Popular Mechanics (USA)
I THOUGHT WE WERE DOING A RENOVATION, NOT AN EXORCISM.
THE HOUSE HAD OTHER IDEAS.”
the kind where the light takes on the hue of burnished gold. It was October of 2009, and we were looking at homes in a small, appealing town in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley. The place had been staged for our visit, of course, but the red and burnt-yellow leaves falling from an old maple tree in the backyard twirled and waltzed with an unpremeditated perfection. There was a huge hearth and a brick patio and a seven-foot cedar fence surrounding the yard, which at almost an acre was massive for a house in town. Ann and I took this in through two enormous living room windows—like twin IMAX screens projecting visions of some impossibly idyllic domestic life.
The house itself had a heft and audacity that was striking. Built in 1955, the four-bedroom ranch-style home sprawled out and up over 3,000 square feet, a funky amalgam of slabs and angles and cantilevered windows. The kitchen, though filled with dated appliances, was roomy and warm, a potential nexus of conversation and aromatic meals. The vast basement was segmented into five rooms; one of them housed a billiards table and featured the word “POOL” in raised letters on the door. The only other home we’d owned had been a creaky 1800s farmhouse that had seemed to tilt in the wind; by contrast, this was a fortress.
On the way out, we stopped by the windows. “There’s no way we can afford this,” Ann said, “but it would be such a cool place to have a party.”
Afterward, we shook off the spell. It was impractical, too big for a family of three. But a few weeks later, the price dropped, and we asked for another look, and began a series of what-ifs and yeah-buts: If we did this, we would need to replace at least part of the roof; the furnace was ancient; and the upstairs… What was the deal with the upstairs? It was seemingly once a buttoned-on in-law apartment, but it was now gutted down to studs and subfloor.
And yet. The house was so big, we could rent out the second floor, which would cover some costs. And what if the roof really wasn’t so bad? What if the furnace held out for a winter or two?
All we knew for sure was that we wanted to live in that house. Years later, I remember that I had tried to talk Ann into it, and she recalls fervently selling me on the idea. Maybe both recollections are true.
The inevitable gut-check moments followed. Our inspector filled a binder with notations that, in the restrained language of his vocation, suggested that we faced some headaches. The seller appeared to have surrendered over the years to a series of systemic complications.
“Guys,” our real estate agent cautioned, “this place is cool, but there’s a lot of work here. I don’t want you to never be able to go on vacation.”
We listened to all of this and heard none of it. Individually and as a couple, we tended to absorb the conventions of adulthood solely so we could flout them. We quit jobs to travel, embarked on challenging self-guided adventures. We eloped in western Canada. Sure, I was a writer who possessed few home-improvement skills, but Ann liked that sort of thing. The risk was part of the appeal.
The day we closed on 777 Pine Street, we showed friends the empty, echoey upstairs. There were grooves in the floor where walls once stood; a forlorn, half-tornout section of red carpet was the only sign that anyone had ever lived there. Except that, when you looked closer, there were some curious features. A ladder led up a false chimney; at the top was a submarine-style hatch from which it was possible to poke your head out. During the inspection, we’d discovered a secret compartment: a section of shelving that opened on a hidden hinge when you pressed on it, like something out of a pre-CGI James Bond movie. A series of miniature doors fed into a crawl space that encircled the apartment. And the passageway led past a carpeted room, four feet high and eight feet deep, with a chainoperated lightbulb and a deadbolt that could be locked from the inside. We called it the panic room.
It was overwhelming. Our friend Diana commented, jokingly, “If this were my house, I’d be on anti-anxiety medication.”
We nodded and smiled and maybe cringed a tiny bit. But the truth was, we had no idea.
BEFORE THE ELEPHANTS and the three-ton rhino and the lion and Cape buffalo, a 5-year-old boy stalked rabbits in the farm fields of eastern Pennsylvania. It was the mid-1930s, the country only beginning to shrug off the malaise of the Great Depression. The boy used a hickory limb and a piece of binder twine for a bow, and stiff meadow weeds for arrows.
Though he was a torrent of kinetic energy, Bob Swinehart also possessed a dreamy quality. He loved to draw, and escaped into elaborate fantasies that sprung from Robin Hood movies and cowboy and Indian TV shows. When he saw a movie about Howard Hill, the world’s greatest archer, Bob instantly identified the man as his hero. Roaming the nearby woods, he imagined he was Hill standing among Africa’s massive creatures and exotic landscapes.
