A Little Knowledge

by Donna Schoenkopf

This is a cautionary tale, a tale of hubris and foolhardiness. It is a tale which illustrates the old maxim, “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.”

This is what happened:

I was walking through my house. It’s one big room because I have always loved loft spaces and their open floor plan and the house was much, much cheaper to build without any inside walls (except around the bathroom.) You can see everything in the house, everywhere you stand. The walls and ceiling are white. It is big, airy, expansive. A happy house.

I happened to look up and as my eye lit on the area just above the drywall and below the ceiling, a little three inch space around the perimeter of the house, I noticed ... mold.


But ... but ... wait a minute. My whole house is steel, glass, vinyl door frames, inorganic insulation, and concrete. I had decided on these particular building materials when I was designing my house because they were inexpensive and no termite and (I thought) no mold could ever live in or on any of it. Mold, I knew, needed organic matter on which to grow. That’s why it grew on wood and old shoes and wet newspapers. That little bit of knowledge was something I had congratulated myself on when I built my house. So how could there be mold? My heart skipped a beat. But no worries. I would look it up on the Internet and see what’s what.

So I went online and started reading about mold. That’s when I had my Oh ... my ... God! moment.

I learned that mold can grow on anything. Anything. Because, ladies and gentlemen, dust is an organic material.

It all came back to me. That’s right! Mr. Bailey, my biology teacher in high school, told us that all that dust we see in our houses is mostly human skin! And dust covers everything. Yes. Even in your house, pal.

I continued reading about mold and learned that basements get mold because water leaches through the concrete and there is no air circulation down there and it’s continually damp.

I looked at my concrete floor. I looked up at the perimeter of mold going around the whole house. I then had a vision of mold seeping up from the concrete into the walls until the walls were so crammed so full of mold that it eventually grew straight up the inside of the walls to the ceiling.

That was the “Oh...my...God!” moment.

I felt as though I was standing in the middle of a box full, crammed full, of mold.

moldy wall
Really bad mold. Not Donna’s mold.

Now, I want to clarify something. I am a hardy sort. I chose to live in the country because I wanted to experience the world without too much human intrusion. I even once lived in my house for six days with no heat or light during a blizzard, just to see what it felt like. (I will not do that again, but I do know what it feels like now.) I am not squeamish. Yes, I get emotional over animal deaths, because I love animals. Yes, ticks did bother me until I got used to picking them off the dogs and me, but a person can get used to whatever they’re exposed to. I find insects cute because my mama showed me that they were. I am not afraid of bees or mud daubers or much of any of that. But a heaving mass of mold, growing out of control, coming from the ground up, making my whole house, from concrete slab to metal roof, uninhabitable, was too much to bear.

It was too much to bear because every single nickel I had worked so hard for, saved so long for, planned so diligently for, was all for naught. I was going to be wiped out. I was going to be wiped out because insurance companies do not insure for mold. My insurance guy explicitly told me mold was not covered.

As my mind continued processing all this, I started to think about how I could get rid of the mold, because my concrete was on the ground. The clay ground. That held moisture for a long, long time. Would I have to raze the building to the ground? How on earth would I pay for rebuilding? That money was gone.

I thought of Jim, my dear ex-husband from a million years ago. We are good friends. (It is amazing what a nice little divorce will do.) He is a retired insurance adjuster. I thought about all the information he would have about this sort of thing. I called him. He said he was going to contact Mike, the guy who bought his business, and get back to me.

So I sat there. Frozen. “Everything gone,” kept racing through my mind.

That’s when I panicked. I saw my homeless old woman self, living out of my car. Yes, I have kids, but I, like my mother, would never want to move in. Not that I don’t love them. I do. Not that I don’t enjoy their company. I LOVE their company. Not that they don’t love me and love my company. But I hate, hate, hate being dependent.

Well, all this craziness would have to wait because I had my weekly story to write for FourStory and sat down at the computer and just poured my heart out. I looked over what I had written and said to myself, “You can’t send this thing in. Jesus Christ, Donna.” I checked my e-mail.

There was an email from Jim! He had forwarded a message from Mike which said to not panic. It said toxic mold was rare. And that mold had been around people for millions of years and that it’s not as bad as I thought.

I breathed a sigh of semi-relief. I added this as a postscript to the end of my story because it kinda tamed down the whole story, and sent it in.

The next day I got a phone call from Jim. I thanked him profusely. He gave me the name of (get this) Andy, who has a company that deals with mold. She is the sister of Betsy, the former girlfriend of Jim and the present wife of Duane, Jim’s best friend. (One of the things I love about living in Oklahoma is the connection to everybody that you have when you live in a small town. You really become part of a human community. You are not alone.) I was in good hands! Another wave of relief rolled over me.

Then my mind went to money to pay for all this. I started thinking about reverse mortgages. Then a dear friend told me about home equity lines of credit. This whole thing could be solved. Whew.

My fear started to dissipate. I didn’t feel quite so emotional, crazy, pathetic, stupid. At least people who read the story would know that I was okay and that the problem was handled.

But that was not to be the case. I got some phone calls and some e-mails telling me that I had scared the pants off of them with the story I had written. I got a great phone call from my dear ex-sister-in-law about getting the house raised so I could lay down a vapor barrier. She had raised her own beach house on Fire Island twice, so she knew what she was talking about. It was a great phone call, full of vivid imagery, with a “can do” attitude. I got a couple of scoldings (which I deserved) for scaring some people too much, and lots of sympathy calls. They made their point. I sent them all my apology and decided I would do a much more thorough job of telling the world what I was doing and how it was going by writing this story.

