THE BASEMENT

A few years ago a discussion my sister is the basis for this story as my father grew tired of going  downstairs to do laundry and contemplated moving the washer and dryer upstairs.  As we talked, my mind drifted back to all the happenings down there but alas Dad never did this having passed away before his idea bore fruit and the house sold and whoever takes possession will acquire a well seasoned basement.

Basement (bas’mənt) n.  1. The substructure or foundation of a building.  2. The lowest habitable story of a building, usually below ground level.  Boy did we use ours!

At the time Mom and Dad moved from Utica to 21713 Arrowhead St, Saint Clair Shores, Michigan in 1958, they used the dark, damp cemented hole in the ground to store belongings from the apartment in Utica behind heavy, clear plastic drop clothes spray-painted green in camouflage pattern.  Occasionally Mom and Dad entertained friends on Saturday nights downstairs which provided the ideal atmosphere to spread out food and drink also the large space provided the ideal dance floor as powdered dance wax allowed a smooth pace across the floor.  While party goers danced the night away Brothers Tad and David, Sister Linda, and me took turns at the top of the stairs listening to the music and roar of conversation.  The next morning, while Mom and Dad recovered four curious minds climbed downstairs to investigate the aftermath and, with dance wax crackling underfoot, found leftover food, stale popcorn, cigarette butts, and half-full glasses of Whiskey Sours and Black Label beer bottles everywhere.

Keeping up with the times, as basement where the place to be in the 60’s, families in the Midwest remodeled them into bars, party rooms, and recreation rooms, which, in 1965 Dad did the latter separating it into four large wood-paneled rooms:  a laundry with wash tubs and ironing facilities, a furnace room with two smaller, adjacent rooms for storage, and a recreation/family room complete with Bumper Pool and Ping-Pong tables on one half and easy chairs, sofa, loveseat, and television on the other.  The Pykonen family went without air conditioning, a luxury unaffordable to many in the 60’s, so the basement not only served our entertainment needs but also provided cool relief from hot and humid Midwest summers as well as a safe haven a tornado occured.  On the walls we hung fluorescent painted Peter-Max like posters and craft projects, the ceiling received a makeover with insulated tiling adding to the aesthetic beauty with heating ducts for winter use.

The laundry area housed the fruit cellar, washer and dryer, an ironing area with fluorescent lighting, and a “half wall” Dad constructed of wood, red brick and cement used as a bar/food counter for entertaining and storing ironing tools.  Next to the washing machine a divided washtub once used for laundry before the automatic found a new duty in keeping refreshing beverages chilled during social gatherings.  Under the stairwell was the fruit cellar mom used to store canned preserves, garden tools, returnable bottles, and let Santa store gifts in it during the Christmas season.  One year, to prove his point that Santa Clause didn’t exist, older Brother David picked the lock revealing wrapped contents inside, thus tarnishing, yet not destroying, Santa’s image.  Across the from the laundry room, the oil-powered furnace “clicked” on/off regularly and fueled once a month by the oilman when he filled up the storage tank.  Pulling up out front of the house he pulled out the hose and, draping the nozzle over his shoulder dragged the oil stained hose to the back of the house, inserted the metal nozzle into the filler pipe, and once the tank inside filled flipped a lever that wound the hose back into the truck.  Awesome!  Sadly, this much-anticipated event died off as ours and neighbors’ converted to gas bidding adieu to the oilman.

The two smaller, bordering rooms shared multiple, yet limited, uses.  During his rebellious, teen days, Dave and friends squeezed into one room to hang out, after he moved out Dad hung shelves to store collectables and cooking utilities too bulky for upstairs, and for two years Tad and I stored and worked on our Suzuki 50 motorcycle there.  Motorcycle emblems and pictures of motocross racers Roger DeCoster and Brad Lackey fought for attention with double boilers, large coffee urns, and crock pots.  I came close to getting into the wide world of motorcycles as a mechanic but alas that never bore fruit.  Except for the year 1977 when I got involved in black and white photography and setup a darkroom the second of these two rooms remained solid storage.  However, it was the main room between the laundry and furnace/storage rooms where all the action took place.

Many games of Ping-Pong and Bumper Pool played out here by friends and neighbors; I assembled Radio Shack Heath kit transistor radios there, played with Erector sets, and set up my first HO scale train on the Ping-Pong table along with slot car tracks.  Mom and Linda participated in the Girl Scouts and held meetings in the main room, cut fabric from clothing patterns spread out on the Ping-Pong table and created sweaters, jackets, and other handmade clothing for us and others.  For many years Christmas is celebrated upstairs with the living room decked out save a couple of years the holiday moved downstairs complete with trimmed tree and decorations.  I stationed myself by our AM radio during the season waiting for Snoopy’s Christmas by The Royal Guardsman to play on CKLW out of Windsor, Canada.  After the commercials came the phrase:  “Mmmeeerry Christmas from CKLW.”  I waited in anticipation for the song, is this the time?  Oh, skunked again, White Christmas by Bing Crosby or some other song played!  On Christmas morning four children raced downstairs to tear into gifts Santa had moved from the fruit cellar while Mom and Dad sleep in upstairs.  Did they plan to have Christmas in the basement to be different or to create a buffer from four wildly excited children?

Christmas Eve, 1968.  Through snowy, pre-cable TV reception downstairs, I, along with the world, followed Apollo 8’s historic mission as James Lovell, Frank Borman, and William Anders become the first men to orbit the moon and as a Christmas gift to all of us “on the good Earth” read from Genesis.  Being only 10 years old at the time I had no idea of what they read just seeing another planet live from deep space kept me glued to television, Mom and Dad were nearby watching and no doubt they felt its meaning. Today when I watch the Apollo 8 sequence of the Earth rise above the moon, and, even though I don’t believe God exists, I get goose bumps and teary eyed.

The seventies ushered in more change and the basement saw less traffic.  In my senior year of high school I moved downstairs outgrowing the bedroom of my youth and upon graduating I moved out and the basement returned to its’ storage roots as a train set no longer of interest, books, and years of National Geographic magazine including one about Apollo 15 and the first moon rover, the fluorescent posters long gone but some the other crafts still hung on the walls.  An antique metal loveseat, chairs mom and dad had finished, their old bed frame, pop and beer bottles, unused kitchen ware, all this and more was now stacked on the Ping-Pong table, on the floor, and in both smaller rooms; the bumper pool table gone.  Flooding due to the spring thaw once kept from backing up now went unchecked and destroyed more items each year with Mom or Dad only using it to do laundry or change the furnace filter.  Soon a musty, moldy smell hung in the air and the only noise heard was mechanical chatter between the washer, dryer, and furnace.  On a trip home in 1997 I helped dad clear out some of the clutter, finding a toy British soldier dressed in Revolutionary War garb still at attention purchased in Mackinaw City on a summer vacation long ago also a forgotten phone number written on the back of one paneled wall.  A moments pause and memories transported me back to a time when all was right in the world.

© jim Pykonen 2013

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