HERCULANEUM, Mo. -- In an area where traditions and memories are disappearing as families leave and their houses are torn down, Elmer "Red" Meng, 82, is holding on.
Kissing his wife was the first thing he did when he woke up in the morning and the last thing he did before he went to bed in the room, in the house and on the street where they lived together for 53 years.
Now, he kisses her pillow.
"Good morning, honey. I miss you, I love you and I pray you are with Mary and Jesus in paradise with your family and friends," is the prayer he recites to his wife of 60 years, Dorothy "Dot" Marie, who died in December 2005.
Red's home is in the shadow of Doe Run Co.'s giant lead smelter and within the voluntary buyout zone, where the company has been buying and demolishing homes in recent years to create a buffer zone around its smelter. About 170 houses were eligible for the buyout program, part of an agreement between the company and state regulators. There had been growing concern about lead contamination in this Mississippi River town.
Only a handful of homes remain standing in the buyout zone. All of the houses on Red's street are gone, and he rents his house from the company. A life estate policy is in place, which guarantees Red can continue to rent the home for as long as he wants, said Aaron Miller, environmental director for Doe Run's Missouri Operations.
Miller said that once Red does leave, the house likely will be demolished. "We knew he was a permanent resident. He didn't want to leave. And we didn't want to make him."
Red admits his love for the house didn't come at first sight, like his love for his wife did. Red -- who earned his nickname from his once fiery red hair -- was on furlough from the Army during World War II when he first saw Dot at the Pevely Rendezvous, a popular hangout back then. The two agreed to date when he returned.
He spent 87 days as a POW and married Dot shortly after he came home in 1945.
In 1952, the Mengs bought the two-story structure from the St. Louis Archdiocese, which was using it as a convent for teachers. The Mengs paid $4,200 for the house and $800 for a lot behind it.
The couple spent much of their first few years in the house making it their own.
"There's a part of Dot in every room of this house," he said. "I don't want to go someplace and lose that."