It was referred to as the cellar, never called a “basement,” though I’m not sure yet I understand what distinguishes them.
You could get down there either by the steep stairs leading from the pantry, or through the slanted, slatted, pull-apart pair of — you guessed it — cellar doors, outside.
The latter, always creaky and not painted recently enough, carried a hint of Kansas, like what you’d flee beneath as the twister furthered its advance. We weren’t at risk of those Oz-style weather patterns, that I knew of.
Our cellar was appropriately dank, though, and sprouted mold, and spider-webs, and broad indelible stains one wouldn’t want to analyze at random locations on the irregularly poured cement foundation floor.
If you were full-grown, you’d be advised to crouch and watch your head, dodging a capricious suspended network of pipes, support shafts, and hanging hazards. A good set of clothes could get ruined in a hurry.
The house had an attic, too, where all the cleaner, drier stuff we didn’t really need was stored. Banished to the cellar were the outlaw goods — the rusty, musty, greasy, leak-prone, noxious, caustic, or just plain nasty commodities.
It was more beach-head than colony, lacking a workshop but not short of loose tools.
Rakes, shovels, and hedge-clippers leaned against the measled walls, kept company by gallon cans of paint long-since congealed, near-empty cans of now-expired automotive fluids, lengths of brittle, rolled-up hose, and mossy parts from disemboweled machines.
Stacked slabs of slate, superstitiously salvaged from a roof upgrade years earlier, owned one corner, opposite the soiled silo of the boiler. A sink, more like a square, speckle-glazed tub, had faucets that still functioned, but they splashed and sputtered and ran orange with iron oxide.
At either side of the base of the pantry stairs, and beneath them, that was the civilized territory. Broad, enamel-painted shelves were stocked with excess canned goods toward the top, fuels and detergents at the bottom. In between were hand-bottled preserves — pickles, stews, and jams — presented by Old Country relatives in clamped, dated and labeled, sometimes paraffin-sealed glass Mason jars.
Would this have been our fall-out shelter? Some of my schoolmates’ parents had constructed the real thing. I had even toured one. The drinking water, survival rations, personal hygiene items, miscellaneous supplies (including board games) were all stacked and arranged in compact efficient, appropriately paramilitary fashion.
Our cellar wasn’t like that. Aside from basic creepiness, it was a mess. We’d not have lasted long underground, despite the jugs of home-fermented berry wine, and borscht, and floating marinated turnip slices.
Soon enough, en masse or one-by-one, we would have ventured topside, where the radiation was.
It was a weak line of defense, our cellar, but no more foolish, I thought, than the school drills which trained us to crouch under desks in preparation for the thermonuclear blasts.
The cellar’s real advantage was as a short-term sanctuary, when you were sought as a youthful offender, accused unjustly of malicious mischief: They never looked for you there. At such times, the fetid atmosphere seemed fresh, not unlike the air in uncompleted prison-break tunnels.
Years later, I accepted wages to disguise double-wide trailer units, bolted together and trimmed out, as vacation homes. A cherry-picker lowered the halves of these sorry dwellings onto 18- inch footers we’d poured whenever it was warm enough.
Second thoughts were mostly stifled as we cashed our boomtown checks. Once, at least, however, I can recollect reflecting that these cellar-less bastards, in times of crisis, wouldn’t have a place to hide.
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