On Bob’s 12th birthday, his parents gave him his first real bow, a Ben Pearson lemonwood longbow. He practiced through his adolescence before heading to college, where he majored in art. He served in the army during the Korean War, where, he later wrote, his “thoughts often drifted back to college art projects, high school sports, [my] oil paintings, and early days with bow ’n arrow.” He said little publicly or to family about his wartime years.
Just before heading overseas, he married June Houser. Bob’s father-in-law owned a booming construction company in the Lehigh Valley, an area located at the intersection of God and money—Amish buggies sharing roads with traffic flowing to and from one of the world’s largest steel producers. Bob found his way back to archery, becoming president of the archery club of the local fish and game association.
Over time, he discovered a preternatural talent. He could hit repeated bull’s-eyes, and when that was no longer a challenge, he would recruit friends to flip silver dollars in the air. In a fluid, blur-fast motion, he would raise his bow and fire, a loud ping indicating a hit. He even learned to shoot the bow accurately with his feet.
Bob had a round face and wore his hair in a modest pompadour that conveyed a striking resemblance to Elvis. He was compact—5 foot 10, 170 pounds—and prodigiously strong, but his face looked round and soft, likely owing to his obsession with pretzels. He claimed to have eaten a pound, on average, every day since birth. He also was an avid Coke drinker.
In 1959, Bob arranged through the fish and game association to host Howard Hill at an exhibition at the local high school. Hill stayed with the Swineharts for a time—one of the highlights of young Bob’s life. They talked extensively about archery, and Swinehart began to ramp up his own aspirations. A year later, he stalked a 200-pound black bear in Canada, and although he needed six arrows to finish off his quarry—one of which missed and embedded in a tree—the hunt triggered his first wave of notoriety. Bowhunting magazine named him one of the nation’s top woodsman-bowhunters, and a local newspaper headlined a story “Shades of Robin Hood,” noting that the feat “is believed to be the first of its type ever accomplished by a Lehigh Valley
sportsman.” It ended with a rhetorical twist: “Could be Swinehart is another Howard Hill. Bob cautiously says time will tell.”
Swinehart, in fact, did nothing to discourage such comparisons. He soon began writing his own bombastic recollections of his experiences, pushing both his risk-taking and his turgid prose to new levels. “I do not look upon facing a dangerous beast as an act of bravery,” he wrote. “I simply do not feel fear in those situations.”
He and June would have four children. But even as he deepened his roots, he spent increasing amounts of time hunting. The heads of his prey, preserved by taxidermy, became trophy pieces in the trophy home they’d built.
As the 1960s unfolded, Swinehart, fully in the prime of his life, turned his attention to filling his walls and shelves with even more impressive specimens. And he knew, from his hero Howard Hill and from his childhood daydreams, that there was only one place where he could fully cement his own legend.
ONE WEEKEND MORNING three months after we bought the house, our son, Vaughn, came into the bedroom and tapped me on the shoulder. He was 5, a tumble of red hair splayed around wide eyes. “Dad?” he said. “Dad, something happened in the living room. It’s wet.”
I rolled over, blinking, groggy. “Did you spill something? Just get a towel, buddy.”
“Daa-aad, it wasn’t me,” he said, bouncing softly at the bedside. “Some water came through the ceiling.”
My eyes snapped open. We had just experienced several days of spring-monsoon weather, and, perhaps not unrelated, Ann and I had been up on the flat part of the roof, which we knew was near the end of its life span. We’d poked at the patches up there, trying to guess whether we might wait another year, in our attempt to triage the most pressing issues.
I stood and trailed Vaughn into the hall, still in my boxers. We turned the corner and there, on the living room floor, a pile of wet debris marinated in a gray puddle. I looked up. A chunk of ceiling roughly the footprint of a compact car had caved in. A gentle stream trickled from the maw.
We stood there for what felt like a long time, Vaughn looking back and forth from the wreckage to me.
During the brief time we had lived in the house, we’d continually run into people who shared stories about it—they’d visited once or had heard local gossip. The mythology dated back to the man who’d built it in the ’50s—an eccentric bowhunter. Fences were rare in town, but this house was surrounded by a high, cedar enclosure that imposed a distinct sense of remove. Neighbors had noted a camera-based security system and remote-controlled gate in the driveway—both unheard of in these parts. What was all the privacy about? The seller’s real estate agent, who had grown
up in town, reported a rumor of a secret tunnel from the basement to the street.
