Tags: 1970s, my childhood
I got out the Turtle Wax to get nostalgic about the past. Summer–I remember the summer of 1976.
Maybe this is my “Sandlot” moment. Maybe not. However, fifth and sixth grade are always a magical time in a young boy’s life.
My first crush, Donna Bilyeu. My foray into a life of crime as a street urchin. My first development of social interaction. How did these events shape me, and make the person I am today?
Although I was raised in the country, for two years we lived “in town.” The differences were vast.
This is the mid-seventies, living in a city in the St Louis Metro East area. Cars, traffic, hustle, bustle, people, activity–all of these things were a whirlwind that I, an introverted innocent country lad, adapted to easily.
I had a specific memory that I wanted to write about, but others are coming to mind. I’ve talked about my life of crime already. This is more about school.
Our school had a playground in front, asphalt, and fenced in to keep us from going out into the busy street. The back was a very large playground. Half was asphalt and half was dirt, but during the previous summer the back was asphalted also. I guess it makes it better to play softball on?
There were two sixth grade classes because this was a big school. Two male teachers, Mr Dresch and Mr Goldsmith. I had heard all kinds of scary things about Mr Goldsmith, and didn’t want to be in his class.
So of course I was. Before school started, the room assignments were posted. Man, why did I have all the shitty luck?
As it turns out, Mr Goldsmith was a pretty cool teacher. He was smart, he was funny, and he knew how to communicate with us hooligans. Although…
One day for PE we are out on the asphalt playing softball. The large class is divided into two teams, and positions were random. On this occasion, I was catcher. I think Goldsmith assigned me this position so I would have some practice throwing and catching, because I was not athletically inclined in the strictest sense of the word. Or any sense, really. Goldsmith was pitching.
I’m doing the usual amount of fumbling around that looks like an uncomfortable montage, but for the most part I catch the ball and more or less return it. Here’s the windup, here’s the pitch–strike two!
I caught the softball in my throat.
Yeah, not in my nuts, which would have been funnier. So sorry to disappoint you assholes.
Was my windpipe crushed? It hurt like a sonofabitch. Was that a fastball? A fastball with a softball intended for grade school kids? I was having trouble breathing. Was I injured, or just hyperventilating? It was about 35 years ago so I don’t remember what Mr Goldsmith said to me, but the essence of it was, “Man up. Get back in there and catch.”
Contrast that with how we coddle and pussify our kids today.
The year before that, in fifth grade, I had to deal with a couple of bullies. Why do they always seem to want to pick on me? Did I seem that soft? Was I an easy target? A pushover?
The first kid I remember his name. Wayne Welch. He had dark hair in a crew cut, and a square face. And he always smelled like pee. He tried to hassle me a few times, and I didn’t respond correctly, so eventually it just led to him calling me names and occasionally trying to check me in hallway.
Of course, I had 30 pounds on him, and he usually bounced off ridiculously.
The other kid I don’t remember his name. Let’s call him Stevie. When I was in fifth grade, he was in sixth. I never saw him much, except out on the playground during recess, which is really just an exercise in anarchy with a time limit. He tried to bully me on the playground, and I was timid, so I put up with it.
Ever notice how most bullies aren’t really good at bullying?
I don’t know why–maybe I talked to an older kid and he told me to stand up for myself, and said it in such a way as to be convincing–but one day on the playground, he made his usual advance, expecting a retreat from me.
Instead, I pushed him back. He pushed me back.
I don’t think I was fat–let’s call it Husky, like the jeans I wore. Stevie was a few inches taller but possibly weighed less–he was very skinny.
He pushed me back, and I punched him.
He had a look of complete shock on his face, like he had just woken up and I was standing over him. I punched him a few more times, and he may have swung wildly at me. But he was retreating in a circle.
Like a car accident, a crowd gathered around us. The 200 year-old black woman that was the playground monitor was off somewhere else and couldn’t see this far.
