Transcript

199:

House on Loon Lake
Transcript

Originally aired 11.16.2001

Note: This American Life is produced for the ear and designed to be heard, not read. We strongly encourage you to listen to the audio, which includes emotion and emphasis that's not on the page. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Full audio: http://tal.fm/199

Prologue.

Ira Glass

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass. The story we bring you today is a kind of classic mystery story, but a classic mystery of a very particular kind. It's a real-life Hardy Boys story, or maybe an episode of Scooby Doo. There's an old, abandoned house, some kids stumble upon it, they decide to break in.

And then at that point, they kind of hit the jackpot, kid-wise. The place is filled, and I mean filled, with fascinating stuff. It's also creepy and mysterious. And there are all kinds of tantalizing clues about what happened there, which they decide to uncover. And which ends up taking years, decades actually.

We're devoting our entire show today to this one story, The House Near Loon Lake. If you're in your car right now as you hear this, I hope you have a long drive ahead of you so you can stay tuned. If you're at home, you might consider turning down the lights. Adam Beckman tells the tale.

Act One.

Adam Beckman

It was my brother's idea to go down to the lake. We'd brought an M-80 firecracker and we wanted to detonate it in the shallow water where we used to swim. We were 11, and it was late fall of 1977. We were visiting a place called Freedom, New Hampshire, a small town of a few hundred people just across the border from Maine.

My dad had volunteered to do some maintenance work at a summer camp I had once gone to. My brother Kenny, best friend Ian and I went along. We'd been inseparable growing up, but now Kenny had started hanging out with an older crowd, and I'd been seeing less and less of Ian since I had just transferred to a new school.

I was in a funk about losing touch with Kenny and Ian and so, for me, the stakes for the weekend were a little higher than usual. In normal times, we'd like to go shoplifting or set things on fire. That Halloween, we had taken cans of WD-40 and gone from door to door spraying it in the mouths of jack-o-lanterns until flames burst out their eyes and they blew up in balls of fire. This is my brother Kenny. He's now 37 and he's a scientist.

Kenny Beckman

I think Ian's mom used to worry a little bit about him spending too much time with us or being brought into our bad influence. Because I think we taught Ian about throwing wood chips at cars. And we taught Ian about unfolding paper clips so that you could shoot them at people and so on.

Adam Beckman

So we were wandering around looking for something to do, and we saw the house. It was gray, weathered, and leaning precariously at one end. The windows were boarded up from the outside. Two old cars, probably from the '30s, sat in the yard. One of them had a tree growing up through a hole where the engine had been. At the back of the house, we found a window that was broken and I remember peering in into near darkness.

Ian

I remember it was kind of a dare kind of thing.

Adam Beckman

That's my friend, Ian.

Ian

It was one of those things where we just would say, I'd go in that house. Wouldn't you? And you would say, yeah, I have no problem going into that house. And Kenny would say, yeah. That house looks fine. And none of us really wanted to go into the house, because we're all scared. But we did.

Adam Beckman

Ian was the skinniest, so it was decided that he should go in first. He slid sideways through the broken panes so he wouldn't get cut and disappeared. After maybe 10 seconds, he scrambled back out clutching a newspaper. It was brown, and I remember it crumbled in our hands. The headline said something about Nazis invading. That was all we needed. One by one, we climbed into the house. It was dark inside. The only light came in through little cracks between the boards that covered the windows. The floor felt soft underfoot. And as my eye suggested, I could see that it was covered with a layer of filthy clothes. Stuff was everywhere.

Kenny Beckman

Actually, we couldn't walk around on the floor because you couldn't see the floor in most places.

Ian

It was just jammed with more stuff than you could live with. I remember there were a couple of rooms you couldn't go into, for how much stuff was jammed in there.

Adam Beckman

I was careful to remember how we got in, in case we had to find our way out in a hurry. We were all very quiet. We had seen enough horror movies to know that joking around could get us into trouble. Here's Ian.

Ian

We did not spread out. We stuck probably almost hip to hip. Our backs were glued to each other. Kenny was looking the other way. We were sort of like this little star of people walking into the house. And Kenny is one of the worst people to go into a situation like that with.

Adam Beckman

Why do you say that?

Ian

Because he's very jittery. And he always will mumble about maybe what the worst thing might next happen. Like, I bet somebody's going to come out of that closet.

Adam Beckman

Some rooms were in total disarray, with things strewn about like they'd been rummaged through. But then there were these little areas where things were untouched. In the kitchen, dishes were stacked on open shelves, pots and pans cluttered the sink, and a pantry was stocked with canned food. I picked up a container of Hershey's syrup and it felt heavy. A salt and pepper shaker sat on the kitchen table.

Kenny Beckman

The main sense I had was of disaster.

Adam Beckman

This is my brother, Kenny.

Kenny Beckman

As if people had been toodling along in their everyday lives and something terrible had happened, and something catastrophic had happened to the people in the house. So catastrophic that no care had been put in arranging or sorting or editing any of the contents of their lives. And there was a feeling as we sat there that this time capsule hadn't been opened in 50 years.

