When I was a young boy, I used to imagine that science would one day discover a way to recover all the words ever spoken in a room. Ever since, when I enter an enclosed space of historic, cultural or personal significance, I try to imagine what the walls might reveal.
I was an aerospace baby. Every four years we would pull up stakes and move to where the next contract landed us. I lived in Denver, Tucson and Houston before my father settled permanently at Vandenberg Air Force Base. Every time we moved into a new house, my imagination went wild with efforts to coax the walls into giving up their stories.
Shortly after we moved into our home in Tucson, the FBI contacted my parents looking for the previous owner. It seems he was a member of the mob and the agents wanted to talk to him. It made for a great four years of creative story-making.
I would lie in bed at night and think about the nefarious plans being made in the kitchen. My imaginings were punctuated by the sweet smell of marinara sauce and meatballs cooking on the stove.
I have engaged the walls of every school I have ever entered, including those at which I taught. Schools seem to have a special kind of message and each has its own distinct personality.
My first teaching assignment was at a 1950s-era Catholic high school. I would, on occasion, sit in the library and page through weathered yearbooks, listening for the whispered history contained in those walls. And they would speak. The stories of the former staff and students made their way into my psyche, and I know I was a better teacher as a result of the respect their words instilled.
Churches instill a particular attraction, too. They are at the center of life’s great transitions. Baptism, confirmation, marriage and death are all cradled in their arms. Their walls are witness to life’s greatest joys and deepest pains, and their wisdom is immense. And of course, any good Catholic has wondered what tales the panels of the confessional might tell, if those walls could talk.
Locally, I am drawn to Cold Spring Tavern. I could sit for hours within the historic and rustic confines of that space. There are books to be written and countless stories to be told from the 125-year history of this former stagecoach stop and way station.
Stepping through the door I am transported back in time. The sights, smells and character of the place beg for recollection of the men and women who have passed through the tavern’s doors. Weathered and weary travelers rested here, each with their own stories of adventure in what was still the Wild West. Up the road, Mattei’s Tavern offers a similar ambiance.
The California missions have attracted me as well, although their message has changed distinctly over time. What was once the pleasant chatter of newly “saved” converts has become the screams of indigenous peoples whose cultures were destroyed by the incursion of the Spanish missionaries.
Several years ago my wife and I visited Mission San Juan Capistrano with my in-laws. While we were walking the halls of the expansive complex, my father-in-law was overcome by anxiety and the overwhelming feeling of the suffering of the indigenous people. We actually had to leave. Since that experience, the missions tell a different story.
There is a part of me that believes some walls really can talk and do have a story to tell. Their language is a blending of history, imagination and belief, a belief that the people and events that came before us matter. They do, of course, matter. We only need the will and audacity to listen.
— Tim Durnin is a father and husband. He can be reached at email@example.com for comments, discussion, criticism, suggestions and story ideas.