Friday, December 30, 2005

The Basement Part I

The Basement Part I

The year was 1953: it cost 3 cents to mail a letter and 3 cents to mail a postcard, including the postcard; Gasoline was 29 cents a gallon with an attendant pumping gas for you and washing your windshield; air and water were still free at a filling station; Miss America was Heva Langley from Macon Georgia; and I was 10 years old, fully appreciating the benefits and exploring a new world. I had recently got a new baby brother and by the summer I came to the conclusion that he was going to be OK to have around. No one called me the baby of the family anymore and most people stopped calling me “Little Teddy Ray”. I remember going to the Post Office with my Mother and when we exited the car, a lady that my Mom had not seen for some time, came by shouting “Ruby, Ruby how are you”. I quickly moved to an invisible position behind my Mothers skirt. She carried on for some time and then turned her attention to me. It required her to reach behind my Mother and grab me by the arm pulling me out front. “My goodness, is this Little Teddy Ray”? “No it is not” My body strained to hold the words inside. “My name is Ted” I wanted to scream at this ridiculous, fat, old woman. When she reached over and pinched my cheek, my little body shook with spasms as I fought back the desire to chomp her fingers off and watch her scream in horror, as she would clutch her fingers dripping with blood and realize the error of her ways. God, I hated that name. I had just became Ted when Baby Gary came around but his coming also created a problem for me because I was evicted from my bedroom for him. There was no room for me. I never held that against him because I knew my time was up in “The Nursery” as I was just finishing up 10 years of really good pampering and it was time to pass the torch to “Little Gary Lee” the new baby of the family.

My parents decided that in the summer months I should take up residence in our basement because it was cool and in the winter I could move into the laundry room, as it would be warm. They made it sound like everyone was looking out for me but I didn’t think so. The basement was my first residence and I really didn’t like it. They had provided me with a roll-a-way bed and I didn’t find it very comfortable plus if you didn’t sit on it just right it would fold up on you. The root cellar that was behind my head, had a dirt floor and was responsible for all sorts of crawling things that invaded during the night. The basement was windowless but there was a light, with a pull string over my head. My Mother was a bit of a stickler when it came to conserving electricity and water so the stair light was off and all of the other lights in the house were extinguished when bedtime rolled around. I was not allowed to keep any light on to chase away the creepy, crawly, things. The furnace was located in the other end of the basement and was a converted coal furnace. It was an octopus looking device with arms stretching out everywhere and at night there were two opening into the firebox that glowed like eyes. My imagination conjured up all sorts of different monsters and beings. When the furnace fired, an explosion rattled all of the pipes and fittings while flames escaped around the doors and from other parts appearing like a fire breathing dragon coming alive, belching fire from its eyes, mouth and ears. I would lay in bed motionless expecting all sorts of catastrophe to occur. My bed sheets and the bed would shake to my rhythm that was quickly accelerating knowing that the furnace fan was about to start. The loud click of the switch would signal the start of the event as the basement filled with a high pitch scream, as the fan belt slipped on the pulley, that I could only imagine was some type of shrieking bird trying to escape the confines of the furnace. The shrieking would get higher and higher, almost deafening but also getting quieter and quieter as the great bird accelerated and got further and further from the cage that confined it, leaving only me to battle the furnace ogre. Then as suddenly as it started the shrieking went away leaving only a dull rumbling, like a distant thunderstorm in the pipes, causing them to shake and flex. Shortly the flames would subside, the dragon would go away, the rumbling would stop with only the two eyes glowing dimly as I prayed as hard as I could and tried to convince myself that it was only a furnace. I whimpered and usually fell sound asleep knowing that a monster was sharing my room.

A major problem I had was trying to negotiate the basement and the stairs in the pitch black as I searched for a way out, to go pee. One of my first nights I had to get up but was half asleep and couldn’t find my way out and ended up peeing on a wall. That panicked me and the next morning when I realized what I had done, I rigged up all sorts of strings to my pull light so that no matter how I swung my arm I could turn the light on. Shortly after being banned to the bowels of the house, the heat was turned off for the summer. What a relief as the monsters and birds went away and all I had to contend with were the creepy crawly things attacking from the root cellar. I didn’t mind that as most of the lizards and spiders I had already discovered and considered pretty good friends.

Part of the reason I was so scared of the furnace was from the trauma of trying to light the furnace for the previous heating season. My Dad was away on a business trip and only my Mom and I were home. The house was extremely cold with the first cold snap of the season but my Mother didn’t know how to light the furnace. Finally she called Mr. Katon, our next-door neighbor, and he agreed to come over and give it a try. I remember peeking out from around my mother, at Mr. Katon with a flashlight in his hand and his head pressed up against an opening in the furnace, surveyed the situation. Then he open a valve and I could hear a hissing noise coming from inside the furnace as Mr. Katon put a lighted match to a rolled up newspaper in his hand and then shoved the lighted newspaper into the furnace. Nothing happened and Mr. Katon would remove the burned newspaper with only black, crumbly, ashes falling off to the basement floor. Mr. Katon would shut the valve off, curse and grab another newspaper to try again. Each time my Mother would say “Mr. Katon, please be careful” and I would squeeze up tighter to her. Finally Mr. Katon succeeded. The furnace gave out a great explosion and flames exited every crack and all around Mr. Katon’s head. My Mother and I stared anxiously until Mr. Katon turned to face us and all of the whiskers were gone from his face, it was black and what was left of hair was all curly and singed. Mr. Katon said “there you go Mrs. Dickson, call me if you have any more problems with it”. When he put his hat on to leave, most of his hair fell on the floor. As soon as he left my Mother and I roared endlessly at the plight of poor Mr. Kayton but from that moment on I was scared of the furnace because it had eaten most of Mr. Katon.

Little did I know that the basement would become my sanctuary and my friend. I would learn to box down there, throw knives, hone my marksmanship skills with first my BB gun and then my .22, build bombs [or so we thought], explore the worlds of chemistry and photography and get banned from the basement after I was accused of causing lightning to strike our house.


Mick Brady said...

Ted, I love the basement story. We had a big old coal furnace that had to be fed in the middle of the night "or else it would go out and we'd all freeze!". My brother and I took turns feeding the beast, and, reading your story, I suddenly remembered how it felt to walk down into a cold dark basement in the middle of a winter's night. Thanks for the's great to look back and chuckle.

Ted said...

Thanks for the the comment Mick. Its kinda funny how some of the old rememberances come back. I had forgotten all about Mr. Kayton blowing himself up until I started writting this story. I think I had forgotten from 52 years ago. Go figure