Monday, January 24, 2011

My Oddest Attic Adventure

"I wonder if your current home has an attic which you've explored, and if so, if it at least partially satisfied that heightened curiosity in you?" - ChrisClicks (January 14, 2011 4:25 AM; Riding The Merry-Go-Round Of Time)

The attic of my current house is little more than an overhead crawlspace. I think I've stuck my head up into it only two or three times in the 10 years I've lived here. It's not the sort of space I have much desire to see more of - which is a good thing, considering how difficult the small access panel in a small closet is to get to.

The good news is that my attic curiosity was pretty much sated while I was still living in my first neighborhood. Before I was 10 years old I'd had the good fortune of actually making my way into the attics of no fewer than three nearby houses - all of them big, intriguing spaces, and all of them made easily accessible by permanent full staircases.

The first and most intriguing attic I wormed my way into belonged to the house almost directly across the street from the apartment I lived in.

Here's what it looked like in about 1945 (some 20 years before I first set foot in it):

My own landlord also owned this house (as well as about 5 other properties in the area, including The Big House with The Tower that I've written about before and his own residence about six houses to the left of this picture). City records tell me he owned it from 1936 until 1974, but....

In the early 1960s he tried to sell it to a man with a wife, a few kids, and some Big Plans. The man had been renting it for awhile. At some point he thought it made sense to buy it and turn the detached garage behind it into a barber shop. All that remained of the garage was a knee-high foundation and a disintegrating slab floor, though, so it was beyond my young imagination to envision exactly how this might come to pass. As things turned out, it never did.

Apparently the man liked to drink. Apparently he had a temper. Apparently when he was drinking and his temper got the best of him, he would sometimes beat his wife. During one night of drinking, circa the spring or summer of 1964, the man pursued his long-suffering wife throughout the house and finally up the stairs to the attic. When nothing she could say or do persuaded him to desist, she jumped out the attic window that faced our apartment - i.e., the attic window on the right side in the photo above.

Our landlord and his wife told us that the only thing that saved her life was the grass patiently waiting for her in the night some three stories down.

We were home that night, but heard nothing. Not the screams. Not the sirens. Not a thing. We all peacefully slumbered on while this hellish little drama played out on a stage set I'd spent many hours scanning from our front windows on much calmer days. People couldn't understand how we might have been able to sleep through all this, but in retrospect it's not that hard to explain. We lived halfway between two nearby hospitals. Rescue squads and fire trucks were frequent travelers on the busy road perhaps 10 feet beyond our front door as well as on nearby Cherry St. Police runs were even more common. If we hadn't learned how to sleep through sirens, we probably wouldn't have slept at all.

It wasn't long after the woman decided jumping out the attic window was preferable to being with the man she loved that both the man and the woman and their kids moved away. The sale was off. The remnants of the detached garage would never be a barber shop. And my landlord set about the task of getting the house they'd left behind ready for a new tenant or buyer.

A routine was established. My landlord would run the hardware store below our apartment all day, then walk home for dinner. After eating he'd go to the house across the street from me to work on it, or maybe cut the grass. When I saw him over there, I'd go visit. He was remarkably tolerant of these visits. As a result, I became addicted to the aroma of fresh plaster and paint and cut wood.

I also got to explore the 6-bedroom house that I'd been staring at from across the street for as long as I could remember.

The attic of course proved irresistible.

The staircase that went up to it was kind of tucked away on the second floor. The westernmost part of the second floor was a flat, black roof porch - no railings. Inside, just to the east of that porch, was a kind of second kitchen. In the northeast corner of that kitchen was a doorway, and beyond it were the stairs to the attic. Stairs that took one up and to the south with each step....

The attic itself was just a big square with about the same footprint as the house. No insulation could be seen as I looked up and around - only steeply pitched dark wood and rafters. Four sets of windows were set in the exact center of the four sides of the square - each set rather smallish and just above the level of the bare wooden floor.

As my landlord went about whatever work brought him - and me - up there, I naturally gravitated to the windows that faced my own home.

It was odd looking out and seeing that home after having spent so much time looking at the spot I was now looking out of. I still couldn't see the roof I slept under - a flat black roof that I would never see - but seeing my home from a new perspective was still pretty exciting. I savored the moment.

