.  Imagine my surprise.

OK, now what? This is not good. My wife passed away a year earlier and we had already made a plan to fix up the house and sell it so we could move to New Mexico. We built the house and it had lots of memories.  I was now mostly sleep-walking through the resale project, not exactly sure what I was going to do.  But the shelf fell off the wall...and now I have a carpet problem in the office that needs to be fixed...replaced. The office also had one wall with large (hideous) flowered print wallpaper that needed to be stripped so that meant a new paint job for the office, anyway, so I'm looking at a "makeover" for that room. The rest of the downstairs was reasonably salvageable and just needed a good cleaning, I thought.

A few days later I went over to Lowes hardware to look at carpet and paint. It took a couple trips but, with my daughter, Jill, helping, I finally picked out a color for the walls and found some carpet. They were having a sale on carpet installation. The cost of installation for one room was the same for a whole house. My little carpet job was going to cost more for installation than for the carpet and pad so, what the heck, let's do the whole downstairs with the same carpet. Brighten up the whole place!  Oh, and the stairwell needs new carpet then as well.  Oh, and I'll need to replace the old worn vinyl at the foot of the stairs and if I'm going to do that, then I need to replace the vinyl in the bathroom, too.  As long as I'm replacing the carpet, now is the time to repaint!!  So we go and pick out more colors for the exercise room, the bathroom and the family room and stairwell. 

My carpet installation guy, Eric, comes by to do the measuring and says we need fifteen foot wide carpet; not what we picked out. So we go back and find pretty much the same carpet at the same price but in a wider width...everything is cool and the wall color choices are still good. Okiedokie -- We are happy, Eric is happy and Lowes is really happy.

Eric stresses that now is the time to paint. It will take a few weeks to get the carpet and pad so I have a while to get it all done before the carpet is installed.  So I start to strip the wallpaper. I should say that I start to demolish the wall because that is pretty much what takes place. The wallpaper is strippable, but not this time, apparently. I used the right stripping chemicals and tools but it comes off either in pieces the size of a postage stamp or it comes off in large chunks along with the drywall paper. There isn't much happening in between. It took 2 1/2 days to get the paper off one wall and the damage was serious.  So, I go back over to Lowes and talk to one of the guys there who tells me what I need to do...get joint compound and skim coat the wall and after three coats and plenty of sanding, put a good primer on it and then paint. Oh great.

I get my supplies and go at it with a vengeance. The wall decided to fight back. The joint compound is wet, of course, and when it got on the remaining drywall paper it caused bubbles and ripples to form as the paper started to sag and stretch. OK, so I wait until it dries and sand it and try again and (guess what) I get the same result.  Surprise -- there is a special kind of primer that I was supposed to use over the paper before I put on the skim coat but the guy at Lowes forgot to mention that. I sanded the wall again and then put on the special primer and the wall began to ripple and bubble again but once it dried it was hard and bubbles. I put the second primer coat on the wall and it looked good but it needed to cure about a week before it is fully hard. So that delayed the rest of the work in the office.

As long as I'm waiting, I'll repaint the exercise room. That room also has wallpaper on one wall but I've learned my lesson and it can stay up forever. So I have only three walls to paint. That went pretty good except when I moved the floor lamp and the cord got tangled with the table leg which was holding the paint tray and the table and paint tray ended up on the floor. Good thing this carpet is getting replaced.

So a week goes by and I'm ready to throw mud at the wall in the office.  "Mud" is what we home repair do-it-yourself types call joint compound. We have a whole vocabulary and mine is getting pretty colorful at this point.  So, the first (new) skim coat goes on and there doesn't seem to be any major looks OK, no bubbles. I wait 24 hours and do the sanding and put on the second skim coat and it looks good, too. After more sanding, the final skim coat was really just a little bit of touch-up and after another sanding it looked great. Of course I'm wearing a face mask when I'm doing all of the sanding. That is to keep me from breathing in the dust but my glasses are always fogging up so the dust sticks to my glasses. I'm also sweating like a hooker at a Shriners' convention so the dust is sticking in all sorts of places. Good thing no one came to the door. I looked like a zombie.