And then I realized that what I had gone through was a real experience for millions of people and the end of the story was quite different for them. They don’t have the luxury of having their problems resolved or mitigated. They will be homeless. Their panic will turn to reality. As a young mother I have been in that position. More than once. I know the panic will turn to action. Every part of the brain will focus on how to deal with the problem. When it happens to you, you have no time for crying in your beer.

I called Andy (Remember her? The sister of the girlfriend of the ex-husband, etc., etc.) who called her son, Brandon, the mold expert, who came over and took one look at my big room of a house and declared that the mold problem wasn’t a big deal at all. In fact, the whole problem was restrited to the thin strip of steel that ran around the top of the walls around the perimeter of my house. The mold was caused by condensation. And if I used my fans (which were turning as we spoke because Neighbor Jim came over when I was freaking out about the mold and told me that my house needed air movement to cure mold), I wouldn’t have a problem.

I nodded. I realized I had not opened my sliding glass doors for a couple of months because it was winter. And I had not turned on the overhead fans because the constant breeze chilled me. But when Neighbor Jim had come over during my freakout, he had switched the little button which changed the air direction from down to up, which Peewee, the man who built my house, had told me about but I forgot, and there was no more blast of cold air coming down on me and additionally the whole house was warmer as the warm air circulated beautifully through out.

Good grief.

And then, then Brandon said the most beautiful thing.

Are you ready?

He said he had never, ever seen mold come up through a concrete slab. Ever.

My heart swelled with joy. I wouldn’t be a homeless bag lady! I was saved! I wouldn’t have to have my house lifted, or be a burden to my children, or move away from Chigger Lake.

I began to remember, back in the mists of time three years ago, that Peewee told me that he ran his blower fan of his heater/air conditioner all the time and consequently he had very little dust in his house. Dust! I could save myself a lot of work and worry by just turning on my fan blower. Jeez.

Then Brandon and I went outside, my feet not touching the ground because I was dancing on air, and looked at the north side of the house, which was perpetually wet because it was in the shade all winter and wet clay stays wet as long as it damn well pleases. He said I could either put in a french drain or grade the yard so that all water would run down my western hill.

French drain? Uh oh.

I had told Peewee long ago when we were building the house that I was putting in a french drain around the foundation, thinking (incorrectly) that a french drain was just some gravel that let the water percolate down and away from the foundation. He thought I knew what I was talking about. I told him I was going to do it by myself. He left me a huge pile of gravel one day. Free. (I told you he was my hero.) I guess he thought I actually knew what a french drain was. It turns out it’s a large pipe with perforations on it that lets in the rainwater, which is whisked away. I had just piled the gravel up against the foundation with no pipe underneath. The ground had settled where I had shoveled wheelbarrowful after wheelbarrowful of gravel on it and this had caused the water to collect in that depression.

But that’s not all. I had started a large compost pile out there, raising the ground level away from the house even more, making more water drain toward the house.

Everything I did turned out to be wrong.

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

As Brandon and I stood there looking at that soggy north side of the house, he offered to do the grading, but was leery of dealing with my underground utilities.

Well there was one person who knew right where those utilities were. Peewee. He had put them in. So the next day I called him and told him what was going on and could I hire him to do the grading. He said, “Huh. I graded it when we put the house down. Guess I’ll just do some more.” And then he told me he’d be over to do the grading and that it was no big deal. Would take about fifteen minutes. (He always says it’s no big deal and that it will take about fifteen minutes. I really, really like that about him. It just makes me happy when I hear those words.) And no, positively not, would he charge me. And he would send over a truckload of gravel, free, just pay the driver his fee.

So now, Dear Reader, you are caught up with story. I will call Brandon when I have collected some money and he will come to take care of that little bit of mold and Peewee will do some fancy grading and I’ll keep my fans on and blower going and everything will be hunky dory.

One last thing, though. I mentioned to Peewee during that phone call that there were (perhaps) millions of mud daubers inside my walls. They had been flying in and out from under my eaves for a couple of summers. I thought they were cute and I was happy to provide them with a home. You know, live and let live. Then I remembered reading a piece about a university finding a whole building on campus crammed with honey inside all its walls after decades of bees having taken up residence there.

And Peewee said, “Aw. Just buy some screen or insulation and stuff it in the holes where they went in. Don’t cost nothin’. It always works.”

You gotta love that guy.

Donna Schoenkopf recently retired from teaching at 61st Street School in South Central Los Angeles, and has moved back to Oklahoma, where she spent her teens.


Yeee-haw!  Boy, I’m glad that worked out.  My sister lives in Fresno where it gets cold in winter and she does the reverse ceiling fan thing in winter which helps a whole lot, pushing hot ceiling air back down.  As for a “sealed” house, heard on the radio show, “At Home With Gary Something Or Other” that as homes get better insulated and leak-proofed more and more to save heating energy, they’re also getting more indoor air pollution and issues like condensation and etc. so he tells evryone to be sure to take care of air circulation—even just crack a window a wee mite.  Or the fans. 

Am so glad you’ve got the problem fixed and taken care of.  Nice feeling, ain’t it?

2011-02-2 by Ann Calhoun

Glad all is well again at Chigger Lake.  (Music trails off, and there is only the sound of sunbeams.)  ;-)

2011-02-2 by Helen

Now THAT’S a column! Went through it all with you, explained so nice and clear from there to here! You do have some good men in your life out there, mama. Oklahoma. Where men are men, and are sometimes a little inappropriate about it.

2011-02-2 by rebecca

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