08/16/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Recession And A Fire Reunite Estranged Father And Son

Christopher Hardin, 54, wrote the Huffington Post to say he'd found a bright side to long-term unemployment. He'd become friends with his estranged father.

How'd that happen?

I worked for my cousin's auction business in Pennsylvania for two and a half years, loading and unloading trucks. I lost a lot of weight, built muscle, and learned antiques. In 2007 my back was giving me trouble, so I had to quit. I managed to find a job delivering paint, and then housing market started to collapse, people stopped ordering paint. So I got laid off from that. It was a good job with benefits, overtime.

And then I couldn't find work again. My cousin's dad said I could live in his farm house up in Myerstown. He said I wouldn't have to pay any rent. All I'd have to do is some maintenance.

Like what?

Feeding hounds, keeping poachers off. The farmhouse had been broken into a number of times. My cousin wanted me to be a presence on the property. I was taking care of feral cats. And there was a guy that had 20 cows in the field. If something went wrong with a cow I'd give him a call. Time went by and I couldn't find work in the tri-city area.

In the meantime I started buying stuff to put on eBay. I'd go to my cousin's auction and spend $100 and put stuff on eBay. I tried to double my money, and sometimes I did. But I was barely able to hang on to electric, cable, DSL -- that was $125 a month, but I had to have that because I didn't know anybody around there and had to be able to call long distance. But before the fire, I pretty much had it down.

What fire?

Last winter I had to deal entirely with wood fuel because oil was $4 a gallon. I made enough to keep buying wood to heat the house. It was a very, very old house and it hadn't been remodeled since the early '60s. On the night of December 18, I went to bed as usual after I checked the stove. I had hot coals in there to keep the temperature up, but it wasn't a roaring fire or anything like that.

All of a sudden at 4 a.m. I hear this guy knocking on the door. This guy is screaming, "You got to come out here, your house is on fire!" There's this huge flame coming up the chimney but it hasn't gone into the house yet. The chimney had creosote in it. I tried to unplug my computer but I could see the smoke coming into my office. It's like watching a cloud form in front of me. So then I realize, "Where's my cat?" I run downstairs and bring the cat carrier to the living room, which is starting to smoke up, and something blows up upstairs. I guess it was my computer, so I grab the cat and run outside with it.

I like your priorities.

But then I remembered a Christmas card with a $50 bill on my coffee table so I ran in to get that, too, because I knew I was going to need it! I came back outside and all I could do was wait for the tanker trucks to show up.

How far did that fifty bucks get you?

I didn't have the money to even drive to an interview. I realized I was going to move down to my dad's house in North Carolina.

My dad and I had been estranged for about 20 years. He's an old guy, 79, set in his ways. After his third wife divorced him he gave up on marriage. I get down here and his house is full of junk, just stuff he's bought at flea markets, and it's like a sea of plastic bags with cheap electronics. All kinds of stuff that people buy that they don't need. Plastic Chinese talking electronics and data organizers and every room in the house was filled up. He had a little trail going through his kitchen. His bathtub was full, too. The only thing he could reach was his toilet. Even his sink was full of stuff.

He used to be an antique collector, but he'd become a hoarder of cheap electronics. So I called an auctioneer, they came and picked up everything and they got $10,000 and took 25 percent. We paid off some bills, put some money back into the house.

And you guys get along well now?

When you get to be his age, you express your opinion, you don't care who disagrees with you. But as father and son, we've gotten closer. It's two older generations living together.

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