So long as I had the joint compound handy, I decided to go and patch the few places that needed it because of the normal little dings and dents that happen over time. The wall at the bottom of the stairs had several small dents because I'm always bumping it with the ladder or when I carry something big up or down the stairs. And the five Indian students that bought my big sofa sleeper accidentally punched a small hole in the wall on their way out so that needed to be patched (that's another story). Instead of simply filling up the holes, some of them got bigger as I tried to fill them with the mud. What the hell is going on?? The holes turned into little channels and runways -- termites were eating the paper off my drywall.  That's just what I needed.

At this point I'm about ready to look in the yellow pages for arsonist -- but I call a pest control guy instead.  All of this is coming on top of the other house problems...lightning struck my air conditioner in July and my roof is leaking and I'm fighting with the insurance company and trying to get the roofers to show up. The bug man came two days later and said, "yep, you got termites".  So we worked out the details and our plan of attack. We are going to kill them all...I really want to kill something, anything. 

Next day, Jason, the bug man, showed up and set up the termite bait traps and installed the poisoned bait at the few places where we know they were getting into the house. He also put in 24 monitoring traps around the outside of the house. The cost was substantial but I have no real choice. The termite nests will be dead in a few weeks but the whole process takes about two years to be sure they are gone. Jason will be my point man and check the bait traps and add poison whenever we see any activity. After the two years they guarantee that the termites are gone and will cover any future damage up to $250.000. I need that kind of assurance so I can sell the house.

So where was I...oh yes, painting and, now, replacing drywall. Meanwhile, Eric wants to schedule the carpet installation and I'm afraid the roofers are going to get here the same time Eric does.  The remnants of Hurricane Gustav passed by and it rained about four inches so my little roof leak was no longer just a nuisance.

I put a fresh coat of primer on the wall in the office and it looked good. Painting the office was relatively uneventful and it now looks great. I was worried about how the wall was going to look but it actually looks as good as the other walls. I had a little bit of clean up to do on the baseboards and I'll be done.

Meanwhile, the roofers sent a guy over to plug up any holes he can find where water might be getting in. He found a few nail holes and applied some goo trying to stop the leaking.  The guys that put my roof on last time apparently didn't know which end of the hammer was the business end.  Most of my problems are due to their nails popping out. Actually they had those mechanical nail drivers but they just weren't up to the task or they didn't know how to use them.  They were the lowest bid so maybe I could have found guys that knew what they were doing.  But I digress.

Late one evening I decided to pull off the termite damaged drywall and see how bad it was.  I was encouraged to see that they didn't get very far. This is manageable and probably another do-it-yourself job. I need to replace a 3' by 4' section of drywall...and since I'm so well versed in drywall finishing I ought to be able to do this.  The next morning I trudged back over to Lowes and talked them into cutting a 4' by 8' piece of drywall in two so I could easily move it and cut it down to the proper size once I had the hole trimmed up square. The termites had a couple tubes built that allowed them to go from the ground, under the concrete slab up over the concrete footing and up to the wood sill. When I first saw the tubes I brushed them away and cleaned up the mess but they rebuilt the tubes in about two hours. That was before the bug guys were here. This time I swept up the termite tunnels and they didn't come back - no sign of them. I'm hoping that the poison bait is working; at least it seems to be working.

Next Eric calls and says he is ready to do the carpet installation on Monday because he has some down time due to a delay on some other jobs. Well, I was hoping to get more done on the drywall but he says he can work around the termite problem and he will come back in a week or so and do the vinyl after I get the drywall fixed. The termite damaged wall is by the vinyl section at the foot of the steps and shouldn't be a problem for the carpet.  OK - let's get something done, anything.

I don't mind doing home improvement stuff on my own but I'm getting worn out a little. I decided earlier to get professional painters to do the family room and the stairwell. I just don't want to do the stairwell by myself. I could see disaster there. But, I couldn't get anyone lined up to do the job in time to have it done before the carpet is installed.  If they are professional painters they should be able to do the job without messing up the new carpet (I tell myself). And, of course, I'm not going to install carpet myself or put on the new roof. I have a bunch of "little" jobs (I hope) outside that I need to get done before the weather turns bad. The paver patio is in need of some more work and the trim and garage door needs painting.