But as quickly as it had started, it was over. Stevie gave; he capitulated. He tried to save face—what else are you gonna do?–by saying that he has asthma and was having trouble breathing, and it was making him dizzy. His nosebleed, too, was a side effect of this condition, and not the result of any punches I might have landed.
Which I kind of believe. I think I was going for body punches. The face never occurred to me.
Afterward we talked, and he tried to get chummy with me. I didn’t understand much of what was going on. The whole episode seemed strange to me. But he was respectful if not friendly after that. I never had a problem with Wayne Welch after that either.
But why in God’s name would someone that is a skinny, frail, asthmatic bleeder try to take on the role of a bully?
I got into two other fights that I remember. One was epic. The other one, not so much.
Behind the school, behind the playground and past the gravel alley, was the graveyard. This was the standard meeting place for fights after school. And we never went deep into the graveyard either–it was always right at the corner right at the entrance.
I ended up fighting someone there, someone I didn’t know. It had to be an older kid, most likely a seventh grader. Those seventh graders were all hardcore, tough as nails. Bikers. Gangbangers. JDs. That stands for juvenile delinquents.
Whatever happened, I got my ass kicked. I was hurt, bruised, probably had a bloody nose, and my hands hurt from fighting back. It happened quick and it was over, and I was left alone to get on my bike and ride home. Man, I hope Dad wasn’t home.
But he was. From a block away as I rode up, I could see him out by the car doing some kind of Dad thing. Shit, what was my story? A fight? I didn’t want to get in trouble for fighting, even though nothing ever led me to believe that I would be, except that it should be the natural order of things. I fell of my bike. That’s it.
But the emotions from the fight welled up inside me and before I pulled into the driveway I was crying.
Dad didn’t buy the falling off the bike story. He also knew that I wasn’t crying a few seconds ago. He was able to put it together that I had been in a fight. I wasn’t in trouble, but I would be if I kept crying. Go get cleaned up.
That was the end of that.
How long can a fight go on? Most fights rarely last more than a minute or two, except in the movies.
I had a wide variety of friends and friends of friends that I hung out with, and also friends that were not part of my regular group of friends. One of those was Mark Walker. He was a small, perpetually swarthy looking kid with thin lips, greasy hair, and a wild look in his eyes.
We used to play together on occasion, and hang out sometimes. I never noticed it, but he never wanted to come around when I was hanging out with my other friends, Randy and Jay.
I don’t know how it happened, but one day during the summer we were in the back grassy lot of the Lutheran school that was about a hundred feet from our house. The whole gang was there–a lot of people that I knew and some that I didn’t. Mark and his older brother came around. There was some interaction, some tension, some drama–
And ultimately it was decided that the solution would be had if Mark and I fought.
It took us a while to get started. I didn’t really want to, and he didn’t want to get within my reach because I was bigger than him. Eventually we started to brawl, and we fell into an odd pattern: He would rush me, throw a bunch of wild punches that landed about 17% of the time, and then I would take one swing, right as his head, and knock him back, knock him down.
He would get up and rush me again, and I would punch him once and knock him down. Repeat.
This went on for what seemed like hours. But really–and as I said most fights are over in less than a minute–this went on for a good twenty minutes.
Eventually it was over, and Mark and his brother left. They were on our turf, after all. The Lutheran Church was ours.
That historic fight lived on in our memories, and I guess I earned some street cred from the guys. They never talked about it around me, though.
But after that, Mark and I were never friends again. I don’t know what the external causes were, but I felt like I was being made to choose between “the gang”–and him.
Tags: 1970s, animals, family
After my Aunt Gloria’s graveside service at the family plot in Mount Vernon, Illinois, the family gathered at the Eagle’s Lodge. Many family members are members of the Eagles, and they gather there like flies on shit.
