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Muffin Lane: The Basement Tapes

In The 60's, Writing on March 14, 2012 at 2:50 pm

Blurry and Snowy Backyard. On the edge of ‘The Hill’

The first house I ever lived on was situated on a cul-de-sac, on which sat ten similar ranch style houses, ours being built in 1964. Our house was painted gold with white shutters, had a concrete front porch with black scrolled railings, and a slate walkway leading across the front lawn. The house sat on a hill, which was excellent in the winter  because when it snowed (and it snowed often in the 60’s)  every kid in the neighborhood would gather at our house, sleds in tow, to ride the steepest hill in our backyard.

Bundled up in snowsuits, boots, scarves and mittens….and bringing a variety of different sleds: wooden, plastic, makeshift-many with exciting names:Red Racers, Flexible Flyers,Flying saucers -along with the occasional staid Toboggan, and for the truly desperate: flattened cardboard boxes. They all came to ride the best spot on the street.

There was lots of laughter and screams of delight as we all soared down the hill (being careful not to hit the stone wall that sat at the bottom- though it could not always be avoided) We’d ride down, then trudge back up-red-faced and frosty, breathlessly egging each other on- tossing snowballs, sucking on the giant icicles we’d rip off the lower shingles of the house, sometimes using  them for swords, or ‘baseball bats’ for snowballs. We’d never tire of playing out in the cold- wind, snow- snot bubbles be damned-it was a winter wonderland- especially when the snow had a smooth layer of ice over the top, which made for the best sled rides (and more than a few bruised noggins down at the stonewall)

I loved being the ‘boss’ of that yard in the winter, as my minions of tiny friends vied for my friendship by letting me go down the hill first, complimenting my style, and freely lending me their superior sleds, all in an effort to stay in my good graces. Even at five, I was drunk with power.

The bouncers up at the sledding hill.

In the springtime, my mother  had small gardens growing everywhere-colorful azaleas and petunias in the front yard, tomato plants on stakes next to lush, purple lilac bushes growing along the edges of the hill in the backyard. She cut fresh flowers and kept vases full of fragrant flowers around the house. There were always big, fat tomatoes sitting on the kitchen windowsill, tomatoes so delicious we’d eat them like apples.

Mom kept a clean and orderly house, all decked out in colonial style decor, which was fairly common in the mid-sixties. Oval braided rugs in shades of brown, olive green and burnt orange lay atop the shiny wooden floors, slipcovers depicting president’s heads, antique coins and stage coaches covered the couches, perfectly fitted with buttons on the seat backs, and pleated along the bottom. (Many a hot-wheels car would fly under those pleats, never to be seen again.)

Hobnail vases and  and lamps, clusters of creamy milk glass roosters,  were placed among the latest hardcover bestsellers (‘Portney’s Complaint’, ‘Valley Of The Dolls’, ‘Naked Came The Stranger’-which made me blush when I read the title from across the dinner table) There were lots of hutches and bureaus. There was a life-size spinning wheel/planter combo, alongside various brass watering cans, which my mother used to water the ivy that grew up and around the wooden wheel. The olive green-or buttercup yellow curtains were ruffled along the edges, with fuzzy fabric ball fringe. The curtains were drawn up on each side like the barrettes that held the hair out of my eyes, and they let the bright sun in through the big bay window .

Copper colored tin plates were displayed on the walls, along with framed paintings of dour pilgrims and historical figures- mostly white haired men with rosy cheeks and wrinkly faces, wearing ruffled shirts under military style long coats and pantaloons. They were so stodgy, with their grim expressions and hangdog ‘vibe’ as they signed various documents with feathered quill pens. I disliked looking at them while I ate dinner- they were staid oldsters who looked like they never once had any fun in their life! If only they knew they hung above a book that talked about ‘Naked!’

The dining room.  I was looking at a pilgrim-emphasis on the ‘grim’ on the opposite wall.

In the living room, we had a black and white tv, with two dials and five channels: 2,4,7,9 and 11. Sometimes channel 13 came in, albeit fuzzy and dull of program, emphasis on public broadcasting and education (insert Bronx Cheer here) I don’t remember watching television much, until my father converted a downstairs bedroom into a den, which we called the ‘blue room’ after the paint scheme. (Incidentally- I recently discovered the holding room at Bellevue is also called the Blue Room. Obviously, there’s a connection)

When my parents  bought a color television set for the den (solid state with walnut veneer!) they moved the black and white one upstairs into the room my brothers shared, which was across the hall from mine. I remember  placing a clear  plastic sheet on the screen of that old tv, and drawing ladders and stairs with special crayons, all in an effort to save Winky Dink from imminent danger. It was a flimsy gimmick, and didn’t work very well, but hey- we were legally coloring on the tv screen and couldn’t get enough of it.