Some of it—the tunnel, for example—was clearly urban legend. But we found camera mounts around the house and wiring and shelving for monitors upstairs. We couldn’t explain the chimney lookout, or the panic room, or some of the other features.
The stories were an engaging distraction from all the work: paint and new flooring and tearing out wallpaper and old carpeting. Ann took charge as the fearless renovator—I attributed her DIY ethic to her Irish-farmer lineage— and I helped with unskilled labor.
The experience fit our lives together as a pointedly unconventional couple. Early in our romance, we’d alternated adventures on bikes in places like Chile with shoestring self-employment in a tiny New York City apartment. We avoided office jobs and predictability. Health insurance seemed like a pointless frivolity. Having a child changed things—I took a fulltime job as a magazine editor—but we still thought of ourselves as resourceful and unorthodox and unafraid of hard work. And, most of all, we were a team. Pine Street was in certain ways a natural extension of our live-first, ask-questions-later ethos. Maybe it would be the place we’d live the rest of our lives—I thought so. Yes, it was daunting. But nothing we couldn’t handle.
Or could we? As Vaughn and I stood frozen in place, another chunk of ceiling snapped loose and landed with a thwump. Water trickled in a little faster, and particles of what I guessed was loose insulation swirled in the air. It reminded me of scenes in war movies when, right after a bombing, dust hovers over the rubble in solemn dawn light, the imagery both serenely beautiful and terrifying.
I wondered what I should do. I also wondered, for the first time, what we had done.
BOB SWINEHART WAS EAGER. He was in Angola, under a fierce sun, on a 100-degree day. It was June 1966. He was stalking a creature he’d dreamed of since his childhood: a rhinoceros with a horn that measured over two feet, a majestic animal that weighed thousands of pounds.
Swinehart and his guide and crew had been tracking it for hours over countless miles, a bubble wrap of blisters forming on his feet. But he still hadn’t seen the rhino, because it was traveling under the cover of thick, thorny vegetation and his guide, Rui Almeida, kept him third in line—for his safety, behind scouts with rifles.
They stopped to confer. “Look, this third-man stuff is no good with bow and arrow,” Swinehart told Almeida, according to an article he later published. “Too dangerous,” Almeida replied.
“Maybe so. But necessary if I’m to get an arrow into this rhino.”
No archer had ever killed a rhino. It was considered too risky; the animal was “a battlewagon on four legs,” as Swinehart put it. A rhino could gore and trample a man as easily as a person crushes a spider. Two years earlier, a rhino had charged after Swinehart had fired an arrow. “My backup man poured a lot of lead before the three-ton mass dropped,” he recounted. “It came within a few yards of us.” The incident cost him the $750 he’d paid for the license—he’d need to start over to achieve the feat with his bow—and nearly his life. And the previous day on this second trip, a rhino had chased Swinehart and his party up a tree before he ever fired a shot.
“Okay,” Almeida replied. “We’ll give it one more try.” Swinehart finally spotted his quarry in a gap among thorn bushes. Here is his recollection (italics his), from the December 1966 issue of Archery World:
He was big! So was the front horn! His head was slightly turned, with one of his beady eyes glaring at me. I quickly drew an arrow on my 90 pound longbow. On the instant of release the dark mass of muscle whirled with such amazing agility that he was coming face on when the arrow got there.
The steel-tipped fiberglass arrow struck the shoulder area, doing no mortal harm, and
the rhino stopped, turned, and began to trot away. Swinehart wrote:
The delay was long enough to get off another arrow, which buried deep behind the foreleg just as the rhino disappeared behind the thorn growth. More loud snorting and crashing, small trees snapping to the ground, then all was deathly still. Slowly trailing we soon spied his massive form crumbled to the earth like a pile of gray boulders.
The successful hunt brought Swinehart notoriety of a sort. Ripley’s Believe It or Not! noted the accomplishment with one of its iconic pencil drawings. He appeared on national TV and on magazine covers; Archery World called him a “celebrated figure of world prominence.” In one published photograph, Swinehart kneels over the animal, its eye nestled in a mass of pachyderm wrinkles. His right hand sits almost tenderly on the rhino’s head, and his eyes peer off into some middle space.
On the same trip, Swinehart bagged a lion in Mozambique, claiming the last of the so-called Big Five—he’d taken an elephant, Cape buffalo, and leopard in 1964—becoming the first archer to accomplish the feat.
