Man lives a lonely life in a burned house

josh.shaffer@newsobserver.comJuly 15, 2012 

  • An update Many readers called asking to help the family of James Southern, the Korean war veteran who died in June without money for a burial. The family reports that enough donations were received and that Southern’s funeral was held in Fayetteville Wednesday.

— Down a red-dirt road with ruts deep enough to swallow a truck tire, Ollie Estes ekes out a solitary life inside an 1860s farm house, not much minding that part of it burned down last week.

There’s no running water, so he drinks from a cooler he keeps in the bedroom. There’s no electricity, so he reads his duct-taped Bible by the light of an oil lamp. The woods provide a latrine. But the biggest inconvenience with living in a torched house is the constant smell of char.

Let me say up-front that I don’t know the whole story here. I stumbled into Ollie’s stray-dog life more or less by accident, and details thus far are scant. But I can say for sure that a 50-year-old man with a black beard, a bad back and a shy disposition is holed up in the smoky wreckage of an old house in the Wake Forest woods – a charming abode but for the missing roof on the back side.

“Ain’t got nowhere else to go,” Ollie said with a shrug.

I got word on Friday that a stove had sparked a blaze in a stately two-story house with a tin roof and brick chimneys and that neighbors were worried about the lone inhabitant still living a hermit’s existence inside.

So I drove out there, bouncing down a dirt driveway for a quarter-mile, nearly sinking my truck in the mud puddles, dreading the large, unleashed dogs and shotgun-toting men you sometimes encounter when you wander into the woods uninvited.

But when I finally reached the big white house in a clearing, Ollie came out barefoot, a bandana on his head, and offered a tour of the place. He seemed glad for the company, even of a reporter with a notepad and camera, and he recalled the night two Saturdays ago when the fire broke out behind his bedroom.

“It freaked me out,” he said. “I ran down that path in my socks. When it’s dark out here, you can’t see nothing. The only way I could get down there was by walking in the Vs in the road.”

He led the way to the back of the house, pointing to where the sun shone through the blackened roof beams. He showed how he’d been dragging some of the burned debris out to a fire pit, arranging some rusty cans in a circle around it so that the pile resembled a piece of outdoor art.

“I got tired of looking at a fire pit,” he explained.

As we walked, Ollie said he gets by mowing lawns and doing odd jobs. He rides a bicycle since he lacks a driver’s license or a car. In his spare time, he paints pictures of roses using pastels, ink pens and glitter. He paints them mostly on cardboard box tops. As he shows off his portfolio, you can see that some are inscribed to his mother.

“I like roses,” he said. “Flowers are the most beautiful things God made, except for human beings.”

Ollie said he’s been living here about six months, renting from another renter, staying behind because he wants to help clean up and rebuild after the fire. He couldn’t tell me who owned the place, and I couldn’t find the house listed anywhere in Wake County’s property records.

I asked if anybody knows he’s out here, and Ollie mentioned a brother who’s now keeping the pet pit bull that also escaped the fire. He fished a wadded-up piece of paper with a landlord’s phone number out an old pair of his pants. I called the number and haven’t heard back.

Ollie showed me a family graveyard out in the woods, most of the inscriptions carved by hand on the stones. He pointed toward the remains of a lumber mill and a graveyard of old cars, then he showed me a bean tree that scared him at first because he thought the pods were snakes.

“Wild, isn’t it?” he asked. “This whole place is wild. You think somebody could help me out?”

I don’t know. I hope so.

I checked Ollie’s prison record and found that he has spent time behind bars for a long string of crimes dating back to the early 1980s. But I can’t tell if anybody cares or even knows that he’s living like a wild animal. I don’t know if he’s burned his bridges with family and friends, prefers his own company or can’t help being alone in the world.

I shook his hand and drove out of the woods, watching in the rearview mirror as Ollie shuffled back into the burned remains.

jshaffer@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4818

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