Sunday, 16 December 2012
Sunday, 9 December 2012
You know the place. It can inspire primal fears and loathing, and almost every house has one. Un-insulated and away from any source of heat, they are well named as cold cellars. They are a place of faintly heard scuttling sounds, spider webs and items left on shelves until some time of need. My grandparent’s cold cellar was a classic. It was long and narrow and pitch black until you could somehow reach the string that was tied to the chain that controlled the single light bulb that hung in the middle of the ceiling.
It was Christmas day at my mom’s parent’s place so the whole extended family that was forced to try and get along for a few hours was crowded into the rather modest sized living room. We were stacked in levels. We occupied the floor, the couches, the chairs and their armrests. Some kids got relegated to laps. Safe topics like the weather for the entire previous year were bandied about. My father got along with his in-laws, but just. In the old family photos of these gatherings my dad’s face exudes brooding boredom. My parents would have liked to enjoy a smoke and a drink but it wasn’t on the agenda for these gatherings. Here the focus was on restraint, religion, and temperance.
I was about six years old and looking for a diversion from the obvious family tensions and the ongoing weather chronology so I escaped into the kitchen. Grandma was busy with the supper preparations and I was happy to oblige when she asked me to go downstairs and fetch a jar of preserves.
The basement was a wonderland for a young lad. You could say that my grandfather was way ahead of his time when it came to notions of recycling or you might say that he had mastered the art of collecting. Grandma just said that he never threw anything out and that he could never just walk by an auction or a garage sale. He would even get in a foot race with the neighbours, shovel in hand, to be the first to collect the fresh horse manure as it hit the road from the horse drawn milk cart.
The basement was made of un-insulated cinder block. The main area was bordered with multiple levels of shelving and the rest of the space was divided into rows of free standing fixtures like you would find in a hardware store. Each shelf contained some sort of treasure. Some had neatly stacked collections of coins that were mostly silver but I do remember a few gold ones. There were stacks and stacks of National Geographic magazines going all the way back to issue No 1. Some shelves contained old wooden games that were as often as not missing a few pieces. There was a stereoscope and a shoe box filled with the pictures that went with it. On what little wall space remained were hung reminders of a more rugged way of life - a pair of great big wooden snow shoes, animal traps and a very long ancient looking gun.
My task at hand though, involved the dreaded cold cellar which was located under the stairs that led to the basement. I cautiously opened the planked wooden door and peered into its dim depths. I could just make out the string hanging down beside the bulb. The trick would be get to that string, reach up and pull on it before the door closed and left me in the dark with a legion of spiders. I opened the door as far back as I could and then charged in. The light quickly began to fade by marked degrees. The room went black but my hand was already pulling down on the string. Somewhat breathlessly I looked around me. On my left were shelves of pickles, preserves, jams and jellies - enough to last that winter and maybe a few more. I grabbed the jar and was just working out the problem of how to turn off the light and still be able to find the door when I glanced to my right.
At just about eye level, on its own shelf, lay the bones of a human being. They were all nicely organized from skull to toe pieces. I had some plastic toys and I could tell that these pieces weren’t plastic or anything else but the real deal. On the surrounding shelves were things that I hadn’t noticed downstairs before - native rattles, drums, and a war club. I already knew what a war club was, a shaped rock, attached to a stick that was used in battle to smash the skull of an enemy.
Preserve jar in hand, I burst through the cold cellar door, dashed up the old wooden staircase (that despite its steepness had neither risers nor railing), placed the jar on the counter as I tore through the kitchen, then plunked myself on the safety of my father’s knee. Moms have laps. Dads have knees. In panted whispers I confided about my findings in the cold cellar. Dad nodded and in hushed tones filled me in. “You know that your grandfather is part Indian.” (We didn’t have the term First Nations in 1953.) He said it as a statement but it was news to me. “Well, during the last of the Indian Wars your grandfather killed that guy and brought him back as a war trophy. He’s been in the basement ever since.” While part of me was now frozen in terror another smaller part was starting to think that this was the most exciting Christmas ever.
Like most children, by the time the presents started to be opened I had gone on to new interests. In subsequent visits however, I braved the cold cellar to more carefully inspect the skeleton and its related items. I began to consider all of the basement’s objects as pieces of a puzzle which if carefully stitched together would tell the story of my grandfather’s bloody past. Surely the clues were all there; a long barrelled gun, a war club, and a skeleton, all hidden away in the most remote part of the house. You didn’t have to be a Sherlock Holmes to reach the right conclusion. Over time I accepted the obvious truth about my grandfather and comforted myself with the idea that what happened in the past stayed in the past. I did, however, make a point of trying to never anger him.