His exploits entered him into the realm of legend, if mostly of his own creation. In his stories “the natives were primitive, but friendly,” and lacked the strength to pull his bow. His safari was “one of the most successful of its kind ever to come out of Africa.” He was the star of his own Hemingway novel, only without the understatement.
Swinehart parlayed his assault on the world’s most charismatic megafauna into a cottage industry. He toured frequently, showing slides from his hunts: Here he was hunched over a dead lion; there he was handing villagers pretzels from a massive Bachman can. He conducted demonstrations in which he pinged coins with arrows. He starred in a two-hour TV show about archery that aired in 1967.
In 1970 he published an autobiographical coffee-table book,
Sagittarius, named for the archer of mythology. In his fables, Swinehart was the god of all his realm. He took extraordinary chances, creeping to within yards of lions and leopards, and when his talent wasn’t enough, he also possessed uncanny physical prowess and even luck, like when he outran several buffalo before they cut him off from his vehicles.
The only question was what Swinehart might do next. Except that just when things seemed like there was nowhere on the planet he couldn’t travel to and conquer, he began to lose his way.
I DON’T BELIEVE in haunted houses.
Houses are collections of wood and nails and glass and paint. They are incapable of agency, or pathos. Spirits don’t occupy them any more than they occupy a kitchen table or a lampshade.
Haunted houses, of course, are an enduring part of the American zeitgeist. But I’ve always felt that stories about haunted houses are really stories about haunted people. People are the damaged ones, because they are abused or endure trauma or are involved in some unfortunate accident. Later, if they fall ill or drink too much or ruin their marriages, they neglect their living spaces in the same ways, which leads to leaky and rusty and waterlogged homes. These troubled houses, passed on to new owners, now harbor bedeviling defects.
Haunted house stories are war stories—not real war, obviously, but war in the sense that you’re struggling against those who came before, whose lives now overlap with yours in the shared experience of living under the same roof. Their decisions and misfortunes sometimes become yours.
In the middle of our second night on Pine Street, a big window fell out of its casing and shattered loudly. Not long after that, in the spring, when Ann was poking around on the second floor, she was besieged by a swarm of flying carpenter ants. Sometime later, a section of ceiling collapsed in Vaughn’s room while he slept.
Once, after we’d installed a naturalgas furnace, we hired someone to empty and remove the obsolete 1,000-gallon backyard oil tank. The contractor left the supply line uncapped in the basement—the tank had been pumped dry, after all. Except, a day later, oil began bubbling up from that line in a small geyser.
As we grappled with all of this, we absorbed stories about Bob Swinehart, learned that he had built his identity—and maybe even some of our house—on archery, and on the killing of rare animals. As omnivores, we’re fine with subsistence hunting, but feel that trophy hunting is repugnant. It made everything Swinehart touched feel somehow compromised.
There were as many peculiar tales about him as there were about the house—the kind that get told in small towns over generations, larded with embellishments and grotesqueries. Swinehart had become increasingly odd and reclusive over the years. As paranoia set in, he installed the false chimney to surveil the neighborhood. He ruined his marriage, then built himself the apartment upstairs, ordering cement flooring so his estranged wife couldn’t shoot at him through her ceiling.
There were as many peculiar tales about Swinehart as there were about the house—the kind that get told in small towns over generations.
We had no idea how much of it was true, but when we dealt with problems in the house, we imagined that we were contending with Swinehart himself. His outsize, and maybe somewhat unhinged, persona loomed over us, determined to leave its mark. That mark was now our mark, and I would have conversations with him in my mind. Bob: Did you really have to build the upstairs like a bomb shelter?
Maybe everything was a testament to his inability to recognize his excesses. Or maybe there was some deeper pathos. Either way, we sought real-world explanations for every instance of would-be haunting. The previous owner (another family lived there between the Swineharts and us) had left that bedroom window unfastened when they switched out the screens. The framing under the roof was rotting, and carpenter ants had long been feasting on it. The long supply line had oil left over inside it.
We were doing a renovation, not an exorcism.
Ann made steady progress. Entirely self-taught, she replaced cedar siding, removed and replaced windows, installed new flooring, patched drywall, and on and on—she compiled lists to keep track of her lists.
Vaughn spent the heart of his childhood in a room Ann painted in a motif of rolling green hills and blue sky. We threw footballs and frisbees in the yard, and he and his friends played under the tent-like branches of a Japanese maple. We organized scavenger hunts around the property. There were birthday parties and weekend dinner parties and an annual Halloween gathering, when I made a pot of gumbo for friends before trickor-treating. Impromptu gatherings bubbled up on the back patio, faces glowing under strings of lights Ann had installed across the eave. Five buddies came over for monthly poker nights in the basement.
