Thursday, January 18, 2007

Monday, January 15, 2007

The Tombstone Blues -- Ian

All right, so my sister Emily has solicited me to co-write a blog about memories from our childhood. There are rules, which are a pleasant aspect of Emily’s idea because without them I would procrastinate for a couple of years, ending in abandonment of the project. The main rule is that we are not to read each other’s posts until both are complete. She emailed me this morning to tell me she had written her first post, and because I’m anxious to read it, I know I must write mine now. So I’m forsaking a Sunday evening so I can get a glimpse of her take on our first topic. (Emily, I almost cheated—on the very first post!)

She chose an object from our childhood that I suppose would have great significance to postmodernists as a fetishistic symbol of symbiosis between siblings. Sorry, three semesters of lit. classes have me BSing like this from time to time. The topic Emily chose is the tombstone that sat deep in the crawl space in the house where we grew up in Clemmons, North Carolina. One of the reasons I like the topic is because it allows me to title my post after a great Bob Dylan song.

I have trouble remembering sequences of events regarding the tombstone. The first thing I can say with any degree of certainty is that when it was first discovered it was as if Tutankhamen’s tomb had been found. It seems to me, ironically, that this was around the time that the King Tut exhibit was touring the country, with as much fanfare and hype as a Rolling Stones tour, and that there was a bit of an archeology craze going on. We may have discovered the tombstone a little earlier, but I believe it was somewhere in the years of 1976 or 77. Elton John was going disco. This is how I date things in my mind.

Emily and I spent a great deal of time doing what we called “exploring.” We had already tracked through the woods around our house, and made frequent trips down “the dirt road” that led down the hill and around a bend to the neighborhood bully’s house who we first encountered when he hurled rocks at us from his driveway. At other times we would head up our road to “civilization” where there was a drugstore that sold Richie Rich and Spiderman Comics and had a good assortment of teeth-rotting candy. Eventually, when the housing development began to be built next to our house, we would explore the foundations, and then the frames, of the new houses.

By a certain point, it seemed that every square-inch of my family’s property was known to us. We were bored with going up to the loft above the garage and seeing the old dusty chest of drawers that stood there, providing speculation of ghosts of Civil War widows who combed their hair there. We had made the climb, through a closet, to the attic many times, sitting on Christmas decoration boxes and hoping that the odd shape by the vent wasn’t really a bat, like our older cousin claimed. Ghosts and weird stories were told and retold and embellished often during this time, and being scared with each other was a primary amusement that would follow us into our teen years and to the midnight showings of Night of the Living Dead and The Hills Have Eyes.

Now, this is the part where there may be large discrepancies in our stories, but it seems to me that we were with a good friend of the family’s, Norman Hill, when we first discovered the tombstone. In fact I’m tempted to say that it was Norman who was the first one to lay eyes on it. Norman was a few years older and was staying with us while his parents were away, and it’s a strong possibility that it happened during this week. At other times, it seems that it was me who discovered it while Norman and Emily waited outside the door to the crawlspace. This will be the interesting part of the experiment because Emily may not remember these events in this way at all.

There was one place left that we hadn’t explored yet. At the very back of our basement, the musky, damp space that no amount of dehumidifiers could keep dry, was a little door that led to the crawlspace. We had ventured into this realm only tentatively, (sweating in an attic with bat-like shapes is one thing, but daring to enter the dark underworld of cobwebs and centipedes was another) and then it was only to enter the first room. You see, the crawlspace had two rooms, an anti-chamber which was about the size of a medium sized bathroom, and then a main chamber which was cavernous to where a flashlight’s beam would be devoured by the darkness. All along the sides, between the floor and the wall, were deeply dug trenches (apparently for irrigation) but to us, they represented pits with unknowable bottoms. To get to the main chamber, one had to crawl through a small opening and scurry along rustling plastic, being very careful not to slam one’s head into the unseen two-by-six-beams placed periodically in the three-foot-high ceiling. The space was perpetually damp, with little things scurrying this way and that to avoid exposure to the flashlight. To endeavor beyond this little opening and into the main portion took a giant step in courage.