At one point my parents sold our home in Hamilton and moved to Scarborough, leaving me to live with my grandparents so that I could finish my grade10 year. One evening, after supper, we were sitting around the kitchen table and my grandfather started going on about old relatives in Ireland and Scotland, and his apprenticeships as a youth. Something struck me as being out of whack. I asked how he could have done all of these things and still have been able to fight in the Indian Wars. I was met with wide eyed stares from both grandparents. I broke the silence. “You know. The dead guy in the cellar. The one that you killed. The skeleton. It’s still there.”
My grandfather laughed so hard he darn near guffawed himself out of his chair. Grandmother’s reaction was a good deal more on the shocked and stoic side.
It seems that although there were a good many Celtic Metis in this land, my grandfather wasn’t one of them. He was, however, a man with the innate Scottish/Irish bent to waste not, want not, and to hold on to things “just in case”. Living through the depression just amplified this tendency. It seems that my grandparents had bought their house from the original owner who had been an Anthropology professor at Hamilton’s Mc Master University. The professor had used the various artifacts including the skeleton as part of his courses in Native Studies. When he moved out he left a lot of teaching materials behind. My grandfather, being the consummate collector that he was, just hung on to them.
Friday, 7 December 2012
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Sunday, 2 December 2012
I love the new fedoras that the kids wear. They are short brimmed and can be wildly colourful. You need to be a certain age to get away with it. That’s okay because music and clothes are part of what defines a generation.
For me, the real fedora was the one that my father wore. A grey full brim model that sported a black band and a small blue feather. Worn at a jaunty angle on a rather large head, it wasn’t always easy for him to find his hat size. It went along with his business suit, trench coat, and sample case. He sold greeting cards to the headquarter stores like Eaton’s and Simpson’s in downtown Toronto. Sometimes he would take shortcuts by using the alleys. In the old days the city was known as Toronto the Good, however on this dreary early winter’s day that was questionable.
He was getting older then. I was still living at home but not for much longer. Maybe his age made him look like a good mark. Personally I wouldn’t have chosen anyone with a 6 foot one height and a 34 inch waist to pick on. The assailant must have been a bit of a monster himself for when he approached from behind and left, he was able to lean his right elbow into my dad’s neck while his girlfriend grabbed at his shoulder with both of her hands. While the ultimatum was being delivered the sample case got shifted from right hand to left. A sample case is like a leather brief case on steroids. It carries your promotional products and your order books. You keep it clean and shiny like your shoes. It doesn’t get set down on anything but carpet.
While the attackers probably hadn’t considered was that their target might have been trained in what is known as “black hand” techniques due to a brief stint in the special forces as part of a project that involved being dropped behind enemy lines via gliders and creating pre D-Day havoc. The invasion day got moved up and the project got scrapped, but not before certain motor pathways got ingrained. My guess would be that if you blinked you would have missed the two fingers of the right hand being thrust up just under the solar plexus of the attacker. The result of this sort of blow leaves you trying to throw up violently while trying to breathe at the same time. (By the way, do this wrong by even so much as an inch and you will spend the rest of your life in jail.) The case switched back.
So there he was. His left hand holding his puking and gasping assailant up by the back of his neck while his right hand held both the sample case and female accomplice. Now what do you do? Why you rob them of course. He took every cent that they had, which wasn’t much of course, because otherwise they wouldn’t be trying to steal from him now would they? When he told me this (don’t tell your mother) over a beer at the end of the work day, I was horrified.
“You robbed them!!!”
“Yeah, there’s a Sally Ann’s right on Queen Street.”
My, but my father loved to donate to the Salvation Army. I’ll bet he gave one of his little half smiles as he pushed the money into the glass bowl.
I don’t think they make a fedora, or the man who wore it, like this anymore. Different times, I guess.
Monday, 29 October 2012
Sunday, 28 October 2012
I didn’t become aware of the sounds until I was old enough to baby sit. I already knew that every house produces its own sounds; air ducts thump, old heating pipes and radiators hiss and clang, while siding cracks and moans as it expands and contracts with the various heating cycles. Yes it truly is, “The hole in the ear that lets in the fear”, as the old saying goes. I knew all of this and I also thought that I was familiar with the individual sound signature of our house. That was until I sat alone that first night being left in charge of the safety of the house and my sister.
This was not the first time that I had been frightened in the house. As a teenager it seemed to be a rite of passage to spend time at the movies trying to get scared half to death. Most movies of my teen years really didn’t do the trick as they usually involved lame costumes and weak plots about invaders from outer space and some sort of fire breathing, city stomping creature. Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” came along and changed all that. True fright had arrived.