Eric and his helper, Thomas, arrived bright and early on the appointed day and went directly to work. Eric is a talker and is built like a slightly oversized jockey but Thomas is a big country guy. Eric was in the Special Forces in the military and gives the orders and directions; Thomas was a soldier in Iraq and does whatever he is told. I stay out of their way and spend most of the time keeping my cat, Watson, from coming unhinged. Although there is a chance of rain, the weather is beautiful, sunny and 64 degrees with a light breeze so the windows are open and it is easy working. The plan is to get the carpet laid in two days and then come back in about a week and do the vinyl - after I fix the termite-damaged drywall. That is fine and a schedule I can work with.

They pulled the carpet up from the office and the exercise room and the floor looks good under the pad. I was afraid that it was going to be damp under the pad with all the rain we have had - thanks to Gustav -- but it was nice and dry. Eric said the baseboard would show water damage if it was in contact with damp carpet and it all looks fine. Hallelujah!

Eric and Thomas got the office and the exercise room finished as well as the short hallway outside those two rooms. They did a great job and we moved the office furniture and exercise equipment back into those rooms and also move some of the other furniture in there to get it out of the way.

They were back the next morning and got to work on the main family room. The big furniture was moved out and the carpet was stretched out. Thomas had to leave and Eric got called away for a while to get another job started. The work bogged down and Eric hoped to finish it by himself but it got too late and he was worn out. They were both back again the next day and got everything finished by noon.  The furniture was moved back and it looks great.

I spent the next couple days moving and organizing stuff in the office. I moved in the bookcases and installed the wall shelves. The books and office supplies were moved back in and I even got a primitive music system set up to run off my little "ipod". I've been watching for any termite activity but they haven't come back so I need to finish up that project too.

The little drywall job stayed under control and I was happy with the outcome. It looked reasonably professional and if I put my little console table in front of it it looked even better. I need a place to put my stuff when I come in from the garage anyway. Eric showed up a couple days later and finished off the vinyl in the bathroom and the stair landing. Everything was falling into place.

Meanwhile, Hurricane Ike slammed into the Texas gulf coast near Galveston.  I'm a sucker for hurricanes and spent most of the night watching the Weather Channel as the various on-camera weather jockeys get blown around and literally knocked down by the wind. The storm had a projected path that was going to bring it up into Arkansas and southern Missouri. The problem is that the storm is 600 miles wide and even if it stays in Arkansas I'm going to get very wet. My roof still leaks. Even though the roofers came out and did some emergency fixes I'm afraid the leaking will continue. We already had several days of wet weather and Ike was going to come on top of that.

What was left of Ike, now a tropical depression, arrived late Saturday, September 13th, and poured a solid wall of water on the house for about seven hours. I was pretty happy at first - no major leakage upstairs - but there was some leakage in the garage where the water came in over the foundation wall (!!).  Some of the stuff I had temporarily moved into the garage got wet. Later in the day I discovered a new wet spot upstairs and a dark wet spot in the family room downstairs. So far, I'm confident that the various ceiling stains can be fixed but I'm wondering if the attic is sopping wet. I really need those roofers to get here. The roof scares me much more than the termites.

Meanwhile, the painters showed up. I thought I'd help move the job along by putting up masking tape on the baseboards and I would do if I was painting. That took about a half day. When the painters arrived they said they didn't need no stinkin' masking tape. I was concerned. Very concerned because I had the new carpet down and the painters seemed like they were not concerned with paint drips or runs. We had a talk but they said they would be careful. They worked fast and finished without mishap. I was pleased. These guys were pretty good. I guess it helps if you have the right experience and equipment.

My roofers finally showed up as we went into fall and they did a good job. These guys knew what they were doing and why they were here. They pulled out a bad section of roof sheathing and replaced it and I'm very happy with the job.  I have only a little bit of nails and old roof debris that I find occasionally but they cleaned up just about everything.


So, finally the work was done. Hopefully the end of my do-it-yourself stuff. The shelf stayed up for the rest of the time I owned the house. I put the house on the market and decided that I would move to New Mexico after all. It took almost three years to sell the house thanks to the Great Recession but somebody finally showed up who fell in love with it and wanted to raise their two girls there. I was happy to have a young family back in the place.   When I sold the house I moved into my daughter's 105 year old brick Victorian for about nine months. I had a few more handyman jobs to do there but they mostly ended without mishap. I decided against building a home in New Mexico and found a house that was what I was looking for at a reasonable price. Moving twice in one year is easier than it sounds if you don't unpack most of your stuff. So now I'm happily enthroned in my home in the desert -- looking at a few more projects that need to be done to make it just right.


