Packed with memories, veteran’s Johnston home saved

A tree nearly totaled Bernie Pavia’s house, but a small group of dedicated workers have helped salvage the building, and the 91-year-old living inside

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Earlier this week, Bernard “Bernie” Pavia kneeled down to play with his trainset.

He laid the track out in a circle at the trunk of his bright white Christmas tree, and crawled up close to the locomotive like a curious child sneaking up on Santa Claus.

A year ago, a fallen tree made his Forest Drive home practically uninhabitable. He nearly lost all his possessions as melting snow leaked through the roof and down his walls, saturating more than nine decades of memories.

A piece of plastic fell from the ceiling, knocking Pavia out cold. His memories from that night are cloudy and conflicted.

Pavia, a veteran of the Korean War, has been suffering the past two years, since old age claimed his longtime girlfriend Fran, and then, soon after, a storm stole his home.

“I’m so lonely lately,” he said, tears filling up the pouches under his eyes and spilling down his lightly creased cheeks. “But I’m so grateful for all of you.”

Pavia reached toward his newfound benefactors; a crew of contractors, tree service professionals and a fellow veteran on a mission to help aging veterans who may not have anyone else.

“Last Christmas, one of these trees came through Bernie’s roof and just totaled his house,” said Jim Collins, president and founder of Burrillville-based New Englanders Helping Our Veterans. “We had to wait for warmer weather, but now Bernie has a new rubber roof, a new upstairs, new wiring, new walls, and a new ceiling.”

The project’s almost complete and Pavia has a home again.

He erected his Christmas tree and started working on his train. He’s still lonely, but the old house is starting to feel like home again.

“You’d never know he was in his 90s, but when this happened, Bernie aged 10 years,” Collins recalled. “Now that we’re almost done, he gained his 10 years back, plus five.”

N.E. Building & Restoration LLC Project Manager Chanya Sae-Eaw and Owner David Rosati have spent hundreds of hours helping Pavia restore his home of more than 60 years to livability.

They handled the typical contracting responsibilities, but according to Collins, went far above and beyond, helping Pavia restore his fading memories.

Sae-Eaw helped Paiva find rolls of unused wallpaper hidden among his belongs. Together, they pieced together enough wallpaper to cover a living room wall.

“It was like putting a puzzle together,” Sae-Eaw said.

Pavia and his first wife, Roberta, first hung the yellow floral print 40 or 50 years ago. Memories are embedded in that wallpaper; memories Pavia wasn’t ready to forget.

When Collins first met Pavia, the 91-year-old veteran was attempting to save a small family of cats. Several months later, when they next saw each other, the Johnston man was all by himself, carrying buckets of snowmelt from his living room and spilling them outside.

The encroaching snowmelt kept the spry veteran working day and night; sending him outside in freezing temperatures while bearing heavy buckets of water and walking across an icy path. He counted the trips — 18 buckets per hour.

Collins brought in huge plastic garbage cans and helped hook up a sump-pump to mechanically drain the water outside.

A series of Band-Aid approaches finally led to architectural healing. Collins helped find Rosati to handle the contracting.

He sought out the services of Cranston-based North Eastern Tree Service, to help clear the property of dangerous hanging limbs and towering dead trunks — John Lynch, the company’s director of health and safety, and Regional Manager Matthew Cook were on-scene Tuesday, amid the buzzing of chainsaws and plops of heavy wood hitting the rain-soaked earth.

Collins and Rosati helped Pavia deal with the insurance company. They fought growing mold inside the home and fixed up a temporary living space in the basement. Pavia refused to relocate to a hotel, despite his insurance company offering to pick up the tab.

“If he stayed at a hotel, he might not be here right now,” Collins said. “He’d be too depressed. He wants to live in his neighborhood, where he takes his walks and knows all his neighbors.”

In the 1950s, Pavia joined the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) and said he reached the rank of staff sergeant by the end of his service. He also served in the National Guard.

“I wish I still had my uniforms,” Pavia said with longing. “I threw them out a long time ago.”

Those who meet Pavia are usually surprised to learn his age. He walks with bounce and talks with passion. The past two years, though, he’ll admit, have not been easy.

“I have a hard time climbing the stairs,” he said Tuesday morning. “Some days it’s tough getting out of bed.”

“Well, you’ve had a lot of stress over the last year,” Collins told him.

Pavia has no problem getting down on his knees to inspect the train track and the stubborn engine.

He picked it up, spun a wheel underneath and smiled.

“It doesn’t work right anymore,” he laughed. “Just like me!”

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