He couldn't wait to leave it when he was a wild, restless boy more than half a century ago, but you'd never know it by the wistful look on Merle Haggard's face Tuesday, when he returned to the house of memories built by his father in Oildale in 1935.
"It's been a long time," said Haggard, 77, accompanied by his wife, youngest son, Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood and the two sisters leading an effort to move the humble -- partially disassembled -- home to the Kern County Museum.
"It would mean quite a bit to the family name to have it over there."
Haggard was in town on the chilly gray morning to give what may be his last once-over to the home at its original location, on Yosemite Drive just south of Norris Road. Following a breakfast of oatmeal at Zingo's Cafe, the country music icon was delivered via tour bus to the approximately 700-square-foot structure, which consists of a converted Santa Fe boxcar at its heart with additions erected by his father in the front and back.
"I grew up here with intentions of escaping," said Haggard, who was eager to discover if any remnant of his childhood lay underneath the raised foundation of the structure.
Entering through the alley, just a few feet from the back of the house, Haggard stepped up into the tiny bedroom where he used to sleep.
"It seems much smaller now," Haggard remarked to his wife, Theresa, as construction workers kept a respectful, hushed distance.
"It's my first time here," said Mrs. Haggard. "He's pretty emotional."
Haggard guessed Tuesday's visit was his first inside the home since 1972.
"I remember sleeping out in the front yard in summertime," he said. "We didn't have air conditioning and it was too hot to sleep inside.
"A million things have changed. It's hard to single out. I remember the alley, the railroad tracks. Nothing here looks like it did then. This was a neighborhood that wasn't old then."
But the neighborhood has indeed aged. Haggard family photos from the 1940s show a manicured and spacious lawn and well-kept home.
"When Flossie lived here, I remember it was before the front house was built," said Merle's nephew, Jim Haggard, 63, referring to his grandmother. "She rode the bus to Quality Meats on Chester every day. She was my baby-sitter and I was over here all the time. It was a nice place."
On Tuesday morning, dogs roamed the streets as neighbors rushed to work, confused by the hubbub. Laura Alcantar, who has lived across the street for eight years, had never heard of the country star but the pieces fell into place once she was informed that Haggard is widely regarded as the greatest country artist who ever lived.
"No wonder they're cleaning up everything," she said.
The smell of old wood -- damp and acrid -- hung in the air as crews continued the process of carefully dismantling the additions. The boxcar will be moved to the museum intact, but the additional rooms will be torn down and reassembled, board by board -- all of which have been numbered.
"Somebody's going to have a fun time putting it back together," said Gary Kauk, who with his business partner, Steve Moreland, is donating much of the labor through their construction company, S&L Building.
Contingent on moving the boxcar home is the construction of a replacement residence for the Himes family, which Kauk and Moreland will help build. For now, Steven Himes is living with his mother, partner, nephew and pit bull in the 850-square-foot, two-bedroom home at the front of the property. It's a tight squeeze, and Himes' mother is anxious for the boxcar home to be hauled away and the new dwelling built, though she admits to mixed feelings.
"I loved having the house because I could brag," said Marie Himes, who has paid $353.96 a month for shelter and bragging rights for nearly 15 years. She hopes to have the property paid off by next year.
"I don't have anything to brag about now."
But the Himes' loss is Haggard's gain -- or, more to the point, his fans' gain.
"On behalf of the family, it's a wonderful thing," Haggard said before leaving the property for the Kern County Museum, where he was to tour potential sites for the boxcar home.
"The ladies have taken their time and effort to see it's done. All thanks goes to them."