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This Old House

When we hear those three words, most people today would think they refer to the home improvement TV show premiered in 1979 and now a brand all its own.

When I hear them, I still think back to the song written in the 1950’s by Stuart Hamblin and recorded by Rosemary Clooney. In the era of little 45 RPM records, I had a copy of that song and remember sitting on the dining room floor in Catonsville, Maryland and playing it over and over.

This ole house once knew his children This ole house once knew his wife This ole house was home and comfort As they fought the storms of life This old house once rang with laughter This old house heard many shouts Now he trembles in the darkness When the lightnin' walks about (Ain't a-gonna need this house no longer) (Ain't a-gonna need this house no more) Ain't got time to fix the shingles Ain't got time to fix the floor Ain't got time to oil the hinges Nor to mend the windowpane Ain't a-gonna need this house no longer He's a-gettin' ready to meet the saints

As we embark on our last trip to our beach house in Corolla, NC many of the lyrics certainly apply to our years and homes on the Outer Banks. While neither Hayden nor I are “ready to meet the saints”, the time or inclination to fix the shingles or the floor are long past, and we are beyond ready to have others welcome us to their cash-draining dream homes.

But my it’s been a wonderful ride.

The phone rang late one night, and Hayden’s college roommate was on the other end offering us an “opportunity” that seemed like the fulfillment of a dream. She and her husband had several building lots in the Outer Banks development called Whalehead and they were ready to sell one to help their liquidity in preparation to build a new house. She had been the person who introduced us to the “Banks” in her post-college real estate career and the combination of beach atmosphere and pioneer spirit in the mid-1970's drew us to the place.

We dropped a little cash, assumed her banknote, and basked in the fairy tale of “someday”.

The next step in this odyssey occurred in Ocean City, Maryland. We were on the boardwalk with our first daughter Megan in one of those fold-up umbrella handle strollers and were overwhelmed by the crowds, the noise, and the number of kids just “hanging out,” one decision away from a bad choice. We both expressed the thought that this might not be the beach environment that we wanted Megan to experience in the years ahead.

Within months of that revelation, our accountant asked the question, “are you ever going to do anything with that beach property?” After looking into the mid-1980’s value, we realized that we could assign our equity to a new note, build, and furnish a beach home with little out-of-pocket expense. So off we went.

We found an architect who recommended a builder, and before you could say “pass the Pepto” we were in the little office of David Price next to the Wee Winks grocery in downtown Corolla talking about light fixtures, wood trim, and kitchen appliances.

I still remember the excitement of seeing that first house go from sand to sky. We named it The Swansea as an ohmage to our native Wales. The pilings (they were OUR pilings), the wood, the skilled labor, the excitement of a dream taking shape. Then there was the schedule. Deadlines came and went, and it seemed that the project was taking way too long.

We were living in Columbia, MD at the time and the 6-hour journey made it inconvenient to just drop by to check on progress. However, I did take a day of vacation at one point in the framing process and left our house in the darkness to make the long trip to Corolla.

I reached Lighthouse Drive at about 11:00am and while the sand in front of the house was filled with pickup trucks, no human activity was obvious on the property. It was a spectacularly beautiful day and thinking that the crew might be basking in the sun for a first-floor picnic, I climbed the wooden ladder into the house. When I threw my leg off the ladder onto the subflooring and turned around to the ocean, the mystery was solved. My entire young crew of carpenters, who I was paying to make my dream come true, were joyfully surfing offshore.

I stood there with my hands on my hips in the internationally recognized “WTF” pose, until one by one they each took a last ride and trudged toward the house. It was immediately clear that things were different in the world of schedules and the standard workday on the Outer Banks. Either chill or die from frustration were our choices.

I love to tinker, and Hayden loves to decorate and so that first little home was a wonderful project for both of us. Megan and Brittany loved the beach and between Thanksgivings, birthday parties, school friend visits, multi-family vacations, and wild horses standing at your front door in the mornings, the place was unique and simply wonderful. We added a pool, an owner’s closet that was large enough to accommodate bikes, a workbench, and a comfortable reading chair for one hiding introvert, and for 17 years The Swansea sheltered us and our rental clients with style, grace, and comfort.

We sold it in 2005 at the top of the market and invested in two other properties under one of the tax programs.

I knew that the sale was emotional but hadn’t appreciated just how much until driving to OBX for our vacation the following year. I was about 5 miles from the road where we would turn to go to The Swansea and suddenly realized that other than the radio and the panting dog, there was no sound in the car. If you have driven anywhere with my family, that is highly unusual. As we neared the traffic light at Albacore, I was feeling a little melancholy myself, but even more so when the audible sobs surrounded me and grew louder with each passing second. Oh boy, this was going to be a dandy vacation.

We survived the week, but I think Hayden and I each made a mental note that MacArthur's promise, “I shall return” was in our real estate future.