Adam Beckman

Hanging in the kitchen was one of those calendars they give out at gas stations. It was dated December, 1938. In the bedroom was a pile of shoes, maybe 30 high, that had fused into one mass. On a nightstand I found a pair of eyeglasses folded on top of a man's wallet and I slipped them both into my jacket pocket. In another room was a bureau, and tucked into the mirror frame was an invitation to a dance at the town hall. Pinned to it was a rose that was completely withered. Kenny opened the closet door next to the dresser and hanging there was a rotting, white dress.

We begin to fabricate a little theme. A teenage daughter returns late from a dance with a rose. She pins it to the mirror and hangs her dress in the closet. And then something horrible happens, and that's when time stopped.

Outside, squinting in the bright daylight, we raced back through town. Kenny and Ian were like kids coming off a roller coaster. But I had this sense of doom about the whole thing. I heard about the King Tut exhibit that was touring the country. I wondered if we'd be cursed like the guys who had found King Tut's tomb. Also, I had someone's wallet in my pocket. I took it out and showed Kenny and Ian. Inside was a bright green one dollar bill, dated 1935, and a driver's license for a man named Virgil Nason.

That night while our dad drove us home, I put on the eyeglasses I'd found, to make Kenny and Ian laugh. But then I feel bad about the joke. I didn't know anyone who died before. And now I was pretty sure I was carrying the wallet of a dead man.

The next day, my brother would be going back to his high school buddies and my best friend would be going back to our old school. I would have to face the kids at my new school where I hadn't made any friends and it seemed like everyone was named Doug and played lacrosse. I had always been a moody kid, but it was an unfocused sort of moodiness. Now that all this was happening in my life, my gloominess took on a new focus. I brooded about the Nason house.

My homeroom teacher had been an instructor for Outward Bound. Throughout the year, he made us go solo in the woods around the school. I'd spend hours sitting out there alone with my journal and a flashlight, brooding. The winter passed and the only curse I had suffered was grade seven.

That spring, my parents went back to do their volunteer stint at the camp. This time, I brought a new friend named David. I knew it would impress him. We got up early and packed flashlights in our bookbags. I think we even brought a canteen of water. It was raining as we climbed through the window of the house. Nothing looked like it had changed over the winter. And just like the first time, I had this cute feeling of being watched as we moved from room to room, touching things, opening up drawers, climbing up into the attic. David felt it, too.

David

All their personal belongings were right there, so they felt so close. And I remember walking through some of these dark rooms looking around, being afraid of, perhaps, uncovering something, some evil scene. Or discovering that they were there, discovering that they had died there.

Ian

I remember thinking that we were going to find a body the closet at any moment. I remember there were some closets and cupboards that we just flat out didn't want to open. Or even open up the oven. You're just afraid that you might find something you just didn't want to see.

Adam Beckman

Do you remember the basement?

Ian

I don't remember, no I don't remember the basement.

Kenny Beckman

Did we ever go down? We did go down into the basement eventually, didn't we?

Adam Beckman

I still don't remember the basement. Did you go down-- you didn't go in the basement.

We never went into the basement, and here's why. The door to it had been blocked shut by a couch that was propped on its end, as if someone wanted to keep something down there from getting out.

David

I remember finding a small doll whose face had been burned off, and I remember being terrified of that, thinking this must have been some scene of some horrible ritual.

Adam Beckman

David has a really strong memory of a doll with its face burned off? Do you remember that?

Kenny Beckman

Oh yeah, absolutely. That was scary. The minute you mention it, I've got the image of it. I mean, there's something so creepy about a doll that's been mangled.

Adam Beckman

I remember discovering that there was these smeared feces areas. Whether it was animal or human, we couldn't figure that out.

Kenny Beckman

The poop on the bed. That was scary, too. That made you wonder, what the hell is going on here? I think at time, we thought maybe people were crashing out here. So that fed into a whole story about, oh, some fugitive on the lam from justice who's hiding out in an abandoned house or the town alcoholic who used to crash out there after a binge or something like that.

David

The strange part is do people just pick up and walk out a front door one day and leave letters that are incredibly personal? These were important artifacts of their family. And if you did leave for some legitimate reason, like you move, you pack up, you move. You don't leave things like a wallet with money in it or your address book that has the birthdays written in it of your family members. Why do you leave things like that? How could you?

Kenny Beckman

We had a mission. The mission was to find out as much as we could about the family who had lived there. And all over the place were letters and pieces of paper, and each one was a potential clue. So we sat down in this dingy, musky house, and we started to read.

Adam Beckman

November 29, 1933. Dear Mr. Nason, I have checked up your case quite thoroughly and find that you have already had as much, if not more work, than most people. I find also you are working a car and a truck and that your son has a car and a truck. Also that your team is working hauling cut lumber. So long as a man has anything at all, he has to use it, as we have to give work to the people who have nothing at all. Under these circumstances, you do not qualify for work at this time. Signed, the Office of the County Supervisor of Relief.

Dear Mama, I'm staying over tonight and go to the dance. Archie and I had a fight. He thinks I'm going out with Eddie. I may, I don't know. I don't want him to know where I am, so don't tell him. Come over to the dance and bring my shoes, the black spiked ones. Now come over Mama, and don't be mad. Don't even tell PT. Now Mama, please don't be mad at me. Mr. Jackson is ugly today. Be sure you get Dad to come to the dance. There's a ballgame tonight.