And I tried to imagine what would drive anyone to open the window I was seated in front of and jump.

My young mind wasn't up to the task.

Neither is the mind I have today.

And how anyone could survive such a jump remains a profound mystery....

I'm not sure how long I sat there, pondering things, but it was long enough to leave an indelible impression. I suppose visitors to the 6th floor window of the Texas School Book Depository in Dallas might know the sort of impression I'm talking about. I suppose they know the kind of pointless speculations and attempts at empathy that float through a mind struggling to comprehend the nature and site of a horrendous event, too. Things seem so calm and peaceful while one is there. It's ultimately impossible to reconcile that calm and peace with the very different moments one knows rolled over that very spot like a tsunami not all that long ago.

Who knows how many similar tsunamis have without our knowledge rolled over all the other now calm and peaceful spots around us today?

Who knows which of today's calm and peaceful spots are destined to be swamped by horrendous events without any warning tomorrow?

I don't suppose many parents would encourage their young children to visit such attics and ponder such events, but I'm personally glad I had the opportunity.

I'm also glad that I was recently able to find the obituary of the man with Big Plans. Turns out that he was a big WWII hero - someone who had rescued his shipmates in the Pacific after a particularly effective Japanese attack. He and his wife had gone on to have 9 kids. He was remembered as a loving husband and a good Catholic. No mention was made of the time he chased his beloved out an attic window. Just a reminder I guess that as bad as the world can seem in the newspaper accounts of it, the actual reality of the world can be much worse....

But time moves on, erasing even the worst aspects of reality right along with the good.

Here's a view of the house from just a few years ago, somewhat the worse for wear:

And here's a recent view of the same area:

Maybe new dreams and happier memories will eventually unfold on this site, but I wouldn't bet on that happening anytime soon....


  1. Do people sleep in Heaven? How could God sleep at night, aware of every time a swallow's breathes and every time a cat swallows a sparrow?
    Did God ask for that job? Should we pity him for not being able to blink and turn away from the hideousness of His creation? Or should we pity Him for the arrogance of his ambition to create this mess?
    I say it's time to give God a break and nominate a new God. Sarah Palin has the kind of arrogant ambition to take on the job. And it would get her out of human affairs. I mean God is obviously helpless to do anything but watch all this unfold, right?
    I mean, he's not even like Santa with the power to reward good-doers with prezzies and evil doers with coal powered electricity plants.
    I'll stop now because I forgot what I was talking about.
    Oh, I remember--eternal vigilance is the price of being omniscient and blessed are the ignorant, for they shall be nominated by the Tea Party.

  2. I love the captchas on this site because they are almost words and are easy to read and remember.
    The captcha for my last comment was storpidd. It's almost like it could read my comment.

  3. Did you see this?

    Is it a miracle?

    Oh lookit. Another great captcha: sesphabi

  4. This is a fascinating entry, and I'm truly sorry to not have noted it earlier! I'm glad you had this adult who took a shine to you, and allowed you to explore an attic after all. Funny, but I have rather vivid memories of exploring the attic in my grandfather's house, which was jam-packed with boxes of stuff. I can remember the musty smell. Distinctly attic-like. I lived in that house until I was 10. The thing I remember most about it was that it had really deep, steep but narrow steps... much different than the staircase out in the hallway connecting the first floor with the second floor. And those narrow, steep steps led from a door in my bedroom (at the time). There was nothing remotely bizarre about any events connected with it.

    As a kid, about 5 years old, I DID lead my little sister on an exploring quest out on the front dormer window of the second story bathroom. I do recall the visuals of it all, and how exciting it was to be up there! And a convertable of teenagers stopped in front of our house, and apparently went up to the door to report to our mother that her little darlings were out on the rooflet, and according to mom's recollection, were preparing to "fly around the corner to the large porch on the side." Seems I must have been under the influence of Peter Pan, the movie....

    I had many other misadventures with the Catholic children next door (there were 13 of them at the time, and very little parental supervision). But I'm afraid I didn't take deeper reflection, as you did....maybe because the biggest tragedies that touched my young life were when I was too young to know them.... or to recognize them.