The letter last month from Montgomery County's director of elderly housing told 70 year-old Naomi Beck that she had 30 days to remove some of the beds, refrigerators, lamps, desks, chairs and chests that posed serious safety hazards in her crowded two-bedroom apartment in Silver Spring.
Beck and her 68-year-old husband, William, both near-invalids, felt they would be evicted from the subsidized apartment if they did not company. But when they started to clear the apartment, Beck's husband broke his ankle and Beck herself became distraught, "I was on the verge," she said, "of committing suicide."
Instead, after regaining her composure, Beck picked up the phone and enlisted the help of politically influential friends in Atlanta, Ga., officials at the White House, and representatives of Sen. Charles Mathias, U.S. Rep. Mike Barnes and Maryland Gov. Harry Hughes.
The officials were touched and outranged by what they felt was a prime example of insensitivity toward the elderly. Several staffers from Barnes' office showed up this week to rearrange furniture at apartment 1014 at 1400 Fenwick Lane. And a White House staffer promised to arrive there this weekend to move household items and set up Beck's breathalyzer.
But to elderly-housing director Patricia A. Kelley, the whole controversy has been "a collosal misunderstanding."
"It was the bad guys against the good guys," Kelley said, "and we weren't wearing the white hats. I've got heaps of phone messages from all over the country about Mrs. Beck that I haven't been able to answer yet."
The sage involving Beck, a South Carolina native with ties to President Carter's network of Georgia friends and advisers, began last April when she and her husband moved into the Silver Spring building, one of seven government subsidized housing developments in Montgomery for elderly citizens.
With the Becks came three refrigerator freezers, three hospital beds, 10 lamps, and dozens of crates and boxes containing excess appliances, books, dishes and other household items. Some of the wares dated from the time Beck was a little girl growing up on a South Carolina plantation.
"I'm not about to part with any of the things," she said yesterday. "No one can make me."
But the tiny, $200-a-month apartment was so crammed with furnishings that resident manager Sylvia Denis said, "I couldn't sleep nights thinking about what would happen if there was an emergency."
Beck is suffering from a lung ailment and her husband has had two heart attacks in the last three years. Kelley said she visited the Becks' apartment several times and told them about the hazard. She sent a fellow worker to the apartment to help the Becks move their belongings.
Usually, Kelley said, elderly tenants hire workers to move furnishings. "We realize it's hard for elderly people to move into apartments from house situations and part with some of their belongings," she went on. "We provide all the assistance we can . . . But the Becks wouldn't or couldn't comply."
So Kelley sent the letter Aug. 14. "There was nothing in it about eviction whatsoever. It was meant to be a more direct way of telling them that something had to be done . . . We cared about their safety."
Earlier this week William Beck broke his ankle trying to lift a crate of books, his wife said.
That was the last straw, she said, "I wasn't going to let those people push me around." She called Atlanta attorney Pierre Howard Jr., son of the late Pierre Howard Sr., a prominent Southern lawyer and friend of President Carter.
"I went to school with Pierre Sr.," she said, "and his son said he wouldn't let me down."
Pierre Howard Jr., in fact, phoned White House friend Steven Schoob. "One of Mr. Howard's last requests was that we look out for Naomi," Schoob said.
While Schoob was promising Beck that he would see her this weekend, Beck was on the line with other officials.
"It seemed to us like a pathetic situation," said Carolyn Neal, case worker for Rep. Barnes. "Our receptionist and other volunteers went over there and helped her out. But please don't tell anybody about this or else we'll be in the moving business for everybody."
Another official remarked: "Mrs. Beck calls up all the time, dropping names like flies. She apparently feels she's a Southern belle who deserves better than she's getting."
Kelley, meanwhile, was being inundated by phone calls concerning Beck's plight.
"It's a pity that people don't care as much about all the elderly, as they do about Mrs. Beck," she said. "She has made requests concerning changes in her apartment that we couldn't begin to do. As it is, she is in the best apartment we can offer."
Contrary to building policy, Kelley decided yesterday to make special allowances for Beck. Beck said she needed an extra freezer to store food in the winter when "outside air is so heavy, I just can't breathe."
Kelley said she can have it. The extra bed will still have to go, but Kelley is allowing Beck to keep the lamps, chairs and other items. The apartment is still crowed with furnishings, but there is enough space to walk from room to room.
"As far as I'm concerned it's still a fire trap," Kelley said. "But I really don't want them to be unhappy.
Beck yesterday sat beneath a yellow and red afghan in her apartment and wept while recalling her ordeal during the last two weeks.
"I hope other people don't have to go through what I've been through," she said. "It's enough to make you cry."