Over the next two years, I returned to the Nason house four times in all. And each time, I came back with more clues about what happened. I read these letters over and over, trying to decode them, convinced that the answer about the family's downfall was hidden in some seemingly trivial comment or offhand reference. This note is written on school paper by a young girl who was probably my age at the time. Dear Clyde, I wanted a boyfriend, so I thought I would write to you, Darling. There's no other boy around here that interests me as you do, Clyde Darling. Call me up, Clyde Darling. When I saw you last night over at Pink's, I thought I would go crazy because I love you so. From your girlfriend, E.D.

David

We had to take things that could help us unravel the puzzle. I don't think we even thought of it being private property at the start, because it was just abandoned and no one cared about it.

Adam Beckman

We read notes from doctors and found bills from creditors. We scanned library past-due notices and studied postmarks, and came up with lots of ideas about why the place had been left.

Kenny Beckman

We started to think maybe these people had their house house foreclosed and were thrown out by bankers. Because it does seem as if somebody might have been shut out of the house with all of the objects inside.

Ian

One of my favorite theories was that maybe the father died at maybe the same time the sons had to go to war. Because we're looking at papers that talk about war starting and thinking about how a couple of events with an old father and a couple of sons could very quickly finish a family.

Kenny Beckman

I remember finding information about betting. I think we saw, I think they were tickets or a schedule of a dog track or a horse racing track. The story we made up was, oh, these people had lost all their money gambling.

Adam Beckman

We needed to find someone who could get us some answers. A person who knew the family or a distant relative. Freedom is a small town. Someone must have known what had happened. But when we'd go ask down at the general store or the post office, people gave us the cold shoulder. This confirmed to us that they were part of the conspiracy to bring this family down, or at least part of the cover up. In retrospect, I realize the adults may have brushed us off because we were 12-years-old.

It was David who found the breakthrough clue. A matchbook, matches intact. Soiled, but legible. It said, Stop and Shop at Nason Grocery, Freedom side near Effingham Falls Bridge. We ride over and ditched our bikes under the bridge. There were two or three houses on either side, all big old Victorian buildings. But it was obvious to us which one was the Nason Grocery. There were a couple of ancient gas pumps outside and a rusting Moxie soda sign. A rope held the door closed, but we were able to squeeze through. The first thing I saw when we went through the door were the boxes of Corn Flakes that line the walls.

The Nason Grocery was a completely intact, perfectly preserved store from the 1960s with products still on the shelves. By the cash register, there were magazine racks and rows of candy. There were glass countertops displaying fishing gear, and stacks of canned vegetables, corn and green beans. Some of the cans had exploded from years of heating freezing, which we thought was cool. Upstairs, there were a few rooms that must have been an apartment.

Kenny Beckman

Being in a store all of the sudden reminded us we're breaking and entering in a place that's got candy.

Adam Beckman

There was a small safe under the counter, and when I turned the handle, the door swung open. Inside, I found four silver dollars and three Kennedy half dollars. I also found a five dollar gold coin from 1892. I took the coins.

I spent the eighth grade kind of detached from school. I'd stare out the window at the falling snow and think about the drifts that must have been blowing through cracks in the house. Or I'd lie awake at night and imagine how still and cold it would be in there. Instead of doing homework, I spent a lot of time reading through my box of Nason letters, drawing up a family tree from the clues we'd found. Every reference to New Hampshire became relevant to the mystery. I'd sit at breakfast and stare at a tin of maple syrup and think about the Nasons. I was pretty sure that if there was some way I could support a family researching abandoned houses, that it would be my vocation in life. I was 13 years old and I had a crush on a house.

I hadn't told my parents much about it. I was afraid they would shut it down over fears we'd get hurt or arrested. But I remember feeling that I wanted a grown-up to see it to confirm that we hadn't imagined the whole thing. So I started to tell my mother about it, but I could see I wasn't getting across how amazing it was. So that spring, I led my mother across the field of weeds and watched as she climbed through the window of the house.

Adam's Mother

I was a little appalled. More than appalled when I went inside. It was a much greater disaster than I had imagined, also a much greater mystery than I had imagined. And in many ways, much more interesting for that reason.

Adam Beckman

My mom proved to be quite a sleuth. She drove me to the town cemetery where we found plot after plot of Nason graves. There was Ivan Nason, died 1943. Bertha, died 1968. Virgil, whose dollar bill and driver's license I had, died in 1974. And Jesse, who died in 1969. There was another Jesse William who had a birthday, but there was no date of death. So our theories of a car carrying the whole family into a ravine, of the war, of sudden plague, of the whole town rising up against the Nasons and massacring them, these no longer made sense. Whatever had driven the family from its home hadn't been sudden. The circumstances were more complicated than anything I had imagined.

That winter, I had my first nightmare. I was in the house rummaging through things and the Nasons were there in the walls watching me. And they weren't friendly. The next year I didn't go to New Hampshire. I had started high school and was finally making friends. There was less brooding in my life, and what brooding was left had to do with girls. My mother went up on the semiannual work weekend at the summer camp, and she brought my sister along. When they returned, they told me a story that made my blood run cold.