So we were there, Detroit and I. We talked to some family–actually talked to my cousin Skinny for some time, something I never really did. He and his brother and my brother are the oldest ones of our generation, so they remember the 70s more vividly than I do. At one point he started to tell a story, but then said, “You know, you really need to hear Uncle Joe tell it. He was there.”
I told you that for me as a young child, it was more than a golden age: I was spoiled. For one or two summers we even had a nanny, in the form of my mom’s Great-Aunt Ermal. Yes, Ermal.
As children, my sister and I even had ponies. Oh yeah. I knew that we had them–I remember that. What I never knew was the story of how we got them. Several of us sat around a table and gave Uncle Joe our full attention as he recounted the tale. Since he told me, and now I’m telling you, a third party, I decided to go with 3rd person. I don’t remember all of what he said or how he said it, and some of the dialog is fictional, but the events–
The events really happened.
It was a regular day in the late summer of 1973. The small, ramshackle farm was quiet. Three cows in the pasture stared at each other and chewed. A few chickens milled around the barn door, and a dog lay on its side sleeping on the porch. There was no sign of people.
Abruptly, a bright orange pickup roared down the gravel road and into center stage, in front of the barn. Four men drunkenly got out of the truck, and two of them fell, one landing on another.
Bud was the driver. “See? Tol’ you I’d fin’ it!”
Joe said, “No, you said you knew where it was. You said you been here before!”
Bud took a draw from the whiskey bottle and wiped his mouth before answering. “I was–”
Jim Andy said, “Bud, we drove past this place about 30 times.”
Jewel was still picking himself up off the ground. “We even pulled in here once. Twice!”
“Yeah, well, we still had whiskey left, so I couldn’t stop.” The two brothers, Jim Andy and Jewel, nodded in agreement.
Joe said, “Do we even know if they’re here?”
“Yeah! Hell, yeah! I recognize the place now,” Bud said, as he walked towards the barn door, stumbling once. The door was wide open, and sunlight lit the interior well enough. “Yup!” he yelled out. “They’re here.” Bud looked around. I don’t see the old farmer. His truck his gone.”
Joe said, ‘Do have to wait for him? Or–”
Jim-Andy smacked Joe on the shoulder as he walked by. “Shit no, Joe. We got this. I worked on a ranch ‘afore. Bud, turn the truck around an’ back up to the barn. Let’s get us some ponies! Yee-haa!”
The other three let out their best cowboy yelps. Bud hopped in the truck and turned it around, knocking over a large errant milk jug. Chickens squawked to get out of the way.
The dog looked up, then lay his head back down.
Jewel looked at Jim Andy and said, “How we gonna do this?”
Jim Andy looked at Joe.
Joe said, “Hey, I’m from the city. Y’all are the country boys here.”
Bud just walked up from the truck and snorted. “Joe, you ain’t from the city. You been in town ten years.”
He looked at the other two, and put out his fist. Rock-paper-scissors–Jewel won.
“Alright.” He rubbed his hands together and walked into the barn. They heard whinnying, and then cussing. Then a crash as Jewel’s body came partially through the wall of the barn. The three stood their ground and watched patiently, handing the last of the bottle around while Jewel got himself out of the wall. He walked out and snatched the bottle from his brother’s lips. “Your turn, asshole.”
A minute later, Jim Andy was pulling himself out of the hole in the wall. It was easier, because the hole was getting bigger. Joe just looked at him. “Rope?”
Jim Andy’s eyes lit up. “Shit yeah! Why didn’ I think of it before? I used to do this all th’ time. I need rope. I need to make a saddle. Or a bridle. Or whatever you call it. The thing.” He motioned inexplicably with his hands.
Bud said, “Fine. You get the rope. I’ll get the horse.”
When the boys had left on this adventure, they weren’t as drunk, and had planned ahead. There was rope in the back of the truck. Jim Andy was trying to tie the rope into something useful, but his hands kept getting in the way. Joe said, “I didn’t know you were a Boy Scout, Jimmy.”