I saw “Psycho” as a matinee and returned home in a state of wide eyed paranoia just as my parents were heading out the door to see the same movie. By some cruel twist of fate, my father started going on about how it seemed that I had been avoiding soap and water lately and that it was high time that I made use of the shower. I baulked at the suggestion but never bothered to explain that the last person I had seen taking a shower got cut to ribbons. My father was piqued at my stubbornness and insisted that a shower was going to take place right at that very instant. After the front door closed I headed off for what was going to be the quickest shower of my life. I barely got wet because I couldn’t stop imagining that there was someone lurking on the other side of the opaque shower curtain. When my parents returned, my mother was still so scared that it seemed like she wouldn’t let go of Dad’s arm for about a month.
You could say that after “Psycho”, I was primed to be anxious about being alone and perhaps you could assume that I was just a little too alert to noises. This I would accept if it wasn’t for the fact that the noises were both repetitive and as regular as clockwork.
The sequence never varied. It would start at the back door entrance to the cellar. The door looked like it had been hastily cobbled together with discarded lumber from a derelict barn. The thin, slightly warped boards had spaces between them. The whole rickety affair featured a rusty thumb latch. From the outside a thumb latch looks like a spoon has been shoved into a key hole. When you press your thumb down on the spoon, it lifts the metal bar from its holder on the inside. There is no lock. The thumb latch would begin to rattle and the door would shudder back and forth on its own like there was someone trying to get in. On a quiet sleepless night the sound would carry clearly to the top floor.
After the outer door, came a set of wooden steps that led down to the basement. It was important to be able to count the eight treads as you stepped, for when you closed the outer door behind you, there would be no hope of light. Directly after the door had finished its peculiar sounds, the treads would creak in order from top to bottom.
At the bottom landing there was another door that led into the basement. The landing itself was home to a great number of the strange little creatures of the dark that we called pill bugs. These were small greyish millipedes that rolled into a ball when touched and crunched loudly when you stepped on them, while milling about in the dark searching for the door knob that would let you into the basement. This basement/landing door was in better shape than the one above, but it too would rattle briefly in its turn.
Next there came a brief period of waiting as if the intruder was inspecting the grey geography of the cinder block basement with its oil furnace, cement laundry sinks, cold cellar, and light bulbs on pull chains. The wait was over when the steps leading up to the kitchen door began creaking.
I would make a point of making sure that the kitchen door had been firmly shut but it didn’t help. After the creaking had reached the last tread leading up from the basement, the door would open slowly and smoothly. You could stand there and watch it happen or as I did when I baby sat, you could sit parallel to it in the green armchair in the living room that was only a few steps away. Either way, the door was going to open, leaving you to wonder if anything was going to appear from behind it.
Once in the family room, the invisible intruder would cause the lead weights which were sewn into the fabric at the bottom of the drapes, to begin to sway and leisurely knock against the wall of the large front window.
After that it was a waiting game again until whatever force I was dealing with toured the remainder of the main floor until it found the staircase that led up the second floor and hence my bedroom.
“Creak,..creak,…creak,…” as I lay in my bed I could hear those stair treads being tested one after another, as whatever it was journeyed up the first section from the main floor to the landing and then after a brief pause continued to the second floor.
Just as the last tread strained under some unseen weight, there was the briefest of pauses and then the energy was thrown at my door with its full force. My closed bedroom door would shake like someone was trying desperately to get in. The handle would be visibly forced in and out at rapid speed. How long did it last? Two seconds? Three seconds? Who can tell time in a panic? Then it would stop. Dead silence. Just like that.
The cycle would repeat itself with machine like accuracy well into the night. If I wanted to pack it in before my parents came home I would try to get to sleep between episodes.
Of course living with this odd rhythm of sound and movement fostered a bit of paranoia. Whenever I had to babysit I took to comforting myself by skulking through the house with the largest knife that I could find from the kitchen drawer. I would start at the bottom of the house and inspect the cold cellar. Then I would go to each room and throw open each closet door with the breathless anticipation of lunging at some hidden intruder. After a full house inspection I would park myself in the green armchair near the kitchen. There, knife in my left hand, junk food in my right, I would simultaneously watch the TV and the kitchen door.
At some point I shared my burden of fear with my father in an attempt to gain insight into the hauntings. I was expecting to be told something wondrous like that the house had been built on an old cemetery or that it been cursed for some terrible reason. His answer came with little hesitation and with no mention of the supernatural. The house had been built on farmland and the foundation dug by horse and plough scoop. Dad had built a good deal of it himself and the only curses were the type heard when he hammered his thumb nail or ran short of money for building material. The house did what it did because newly build houses take some time to settle in the earth. Certain kinds of soil prolong this settling activity and our house was still settling. Add to this that we had a new bus route that went in front of our house and you had the answer. Each time that the bus went by it would send vibrations into the soil which would cause the house to twist as it settled. The twisting would set off the sequence of creaking staircases and vibrations. It was an adult answer. There was comfort in its logic. However until the day we moved away I always babysat from the green armchair with a knife in my hand. Ken