Adam Beckman

Tell me about the time that you went up with Claire. What happened?

Adam's Mother

That was a big mistake. I think we were both very embarrassed.

Adam Beckman

Yeah, I was angry.

Adam's Mother

Yeah, we blew it, in a sense.

Adam Beckman

What happened was this. My mother brought my sister into the house and they'd seen a child's crib rotting away in the attic, and they decided to take it. So they drove my family's bright orange Volvo station wagon up in front and went in to get the crib.

Adam's Mother

There was no way one could bring that crib down the stairs. And finally, I found a piece of rope somewhere, tied it up and we lowered it down the window.

Adam Beckman

Outside the window? Outside the window of the house?

Adam's Mother

That's when a boy walked by and saw it. We saw him see it. We saw him see it. And we realized, uh oh.

Adam Beckman

The boy returned with two women, who told my mother and sister they had no right being in the house. My mom argued, asking them why, if someone somewhere had an interest in the property, they were letting it rot. The women said it was none of her business and that she'd better leave. I felt betrayed. The scene my mother had described-- the orange car, the dangling crib, the confrontation in the middle of the road. People in Freedom had a word for greedy city folk from Massachusetts and elsewhere who came to town, plundering for antiques. They called them Massholes. That's what we'd become, and I felt sick about it.

I collected all the objects and letters I'd found and put them in a small, wooden fish tackle box I'd found in the Nason grocery store. I tucked the box up in our attic, and I never went in the Nason house again. Three years later, I took a trip through new England with Ian and we decided to take a detour to Freedom. I stopped the car where I thought the house stood. Ian remembered it being further along, so we parked and walked up and down the road. But the house was gone. All that remained was an outline of the foundation in the dirt. We drove to the bridge to see if the store was there, but it wasn't. We couldn't tell if the buildings had been torn down or if they were burned. But they were gone, as was, I thought, any answer I'd ever get as to why they'd been left in the first place.

I was having the nightmare regularly now. Each time it was the same. I was in the Nason house, or some version of it, but now undead Nasons were leaving their hiding places in the walls and attacking me. It was a terrifying dream, and I had it many times over the next 20 years.

Adam Beckman

So there's plenty in here.

This summer, I went to visit my mother and looked through the box of things I'd saved from the Nason house. All the years I'd spent away from home, she had kept the box carefully labeled and stored through four moves.

Adam's Mother

There.

Adam Beckman

Uh huh, yeah. I remember that.

Adam's Mother

Yes, a wooden box. You see, that's the wooden box that I remember. And I think it has things in it. It should.

Adam Beckman

The box was as I left it. A little make up case with powder still inside, the eyeglasses, some children's records, and the coins. Photographs of the family, the letters, and there were newspapers. Right on top was the one Ian found that very first day.

Adam's Mother

This newspaper is very old. Boston Sunday Globe. After marching into the rest of Czechoslovakia in March, Hitler and Chamberlain exchanged speeches. Nazis stayed there and Chamberlain said he mustn't do it again. April 16, 1939. My grandparents were already in exile because of this taking of Czechoslovakia.

Adam Beckman

When my great grandparents fled their home in Czechoslovakia, they'd left furniture, paintings, letters, all very suddenly and never returned. My mother tells me that all those things probably still exist somewhere. With that in mind, she couldn't bear to see the Nason things rotting away like they had.

Adam's Mother

And here's a spoon. It's all very melancholy, all these little remnants.

Adam Beckman

Why is it melancholy?

Adam's Mother

The abandonment. The abandonment is melancholy. In a way, it's worse than throwing away, much worse. I can understand one family being obliged to flee or run or abandon, but that nobody else cared. That it was so overwhelmingly abandoned by everybody, that nobody had cared to solve something, to resolve something. That was very offensive to me. It was like leaving a corpse. You don't leave a corpse. And that's a little bit the feeling that I had. That here was a carcass, the carcass of a house, of a life, of a private, and nobody cared to pick it up and give it a proper burial.

I thought that it was important that somebody should care. That somehow, somebody was leaning over these words, reading them, unfolding these letters that somebody had bothered to write. It really didn't matter that it was an eleven-year-old boy who cared. Objects have lives. They are witness to things. And these objects were like that. So I was, in a way, glad that you were listening.

Adam Beckman

There was one letter, in particular, that my mother and I couldn't get out of our heads. It was different from the others, and I'd kept it separate in a plastic Ziploc bag. It was mildewed and barely legible. April 18, 1940, Laconia Hospital. My daughter, excuse writing. It's the best I can manage. They brought me to the hospital here Tuesday night at 8:30. The baby was born prematurely at 3:00 yesterday afternoon. I am writing for you before I name him. What are we going to do? I'm nearly crazy. Did you get my telegram? Be sure to bring the $20.50. I am weak and can't write more. Hurry. I may die. But I love you more than ever. I registered here as your wife. I knew it would be better. With all my heart and love, come quick. Underlined what, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight.

I can hardly stand it. I can hardly stand it, I have thought about her so often. I've worried about her. I'm worried about that kid. I've never forgotten these.

Adam Beckman

Yeah. I remember finding that. I think you explained to me what it was about. I don't think I understood.