Some of our struggles amounted to nothing more than sad-trombone comedy. Late in our first winter there, our hot water heater conked out. We were exasperated and broke, and couldn’t swing a replacement, so instead we took showers at work and school for several weeks. It was a little like camping, and the dishwasher still worked. Finally, we called a repairman. He came up from the basement with a sheepish grin: An electrical issue had simply knocked the heater off at some point. All we needed to do was hit the reset button.
Other issues pushed us closer to what felt like a real abyss. The $5,000 we thought we’d spend to replace the roof doubled when the roofers found rot. We faced an appalling choice: Find money now to dig up half the backyard and remove the 55-year-old oil tank or face a modest environmental disaster later if it leaked.
We clawed for financial handholds. My first book came out in 2010, but our income overall fell short of what we needed to cover the renovation and the mortgage. We were caught in a Catch-22: An upstairs tenant would help pay for all the house-related costs, but without the repairs, no one could live up there.
Doubts crept in. We’re in over our heads, I would muse as I pushed the lawnmower around. Maybe this time, we were caught between who we were and who we believed ourselves to be.
But when I worried about going over a cliff, Ann reminded me: Haunted houses aren’t real. None of us has cancer. No one is dead on a battlefield. It’s a house.
It’s only a house.
THERE WAS ANOTHER systemic oddity at Pine Street.
Our first summer there, a thunderstorm ripped through, and the power guttered, blinked out, then came back to life after a minute or two. Everything returned to normal, except that in the kitchen, the light in the breezeway wouldn’t come back on.
The lights had buttons instead of switches because the house ran on a low-voltage electrical wiring system that had been fashionable in the 1950s. I pressed the button repeatedly, in the pointless way people jab at call buttons for slow-moving elevators. When that didn’t work, I changed the bulb. Still nothing.
About 10 days later, another storm hit, and the power went off for an hour. That night, Ann pressed the button to extinguish the row of recessed lights in the hallway leading to the bedrooms, and nothing happened. Now those lights wouldn’t turn off.
We looked at each other and shook our heads. We’d seen a lot from Pine Street, but this was new. We were too tired to puzzle through it, so the lights stayed on that night. The next day, unable to make any headway, Ann switched off the fuse.
Over time, certain lights in different parts of the house continued to misfire in this way—either they wouldn’t turn on or they wouldn’t shut off. Finally we called the only electrician we could find who serviced low-voltage electrical systems.
We’d had complicated experiences with servicemen. Ann fixed, replaced, patched, painted, and caulked, but when problems extended beyond her capabilities, she would invite in the appropriate specialist. Most seemed fascinated by our one-of-a-kind features: our stainless-steel gutters, our gargantuan leak-prone chimney, the oddly sized windows. One roofing guy, after looking the place over, turned to Ann and declared, “My God, this place is a money pit.” A SubZero repairman cringed when he saw our ancient refrigerator, saying he’d done all he could for that unit for the previous owner. (We resorted in the fridge’s final days to stuffing bags of ice in the freezer to help it stay cold, like nurses treating a fevered patient.) He beseeched Ann not to call again.
After some reconnaissance, the electrician said he couldn’t identify the electrical problem without probing further. He offered a choice: He could try to solve the issue at $80 per hour, or he could tear everything out and rewire the house for $8,000.
It was an easy call. There was no eight grand lying around, so he arrived the next morning in sleuth mode. His
presence over the next couple of days continually reminded me of how we were perpetually backsliding, one problem solved only to have a bigger one appear. Ann’s to-do lists seemed to grow no matter how many items she crossed off. It was like the Red Witch told Alice, marooned in Wonderland: “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.”
We had never been good savers— we always prioritized experiences instead—and so, with no other choice, we started the great American credit shell game, shuffling balances from one credit card to another, lower-interest account. To keep us from falling off the back of the treadmill, I focused on two things: working, and worrying. To try to cover the gaping crevasses opening in our finances, I started a second book and took freelance jobs. For a time, I started working every morning at 5 and didn’t stop until 6:30 at night. This helped keep the wheels on, but the cost in other ways was immeasurable.
I spent weeks pushing into exhaustion. I felt sour and besieged, at once a victim and a tormentor, quizzing Ann about the upstairs renovation, reminding her about our proximity to the abyss. I mumbled through or declined calls from family and friends hoping for a friendly catch-up.