3279 Hits

Time in a Bottle

I hope that most people have another kind of memory image — one that brings back pleasant remembrances.

In 1973, singer/songwriter Jim Croce was killed in a plane crash at the height of his popularity. He had a huge fan base and several of his songs were released as singles just after his death and became classics of the mid 1970s era.  I was “keeping company” with a young woman who was to become my wife in 1976 and she was a serious Croce fan. She was a much more enthusiastic fan than I was but I enjoyed her enjoying Jim Croce’s music because that’s what we did in the 1970s…music was important.

One of those posthumously released songs was “Time in a Bottle”. The song was a classic love song of the era. It was probably included in countless weddings. 


If I could save time in a bottle

The first thing that I’d like to do

Is to save every day

Till Eternity passes away

Just to spend them with you


In the summer of 1975 I managed to talk this city girl into going on a backpacking trip to the Wyoming wilderness. This was very uncharacteristic of her and friends and relatives were astounded that she would agree to do something like that.  Going off to the mountains on a field trip with a guide and an organized group would be challenging enough but going off with one other person — on foot — was crazy talk.

We had a couple weekend trips to get in shape for the walk and check out our equipment. I had a stove that wanted to blow up in my face each time I turned it on.  We decided to take her car, which had a standard transmission, so I had to learn how to use a clutch. We had to waterproof everything and rub silicone into our hiking boots that weighed a ton. We tested out the freeze-dried turkey tetrazzini and granola bars. We packed and repacked but finally ended up carrying about 110 pounds of stuff in our two backpacks including the tent, sleeping bags, foam mattresses, food, water and that stove.


If I could make days last forever

If words could make wishes come true

I’d save every day like a treasure and then,

Again, I would spend them with you


We scheduled the trip for late July and finally hit the road, camping along the way. We agreed that we would stay in a real hotel with a real bed after we came out of the mountains but would camp as much as possible.  Half the fun of the trip was just getting there. At one point she decided that she wanted to see a buffalo so we were off on a wild buffalo chase in an overloaded Ford Pinto. We found a small herd but almost left the oil pan at the bottom of a ravine in the process.

We said goodbye to civilization, hoisted our packs and staggered around the parking lot for a while until we eventually disappeared into the Big Horn Mountains and Cloud Peak Wilderness. (We heard later that Jimmy Hoffa disappeared that day, as well…not backpacking)

It turns out that we had a great time. The mosquitos were bigger and the trout were smaller than we expected. We camped on a breezy ridge overlooking a lake and the wind kept the mosquitos away. We didn’t get eaten by bears or mountain lions and had only one serious encounter with a Mule deer. We saw only three people the whole time we were on the trail.


 If I had a box just for wishes

And dreams that had never come true

The box would be empty

Except for the memory

Of how they were answered by you


We came out of the mountains and went on with the trip. We stayed in that hotel. We had a close encounter with a bear at a later campsite. I convinced her to go camping again. We eventually got married and had a wonderful life together for 31 years.

The picture that most often brings this trip to mind is scratched and faded but the memory is bright and clear.


But there never seems to be enough time

To do the things you want to do

Once you find them

I’ve looked around enough to know

That you’re the one I want to go

Through time with


Recent Comments
Katherine Gregor
A very evocative, touching piece, Ken. Very beautiful.
Monday, 28 July 2014 07:47
Virginia M Macasaet
I was a Jim Croce fan! Time in a bottle is an old favorite! Beautiful piece...
Wednesday, 30 July 2014 13:34
Ken Hartke
Katherine and Virginia -- Thanks for the comments and for stopping by. Yes, this is one of my favorite Croce songs, too.
Wednesday, 30 July 2014 15:22
1835 Hits

In Praise of Old Hotels

I finally finished the "In Praise of Old Hotels" series over at Wordpress...except it doesn't feel finished. It has nine parts. Nine seems there should at least be ten or twelve. Maybe I need to hit the road again.