Back home in New York, I started doing research on the internet, working off a list of Nason names I had found in the cemetery. Eventually, I found this posting in a genealogy website. Nasons of Freedom, New Hampshire. Looking for relatives of Jesse Nason and his wife Bertha. Any info from their kids or grandkids, and pictures would be awesome. They are my great, great grandparents. The person who had written it is named Samantha Thurston. I sent her an email confessing everything, and this is what she wrote back. Hello, Adam. I'm very interested in what you have found, and almost wish that you had taken all that you found. Jesse and Bertha are my great, great grandparents. I don't know a lot about them, but they did have a store in Freedom, New Hampshire and were well-known.

We exchanged a few more emails and made plans to meet. Samantha said the immediate family either didn't have many answers or didn't want to talk. Her last email to me included this cryptic postscript about the Nasons. They might not be what you'd expect. They are a rough crowd. The line is followed with three exclamation points.

Ira Glass

Coming up, one of the rough crowd meets one of those meddling kids. In a minute, for Public Radio International and Chicago Public Radio, when our program continues.

Act Two.

Ira Glass

This is American Life, I'm Ira Glass. We are devoting our entire program today to just one story, a real-life mystery, the House Near Loon Lake. Adam Beckman resumes his tale.

Adam Beckman

In August, I drive north to New Hampshire to meet with Samantha Thurston, the woman from the internet, and see if I can find someone to talk to me about the Nasons. I brought the box of Nason stuff with me. It's small, about a foot square. Inside are family letters, the coins I took from the grocery store, the can of Hershey's syrup from the Nason's kitchen. I'm hoping to give it to someone who cares about this stuff. If not, I plan to bury it on the spot where the house sat.

At the turnoff from Route 25, I take a short bypass called Nason Road. On the way into town, I stop to get directions from a woman working in her front yard. She's wearing a sweatshirt that says Nason Landscaping. Samantha told me that the Nasons either didn't know what had happened to the house or didn't want to talk. She also said that everyone would know I was in town. It's hard not to feel a little paranoid. Here I am, an outsider from New York City, come to town with details about the past, digging around for more details. I'm apprehensive about what kind of reception get.

I arrive in Freedom August 2, and a parade is marching through the center of town. It's Old Home Week, the annual homecoming festival, an event created by the governor to combat problems of abandoned homes and farms in New Hampshire, all the way back in 1898. After the Civil War, young people had left the state in droves for better land and opportunities they had noticed

Elsewhere. I had last visited in the 1970s, and a few things had changed since. The town's only store has been replaced with a shop for tourists selling tea doilies, hand-dipped candles, and Beanie Babies. Farming is pretty much dead and city people have moved in because they love how charming it is. The place is so self-consciously quaint that you feel like you're on a movie set about a small town. Tidy with just enough dilapidation around the edges to be rustic.

The parade moves past the old town hall, the one shop across the town's only intersection to the cemetery, then turns around for another pass. The theme for the parade this year is We Are Freedom. When I marched in the parade as a kid, the theme was Freedom of the Press. I dressed as a radio reporter and pretended to interview the spectators, an irony so bizarre I don't really know what else to say about it.

That afternoon, I check into the only place to stay in town, a bed and breakfast called the Freedom House. I'd been concerned that some distant relative of the Nasons might own it, part of the rough crowd. I shouldn't have worried. The owner is a New Yorker. There's Princess Di memorabilia in the library, and my room is painted bright pink.

Patrick Nealy

In fact, it's been called the Ooh, La La room. I've had some people from Paris here, came in and said, Ooh La La. Patrick Nealy is part of the new breed in Freedom. In the five years he's lived here, he's had the B&B meticulously restored. Antique toiletries and bottles of talcum powder line the shelves of the washroom. On a hallway table, silk gloves rest on top of a purse next to a pair of opera glasses. His things are just like the stuff in my box of Nason knickknacks, only better quality.

Adam Beckman

Standing there with the dirty little wooden box under my arm, I feel sort of pathetic. And when Patrick starts talking about how people can create instant ancestors out of old junk, it doesn't make me feel any better.

Patrick Nealy

I mean, I've pieced together histories through photos. We've come up with photographs. I have a number of instant ancestors in this house to create the ambiance. In a few instances, I've tried to trace whatever I could about them.

Adam Beckman

Patrick's learned a lot about the history of the town, so I ask him about the Nason house. He doesn't know anything about it, but he does say that a Nason cousin named Rachel Mulvy once owned this very building, and that she lived here and died here.

Patrick Nealy

I think that Rachel is still in the house. I've had a few guests tell me they've heard someone walking on the second floor. I don't know that you'll hear it. I've heard people in the end rooms. I usually don't tell them. But she was a little old lady, so you might hear little slippered feet. We've had a few things with lights, light bulbs suddenly breaking.

Adam Beckman

I have a couple of days to kill before my meeting with Samantha, and at breakfast Patrick suggests I talk to a few locals who might have known the Nason family. The first one on his list lives right across the street.

Gail Holgrem Bickford

Well, my name is Gail Holgrem Bickford. I came here at the age of six months with my parents and have spent most of my summers here. What else would you like to know?

Adam Beckman

Do you do you remember the Nason family?