One evening, plummeting toward a low point, I sat down to dinner. Ann had made a pasta dish, and as we were about to eat, she noticed she had a fork she didn’t like and, since I’d set the table, asked me for another one. This was a thing; she was particular about her cutlery. Normally we bantered about this idiosyncrasy. But this time, I snapped. With everything going on, I asked, were we really in a position to be picky about our flatware? And why wasn’t she concerned about anyone else eating with inferior cutlery? I held up my own fork as exhibit A: Did no one happen to inquire whether I was okay with my mine?
Ann smirked. “Like you care,” she said.
This infuriated me. “I’m serious,” I said. “No one cares, right? I just take whatever—no one bothers to ask. No one bothers, period. I want you to just ask, one time, which fork I want. Once.”
I was almost shouting. And I was both there and not—looking back, it’s like I was hovering over the room, at some level aware of the absurdity of what I was doing. Yet in that moment, I was willing to die on that hill.
A long, painful, elastic silence ensued. I poured myself a third glass of wine.
Later that night, Ann pulled me aside: “What is with you?” she said, cornering me. I waved her off, disappeared into the folds of our couch.
This became a pattern: me checking out, marinating in my misery, Ann dropping by to ask if I wanted to connect. She tried to get me to do yoga with her. “Let me think about it,” I’d say—code for no.
Later, I lay awake alone until the small hours, my headspace a grand opera of imagined catastrophe. I envisioned standing in the driveway next to piles of furniture, orange foreclosure stickers over the front door. I imagined telling Vaughn he would have to rely on predatory loans for college. I obsessed over every step in our life’s journey: How could we have nothing saved at this stage of life? How could we have taken such a reckless gamble?
And so we repaired the house but incurred damage elsewhere. I stayed in my tunnel, using work as a cudgel and a permanent hall pass.
It wasn’t that I wanted things to stay broken; I just wasn’t sure anymore what could be fixed. Those weirdly fickle light switches, for example. The electrician puzzled for two days over our low-voltage system. It seemed that the harder he worked to unravel the rogue wiring, the more he found himself at a loss. At the end of it, he slumped into our kitchen and told Ann that we had the most impenetrable tangle he’d ever seen.
She thanked him and paid him for his time, and that was the way Pine Street stayed—with some lights that worked all the time and others not at all.
We were a house divided, and permanently darkened. I still didn’t blame Pine Street, though. No haunted houses, only haunted people.
The problem was, I was becoming one of them.
I still didn’t blame Pine Street. No haunted houses, only haunted people. The problem was, I was becoming one of them.
IN 1970, AROUND the time he published Sagittarius, Bob Swinehart took over as president of his fatherin-law’s construction company, building homes around the valley. He continued with his exhibitions, and readers of local newspapers and archery magazines awaited stories from his next adventure.
But none came. This may have been partly due to Swinehart’s newfound responsibilities. There was more to it, though: He and June split, and he moved to the second-floor apartment, with its dedicated entrance. Friends noticed that the irrepressible natural showman seemed moody, isolated, and volatile. Swinehart avoided hanging around camp with his hunting companions after they’d finished for the day; he preferred to go off and sleep alone in the bush.
In 1974, the local paper ran an auction notice: He was unloading many of his things, including his 1949 RollsRoyce Bentley, spears, ostrich eggs, and a “Real Elephant foot bar stool.” The
house, with all its eccentricities, would soon be occupied by someone else.
Swinehart kept only his most prized possessions from his hunts— his collection of taxidermied animals, heads, tusks, skins, and artifacts from his eight safaris—which he would store with family in Pottstown, Pennsylvania. He and a new fiancée, Catherine, were heading deep into the jungle of Gabon to study gorillas for the yet-tobe-determined future.
If Swinehart felt ambivalent about liquidating his trophy life, he didn’t let on during an interview with a local newspaper reporter. “For the first time in my life,” he said, “I can totally forget everything and do what I want.”
Little went as planned. Swinehart returned after a year or two in Africa and was feted at a 1977 event held by a local bowhunters’ club. He and Catherine had two children, but their marriage soon began to come undone. There were no further articles about archery in Africa.
Swinehart eventually landed in Ohio, working for a tree company. Eventually he moved back east to Pottstown, suffering from what police chief James Rodgers later described as “mental health problems.”
