Uncovering Pompeii
June 21st, 2014

All my life I’ve had a recurring dream in which I discover that there’s more to my house than what I thought. Sometimes it’s an entire floor, fully furnished, that the realtor may have mentioned at the time of closing, but which for some reason had slipped my mind. In another dream, I suddenly remember that my property includes a barn and workshop, filled with vintage machinery from a bygone era. Once, I even stumbled upon a gymnasium. What a find!

Only recently I’ve discovered a space in our house that for decades has been sealed off and forgotten. It’s the attic, and the only way to get up there is to squeeze through a trapdoor at the top of a bedroom closet. Shining a flashlight into the darkness, I did not see, as Howard Carter might phrase it, “wonderful things.” No, what confronted me was the most unwelcoming environment imaginable.

Turns out many years ago a previous owner had hired a contractor to blow something called rock wool into the attic. Rock wool was invented in Wales, the same country that gave us black lung disease. It’s made by heating slag to the temperature of the sun, then blowing air through it in order to produce a fibrous material similar in texture to cotton candy, except that it’s not good to eat, nor is it good to breathe. But wait! It gets even worse. Three years ago we hired an outfit to sheathe and re-shingle the roof. Debris from that project rained down and became embedded in the rock wool. So now what I have is an attic blanketed in loose, itchy, fibrous, inedible cotton candy—rendered even more inedible by the addition of cedar splinters and rusted nails. And of course the whole thing is layered with at least an inch of fine, powdery dust.

“Don’t go up there!” my wife cautioned as I donned my biohazard suit, respirator and goggles. But of course I just had to go up there—because, for one thing, I’m descended from mining folk, and my attic is no scarier than a coal mine.


My goal is to scoop up and remove all the loose rock wool, so that I can figure out where to drill holes in order to drop Romex wiring into the walls below. This because Anne, being a woman, has a recurring dream of finding more electrical outlets. It is my goal to make her dream come true—or die trying.

At first, the project seemed overwhelming; however, now that I have extracted over fifty 45-gallon bags, I’m beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel. The addition of work lights has helped a lot, as had the addition of ersatz plywood flooring. Last week I reached a milestone: I burrowed all the way from the trapdoor to the chimney, a distance of about thirty feet.

It was near the trapdoor that I uncovered the first evidence of human habitation: several rolls of unused wallpaper turned crisp as the Dead Sea scrolls. Near the chimney I unearthed the second signs: a vintage melamine serving bowl from the Nineteen Fifties, a broken tobacco pipe, half a cigarette, numerous matchbooks, bits and pieces of tin foil, and—if I’m not mistaken—a crack pipe fashioned from the cardboard tube off a wire coat hangar.


The matchbooks are old and bear advertisements for such places as the Lariat Lodge in East Quincy, California, the La Court Motor Lodge “conveniently located” in downtown Grand Junction, Colorado, and Barney’s El Capitan Casino in Hawthorne, Nevada. So what am I to make of it all? That a widely-traveled family of crack-addicted raccoons once vacationed in my attic?

More likely, someone who once lived in my house—which dates back to 1926—had a secret habit, one that involved sneaking into the attic, crawling across the joists to the chimney and there lighting up. The telltale fumes could be exhaled out the small gap between the brick chimney and the wooden frame. Whoever resided downstairs would be none the wiser—not unless a foot should come crashing through the ceiling. Or, god forbid, the house should catch fire!

But that was all many years ago—or at least I presume so, since the artifacts were all buried beneath fourteen inches of rock wool insulation. My next step is to have them carbon-dated, or maybe I’ll skip that step and just toss them into the trash bin. But not the speckled melamine serving bowl from the Nineteen Fifties. It’s worth at least ten bucks on eBay!

-Richard Menzies