Football Fever since the 1960s!

My father and his friends gathered in the ‘Blue Room’ on Sundays, to watch football together. Ballentine and Schaefer beer for all (Shaeffer…is the…one beer to have when you’re having more than one, went the tv jingle) cigarettes galore (my Dad smoked L& M’s) and lots of rowdy laughter, clapping and booing during the games- to me it sounded like the funnest place on earth. Names like Bart Starr, Guy Lombardi, The Green Bay Packers, The New York Giants…..I would sit at the bottom of the stairs and listen. It sounded so exciting! But anytime I would try and stroll in unnoticed (in my pigtails and Mary Janes) I would be shooed away, to my great dismay.

If I was lucky- I might be asked to fetch a beer, or refill the clam dip or bust open a giant tin can of Charles Chips, but even I couldn’t stretch the task out to last through the game. However, it was here that a love of football was sprouted, one I carry to this day.

Me, Mom, The Bouncer for all football games, and my brother.

Speaking of shooing away- my parents enjoyed ‘shoo-ing’ us away to whatever part of the house they weren’t in. If we were downstairs, Mom would say: ‘Go upstairs’ and vice-versa. Not that I blame either of them. There were three of us kids, all under six, and we were always asking for stuff, complaining, vying for attention or whining. Skirmishes broke out at the drop of a hat. Dirty looks were perceived (real or not), names were called and undercover pinching and slapping was rampant. If were my parents I would have left the house. In the car. Over the state line. But they stayed, and shoo-ed, and the best place for us to be was- in another room.

Outside was a great option as well. In fact, we spent most of our day either in school or outside, with all of the other kids, and with myriads to do. I ranked myself among the top players of such games as ‘House’ ‘School’ and ‘Doctor’, along with the more basic ‘Mother May I’, ‘Red Light Green Light’ and ‘Freeze Tag’.  

But sometimes the weather wouldn’t cooperate, particularly when it rained and that was when we were relegated to playing in the basement- especially if my Mom was doing her cleaning tour of the house (‘with stops in every room!’) and so, downstairs we would go. 

The backyard of our house right before we moved in. 1964.

The cellar was at best chilly, and at worst, freezing. It was unsettling to me- the dark corners, the damp concrete floors, the possibility of spiders. But, of course, like anywhere else there were adventures to be had. There was a washer and dryer in the back of the basement, on a small platform that raised them off of the floor. This could be used as ‘Safe’ during basement tag. A rope clothesline was strung across the ceiling diagonally, often with wet towels or clothes hanging from it by wooden clothespins.This could become an imaginary car wash- with us running back and forth through the towels and clothes. Several random chairs- lawn chairs with bent aluminum or ripped webbing, bar-stools with peeling upholstery were incorporated into our games, usually as ‘time out’ punishments, doled out for a variety of reasons, modeled after our own parents’ gripes (‘You need to settle down!’ or, ‘Sit down before I get the fanny whacker!’)

Miscellaneous boxes of junk were stacked up against the walls, and there was a little ‘room’ under the stairs, with my rickety old doll crib in it. I loved switching on the bare  bulb that hung inside, and putting my Thumbelina and various stuffed animals down for their naps in there. With it’s cold cement floor and cobwebs, it  would have been a great interrogation room. All I needed was a bigger shadow and a lit cigarette.

My Dad had fishing rods and nets hanging on pegs on the walls, rusty toolboxes and slip-shod cabinets alongside a thick workbench. The bench was covered in paint splatters and tin coffee cans (Sanka, Chock Full Of Nuts) bulging with stray nails, bolts and screws. Hammers, wrenches, even knives in leather protectors (used to fillet the bluefish and flounder my Dad would catch on his small boat on Long Island Sound) were in easy reach. I suppose we could have gone six ways to Sundays with tetanus shots, lost fingers and split skulls, yet despite the fact that ‘child-proofing’ hadn’t yet been invented, we somehow managed to stay safe.

Maybe it was because our parents weren’t worried, or that they assumed we had common sense, it turned out fine. Even if (and this was most likely) it was just plain luck-we emerged intact.  We collected the usual bumps and bruises from regular horsing around, but there were few, if any, emergencies. 

