Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The Ancient Underground

Don't hate Val because she's beautiful. Or because she's a silver-fingered story-typer. Or even because she is the proud owner of a garage door with a spring held together by a clamp and a promise, and a 25-year-old oven with one working element. You are allowed, however, to hate Val because she spent her 16th snow day of this school year lolling about her husband's La-Z-Boy watching HGTV's Income Property.

Okay. I didn't spend the whole day watching basement renovations. I spent half the day in my own dark basement lair. We always planned on using our basement as an extension of our living area. A basement is a terrible thing to waste. It's a whole 'nother house! I'm not ready to convert it into four apartments to rent to college students, so I'll never be on Income Property. I'm glad my grandma and grandpa never rented their basement to college students. Some might think they let that space go to waste. But not my 7-11-year-old self!

I grew up next door to Grandma and Grandpa, my dad's parents, in a mobile home on their spare lot. To borrow a partial quote from Frances "Baby" Houseman, " didn't occur to me to mind." My sister the future mayor's wife and I had the run of the basement. It was never locked. We had access through the outside door, down a set of six concrete steps under the sunporch on the back of Grandpa's house.

The house itself didn't interest me. You entered through the front door, and it was a straight shot through the living room, dining room, kitchen (where Grandpa kept his jar of pickled pigs' feet), and screened-in sun porch filled with a piano and old furniture piled with coats. Through an archway off the right of the dining room was the hallway to the master bedroom on the right, where Grandma kept her fat-jiggling belted vibrator machine, and the twin-bed room to the left, with a bookcase filled with Zane Grey and Hardy Boys books. Oh, and there was a bathroom with almond-smelling Jergens lotion, and peroxide and Mercurochrome. But the most fascinating part of that hardwood-floored hallway was the door to the basement, located between the twin-bed room and the bathroom.

It's not like I had to sneak away to enter the basement. Nobody really ran after me or told me to stay out. Sometimes Grandma would flip on the light switch for me before I started down, but I was perfectly capable, and unafraid, even in the dark. After all, the basement had windows around the top edge that let in some light. In the summer, you could swing them open and hook them to the ceiling for ventilation. The staircase down was steep, with no handrail, made of creaky wood. I balanced myself by putting a hand on each wall until I ran out of wall. By that time I was about seven steps down, near the landing, where a black metal pipe ran along the right side to keep one from tumbling off onto Grandpa's workbench that ran along the side of the house all the way to the front. A cute set of four triangle-shaped steps led me down to the left, putting me into the concrete-floored basement proper.

That area at the bottom of the steps was our unofficial playroom. Not so much a playroom as a stack of toys that were too numerous for our mobile home, and were piled willy-nilly according to season. My favorites were the child-sized air mattress with a clear plastic window for looking straight down into the water, and a blue and a green hard plastic fish suitable for sitting on in river or pool, in a butt-sized hollow between the whale-headed fish's wide shoulders and curving tail. Much of my Johnny West horse collection was there as well, along with Etch-A-Sketches, chalk boards, baseball bats and gloves, an Easy Bake Oven, Feely Meely, Creepy Crawlers, Fun Flowers, Kerplunk, Mousetrap, and a pile of other games. Nobody ever yelled at us to straighten them. It was our territory, taking up about a fourth of the basement.

Across from the toy wonderland, on the other side, unofficially divided by the outside door's walkway through the basement, was Grandpa's territory. This is where he kept his push mower, his outboard motor, a couple of tires, and mechanical stuff in which I had no interest. Moving back along that side took us to Grandpa's stove. It was for cooking, but not for food. Grandpa cooked his work clothes there. Yep. In a big pot, he boiled his work clothes, dipping in every now and then with a wooden spoon to stir or lift them up. He wore some kind of striped coverall zippered outfit, but I don't remember much about it. Only that he worked as an electrician in the lead mines.

The regular washer and dryer was next. Then the very best part of all: MY GRANDMA'S BOOK ROOM! Oh, it was grand. The room used to be a coal room. There was a little door up near the top, on the outside wall, where coal came in. Except the door was sealed off outside by the sidewalk, and this was now an unofficial library. Every wall was covered with books. Floor to ceiling. Shelves were just book width, painted a shiny battleship gray, built by my Grandpa. Oh, I spent hours in there. I could leave the gray plywood door open, or close it with a little slide-bar latch. The floor in the book room was a patterned red-and-black carpet, comfortable to sitting or laying or barefoot pacing. I had my run of the place. My sister was not the least bit interested. All that mattered to her was that I did not sit on her blue plastic fish from the toy pile.

Basements today are such antiseptic, operating-room-lit, unimaginative places for kids to play.


  1. I so agree...sweep em, paint the walls, but leave them alone. You can put lipstick on a pig and it is still a pig, you can finish a basement, but it is still a basement.

  2. My basement is not finished (well, the floor is not a dirt one, so it's semi-finished) and is definitely NOT antiseptic. There is an entire zoo down there...crickets and spiders, at least.

  3. OMG! The hours I spent in my Grandmother's basement are so much a part of my life. There were actually three rooms. You could go downstairs by way of the kitchen door, in through the garage or by an outside door in the back yard near the gold fish pond. I would spend HOURS down there. Best history lessons I ever had! My Dad's photo lab when he was a kid, my Grandmother's stove (enameled green and beige) where she canned food (it was cooler in the basement underground), saddles from the Spanish-American War, purses, flasks and cigarette holders from my Aunt during the twenties. Books, pictures, records and postcards from all over the world! When my Grandmother died at 98 years of age it took over a year to go through all of her stuff. She still had my Dad's diaper pins! Letters from him when he was in WWII. Almost 100 years in one house. History. Glad I can still remember all of this. Sorry I have not left this legacy for my son.

  4. Your very own lair? And to have the run of the place? Seems I never had my own space, except for a back porch I converted to my playhouse. I may have to write about that excavated memory.

  5. joeh,
    I enjoy my basement every time we're under a tornado watch or warning, because it has everything I need down there. Okay. Seriously. I enjoy my basement every day. Even when those millipedes creep in under the back door. I may be slathering it with lipstick one of these days, except that first I'd have to sweep it out. There's plenty of junk to leave as a legacy for my boys. Nobody's ever going to be knocking on the door asking to rent my basement.

    What you need is a Walmart bag full of hedgeapples. I'll ask my mom if she can hook you up.

    You had WAY better junk than I did! But I DID have a great-grandma who lived to be 98.

    Yes. I considered it my own. My sister never wanted to loaf around in there. It was the perfect place to spend summer afternoons, compared to a mobile home with no air conditioning.

  6. Living in the deep south, there were no basements to explore in my grandparents house. We would live there 9 months out of every year while my dad was deployed on aircraft carriers. No mysteries in that house, but we would visit other relatives. My favorite was Uncle Reuben. His house was so high above the ground I could walk under it without stooping. I could spend hours under the house with the hunting dogs and some pilfered tobacco sticks playing house. Now , before you assume the worst, tobacco sticks were actually 2 X 2's about 5 feet long that the green tobacco was strung on to hang and cure in the tobacco farm. I had lots of imagination and knew to entertain myself, lest I incur the wraith of my mother. Mother was ........ shall we say, difficult to get along with and easily upset.

  7. Kathy,
    We used to go camping at my grandpa's cabin on the St. Francis River. Some folks down in there had cabins that high above the ground. You must be really brave. I would never walk under there, because I'm certain the whole cabin floor above my head was strewn with teeming nests of daddy longlegs.