“Piss off. This rope is–”
They were interrupted by the familiar whinnying, but instead of a crash they heard a rhythmic thumping sound. Bud and the pony came out of the barn. Bud had the pony in a headlock. “I got him! I got him!”
It wasn’t clear who had whom, exactly.
Joe said, “Get the rope, get the rope!” Jewel tried to help, and Jim Andy slapped him away.
“I got it, I got it!” He put the rope quickly around the pony’s neck and yanked it tight.
The pony’s eyes bulged, and it let out a shriek and brayed up on its hind legs. Jim Andy flew into Jewel before spiraling to the ground. Bud still had a lock around the animal’s neck and hung on while the he was bounced around. The loose end of the rope whipped around and smacked him, then got under his leg and tripped him. Bud let go and went down.
Bud rolled out of the way and Jewel made a futile grab for the rope. Somehow, they got the pony again, and tried to get its two feet to the tailgate of the truck.
Jim Andy pulled the rope while Jewel and Bud pushed and pulled the pony. Joe was supervising. “Hey, this ain’t right!”
The pony and the scuffling and the banging on the tailgate made him hard to hear. “Something’s wrong! The horse can’t breathe!”
Bud managed to get the pony’s front legs up on the tailgate, and Jim Andy had scrambled up to pull the pony up.
Joe yelled, “He can’t breathe! The rope is too tight!”
“Pony! Wait, what?” Jim Andy looked at the rope in his hand, and followed it with his eyes to the pony’s neck, where it was tightly wrapped. The animal had a look of wide-eyed terror. In a desperate attempt to save itself, it followed and jumped onto the truck. The front wheels bounced off the ground slightly, and the momentum caused the pony to seem to lunge at Jim Andy. Joe would later describe Jim Andy as “screaming like a little bitch.” Bud jumped up onto the truck and–using the only tool he had in his personal toolbox–punched the pony.
The animal collapsed into unconsciousness, and slid backward. Its hindquarters and legs were off the truck. Jewel went to the cab of the truck and quickly found an old, rusty, jagged knife. He handed it up to his brother. “Here, cut the rope!”
After twenty minutes of pushing, they got the unconscious animal all the way into the bed. A new rope, with a little slack in it, was around its neck. The other end was tied to the top post of the side rail. Slowly it started to stir. “Well,” said Bud, sitting on the tailgate to catch his breath, “that’s one.”
That was the signal for the pony to stand up. He started to buck and bray, but he couldn’t go anywhere. He raised up high on his back legs, and planted his front hooves into the roof of the cab, making two perfect hoof-shaped dents. Bud said, “Son of a bitch! I’ma kill that horse!”
Just then, a beat-up old 58 Ford pickup rolled up. The old farmer nodded to them, then got out. Without saying a word, he walked over. He noticed the pony, of course, in the back of the truck having a fit. He saw the four men, tired, dirty, and sweaty, and smelling faintly equine. He saw the used rope on the ground, roughly cut and unraveling, and the rusty knife near it. His eyes strayed upward, and he saw the hole in the barn that was not quite big enough to put a man through.
He spit some tobacco out. In a gentle voice, he said, “You know, them ponies never been anywhere. Never been in a trailer or nothing. Thems was foaled here; this here barn is all they know.”
He hopped up onto the bed and went to the pony, and spoke some soothing words into its ear. It quieted down. The four men watched silently as he did this, then watched as he got down and walked into the barn, and moments later led the other pony out.
But the pony saw the people and the truck and ran back into the barn.
The old farmer said, “Well, this might call for harsher measures.”
He had the men help him get his block and tackle and rig it to the back of his Massey Ferguson, which he had pulled in front of the truck. The long rope was fed from the back of the tractor, over the truck, and into the barn to the pony. The farmer had a bridle and put it on the animal. Then he tied the rope to it.
“Now, just guide the pony in the right direction. We’ll get him on the truck.” Joe and Bud looked at each other. Maybe they were drunk, but this old man was crazy.
