My parents were good parents, a sentence I need before I tell you about my time in a basement crawl space. Oh, they didn’t lock me in there—I loved that crawl space, an eight-by-eight cement area under the family room, lit by a single bulb that had an electrical outlet attached at its base. The reason I want you to know my parents were good parents is that I risked the family’s safety, the house’s existence and, most important to me, my life almost every single time I was down there. Let me explain—and remember my mother and father are both dead so the Department of Children, Youth and Families can’t touch them.
As a seven-year-old kid, I was strange. (As a 59-year-old man, I am strange, but, I think, in different ways.) When we moved into our brand-new house on Beards Landing, I had a big room with big closets and we had a good-sized front yard with acres of woods behind us. Since we arrived in July, I think, those woods were mine to explore for the first four or five months—there was an abandoned, uncapped well to bring an old ladder to and explore, a dangerously high rock face to climb and a dam to walk across. It was a great place to be a little kid, except there were no other kids on my street that first summer and autumn, and my kid sister was too young to take on real adventures. Still, I could be Daniel Boone, a Civil War soldier, an Indian and a dinosaur hunter in an afternoon. By mid-November, though, with the days getting colder and shorter, I needed to find adventure inside the house.
The crawl space was in the corner of the basement, beside the washer and dryer and next to the huge oil tank. Since I was on pace to become a midget, I needed to bring a chair over to the hole in the wall that was its door—maybe four feet off the ground. From the first mid-November day I climbed in, I knew where I’d be wintering. Here, unimaginably, was a Keith-sized room, with a four-foot-high “ceiling” composed of the two-by-fours that were the family room’s floor support. The single light and outlet made this into heaven. I immediately brought a couple blankets and a small chair down, along with some of my favorite books and made myself a home within a home.
My father, unlike most other dads in Durham, a little college town, made his living with his hands, creating dentures for dentists in the seacoast area. Mornings, he wore a sport coat, shirt and tie to drive to work, but there he put on a scientist’s lab robe to prevent being covered by grinding dust and other byproducts. I didn’t really know how he did what he did, but whenever I went to the dental lab with him, he’d let me take extra fake teeth and sheets of dental wax, the same pink color and thickness of the bubble gum inside trading-card packs, but about the size of a piece of paper folded into fourths. I squirreled these away in a cardboard box in the corner of my new home, pulling the box out occasionally to melt the wax with the light bulb’s heat then making dental sculptures of nightmarish shape. Soon the lightbulb would become so covered with wax residue that the only thing that could be done was to use a paper towel to clean it, hoping I wouldn’t break it. If second-grade Show-and-Tell had been the debut of my artworks, I likely would have spent less time in the principal’s office and more time with the school psychologist.
If my mother had any concerns about her oldest child and only son spending hours at a time inside a womb in the basement, I don’t remember her mentioning them. At Christmas, I got a chemistry set, along with a Creepy-Crawly machine and lots of Plasti-Goop. Unless you are, maybe, 55 to 63, you may have no idea about Plasti-Goop, so it was some proprietary plastic in small bottles that was sold with metal molds and a Creepy-Crawly “machine”—a tiny hot plate that heated the substance until it became rubbery spiders or rings or rats—the kind of thing sold in machines outside a supermarket. Of course, the Creepy-Crawly Machine came with all kinds of warnings about adult supervision and fire safety, but those warnings were on the box that went out with the December 26 trash. The chemistry set, the Goop, the molds and the Machine all disappeared into my laboratory. Then began the experiments.
When I use the term “experiments,” it suggests the application of the scientific method, which involves generating a hypothesis, creating a way to test that hypothesis and then reporting the results. Of course, I was doing nothing of the kind. I was mixing poisonous chemicals with abandon, overloading an electrical circuit with the Creepy-Crawly machine, melting wax on a light bulb and generally walking a dangerous ledge. If I’d needed to generate a hypothesis, it might have been something like: “Given a curious and secretive seven-year-old boy, a variety of ways to die and a small private space, the gods that oversee fools, drunks and little kids will prevent death before spring comes and it’s time to continue exploring outdoor life-threatening activities.”
The results were positive—I lived. If you’re a seven-year-old kid, though, please don’t replicate this experiment. After all, you might not have parents as good as mine.