On a frigid day in January 1982, he received shattering news: His brother, Dave, a successful real estate developer in Pottstown, had been bludgeoned and stabbed to death outside the home of his estranged wife, Patty. Bob vowed to track down the killer, but the truth took nearly a decade to untangle: Police would allege that Patty had conspired with Thomas and Jeffrey DeBlase, her nephews through marriage, to kill her husband so she could collect more than $500,000 in life insurance. The DeBlase brothers were convicted of murder, but Patty was acquitted in 1994.
Just after the murder, Bob Swinehart’s sister, Karen, checked him into Philadelphia Veteran’s Hospital for an indefinite stay. Four months later, he left the hospital on his first furlough. He asked his mother, Viola, to bring him to the Swinehart Building in Pottstown, one of his late brother’s properties. It was a Monday afternoon,
May 10, 1982. Swinehart, then 54 years old, said he wanted to look over personal belongings he’d stored there.
It seemed like a natural thing, mourning and processing his brother’s loss by sifting through the artifacts of his life. Maybe Swinehart was trying to find his way back to himself. But when he didn’t return after a while, Viola grew worried and asked for help.
The search ended quickly, back at the Swinehart Building. He had located among his possessions his .243 caliber hunting rifle. As Swinehart had done so many times during his adventures, the legendary hunter had hefted his weapon, steadied it, and, one last time, fired. Once again, his aim was deadly accurate.
AS THE YEARS PASSED, we invited friends to stay upstairs in exchange for help fixing the space. Ray erected a few walls and installed insulation and drywall; Joe rebuilt and tiled the kitchen and bathroom, among other foundational improvements. Having the second floor occupied for the first time made me think more about Swinehart, made me wonder: What kind of guy builds a house like this?
I began asking around. One of Swinehart’s old friends, Wilmer Schultz, told of traveling to Chicago with “Bobby,” partying with him, having dinner as a foursome with their wives. He knew of Swinehart’s precipitous descent. “I think he went berserk,” Schultz said. “In the last couple of years he wasn’t the same Bob Swinehart I knew when Evelyn and I used to go down there.”
But when I pressed for an explanation, Schultz demurred, saying they’d drifted apart by then.
I read Sagittarius, with its hagiographic narratives and cartoonish ethnographies, and I dug up articles Swinehart had written. I wanted to know not just the particulars of what he did, but why. It seemed important in a way I couldn’t identify.
Maybe, partly, it was the realization, as I learned more about him, that in certain ways he and I were eerily alike. Swinehart was a travel writer; I had been one, too. We both had outdoorsoriented childhoods, both loved hiking and camping. We were virtually the same age, around 42, when our first books were published. And we were both in our 40s and living on Pine Street when our lives started to fray.
Was he disappointed that his writing career fizzled after Sagittarius? Did his obsessions derail his life? Did his trophy house become his anchor?
Maybe if I understood everything about him, I could avoid his fate. Maybe by telling his story, I could objectify my own—pull it outside myself so I could study it, and illuminate larger truths about what was happening, about what I was doing, and why. My own precarious descent came at a steep cost: Ann and I were becoming increasingly distant. She couldn’t understand how I had become so dark, so work-obsessed, and she took it as rejection.
We began to face the fact that we were no longer a team in the same way—that the house had formed a wedge between us. On a hike one wintry day, Ann told me she didn’t know if she wanted to be married to someone who was so obsessed about work and the house, at the expense of everything else. I shrugged and said, if that’s the way you feel, well then.
One day, two men stopped in. Deano Farkas was a hunter who had admired Swinehart throughout his life; Lawson Heckman was one of Bob’s old friends. They wanted to run a metal detector around the backyard, look for coins Swinehart had used for target practice. Toward the end of the visit, Heckman mentioned that Bob had seemed haunted. He said Swinehart had confided in him about his Korean War service—that at one point Bob was given the harrowing task of repatriating battlefield casualties. In winter, that meant collecting bodies that were frozen as they’d fallen. As a “cracker,” he sometimes had to snap them out of hunched positions to load them, Heckman recalled.
That wasn’t all. Heckman also said Swinehart had been questioned in
David Swinehart’s murder—because allegedly the brothers had engaged in some sort of dispute over a piece of land prior to the killing. The police, according to the story Heckman says Swinehart told him, had taken Bob in for several lengthy interrogations, including one that lasted a full night.
