The memory of my actual age at this event is unclear for I was a little boy, but the details, the smells, sights, and sounds are as clear in the darkness of my mind as if it happened today.
Snow had fallen all night we awoke to find ourselves free from the oppressions of school for at least one day. Gleefully, we agreed to shovel the snow away even though it was still coming down in large wet flakes, covering the concrete trails we made almost as fast as we cleared them.
The snow was deep enough to tunnel through, for major snow wars and the laughter of children all up and down the block we lived on. It continued to snow all day long and after shoveling the second time (in order to justify our staying out so long) we were exhausted and began the arduous journey to the back door to disrobe.
First, all snow must be brushed off from hats, coats, pants and boots. The wet clothing that remained where cakes of snow once gathered were required to be removed, taken downstairs and placed near, by, on, or over the laundry tub.
Being the youngest, I was the last to perform this function and I gleefully removed my coat, hung it on a hangar and reached up as high as I could to connect the small water pipe to the hangar.
Off I ran to play and laugh and watch the rest of the neighbors play outside.
My universe was infinite. I could travel from one end to the other in an instant. Everything caught my eye and earned my attention, everything that is except the things I was supposed to do so I was constantly told. I was a dreamer. Some professionals, parents and teachers refer to it as day-dreaming but I knew better since I dreamed constantly. I could always find an alternate universe to live in and there I could be whoever I wished to be in any situation I wanted to be in. There, the colorful lights of Christmas can evolve into a world of wonder. There, the hot fudge sundae at the corner store is self perpetuating. There I found peace, contentment and security.
I had learned to control those day dreams and to do the things that were expected of me. I could do my chores as well as my siblings. I could converse with Aunts and Uncles and play with cousins and really focus when I had to. But at every opportunity, and as quickly as I could, I would shift my universe and think of things yet to come and be people that I could aspire to be when I grew up.
Much of that childhood fantasy ended that afternoon.
You see, our basement was divided into two rooms, partially finished is what you might call it today, we called it a basement. One room had a pool table, an old TV set with rabbit ears, a mirror on the wall and a few chairs. The other room was the laundry room, storage and Dadís workbench. The floor was a laminate tile, the ugly old two tone grey, and the concrete walls in the laundry room were painted a lime green (it was paint given to my Dad and since we were just getting by we put it to good use). The laundry room area was back in the corner closest to the back of the house. It was small. There were two small laundry tubs made out of a concrete mix and a mold, washer, dryer. Nothing fancy. Over the tubs was the single light bulb.
Now that you have this picture in your mind youíll understand what I am going to tell you. You see, since I was the last one to hang up my coat, and since I was just too happy from playing and was ďhyperĒ by todayís terminology, I quickly threw my coat on a hangar and hung it up close to the light bulb. It is important to know that like most families in my neighborhood, being the youngest meant that you wore all the clothing your older siblings handed down. It always made me the butt of the jokes but I didnít mind too much. So, my jacket was actually my brothers worn out grey cloth winter jacket.
After I hung it up, I hurried off in my exuberance and forgot to turn off the light over the tub. And, as you can probably see where Iím going with this, the coat swayed back and forth and came to rest with the shoulder of the coat touching the hot light bulb.
Sometime later that afternoon, my brother smelled something ďfunnyĒ. He called Mom who came downstairs and looked around until she found the source of the odorómy coat. It wasnít on fire or anything but the light had burned a large hole in it. Mom was furious. She yelled something about not having the money to buy a new one and that I could have set the house on fire and why couldnít I just once pay attention to what I was doing like normal kids.
She was pretty angry and stormed up the stairs declaring that she didnít know what to do with me anymore. I stayed in the basement. I couldnít talk. I was totally engulfed in fear. Could I have burned the house down? What was wrong with me? I began to cry and sought out a corner that was nearly surrounded by walls and the furnace. It was my hiding place. I felt real bad, so bad that even my siblings took mercy on me and said absolutely nothing even though they could have had a field day teasing me.
Just above my head was a laundry chute. In the old houses, you could drop your dirty laundry down to the basement instead of having to carry them down. It also served as an echo chamber or, as in the case today, an eavesdropping device. Mom was on the phone and it didnít take long to figure out it was Dad on the other side. She was telling him the story. Something about this was the last straw, she couldnít deal with it anymore. Then I heard it, clear as day. My brother was standing there listening too and had a look of pity for me.
ďMaybe we should put him in a home, maybe heís mentally retarded. He just canít seem to think rightĒ
The look of shock that overwhelmed my brotherís face said it all and I buried my head as tightly as I could into my pant legs and sobbed. Iím stupid. Iím retarded. My brother put his hand on my shoulder and quietly said ďItís not true, donít even think it.Ē
He ran up the stairs where I could hear him yelling at my Mom that there was nothing wrong with me.
The damage was done. My alternate universe closed that day and to this day it remains only a faint memory. I never went there again to dream, to imagine, to create, to enjoy all that life had put around me. Instead I determined that I had to prove that I was smart, talented and normal.
And sadly, that was my driving force for most of the rest of my life. Be somebody, do something important, write a novel, paint a masterpiece, compose a symphony, star in a movie, prove you arenít retarded! Do something so people will say your name with a certain twinge of admiration and awe! It still hasnít happened.
A boy. A hand me down winter coat, a cold snowy day and a light bulb.