Gail Holgrem Bickford

Of course. They were scruffy little kids. They were always kind of disheveled and half-dressed and needing to be washed. They were a real-- what do you call it-- the ones who went across in the covered wagons and never got to school. Well, I guess maybe they did go to school. But I think they went barefoot. They were sort of scary, to go by there. If we walked to the beach, you went pretty fast to get by that house.

Adam Beckman

Why?

Gail Holgrem Bickford

I don't know, exactly. I think the firemen burned it down for a practice session.

Adam Beckman

What was their status in the town? Were they--

[INTERPOSING VOICES]

Gail Holgrem Bickford

I don't know anything about that. And I don't know the whole family set up, but one of them was into race horses and made quite a lot of money in race horsing.

Adam Beckman

I ask Gail if she thinks financial hardship brought the family down, but she can't confirm anything.

Gail Holgrem Bickford

About 1940-something, they built a bypass so that the main Route 25 did not go through town anymore. And then the town began to die out. There was no reason to come to town. And then the stores lost business, and they began to close up one by one. I have no idea whether that's what hit that family, but there may be somebody around who knows.

Carol Chase

Nason. Sure. Brought up with them.

Adam Beckman

Carol Chase was the fire chief in Freedom about the time the house was burned. I find him sitting on his porch on a road outside of town. He's 92 years old and hard of hearing, but he does remember the fire.

Carol Chase

We just lit it with a match. Newspaper and a match.

Adam Beckman

Was the house empty, or was it full of stuff?

Carol Chase

Nobody lived there.

Adam Beckman

Why did you start a fire?

Carol Chase

Why? Well, they wanted it burned.

Adam Beckman

Who wanted it burned? The people who owned it. That's about all I know about Freedom. People mind their own business.

He looks away from me as he says this, and I take the hint. Later that day, I learn he's related to the Nasons by marriage. In fact, he's Samantha's grandfather. I spend some time worrying over why he never mentioned this. That afternoon, I go to a junk shop on the outskirts of town. Discarded appliances, clothing, and a surprising number of old family photos. The owner, John Woodard, salvages most of this stuff from traumatic moments in people's lives-- a divorce or a death, or when they move from a house to a retirement home. As it turns out, back in the mid-70s, he got a call about the Nason house.

John Woodard

They were getting ready to knock down that house and the guy called me up and he said, gee, you ought to come over. He said, there's boxes and boxes of old whiskey bottles with paper labels and all this stuff in there. I got 10 or 12 boxes. I've sold them over the years.

Adam Beckman

Do you remember if there's anything in here that you got from the Nason house?

John Woodard

If I've still got some that have labels. One more spot, let's check down here.

Adam Beckman

John walks me out past aisles of discarded family possessions to a barn filled with hundreds of bottles.

John Woodard

See, something like this. Pickwick Ale bottle, probably from about 1919, 1920, in the '20s.

Adam Beckman

I had taken a Pickwick Ale bottle opener from the Nason house and used it all through college. It was the one relic I'd kept for myself when I packed up the Nason stuff.

Adam Beckman

Do you remember where in the house you found that?

John Woodard

These were upstairs. They were upstairs in some boxes. Of course, the roof had fallen in on part of it if you remember. The upstairs, it was one of those you said, is it really worth taking a chance getting those boxes down from upstairs? But we did.

Adam Beckman

John hands it to me. It's got the same veneer of rust on it that everything in the Nason house had.

John Woodard

This is $5.

Adam Beckman

He gives it to me for free. For my project, he says. I'm supposed to meet Samantha, my internet Nason contact, at the B&B at 1 o'clock and she shows up 15 minutes early. A red pick-up truck tears into the lot in a cloud of dust and a tough looking woman in a flower print dress gets out and slams the door. Samantha is young, in her 20s. She's made up, hair tied back in a bow, but her demeanor is all tomboy.

Samantha Thurston

Well, I talked to the family yesterday. To, actually, Allen Nason, he's the one I'm closest to out of the whole family.

Adam Beckman

We talk, and it's like we've been living in parallel worlds. Samantha has been looking for clues about the family's history for 10 years. She tells me she's been scouring graveyards and reading through public records trying to construct a family tree. She began her search when she heard rumors that she had Native American ancestry. She decided to find out if she did, to get financial aid for college. Before long, she figured out her grandfather was, in fact, an illegitimate child of Ernest Nason, one of Bertha and Jesse's kids. Although, her grandfather was not the person in that letter my mom had remembered all these years.

Samantha Thurston

And they have a lot of hard feelings in the family as it is.

Adam Beckman

Samantha's family, hearing what she was uncovering, wasn't too keen on her research project and didn't cooperate.

Samantha Thurston

And it was like, go the hell away. I don't want to talk to you about this. It's none of your business. Well, it is. It's my heritage, it's my history.

Adam Beckman

I left my box of stuff from the Nason house upstairs in the Ooh La La room. I wanted to give it to someone in the family, but I wanted to be sure it would go to someone who would care. As we talk, it becomes clear to me how much it would mean to Samantha. So I bring it down and put it on the floor in front of her.

Samantha Thurston

Wow, how do I get this open?

Adam Beckman

It opens like that.