A few years later, I spoke to Swinehart’s daughter, Lisa Weida, who said that her father had suffered from bipolar disorder. This may have explained Swinehart’s boundless energy and insatiable hunger for adventure—and also his struggles with paranoia and despondency, which would grow so profound, she said, that he was at times unable to take basic care of himself. The condition remained undiagnosed for years, and even after doctors identified his illness, the conquering hunter would neither own up to his suffering nor accept treatment. “We knew he needed help,” Weida says. “But he refused to go to a doctor.”
It seemed that even the people close to Swinehart couldn’t agree on his undoing. The blunt-force trauma of war, the devastating aftermath of his brother’s murder, an untreated mental illness—any one of those things could have dragged him toward an abyss. In combination, they may have conspired to nudge him over the edge. Nearly 40 years on, we may never know the full truth. The swirling mysteries surrounding his death form an apt coda to a life that—even while he embraced a kind of minor celebrity—was largely hidden from view.
His greatest passion and escape was hunting. But with all his demons— actual, inherited, and imagined—baying at his heels, he might have felt as if he was the one being stalked.
IN AUTUMN OF 2018, we put the house up for sale. We were weary of doing battle with it, each in our own way, and we wanted to return to more of an urban setting. That was part of the story, at least. Ann later said she wanted to get rid of the house so that we might take one last stab at finding our way back to each other.
She sealed off the miniature doors so that the place didn’t seem quite as strange and disassembled the ladder to the false chimney. The hatch and panic room were no longer accessible.
The new owners closed on the house almost nine years to the day after we bought it.
It’s funny what you get used to. All you can do is live in the space you have in the time you have it, navigating the obstacles you encounter. Every night, going to bed, I had negotiated that hallway where we’d turned off the circuit breaker, plunging it into permanent darkness. Sometimes I’d use my phone to illuminate the way, but often I’d just grope along the walls, around the corner, and through the doorway, occasionally tripping over a stray shoe or dog toy but otherwise relying on my brain’s mapping. In many ways, years later, I’m still feeling my way along.
ROUGHLY THIRTEEN HUNDRED people gathered in Indianapolis in January 2000 to honor that year’s inductees into the Archery Hall of Fame. The 50th person to be enshrined, 18 years after his death, was Bob Swinehart. AHF president Dave Staples told Swinehart’s hometown newspaper that the induction “was long overdue.”
He added: “Sagittarius took archery out of the cornfield and made it global.”
In the audience were 19 members of the Swinehart clan, including five of his six children. “I remember Daddy shooting in the backyard a lot, not because he had to practice but because he so loved shooting the bow,” his daughter, Lisa, told the assemblage. “My father left us all with a love of wildlife, adventure, and the outdoors.”
The complexities of his life and his suicide went unaddressed: The irony that a man who consistently dodged death while hunting couldn’t survive himself—couldn’t flee the darkness that stalked his mind.
Instead, the hall and the people there embraced Swinehart’s legacy as a trailblazer and storyteller, a man who was unafraid to risk everything to chase a kind of immortality. Maybe, finally, all those years later, he’d reached the place he was always trying to go.
WE MOVED TO A CITY hundreds of miles away where the air is salty and the winters are long, and rented a place where someone else fixes the furnace when it conks out. But we couldn’t escape the oppressive shadow of the house, and eventually, last year, Ann and I split up. In many ways both literal and metaphorical, we’ve moved on.
But I still go back to Pine Street in my mind. There’s no limit to what I’ll do when I’m there because, finally, all the work is done. Sometimes I’ll stand by the above-ground pool in the backyard that 6-year-old Vaughn loves to flop into. He’ll pop up with his red hair plastered around his glowing, freckled face. “Dad!” he’ll yell. “Jump in!” After that we’ll throw a football around, the spirals dropping effortlessly into his hands as he glides past the big maple.
When we’re done, I’ll sit out back with Ann, sipping a glass of wine, admiring the way she’d spruced up the patio. We’ll be bathed in the late-afternoon light that washes over Pennsylvania toward the end of summer, when the world seems to be made of molten gold and spun cotton, and soon friends from around town will drift in and join us. Sam will make a toast, and Jeremy will tell a funny story that has everyone doubled over.
We’ll stay up most of the night, eating and talking, reveling in the company and in the fullness of our lives, the chatter and laughter bouncing back to us off the thick walls, and the glow from strings of lights forming a protective circle until everyone finally drifts away home in the gray of pre-dawn.
Somewhere in there, I’ll put my hand on Ann’s shoulder and she’ll look up at me. Then, nodding toward the table in front of us and the trees and grass and fence beyond, she’ll say, “This was such a good idea.”