However, the plan worked. The tractor pulled forward slowly, and the slack tightened up. The pony had no choice but to go where he was led. Jim Andy and Bud helped the kicking animal get his legs up–he was on his knees–and the tractor drug the pony up. Once up on the bed, the animal stood up. The men looked on in amazement that it worked, and Bud thanked him.
The old man said, “Now you boys take good care of these horses.”
Jewel said, “Ponies.”
“Thank you sir.”
They finished securing the railing, the rigging, and the truck. They now only had one usable piece of rope, so Bud had one end around one pony’s neck, then wrapped it around the top rail, then put it around the other pony’s neck. “That should do it.” And it did, for most of the hour-long drive through unknown country roads. Once they got to the highway, however, one of the ponies started to panic. Quickly they pulled over, but by then, one of them had broken the rope. They didn’t have anymore rope, either.
Bud had an idea sprung from desperation. It was going to be dark soon, and they were nowhere near home–at least it seemed that way. He salvaged what was usable from the rope and tied the horses–
–ponies. He tied the ponies *together*. They were now one Siamese pony, joined at the neck, and tied to the rail. Whether by fear or fatigue, there were no more incidents. The ponies and the people made it back to Bud’s house.
It was almost dark when they arrived at Bud’s. His kids were excited–the ponies were for them. Jim Andy and Jewel were quiet and subdued. Joe had a headache. Bud backed the truck up sideways in the street, and ran it to the tall ditch, making a natural ramp to egress the ponies. The neighbor, Mac, had horses–real horses–and was going to board the ponies until Bud could fence an area for them. Mac came over with leads, and after the appropriate amount of gushing by the kids, he took them to his pasture.
Little Bryan was eight years old, and he had watched the unloading with interest. He saw how his dad had smartly used the terrain to make a ramp. “What took so long, Dad? We’ve been waiting *forever*. How long does it take to get a pony?”
“All day, son. It takes all day.”
Little Bryan didn’t see the expression of the three other dirty, sweaty, hungover men as they got into their car and drove off.
Tags: 1970s, elementary school, life lessons, perseverance
Everything happens when you’re a kid when you’re twelve years old. Except this happened when I was ten and eleven, I think.
I grew up in the country, in a small town. However, for reasons I’m not entirely clear on (because I was ten) we moved to town for a few years. Collinsville is a larger town in Illinois than where I grew up, and closer to St Louis. A suburb on the Metro-East side, if you will.
Aside from everything being bigger, and there were more people, one of the big differences for me was school. In the country I rode the bus. In Collinsville, I walked to and fro. (Uphill. Both ways. In the snow. For miles.) Actually, on a nostalgic return visit, I realized that it wasn’t as far as I remembered–but I was littler then. The distance was about half a mile.
And it wasn’t a bad walk, either, except for one time.
One time, in the winter, my older brother was visiting us. He was recently returned from the Navy, and he was a MAN. He was a stranger, as far as I knew–he was eight years older and we didn’t have much in common. During this visit in the winter, he was up early with dad in the kitchen. I got up for school, and the weather was bad. It was icy outside. Cold and rain and turned into freezing rain, and every surface was slick.
I was sure–or at least hoping–that there was no school.
There was no indication on TV–I checked all four channels. Dad was ready to let me stay, but my brother–being the big, dumb ol’ bully that he was–made me go. I bundled up and made the walk. It was slippery, and I had to plan every step. It was cold and a little rain was still coming down. I finally get to school…
And no one was there. I was angry. The doors were open, and I walked all over, looking for answers. I made it to the junction between the old school (my elementary school) and the new part, which was the junior high. There was the office, and I trudged in to find a lone secretary sitting there.
“Is–is–isn’t there any school today?” I stammered. I knew the answer.
“Oh, no, sweetie. School’s been called off because of the ice storm. You can go home.” She turned back to what she was doing. It never occurred to me to question what she was doing there. This was about me. And the ice. And my brother. And him making me walk in it.