Samantha Thurston

Oh, neat. Oh my goodness, you've even got papers. Oh, wow.

Adam Beckman

Yeah, that was probably one of the first things we found when we went into the house.

Samantha Thurston

Oh my goodness. Ain't that neat. I can't believe it. This is unbelievable. You have no idea what you've done.

Adam Beckman

She opens an envelope with her great, great grandmother's name handwritten on it. She handles it incredibly gently. I watch as she lets the contents fall into her hands. It's a bunch of tiny recipes cut out from a newspaper.

Samantha Thurston

Oh, my god. And you know, what, I never even knew them. That's so cool. Oh, my goodness. I hope they appreciate it as much, I really do. It's actually a blessing that you had gone into the house at that time period, because once it fell in, everything was scooped up, thrown in a dump truck, and taken to the dump. And all them memories, everything that they left behind that should've been divvied up so that it could have been passed down was all lost. So it actually was a good thing that you were a nosy little boy.

Adam Beckman

Samantha didn't know much about why the Nason house had been abandoned. But she told me a man named David Buzzwell, who lives across the street from where it once stood, might have some answers. On the way up to his house, I notice a sign. Trespassers will be shot, survivors will be shot twice. David is sitting on his front porch with his friend, Mabel Davis.

Mabel Davis

How does that happen you want to know about the Nasons?

Adam Beckman

When I was a little boy, when I was about 11 years old, I was in a summer camp here--

Once we get talking, I realize the trespassing sign is David's idea of a joke. It's Sunday afternoon and they're drinking mudslides.

Adam Beckman

Do you remember that house?

Mabel Davis

Of course I do, honey. Been in it many times.

Adam Beckman

really? When the Nasons living there?

Mabel Davis

Yeah, Mr. and Mrs. Nason were living there. And I can see Mrs. Nason now taking out a pan of biscuits. Honest to god, I'll bet that pan was that big. Mabel's arns are spread wide as she says this. The image is pure Norman Rockwell, and frankly, it's a relief.

Adam Beckman

What were the Nasons like?

Mabel Davis

Well, they were wonderful people, really. How would you say about Jess? All of his kids worked and worked hard. Both Mabel and David knew the Nasons and had been in their house. But David, like me, had only been inside after it was abandoned.

David Buzzwell

It was full of treasures. Old dice sets, Morris chairs, advertising cans, that place was just packed with stuff like that. They were pack rats anyway, they collected everything. Everything.

Adam Beckman

Why would they just leave all that?

David Buzzwell

Don't ask me. Just the way they were.

Adam Beckman

I would think the grandkids would want to--

David Buzzwell

Didn't care about it.

Adam Beckman

Didn't care about it.

David Buzzwell

No, none of them. You know how young people are. They don't care about young things today. Dave and Mabel tell me that Bertha died in 1968, and Jesse soon after in '69. And then things fell apart in the Nason family.

Mabel Davis

When Jess died, one of the children was in charge.

David Buzzwell

He was the executor.

Mabel Davis

He was the executor, yes, of the estate. And there was some that were very, very put out.

David Buzzwell

They had to sign off and give them the authority to dispose of it, and some of them would not do it. It's a terrible thing to say, but they died off one by one by one, it made it easier. But it wasn't even settled when this person who was in charge settled the estate, he had died and still it was left. And then the widow who was paying the taxes all these years, and she said, I'm not going to continue to pay them. Let them go. I think there were one or two of the family left, and they didn't want to pay them. So she said, to heck with it, I'm not gonna. So the town took it for taxes.

I finally went to the town and I said, that's a fire hazard. I built a new house here. People are over there poring around. I said, they could step on a nail, a glass, a wire, and sue. It's not posted. So I said it ought to be burned. I had communicated with Mr. Thompson. He said to me at the time, will you arrange with the fire department to burn it at a practice session, and I will give them a $1,000 donation. He did. And I said, thank god, because it was an eyesore. And people were in and out of it all the time.

Adam Beckman

Was it still full of stuff when it burned?

David Buzzwell

There was a lot of junk in there, yeah.

Adam Beckman

The Nasons also had a store in Effingham Falls. There was an old--

Mabel Davis

Oh yes, they certainly did.

David Buzzwell

Who?

Mabel Davis

Jess and Bertha had the store right--

David Buzzwell

It wasn't Effingham Falls.

Mabel Davis

No, it was still Freedom.

Adam Beckman

What do you remember about the stores? Well, I know it did quite a business. It sold a lot of beer.

David Buzzwell

And they had candy. There was a glass showcase.

Mabel Davis

Groceries, they had groceries.

David Buzzwell

And that store was just packed with everything, you could hardly get through.

Mabel Davis

Well, that's how Jess was.

Adam Beckman

What do you mean, Jess was like that? He just had a lot of stuff?

Mabel Davis

He was a keeper of everything.

Adam Beckman

Do you remember when it closed, or why?

David Buzzwell

They both had died. And none of the kids wanted to run it.

Adam Beckman

Why would a family leave all their things, these precious things-- not of value, but a great emotional value--

Mabel Davis

No, but a sentimental value. You know, I've never really thought of it but it seems rather tragic in a way. I mean, that was a large family. I mean, how well do you know people? How many of them were interested in knowing?