Since I can’t remember if it was me or Norman Hill who saw the thing first, and I know I’m leaving Emily out—although it could very well be her that found it—I ’m just going to try to remember what it felt like to see it initially. To crawl through this underground dark world, go through the little gap into the main opening, and proceed forward was a test of courage already; but when a solitary shape emerged from the gloom, standing cold and silent and casting a long shadow toward the unknown portion of the basement, my reaction was amazement and terror. We approached it never-the-less, absolutely sure that under the very dirt on which we tread, lay a body. The inscription read something like “here lies ----------, infant son (or daughter) of -------------- (there were names where the blanks are, but I can’t remember them either, although Emily might). The date, it seems to me, was somewhere around 1932.

The sight, at first, was fascinating. But after gawking at this, probably the most terrifying thing we could have imagined having in our crawlspace, the heaviness of the object got the better of me and I turned to hurry, as fast as I could, out of that infernal place. On the way, I smacked my head on one of the two-by-sixes.

Outside, in the florescent lit basement with Cat Stevens (“I’m being followed by a Moon Shadow”) playing somewhere in the house, we caught our breath and tried to digest what we had just discovered. Having a body buried underneath our house would make it extremely difficult to sleep; in fact we may never sleep again. We had heard the story of the man with the golden arm, and the hitchhiker on the bridge, and all the others, but this was proof positive that our house was haunted. I mean, if a ghost is buried under someone’s house, he isn’t going to take it out on the next door neighbor, he’s going to haunt the house he’s buried under, especially the curious children who found him. The fact that the ghost would be an infant would make it all the worse, he would float out of the corners of my bedroom, in his little swaddling clothes, and swoop down on me, exacting vengeance for being awoken from his eternal nap. At the same time, having someone buried under your house wasn’t something you heard about everyday; I was wondering how much mileage I would get out of this at school.

We learned that there was no body buried under our house. Word got out about our find, and some investigation by our parents revealed that the tombstone belonged to the original builders of the house whose child survived his illness and who left the tombstone in the crawlspace for some reason. This was a relief, but still kind if eerie, although we were glad the child survived.

But, the tombstone did bring a bit of cache to our basement. When new kids would come over to our house, the first thing they would want to see was the tombstone. We were veterans by that time, very careful about not bumping our heads and scurrying through the small openings, warning the newbies to watch their heads and stay together. I picture myself sometimes with a ranger hat on collecting money at the door (we should have charged admission Emily, what were we thinking?). Even into our teen years, we would take kids who had come to parties at our house down to see the tombstone. It was a great way to break the ice. A bit creepy albeit.

So that’s what I’ve got on the tombstone. It is one of those interesting things about being a kid, when adventure only means trekking to the far corner of the yard or climbing high in a pine on a windy day. Emily and I had plenty of space to satisfy our thrill-seeking habits, and in venturing through the area provided to us, we were allowed to express and, occasionally, overcome our fears for when we moved on to a much larger and scarier space, the real world.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

The Grave Under the House -- Emily

We were faculty brats. This means we were one of those geeky families for whom finding the television in the house required the help of Sherlock Holmes. After all, it was placed such that it had to be wheeled away whenever my mother was working at her desk, and since my mother liked to write, and she also happened to be in charge of the family finances, the television was often hidden away in the corner. On a Sunday afternoon, you were more likely to enter our house to find it completely silent, if my father didn’t have Bach or Handel playing on what my parents called the “victrola” (one of those things that was actually a piece of furniture, far more important in our house than the huge, cabinet-ed, color TVs all my friends had that I so coveted), everyone’s nose buried in a book.

Needless to say, growing up on the outskirts of Winston-Salem, N.C., home of Joe Camel, the Winston Cup (that’s a race for those who don’t know, and I’m not talking about horses), and about 500 "Christian" mega churches (back in the days when in most other areas of the country people didn't consider all these things to be emblems of American patriotism and freedom, but rather thought that upholding such things as The Constitution and its Bill of Rights were), we were not the most popular kids in school. Luckily, we had other faculty brats we could befriend.