I stormed home. I started to storm home, but I fell, on the ice, several times. I was heartbroken, angry, and feeling unloved and sorry for myself. The last fall was near the graveyard, right behind the school. I pulled myself up and sat on a tombstone to collect myself and cry a little. It was cold on my butt. The sky was grey and everything glistened with ice. There was no one around. Why didn’t I notice this on the way to school? Why didn’t I see that there were no other kids walking?
Finally finished with my fit, I got up and wiped my nose and face on my damp coat sleeve and walked home. I planned what I was going to say, knowing I would get an apology and receive retribution. I came in and slammed the door. “CARL!” I yelled at him. “There’s no school today! I didn’t have to go out in the weather!”
There. That should make him feel bad. He just started laughing. “I know.”
What a bastard.
But actually what I meant to write about was something else. I walked to school, and most of the kids did. Some road a bus, but they must have lived very far away. The walkers would come to school from all directions, and leave that way as well. And so we had crossing guards. The crossing guards were actually students. The older ones–fifth and sixth graders. In the fourth grade I saw the power they wielded and the prestige that came with that calling.
Plus, at the end of the year there was an awards ceremony in the auditorium, where kids got all kinds of awards and recognition. Most of it was for athletics, and I knew I wasn’t going to see any of that. There were other things as well, though, like recognition for academics (ha!) and art (double ha!) and even attendance. I don’t have a chance at any of this. But they also gave out little trophies for the kids that did crossing guard duty.
That was an activity that I felt was in my wheelhouse. You stand there, you stop the little kids from going into the street until you say. After carefully examining the road way and making a judgment based on all of your knowledge and experience, you let them cross. I’m in.
The following year was my fifth grade year, so I could finally join the service. The school probably put out a notice or a reminder for people that would be interested. I talked to the teacher that sponsored the effort, Mr Dresch. He was one of the sixth grade teachers. I had to come to a meeting of their little cabal during my free time in fifth period.
There was more to it than I might have imagined. I know I went through some type of training, and received my crossing guard belt-sash combo (whatever that is called) and my badge. I know, right? I had a badge. I had power. I had authority. I had rank, too–and I was the lowest.
Along with the other fifth graders that were new to the company, we were “patrolman.” The sixth graders that had done it the previous year were promoted. There was a Captain, a Lieutenant, and two Sergeants. Then us four patrolmen, the grunts. It even had our rank on our shiny badges, so everyone knew. We needed eight in our squad because we had eight intersections to man. The Captain made the rotation schedule. In the back of his Dukes of Hazard notebook he had the official schedule. We rotated to different spots during the week.
I didn’t realize we got certain luxuries with this duty. We got to leave a few minutes early at the end of the day to get to our posts. We were even allowed to be a few minutes late after the bell in the morning, because we were there in the morning as well.
Of course, it wasn’t all Skittles and rainbows. It might have been the standing in the rain, or it might have been ending up with the crappy post too often (the stoplight, or “SL” in the Captain’s book, was the furthest post from the school, and communication was sparse. How did you know when time was up and you could leave?) but during the fifth grade year, I quit the safety patrol. I guess I made it about half the year.
I was surprised and a little hurt that at the end of the school year, I didn’t get recognized for my valiant yet halfhearted effort. I received no trophy. It really stung me.
The next year, I joined again. I received no promotion, because I hadn’t finished the previous year–I hadn’t put in my time. Geez, I figured I should have at least made corporal. But I sucked it up, and I was the only patrolman that was a seasoned sixth-grader. I stuck it out this time, and learned some kind of valuable life lesson that escapes me at the moment. But the important thing was, at the end of the school year, at the big presentation ceremony in the auditorium, I FINALLY got to walk up and get my trophy. It was the proudest moment of my entire 12 years at that point.
I still have the trophy.
