John Grogg built much of this house 30 years ago. He made furniture.
"There wasn't much he couldn't do,'' said his wife, Arlene.
He crafted a porch out of cypress wood and proudly accepted compliments from his many friends in Rotary, the Jaycees and the Knights of Columbus. John and Arlene spent many an evening relaxing there beneath dozens of large trees.
This house on Old Trail in New Port Richey was much bigger than anything they had known — about 2,300 square feet with a large yard. They needed the space for three sons: Brian, Matthew and Mark.
Especially Matthew. His wheelchair required special access.
Matthew had been perfectly normal until his seventh month when he developed a bowel obstruction. During surgery, his temperature shot up to 107 degrees. He suffered brain damage so severe he would never be able to talk or take care of himself.
John and Arlene took it in stride. They bought a van and outfitted it for Matthew's wheelchair. They took him fishing and camping and everywhere else. John went to an organizational meeting of the fledgling Pasco Association for Retarded Citizens and they made him president.
"They never complained,'' said John Grey, a longtime New Port Richey Realtor who served with Grogg in service clubs. "They were always there to help somebody else.''
Life was often hard for John and Arlene Grogg, but these would be their best days.
• • •
How can one woman suffer so much and still keep going?
Arlene, now 68, has asked herself that question many times, especially during the last seven years. Mark, who had worked in the family's A and J Heating & Air Conditioning Co., died from heart disease on June 1, 2002. He was 31.
Two years later, John lay in a hospital bed fighting lung cancer. Arlene went to visit him, and he seemed to be getting better. He talked about coming home. A few hours later, a doctor called to say John had died. He was 64.
"I was in shock,'' she said. "John didn't smoke, so we never did know how he got lung cancer. And then his death was just so sudden. I kept thinking that at least I got to kiss him goodbye at the hospital.''
Their friends gathered around her. "My angels,'' she calls them. "They've been there each time.''
Too many times.
By now, Matthew had taken up residence at the Angelus, a nonprofit home in Hudson for profoundly handicapped people. This was a blessing for Arlene, who had to run the business.
Brian, the first-born son, helped. But he had his own problems. "He weighed 500 pounds,'' Arlene said, "but he still worked every day.''
Until he died on Nov. 2, 2007 with a bleeding ulcer. He was 43.
"That finished me,'' Arlene said. "I couldn't go on with the business. It was like losing my right arm.'' A and J Heating & Air Conditioning closed after 37 years.
But once again, her "angels'' circled, brought her food, gave her money and comfort. She had worked 25 years as a cashier for Winn-Dixie, mainly so she could keep health insurance. She used that experience to get a job at the Dollar General Market.
When most people are retiring, Arlene was back punching the clock 40 hours a week.
"I have to eat,'' she said.
At least she still had her house.
• • •
Shortly after 11 p.m. on July 30, Darrell Lawson woke up in the home on Old Trail to the smell of smoke. "The house was on fire,'' he said. "I mean it was already blazing and popping. It was like a war zone.''
He felt his way along a hallway and found his fiance, Heather Lutz, who is Arlene's granddaughter, and their 5-month-old daughter, Elizabeth. Lawson ran around back to Arlene's bedroom and shattered her window. But by then, she had already started toward the front door.
She tripped and fell over the baby's swing.
"My legs are weak, and normally if I fall, I can't get up without help,'' she said. "I thought, 'I'm not going to make it.' But God was looking out for me, I guess. I got to the front door and a neighbor grabbed me and pulled me out.''
Arlene said she looked like a chimney sweep. Her hair was singed and she had burns on her nose, lips, neck and hands. She spent one day in the hospital. "They wanted to keep me another night but I told them no, I had to get to work.''
Last week, she stepped lightly around the back yard while an insurance adjuster worked inside the gutted structure. Everything inside the house was ruined, including precious family pictures. She said the fire was "electrical'' and started on the porch.
The cypress wood that John Grogg's friends had so admired all those years ago had gone up in flames.
And there was another loss: "We never found the poor little dog,'' Arlene said.
• • •
At Bayonet Point Engine, Randy and Pam Chiavaroli's garage in Hudson, Taco earned this title:
"He greeted all the customers,'' Pam said. "Everybody loved Taco.''
But nobody more than Joey Chiavaroli, 13. Taco, a Chihuahua/Jack Russell terrier mix, was Joey's constant companion for six years. Taco wore a cape with the words "Service Dog'' on it, so he could get into restaurants and other places where dogs aren't usually allowed.
"Taco looked after Joey,'' his mom said, "and he'd get in between Joey and anybody he thought might be trouble.''
On July 30, Joey was at the Wheelchair Sports USA national championships in St. Louis. Joey was born with spina bifida and depends on a wheelchair to get around. He has become a decorated athlete in track and field, table tennis, swimming and archery.
Joey and his parents figured they'd be too busy in St. Louis to look after Taco, so they left him with Darrell Lawson, who works in the engine shop.
On the night of the fire, Lawson called the Chiavarolis. "We all just fell apart from the news,'' Pam said. "We still can't believe Taco is gone.''
Last Wednesday, Joey met a new companion, a skittish year-old Chihuahua that had been abandoned in a Tennessee motel. Joey found him on the Internet at petfinder.com. He'll have to learn how to ride on Joey's back during races like Taco did. And he'll need a cape. Taco's burned.
But he does have a name: Taco II.
• • •
Meanwhile, Arlene Grogg has moved into a small apartment at Carlton Arms. She expects a new house to rise on the scorched lot on Old Trail, "but I don't need one so big,'' she said.
Last week her 1996 Lincoln Town Car with 130,000 miles needed repairs. A friend loaned her a small pickup truck so she could get to work. Arlene had left her hearing aids on a table inside the burning house, so the Sertoma Club came to her rescue.
And she recalls what her husband used to say when things got bad: God never gives you more than you can bear.
"I just wonder when it's going to end.''
Bill Stevens is the editor of the Pasco edition of the St. Petersburg Times. You can reach him at (727) 869-6250 or by email at email@example.com.