In 2008 as we came out of the tax program and needed to make a purchase, the leading candidates were a house in the mountains at Wintergreen, VA and a big, solid, unique beach house in Ocean Sands Section E of Corolla, NC. Guided by realtor Debbie Price (wife of our first builder David) we chose the beach over the mountains and closed on 613 Staysail Crescent. We bought at what we thought was the bottom of the market, but in the words of the old Robert Hall advertising jingle, “the prices went down, down, down”. But hey, we loved the house and settled our family into new traditions in familiar territory.

While farther off the beach than The Swansea, our new beach home, the “2-Relaxed” had a larger pool, two more bedrooms, and a wonderful whale watch deck up a spiral staircase. It took some getting used to, and one significant renovation, but slowly it became our new retreat.

Granddaughter Harper Rose was born in 2012 and Catherine Claire joined our merry band in 2016. Bunk beds, swimmies, inflatable pool toys, sand castles, and long bedtime stories re-entered the mix for a new generation of beach babies. Life was good.

Events cement the relationship between a family and an arrangement of lumber, sheetrock, shingles, tile, and paint. A wedding, a graduation party for Cissy, a family reunion crab feast, birthdays, anniversaries, retirements, and yes, even a pandemic quarantine bonded us to the 2 Relaxed.

Routines of pizza, moonlight crab hunts, star gazing, fort building, GiGi crafts, family photos, more pizza, barbecue, gourmet meals, poolside weenie roasts, Lighthouse Bagels, Duck Deli, Blue Point, Currituck Club golf, long beach walks, and countless trips to Harris Teeter, crafted more memories. Stacking sandbags, mysterious high-heel-shaped holes in the wall, scary coyotes, and the sound of wind and swings banging against the house…even the bizarre have added to the tales.

The cascade of 4-legged K-9 friends have enriched the experience at the beach as they have our lives. Lady, Samantha, CJ, Bruce, Massimo, Camden, Brinkley, Bruno, and Bear have joined us on the beds, sofas, crab hunts, and beach walks. There was the day that Bruce ran away, and CJ tracked him down. There was the morning that Bruce was sharing Hayden’s pillow, was startled awake, and bit her in the mouth. Come to think of it, pound for pound Westie Bruce was the OBX Duke of Drama.

From the start, we have shared our home with renters and have enjoyed their guest book entries over the years. They have ranged from flattering to annoying to hilarious. Many have included suggestions that we used to make home improvements.

One entry stands out as the most memorable and poignant of all.

It was from one of the original owners of the house who was a widower and was bringing his new wife and family to the 2 Relaxed. He thanked us for taking such good care of the house that he and his first wife had lovingly built with friends in the 1990’s. He particularly noted the bright floral painting they had chosen for a prominent position in the living room. It still commanded the same spot for all to see.

It was a great reminder of the multiple families of owners and renters who would carry memories of this old ship in their hearts. How many caught their first glimpse of a lighthouse beam, swam their first strokes, ate their first alfresco breakfast, or chased their first ghost crabs at the 2 Relaxed? The house was ours, but we didn’t have an exclusive on memories.

The decision to sell has not been an easy one, but when it comes to repairs, maintenance, the fear of Atlantic storms, and the highs and lows of the real estate market, BB King had it right when he sang, “The Thrill is Gone”. It’s a very long drive for the Greensboro family, and even the four-hour trip from Raleigh seems longer with each passing year. Cleaning out the owner’s closets, taking our favorite art off the walls, and packing up beach chairs for the last ride home all have seemed right. Age has a way of adding perspective to life and renting someone else’s dream seems right at this stage. Oceanfront, penthouse, suite with a great view away from the elevator, all are music to my ears and will be more affordable with 50% fewer homes in our portfolio.

But as we lock the door and drive away for the last time tomorrow, it won’t be logic stuck in my throat. It won’t be mature decision-making flowing from my eyes. It will be a glimpse of that night on the boardwalk with Megan in the stroller and the 34 years of memories that flowed from the decision to build the sandcastle of our dreams.

Over the years, as we’ve driven away from Corolla and other vacation spots, I have always intoned the words of Fred Avery, of Merry Melodies cartoons, who became famous narrating travelogue spoofs in the late 1930’s and 1940’s. “We bid a fond farewell to Camp Wicky Wocky”.

This will truly be a fond farewell.

The Swansea, built by David Price for John and Hayden Constance, 1988. Whalehead Beach

Brittany, Cissy, Megan, Tina at the Swansea

Sharing with pals

2 Relaxed, built 1994 by Beach Realty and Construction. Bought by Constance's in 2008.

Family, what the beach is all about.

Girls on the roof

Da boyz. Camden, CJ, and Bruce

Camden, in the sun

Fine fort construction

Side porch at 2 Relaxed, my reading place

Cheering up Brittany for the last trip out

Popsie, Drew, and John Kitto with Harps

Sweetness at the Blue Point, April, 2022

Sunset greeting for last arrival. April, 2022


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