One of these friends was Norman. Norman was an only child who must have, at times, been overwhelmed by our raucous clan (and we were quite raucous once you dragged us away from our books). Nine times out of ten, though, he’d join right in, being, for instance, one of the scariest of “giants” when we played a game in which “it” was a “giant” who went around capturing people and putting them in a dungeon where they had to stay until someone came to rescue them. I idolized him when I was very young, mainly because he was one of the "older kids" (being all of about a year and a half older than I was), and I idolized the older kids.

Usually, the older kids (following the lead of Forsyth and Lindsay, our two older sisters, who were the bosses when others came to our house to play) wouldn’t hang out with Ian and me, unless they needed more players for a game. Often, they’d do things like close themselves off in their bedroom, playing poker and listening to Steppenwolf, telling us we were too young, because the album had such songs as “Goddamn the Pusher” on it. As if we didn’t hear the word “goddamn” a hundred times a day around our house, and as if, at age eight, I knew what a “pusher” was. Norman was different, though. He’d hang out with Ian and me, probably because he was sick of all those girls (it seems most of the kids around our age, for some reason, were mostly girls), and at least half of the Ian-Emily team was a boy. I considered my skinny little self to be the toughest Tomboy around, so maybe that helped, too.

Anyway, Norman had come to stay with us for a few days while his parents were away, and on this particular afternoon, we were playing some sort of hide and seek chase game. He was determined to find the best hiding place in our house (a rambling old farm house) and had descended to the basement to do just that. I’d heard him go down, and knowing full well there were no truly good hiding places down there, figured he’d probably be back up in just a few seconds. He wasn’t. He was down there for quite a while. I was beginning to wonder if maybe there were some secret rooms down there we’d never discovered. Suddenly, he re-emerged, racing up the steep steps, the look of excitement on his face unmistakable.

“You have a grave in your basement!” (And you thought the Hardy Boys were the only ones who ever found treasures and mysteries just lying around in familiar places.)

Norman was not given to lying to us, but this sounded quite unbelievable. How could we possibly have a grave in our basement and not know it? We all raced back down together to discover that by “basement” he meant the scary crawl space neither Ian nor I had ever been brave enough to venture into for more than a couple of feet. We made our way through the dark tunnel, backs hunched, until we finally reached the rounded tomb, marking the grave. (My memory is failing me here, because I have no idea if we had flashlights or not, but it seems we must have. However, I can’t imagine Norman had one when he originally found it.) Our house was sitting on top of a grave! One for a baby, no less (“the infant son of”), we discovered when we read the engraving.

Thus began a long relationship with the curiosity that would help keep us from being the complete outcasts of the town, despite the fact we didn’t have a pickup truck with a gun rack sitting out in the driveway, wall-to-wall carpeting all over the house that was furnished with “suites” right out of The Newlywed Game, and a television set for watching that game show and others prominently displayed in a room called “the den.” Kids would come to our house for slumber parties, and we’d lead them on late-night tours to the “grave.” Many of these tours were aborted before we’d even reached our destination, because some of the kids who seemed so eager to see it just weren’t, well, all that brave, once they’d entered through the door of the crawl space.

Of course, romance and adventure is almost always about covering up things that really aren’t so romantic (even the Hardy Boys always got to the bottom of the mystery). My parents deduced early on that this tombstone couldn’t possibly be marking an actual grave. It was sitting on top of the plastic that had been laid down in the crawl space. No one knew for sure, but their theory was that it had been some sort of prank performed by the boys who’d lived in the house before we bought it, a tombstone they’d stolen from somewhere and hidden under the house. But none of our visitors had to know that. Can you imagine a slumber party in a house in which the best “ghost story” of the night has to do with the baby who's been known to "come a floatin' right out of that crawl space," witnessed many times by those who don’t sleep through the night? No wonder my father always complained that “no one slumbers at a slumber party.”