Adam Beckman

And so the house and the store were abandoned because the kids didn't care. In some ways, this was bleaker than anything I'd imagined back when I was 11. I assumed a murder or an illness or an accident caused the Nasons to leave all these things behind, something out of the family's control. But in fact, it was the opposite. The family made it happen. They didn't care about the stuff, or they just didn't care to remember.

David Buzzwell

It's too bad they weren't here to tell you. They were characters, weren't they? Nice people, but they were a breed that's hard to find.

Mabel Davis

They were the old school.

David Buzzwell

They made everything do.

Mabel Davis

But didn't everybody then? Those were the good old days then.

David Buzzwell

You're not kidding.

Mabel Davis

We had everything but money.

David Buzzwell

Yes, I guess so. I had a swimming pool and a Mercedes.

Mabel Davis

Well of course, you would. And a place for a pony.

Adam Beckman

Members of the Nason family who declined to be interviewed on tape confirmed the story Mabel and David told me. Jesse and Bertha Nason lived in the house until 1946. That's when they opened the store near Effingham Falls and moved to the apartment above the store. They took what they needed and left the rest in the old house, using it as storage and keeping open the possibility that they'd move back some day.

When Jesse and Bertha died, the fight over the estate began. Immediately, their kids-- there are nine of them-- locked up the store until it could be resolved. The house stayed pretty much as it was. After 11 years, the fight was settled. The property was auctioned, the money was split, and the buildings were razed to the ground. I asked an older Nason why they didn't clear out the precious things in the house and she said, what precious things? It was full of crap. And I mean, crap.

As for the woman in the letter that my mother was never able to forget, no one knew anything about her or her baby. Dave and Mabel told me this just figures in a little town like Freedom.

Mabel Davis

Are you kidding, honey?

David Buzzwell

It's like Peyton Place.

Adam Beckman

Explain that. What do you mean?

Mabel Davis

It's just like every other town.

David Buzzwell

Yeah, there's nothing different. They all have little skeletons in the closet and bedroom affairs.

Mabel Davis

Things that happen like in any typical old town.

David Buzzwell

It's all by gossip.

Adam Beckman

In retrospect, I know it was a little much, my obsession with the Nasons as a kid. I found this stuff in their house precious, so I assumed they would, too. But of course, the relics in their house weren't about my life. They carried no memories, good or bad. It's possible that for the Nasons, they were reminders of an inheritance dispute or other disputes that they'd just as soon forget. When I was talking to my friend David about the Nason house, he told me this story. His wife's father had recently and suddenly died and left behind a house that no one in the family wants. So David and his wife Susan now find themselves involved in figuring out what to do with it.

David

I feel like it's on the cusp of being abandoned. No one is living there, it's ripe for being vandalized. And what do you do with a house like that? And now it's strange. It's tied up in this weird world of legal probate where you can't really do anything with the property, you just kind of have to maintain it until some future court date. The property has become a ball and chain. And Susan said an interesting, which was, gosh, I wish that house just burned down. And I was thinking, gosh, why would you wish the house to be burned down? There's a lot of memories tied up in the house and emotions tied up between her and her dad, symbolized by the house. Something about it seems relevant.

Adam Beckman

I wanted to show Samantha the spot where they house had once stood. So in the early evening, we walked through town and onto Loon Lake Road. We crashed through the bushes for a while, hoping that we could find the old foundation or something, but there wasn't a trace. In fact, the very land where I remember the house was gone. The soil had been hauled away weeks before by bulldozers constructing part of the new Freedom elementary school.

Adam Beckman

I'm pretty it was right in this flat spot. This is all new. I think it's through there.

Samantha Thurston

We have a stone wall.

Adam Beckman

Later when I was packing to leave town, I found a small scrap of paper on the floor that had fallen out of the box of Nason stuff. There wasn't any writing on it, but I actually hesitated at the trash can. It's not that I missed my box of clues. I felt relief handing them over to Samantha. In fact, I actually felt lighter. But I was glad to have a remnant, however small, of the Nasons. So I tucked the scrap in my bag.

Ira Glass

Adam Beckman. In the years since we first broadcast this, Adam worked as the cinematographer and co-director of our television show. And two of the people that Adam interviewed for this story have died since it first aired-- Carol Chase, the former fire chief, and Mabel Davis, the woman Adam talked to on her friend's front porch.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by Wendy Dorr and myself with Alex Blumberg, Jonathan Goldstein, and Starlee Kine. Senior producer Julie Snyder, production help from Brian Reed. Music today by Mr. John Connors.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

Our website at www.thisamericanlife.org where this week you'll find a link to download our brand new iPhone app. For just $2.99, you get access to our entire archive, every radio show we've ever made, every episode of our TV show-- though you have to pay to download the TV shows. Plus all kinds of extras which are free, which you can't get anywhere else. Rare recordings, some of my and David Sedaris's early radio stories, behind-the-scenes videos of our show. The new iPhone app.

This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International. WBEZ management oversight for our show by our boss, Mr. Torey Malatia, who describes one of his typical weekends this way.

Adam Beckman

A teenage daughter returns late from a dance with a rose. She pins it to the mirror and hangs her dress in the closet. And then something horrible happens.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.