Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Content in the Basement

When I was six, my family moved to a house in Ferguson, Missouri about 20 miles north of St. Louis. It was closer to where my dad worked as a machinist at a match factory. The new house, a one story red brick rambler, was slightly larger than the previous one. My older sister Karen and I were excited, we would each have our own bedroom. House on Moundale Every house in the neighborhood had a basement, the family’s refuge from tornadoes, oppressive summer humidity and nuclear bombs, an important consideration in the 1950s. Our basement had a “fixed up” side and a “dirty side”. In the “fixed up’ side was a large recreation room, a smaller area next to the descending staircase and a bathroom with a sink and toilet. The floor was cream colored linoleum and the walls some sort of wood with deep grooves. At the far end of the rec room was a large toy box, but I don’t remember ever putting any toys in there. The smaller area next to the descending staircase was set up as an alternate TV room. In the summers dad would haul the cabinet TV from the living room down the stairs. Mom furnished the room with an old wood framed couch and matching chair with flower print overstuffed cushions. A large circular braided rug covered the floor and a coffee table sat in front of the couch. The family could escape to the cool damp basement on oppressive muggy mid-west nights to watch TV. I was allowed to decorate the walls of this room with my brightly colored State Pennants, souvenirs from our summer vacation travels. I thought my pennant collection added brightness and color to the otherwise dark room. When my parents bought a second TV, a portable one, they put it in the basement permanently. On Saturday mornings, I looked forward to getting up early and slipping downstairs to watch the morning children’s shows. I don’t remember the exact line up, but I do recall some of the shows, Howdy Doody, The Lone Ranger, Roy Rogers, Sky King, Fury and The Andy Devine Show. Sometimes I watched a Tarzan movie starring Johnny Weissmuller. When my friend, Paul, came over to spend the night, we would often retreat to the basement, pull the cushions off the furniture and beat each other half to death with them. Laughing the whole time, we had to force ourselves to take breaks in order to insure that neither of us would pass out from exhaustion. The cushion off the chair had a piece of plywood sewn in the bottom and it became, for one of us, a secret deadly weapon. That baby could do some serious damage. The “dirty side” of the basement had the washer and dryer on one end and dad’s workbench and table saw on the other. There were certain activities restricted to the dirty side, such as any sort of shooting activity. When I was about eight, I acquired a pump action BB rifle and a Colt 45 cartridge powered pistol with an authentic western holster. It’s a wonder I never shot my eye out. I practiced my quick draw, standing, running, jumping and tumbling, attempting to shoot my plastic army figures off of dad’s workbench where I had carefully lined them up. The BBs ricocheted off the floor and walls in a matrix pattern eventually rolling into the corners of the basement or becoming embedded in the overhead floor joists and support beams. My dad was an artist in his spare time and his “art studio” for some reason was relegated to the “dirty side” of the basement as well. He didn’t seem to mind though. He set up a desk and easel and surrounded himself with his most recent paintings. He spent hours down there in the evenings after work, painting, whistling and smoking his pipe. As a young teenager I decided that maybe the girls would notice me if I built up my scrawny physique. So dad put up a chinning bar across from his art studio and I bought a set of weights. I enjoyed the activity of lifting weights in the basement listening to the local rock ‘n’ roll radio station. After several weeks of pumping iron, I felt I was making real progress. Checking myself out in the mirror, I was certain I was looking quite muscular, but I needed to be sure, so I called up the stairs to Dad who was sitting at the kitchen table, “Dad, do you have a picture of me when I was skinny?” His immediate reply was “No, but I’ll take one.” He was quite the card. When Paul and I returned to Ferguson in our 60s to see how it had changed, to my surprise the people who currently lived in the house let us come in and look around. The elderly man took us down into the basement and showed us how they had fixed it up. It didn’t look the same. There was no more “fixed up side” and “dirty side”. It was now all just a “fixed-up side” and looked like a Las Vegas lounge. The walls were covered over with cheap paneling. A pool table sat in the center of the room with an imitation tiffany lamp hanging over it. There was no trace of Dad’s art studio, the ceiling was covered with those acoustic panels and no signs of Dad’s workbench or my chinning bar. There was no TV room and no colorful pennants on the wall. We lied and told him how nice we thought it looked. True to our Midwest heritage, we didn’t want to hurt his feelings. When the basement tour was over and we began to ascend the stairs, a slight glint of light caught my eye. I stopped and looked more closely. There lodged in the wood beam of the stairwell was a copper BB. A mixed feeling of joy and sadness came over me. Somehow this BB had managed to travel all the way from the “dirty side” to the “fixed-up” side. I’m glad my mom never saw it.

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