Thumbelina, moments before she was released into the wild.

Although we liked to play in the cellar, an object of concern was the big, churning furnace in the middle of the basement, which would startle the living bejesus out of all of us when it would roar to life after being dormant just long enough for us to forget about it. I hated the noise it made- a deep bellowing sound, that literally shook the ground, and caused the whole machine to shake and rattle. It was loud enough to hurt our ears and even when yelling- we couldn’t hear one another over the ruckus. After two long minutes of this serpent like fury, the furnace would finally settle down, and go into a calmer stage, more banging than roaring, then tapering off to a hum  and we could finally go back to playing ‘army’ or ‘let’s see if we can hammer this in over here’

What could go wrong?

I was even more afraid of the furnace one evening after the subject came up at the supper table.  My father warned us that if anything  got tossed into  it -an errant Super-ball, marbles, a balsa wood plane, or a badly dressed Barbie (all things that regularly flew through the air down there!) the furnace could (we heard ‘would’) explode, and cause irreparable damage and great harm to all involved. We three kids gravely looked at each other and gulped. There was no stopping the inevitability that toys would fly (we were far from infallible)-and nothing could be scarier after Dad’s ominous warning.  

I remember watching in almost slow motion,the first time (after ‘the talk’) an airborne toy (GI Joe)  flipped through the air, and began to descend…falling…straight into the belly of the beast. I was frozen in fear, my eyes wide, hands clasped on both of my ears- zeroing in on the terrified looks on my brother’s faces- heart pounding against my chest, Thump, Thump, Thump. I knew that at any second, the big, fiery blast would likely end my life and blow me to pieces, hurling me through the sky to my destination: a cloud, where even though I would have wings and play a harp, I didn’t want to go.

I thought, matter-of-factly: ‘Welp! This is going to happen. Just like Dad said. And there’s no one to blame except my stupid brother Robby!’ For a moment I was actually calm; resigned to my fate and accepting of it. Oh, I’d miss Mom and Tiger and Christmas, but what could I do? Good-bye Cruel World!

“Welp… If the sh** goes down, I’ll be over here”

By then I realized  the ‘explosion’ wasn’t coming. Peeking through my hands, one finger at a time- glancing from one of my brothers to the other (both of them with covered eyes as well) the GI Joe by now deeply embedded in the bowels of the giant furnace- until – as if on cue, we snapped like mousetraps, springing towards the stairs. Racing each other to the top, balling like the ship was going down. (And who goes first, when there are only children? The strongest, fastest one- that’s who!)

“Mommy! Mommy!’ we screamed, a tangle of arms and legs, scrambling up the steps-each one of us hoping to be the lucky one, the survivor. (Who knew? my dream of being an only child might actually come true) My brothers were ten months and three years younger than me, respectively, but they could kick and bray like seasoned billy-goats. It was all I could do to try and poke their eyes out first.

Seconds later we were at the top of the stairs, and I managed to twist the door handle, which released the door, and deposited a pile of hyperventilating, feral brats onto the hallway floor. Red faced, teary eyed and relieved. “M-oooooo-M! Moooooom!” we cried, and heard her footsteps-like music to our ears- click-clacking from the kitchen.

She stood, towering over us. Much too casually, (and way too calmly, if you ask me) She took the scene in (did I detect a little eye roll? Are you kidding? She might have lost her three children in a fiery explosion? How would she carry on without us? Especially me?!) But, instead of being hysterical, she just stood there, in her cherry covered apron, drying a wet plate with a striped towel and asked: “What?… What NOW?” (Umm- what now you ask? Well, we were almost blown to smithereens- what’s the protocol? You tell us) Her complete lack of emotion, rendered us speechless and slowed  our tears.  We were reduced to intermittent sniffles and wet faces.

My mother assessed the situation for several more seconds, then shook her head and said ‘You kids really need to stop being so dramatic! Sheesh! And stop fighting with each other, or I’m telling your father!” And with that, she turned on her heel, and walked back to the kitchen. It was very anti-climactic. My inner Sarah Bernhardt was left hanging.

‘Awww cripes! What NOW?”

Neither my Mom or Dad rescinded the furnace story, and they never admitted that it wasn’t actually a death trap. The scene repeated itself several more times, even though we were extra careful about throwing stuff in the direction of the Beast. When I asked my father, years later why he didn’t tell us he was exaggerating, he snapped:  “Well, it kept you kids away from the damn thing, didn’t it?” and I had to admit he had a point.

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