As I was going through my notes and writing the different descriptions I was a little surprised at the different writers who visited and spent time in some of the hotels. Owen Wister wrote a portion of The Virginian while living in the upstairs balcony room of the Occidental Hotel in Buffalo Wyoming. He had a good view of the activity out in the dusty street...cowboys and lawmen coming and going. Ernest Hemingway spent time at the same place as did Teddy Roosevelt. The Beekman Arms in Rhinebeck, NY is another spot frequented by authors and, back in the day, the founding fathers. The Paisano Hotel in Marfa, TX was the 'bunk house' for the actors during the filming of Edna Ferber's 'Giant', James Dean's last movie. Elizabeth Taylor, Dean, Dennis Hopper and Rock Hudson spent time there.  I suspect that maybe the screen writers paid a visit. I wonder if Edna Ferber did too.

If you were going to 'hole up' someplace to further your writing, where would you go? I think my choice would be either the Essex Inn (off season) or the Iron Horse...nothing to distract except the trains. I like trains.

Any-who...maybe the muses take vacations to some of these spots.  Here is the link:


1005 Hits

Mr. Shaw's Gift to the World

On May 3, 1819, Henry Shaw, a young upper class Englishman, landed in the small town of St. Louis, Missouri, with a large shipment of hardware products. He was only eighteen years old at the time but he soon started a hardware business and became one of the wealthiest men in the city. He was the owner of a huge estate and became a famous botanist and collector after he retired at age 40. His estate became a botanical garden patterned after Kew Gardens in London.

After his death in 1889, his estate, known as "Shaw's Garden", was set aside as a public garden, along with Tower Grove Park, for the enjoyment of the people of St. Louis...the white people, anyway.  Shaw was a man of his age and a shrewd businessman.  He never married but that is another story. He also was a slave-owner but that was not unusual in pre-Civil War St. Louis...and that, also, is another story. His racial prejudice was not unusual in his day (and for many years afterward) but change came, slowly but decidedly.

Shaw's Garden (as it is still known by most locals) became the Missouri Botanical Garden and is one of the leading botanical gardens and research institutions in the world. Admission is $8.00 but local residents have free admission two days a week.


The Italianate-style Tower Grove House was Shaw's country home and the center of his large estate. Today it is a house museum surrounded by herbal and Victorian-style gardens. Shaw is buried in a granite mausoleum in a grove of trees nearby.

Shaw spent his retirement years pursuing his love of botany. Being extremely wealthy, he was able to collect living plants from all over the world. He also collected botanical specimens, books and plant material and had to build a museum and library to house his collections. The library was built in 1858. That building still stands but a new, modern library and research center is located nearby.


Shaw had a special greenhouse - his orangry - built in 1882. This is now the Linnean House, probably the oldest continually operated greenhouse west of the Mississippi River. Today it houses various types of cactus and dry climate plants from around the world.


Sculptures in the Garden

There are dozens of sculptures scattered through the garden. This is a small one - about 15 inches square.


Memorial to victims of

the 9-11 attacks given

by Zimbabwe







 The Mausoleum


The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (RBG Kew), the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE), The New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) and the Missouri Botanical Garden (MBG) are now collaborating to create a world catalogue of plants (online) by the year 2020. New plant species are frequently being discovered but over 100,000 species are endangered with extinction.

My last visit was a hot July day several years ago. It was a typical humid summer day in St. Louis. The garden is very shady due to the 100+ year old trees and, although it was 95 degrees, it was fairly tolerable. Being a Friday with a heat advisory posted there were not many people and we had much of the garden to ourselves.

The major blooming 'show' was the daylilies in full regalia. They have hundreds of two look alike.  These are some random pictures of the daylilies.


Float like a butterfly - sting like a bee.

 If you find yourself in St. Louis and you're looking for something to do  -- be sure to check out the garden.

(Revised and reposted from 'I Spy With My Little Eye' photo blog on BlogSpot and FeralChats/Wordpress. All photographs are by the author)


Recent Comments
Katherine Gregor
It sounds like a very beautiful place. And what lovely flowers.
Tuesday, 22 July 2014 15:00
Ken Hartke
It is an amazingly peaceful enclave in the city. It would take a couple days to see it all.
Tuesday, 22 July 2014 15:40
Rosy Cole
Sensational! ... Read More
Tuesday, 22 July 2014 22:53
1744 Hits

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