Monday, January 24, 2011

The Little House of Awesomeness

I live in a Suburban House.  It's got all the typical Suburban House parts:  three bedrooms, two baths, attached garage, central air conditioning, fireplace in the family room, formal living room that no one uses.    It's located in the middle of a quiet street, and it's brick-covered, so as to be low-maintenance and Big Bad Wolf-proof.  There are probably a thousand other homes like it within walking distance.  I love my house, but if it's at all distinctive it's because of my indifferent housekeeping and decorating efforts, not because of any hint of architectural uniqueness.

Then there's the house I grew up in.  Apart from having three bedrooms, it shared exactly zero characteristics with my Suburban House.  For one thing, it wasn't in the suburbs.  I didn't necessarily grow up in the 'hood, but I was definitely a city mouse and not a country mouse.  And my little city house had one tiny bathroom for five people, a detached garage for one car, and a window in the living room where we could hang a portable air conditioner in the summer.  It did have one other thing in common with my Suburban House:  there were probably a thousand other homes just like it in the vicinity.

But I loved the house I grew up in.  Even though I haven't lived there in almost 30 years, I could describe it to you, inside and out, in perfect detail even today.  I've looked up that little house on Google Earth, and it's changed over the decades, but my memories are locked in place.  It had some marvelous, quirky, unforgettable features - things that my Suburban House, with all its vaulted ceilings and walk-in closets, can't hold a candle to.  Things like:

A basement.  Very few houses in Texas have basements, especially in my part of the state.  The soil is a combination of hard clay and soft limestone, and it eats foundations for lunch.  If you want to dig a basement-size hole in Texas, you may as well slap a roof over it and move in, because any floors you build above it are likely to sink into it anyway.

I think the Beatles may have played my basement
before they hit it big in England.
 But the old house...ah, the old house had a basement.  Which means that, even though the house proper was less than 900 square feet (you read that right, people whose wine cellars are bigger than that), it had a laundry room, a playroom, a library, and a hobby room, plus a couple of actual rooms that my dad built himself, all down a green-carpted flight of stairs.  My brother had a huge model train layout down there.  You could run footraces (sprints, anyway).  It was cool in the summer, and in the winter it was...well, it was friggin' cold unless you stuck close to a space heater.  I spent more time in that basement than in my bedroom.  It was way bigger, and it was where all the toys were.  And when my friends came over, it was invariably where my mom sent us to keep us out of her hair.

A laundry chute.  The washer and dryer were in the basement, but no one ever had to carry a basket of laundry down the stairs.  That's because there was a little square door in the bathroom wall, and behind it was the magical laundry chute.  You pushed your dirty clothes through the door, and they went down, down, and came out of a hole in the basement ceiling to a waiting basket placed underneath.  I loved that.  It was also a great intercom system for communication between the house and the basement.  Plus, you could try to scare your sister's friends with weird, disembodied voices when they were using the bathroom.  Sometimes a wad of clothes would get stuck in the chute, and you'd have to go downstairs and poke at them with a broomstick to get them out.  This was the next best thing to having a dumbwaiter (which would have made it the Most Awesome House Ever, by the way).

Batwing doors.  You know, the swinging doors that every saloon in every movie about the Old West had.  (What exactly kept the bad guys from crawling under them at night and stealing all the booze and anything else they could carry?  I always wondered that...)  The house I grew up in had a pair of batwing doors leading into the kitchen.  I have no idea why.  They didn't provide soundproofing, or privacy.  They certainly weren't attractive - instead of featuring the classic wooden-slat design, these babies had inserts of finest translucent harvest-gold plastic.  Thinking back, it's a miracle that nobody ever cracked or shattered those things (accidentally or otherwise).  But how cool was it to have swinging doors in your house, huh?  I loved those damn cheesy things.

Go wash up before dinner, pilgrim.
A potbelly stove.  In our basement was an enormous oil furnace.  A couple of times a winter my parents would call the oil company, and a guy in a big truck would come and pump a few hundred gallons of highly flammable heating oil right into our home.  Just beside the furnace was a little cast-iron potbelly stove.  My brother built all of his Revell model airplanes and cars on an old Formica table that sat in the warm glow of this stove.  In the winter he kept it stoked with scrap wood, cardboard, newspapers, anything that would keep the flames burning inside. 

Little jars o' incendiary goodness
Let's review.  You have a table piled high with plastic model kits and jar after jar of Testors paint, possibly the most combustible substance known to man (as far as I know).  You have a potbelly stove crammed full of flammables.  And you have an oil furnace with a pilot know, to provide a spark.  And it was here, in this warm and welcoming crucible of death, that my siblings and I and all our friends innocently played for hours.  Oh, and before he gave it up, my dad would smoke down here.  Did I mention that we also stored our old newspapers in the basement?  All we were mising was a cow and a lantern to kick over.  But we never set the house on fire, probably because we were good Catholics and God had plenty of other ways to mess with us.

A cemetery.  This wasn't actually part of the house.  Although I suppose, being in Wisconsin, our house could have been built over an old Indian burial ground, a la Poltergeist.  But no, I'm talking about an actual cemetery for Christian graves, and it was located right across the street.  This made our house very easy to find - "you know, the house on the corner? with the green trim? across from the cemetery? Right, that one!"  It creeped me out to no end that the place might be teeming with ghosts, and annoyed the hell out of me that I never saw a single one.  The cemetery itself was surrounded by a good-sized grassy area, which was a great place to throw a Frisbee in the summer and have snowball fights in the winter.  There were trees among the graves that you could climb, and although that may seem kind of disrespectful, let's face it, there are plenty of other much worse things that kids could do in a cemetery.  And believe me, they did, although I myself indulged in youthful hijinks there only one time.  (In case you're wondering, forget it, my dad reads this blog.)

I hope Precocious Daughter grows up to have fond memories of our Suburban House.  They won't be as funky as mine, I just know it.  On the other hand, she may look back and consider our two bathrooms hopelessly quaint, or the French doors to the back yard to be the height of kitsch.  She may find herself in a house that makes her childhood home seem laughably gauche in comparison.  I hope she does - and as long as it has a nice wing for me to live in, I'll be laughing right along with her.

1 comment:

  1. Great post... I love reminiscing and stories from childhoods passed. We had a basement similar to yours, LOL. We would have big-wheel races in it, going round and round the furnace. And there was a cemetery in my old neighborhood which was and still is the town sledding spot, oddly enough. Though it sounds disrespectful for everyone to whoop it up on resting grounds, it's never been disputed.


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