by Alice Mulconry
(Battle Creek, Mi USA)
There are certain childhood terrors that linger into adulthood. The fear of thunder and lightning, the dark, or clowns. Scares that take root in the young sub-conscience, twisting thoughts and filling veins with ice water. I was aware at a young age that I lived in a haunted house, a place that would make Casper The Friendly Ghost turn in his cartoon sheet. Living through the everyday haunt is unnerving, but one gets used to the tapping, rapping on walls, and dis- embodied voices. The creaking doors that open and close by unseen hands and the wraiths who glide into solid walls. It was my reality and my nightmare. The atomic age ushered in modern terrors of un-winnable warfare, total annihilation of the planet. This was the world I was born into , the 1950's ....the Cold War era. My young self would start to worry about more than things that went bump in the night. I lived over an old saloon in Brooklyn, N.Y. a place filled with remnants of disappointment and fear. Sadness hung over every doorframe in our apartment. The ghosts of past dwellers went with the cheap rent. My family lived with the sounds and chills, the unknown had become commonplace . Tin Civil Defense signs were posted on apartment buildings and structures with deep cellars. The gold and black design that represented the Atomic age in sharp threatening angles, announced itself on the side entrance to the bar. In 1960 I was a first grader, and already world weary. Whether from family troubles or the dark atmosphere of our home, I was a cautious child. On the world front things were heating up, Russia and the U.S. were shaking fists and saber rattling at each other. Because of the fear of someone s’ finger on the button of doom, air raid drills became the thing at school and home. The minute that siren howled ,I would crawl under my classroom desk , face away from the windows and with hands over head hope the all clear would soon sound. At home the drill was to leave the apartment and head for shelter in the basement. The basement. A dark ugly space filled with beer barrels, old furniture, mice, spiders, and cockroaches. Cold , damp and dimly lit with all the ambience that you would imagine hell to have. Where shadows slid across the floor. The two terrors were about to meet. On a late fall day the air raid siren went off, while I was at home with my Mother. All of Brooklyn seemed to come to a halt . Cars and Buses pulled off the roads and their passengers made a beeline for any buildings with the civil defense shelter shield displayed. My Mom stopped cooking supper and turned off the stove . She rousted me from the television set, which had replaced the Popeye cartoons that I had been watching with an emergency broadcast message. We quickly left our apartment and headed downstairs . The street level hallway was crowded with people seeking shelter and the saloons’ basement was standing room only. We wedged ourselves behind the staircase at the open door of the cellar, pressed tight against the back wall and waited nervously with strangers. I hated the sound of a
wailing siren, even today that sound scrapes my nerves . People kept to themselves in that crowded moment, men in fedoras and overcoats kept their gaze low , their hands clutching newspapers. The women looking forward , chewing gum and holding their children’s hands. I remember the smell of sweat mixed with Evening In Paris and Brylcreme, with a hint of Doublemint and Sen-Sen. The lights started to flicker in the basement, those who had gone down there for safety soon wished they had taken their chances above ground. It was then that I saw it .”It “came down from the ceiling, just above the stair case, it’s blackness gave it weight. The shadow moved in a sliding fashion, snakelike it made it’s way to the back of the hall and stopped in front of me, nearly covering a woman wearing a silk bandana. She felt the chill and let out a yelp . She blamed it on a man to her left. I watched with wide eyes as the dark cloud receded into itself. The other world was awake now and feeling bold ,it decided to feed on the low terror of air raid drills and end of world scenarios. The siren’s din bounced off the layers of paint on the hallway walls . The sound tinny and sour was soon muted by the footfalls coming down the stairs. One after the other the steps vibrated with a quickness, but no feet made that noise. Into view came a pink rubber ball, the kind that were sold in corner candy stores throughout Brooklyn. The pastime of a million kids made sinister. I knew that ball ,it had tempted me to join it in a game a few years before. I was standing behind the baby gate at the top of the landing, the “Pinky” was bouncing seductively one flight below. It urged me to open the gate, when I couldn’t, it invited me to climb the gate. I soon fell in a tumble ,rolling end over end, but somehow never making contact with the stairs. As if a buffer of air carried me . Down two flights I went, unafraid, just rolling with that ball . Until I came to an abrupt stop at the down stairs neighbor’s front door. My heels made contact with a hard crack . I stood up, none the worse for a fall that should have killed me. Here was my ruthless old playmate again, looking to make new friends. The ball bounced purposely and slowly down the steps and then rolled into the vestibule . It came to a stop at the front door. A small boy wriggled free from his Mom’s grasp and ran to pick it up . The child whimpered and let the ball fall from his hands. “It scratched me, Mommy !"he said . The all clear signal was heard ,and with much relief ,the sheltering strangers left the basement and hallway. I looked back on my way upstairs to our apartment and saw a lone straggler come up out of the basement. A pimply faced teenage boy noticed the ball near the door , he kicked it into the street. I knew it would roll down into the sewer and soon find its way back. .