Tags: 1970s, hometown, houses, my childhood
It appears quite often in my dreams. It’s a part of who I am, and how I was made. I don’t get the occasion to drive by it very often…which is good. It’s different now. Someone else owns it. It’s belonged to someone else longer–I have to admit–than it ever was mine. Still, I drive by and see it, and I feel like I’ve been betrayed by a lover. It was mine, dammit! It…it was mine…
All in the space of three seconds that it took me to drive by my childhood home, I had those thoughts, while taking in the details. The barn is gone now. It was a shiny kit barn that my dad had built, and I remember I helped, as a preteen. Maybe that explains why it didn’t make it through the years. It started to lean, then lean more, like a horse on its reins, leaning away from its owner and trying to break free, and follow the wind.
Curiously, the pony shed still stands. A mere six foot on each side forming a cube, with posts as a frame and rusted tin sheet metal covering it. It peeked from the tall weeds to tell me it was still there, and it remembers.
The garage is gone, replaced by another. The ghost of the old one is still there, and I can see its image shimmering in the light and shadow of the new one. Ha–“new one.” This one has been here for twenty years or more now. But the old one was there longer, and maintains a lasting legacy in the collective memory of the land. It was a simple structure, with a regular garage door in the front and a people door on the side. For a long while it housed Dad’s antique car, until the collector in him forced it out to make room for excessive miscellany. The car moved first to the side of the garage, then to the barn. When we first moved there, the outhouse still stood. I was young, and don’t remember its random disappearance into the ether. Eventually, Dad put up a large pole, and we had a streetlight in our yard.
Directly behind the house was the wash house. I don’t know what its original purpose was, or why it was called that. I remember it was filled with all random collectible stuff. One summer my friends and I “cleaned it up”–and tossed most of the stuff into the garage. Not in any order, not stacked neatly, and not taking care of fragile items. Children are one of the single most destructive forces in the universe.
But it was cleaned out, and now we had a club house. Even my parents could use it now as well, and saw how it had a purpose. We had two deep freezers in it, to store random sides of beef and also the catch from my brother’s hunting and fishing expeditions. There was also a wood-burning stove, and a chimney. In the winter, it was a cozy, rustic place to be.
The wash house was directly behind the main house, and there was only three feet between them. There had been more, but Dad had added a room on to the house. A room and a back porch. Why is this so familiar to me still? I can feel myself walking through their bedroom to the back door, and going onto the porch.
Just beyond the porch was the cistern. We had a cistern and well, and so I know the difference. The well was full of…well…well-water. Water from under the ground. The cistern collected run-off from the gutters and downspouts in a complex and ultimately unreliable system. We used the water from the cistern to feed the animals: the ponies, when we had them, and generally a variety of dogs.
The well was not deep, but deeper than the cistern. Both were four or five feet in diameter and brick-lined, going down into the abyss of the earth–perhaps twenty feet. Water from the well was pumped into the house into the basement, and thence to our water system. We had a twenty-gallon tank, I reckon, and when we used down to a certain level, it would automatically pump.
Of course, the well collected run-off from the rain also, just not intentionally. But somehow it got in there…and when it first went in, I guess dripping or pouring in from the top, it would stir the water up, along with the mud at the bottom.
So you didn’t want to run too much water when it was raining, or the water would come through the faucets muddy. To this day, I’m automatically leery of turning on a faucet when there is a storm.
This was in the basement, and the basement was small. It was about one-fourth the size of the house. Dad cleaned it up really well and there was nothing down there but the furnace and the water pump, and his wine that he made. He wanted me to play down there.
Ha! Not on your life! It was clean, and fairly well lit, but the light would shimmer in time with activity from the floor above. And it smelled like dirt. Fresh dirt. Like a grave. It smelled that way because the brick walls of the basement had openings that went under the rest of the house. It was essentially a crawlspace…into the deepest, darkest, scariest part of a 150 year old house. No, I did not want to take the rickety, creaky, narrow and steep steps that were almost a ladder down to the basement to play.
The house was old, and you could tell from the layout. On the main floor were three big rooms and a bathroom, and the stairs going up. Seventeen steps to go up–the ceilings on the main floor were ten or eleven feet high. When we first moved in, Mom and Dad had the upstairs, and my sister as an infant slept up there. Carl and I shared a room in the downstairs.
Then the remodel came. We actually moved out–moved to a town closer to the city–while work was being done. Dad hired a local handyman to do much of it. But he built the room addition himself. I think that came first. That became their bedroom. It was off the back of the house, from the kitchen, and looked completely out of place on this majestic brick building.
The room that had been mine and my brother’s became the bathroom and laundry room. Where the bathroom had been became a hallway–which I imagine was it’s original purpose. By this time my brother had moved out, and the upstairs was mine and my sister’s…
Except I don’t believe she ever slept up there. It was one big room, with the stairs on one end, and window, and a window on the other. Eventually he did build a wall with a doorway, but I never got a door. Unfinished projects are the story of my life.
As in a typical story and a half house, the walls were slanted. On the side they went up about three and half feet, then turned inward at a sharp 45 degree angle, and then flattened out in the middle for about four feet of ceiling space, not much more than seven feet. On either side of the room were the doors–those dreaded doors–that led to the attic crawl space and have contributed to most of the nightmares I’ve experienced in my life. I always kept heavy furniture of some kind against them. Always.
The walls were a slatted wood covering, and until we moved in had never been painted. The original wood, from a hundred and fifty years ago, with square-cut nails in it. And the wood was so hard–cured, I suppose–that we could barely drive a nail in it. I surely could not put a tack in it, to put posters up. I had to use tape. Lots of tape.
The window by the stairs held the air conditioner. I usually set a fan on a chair to blow it into my room. The window in my room overlooked the driveway and the well and the big pecan tree.
That tree is now gone.
It must have been at least a hundred years old. Maybe older, with all it had experienced. Often, my friends and I would open the window and shoot at birds and squirrels in that tree with my pellet gun. Early on, Dad had made a tire swing and hung it there. It was a fixture for 20 years, long after we stopped swinging on it.
That window was above the side door to the house, and the only one we used. There was a front door. No one used the front door. In the typical German style of that era, the front door was tall *and* there was a transom. It matched the front windows of the house, also very tall.
The house was very solid. Brick, through and through. The walls on the main floor were a little over a foot thick–three or four layers of brick. I do recall staying upstairs in my room during a tornado. That house is not coming down.
And as it was solid, and my parents’ room was an addition, I could actually play my stereo pretty loud before they would even hear it in their room. As an older teen, I could more or less come and go as I wanted, and they rarely knew. It was a comfortable, cozy home. With the kitchen remodeled with the latest style and technology from the 1970s, we had the perfect eclectic mix of modern and antique.
The shape of a home…plays a part in the shaping of a family.
And so it is, and so it was. We moved out in 1984. I don’t know if it was because I had flunked out of college–I’m sure it played a part. Mom and Dad might have been on the verge of a divorce. If we wanted to stay, she would move back to the city. I remember her asking if I had to live here or could I live in town.
I didn’t realize the serious implications that it held…but I knew something was up. I said, “I can go anywhere.”
And we did.
We moved. We moved to town. Moved to the suburbs. First we moved to a big townhouse while they looked for houses, then they bought a house, and we moved there. And that’s the house I have now.
But a part of me has never left my house in the country. I never felt a closer connection to the earth than I did there. And that’s an odd thing to feel and I don’t know why I feel it. But the ground was near to me. The dirt was alive and made itself known to me there.
Here, I feel like I rest atop the asphalt.
And my spirit, when I sleep, travels back there. It’s not about my childhood, not always. Just my connection to the gestalt that formed the maps in my mind. How I think, how I act and react, how I feel…
I can trace back to there, the home of my spirit.