A little walk down memory lane…
Aside from a year in Houston, my Mom and I lived in Huntsville during my elementary school years. She was trying to earn her degree as a teacher, and raise me at the same time as a single Mom. She already had three (mostly) grown children, and so aside from some periods where my sister Tamara came to stay for a while it was mostly just us. The way Mom found to make a living brought a lot of fun and excitement to my life and that’s what I’d like to share today.
Mom became the manager of a girls dormitory at Sam Houston State University, where she also went to school. It was called Jackson-Shaver, and it was a huge brick building, L-shaped and 5 stories high including a big basement/boiler room. The building is still there, but changed somewhat, and now it’s a co-ed dorm. Our apartment was spacious and had it’s own entrance on the ground floor, about 15 feet away from the Sam Houston Museum. I don’t remember how many years we were there, but it was at least two.
That was a magical time for me. I was lost in a fantasy world with my Star Wars toys a LOT. If I wasn’t playing with them, I was feverishly scanning the Sears Roebuck Christmas Catalog for pictures of strange new playsets. Sometimes this led to disappointment. I stared at a picture of the Hoth Action Playset so long, memorizing the marketing blurbs about the snow cave, the elevator into the AT-AT, and all the other features, that when I eventually got it I couldn’t believe that they’d just taken the Tatoine Desert Playset, dyed it white instead of brown, and pretended it was snow. And the AT-AT was cardboard. Sigh. The anticipation was much more fun.
But I would take these toys all over the place. There was a little jungle beside the Sam Houston Museum. I found a vine I could swing on. And roots in the steep hillside provided homes for R2-D2 and deserting Stormtroopers.
I also took the toys into the dorm. This place was huge, long hallways with red carpet smelling of fresh paint. There were two major staircases. In the summer all the rooms would be empty for at least several weeks. The doors to the rooms were open, exposing sturdy bunk beds with hospital-blue mattresses. Lots of light would spill into the hallways, and I would tear down the halls alone with an X-Wing Fighter, pleased that I could play in any room I wanted.
I liked to go to the furthest corner of the building, 4 floors up and at the other end of the “L.” I also knew the boiler room, with the smell of powdered industrial chemicals. The cleaning staff weren’t really around at these times. But their ghosts seemed to haunt the place: they were old, tired grandpas and grandmas, black, with a language and demeanor that made me think of the 1940s. The boiler room seemed to be their home, with scattered chairs and rags indicating impromptu gatherings.
I made a friend named Kenneth. He lived in a house where someone had hung themselves on the front porch years ago. You know that house in Forest Gump that the female lead throws mud at? Yeah, that was his house. But Kenneth was my best friend, and we would tear through the park or the dormitory halls in a frenzy.
I remember deciding that there was one girl in the world who maybe wasn’t gross and that was Brooke Shields. I had a copy of Time Magazine with her picture on the cover. Kenneth and I spent a hot summer evening fighting like dogs for that picture, jumping down the stairwells 4 steps at a time trying to keep it safe. Eventually, on the hillside in front of the dorm it was tragically ripped in two. We mourned.
Every now and then Kenneth could stay overnight. We loved “The Twilight Zone” and Mom would let us watch it with a bowl of popcorn soaked in butter. One episode was called “Green Thumb,” about an old woman whose hands turned horribly into roots from her constant rooting in the soil. We had dared each other to sleep in one of the dorm rooms that night. Padding down the dark hallways, we reached our room, climbed to our bunks with our Star Wars sleeping bags, and turned off the light.
I don’t know when the screaming started, but we turned into single-celled animals with one goal: GET TO THE LIGHT OF HOME. Running down dark halls at midnight in a building like The Shining is the way I experienced going insane and coming back again.
There was “the Noonday Terror” as well. It was very possible to hear a strange sound, and then no matter how much light is filtering in through the windows, the very air became pregnant with danger. As I ran, once again, for safety, I would always see something unusual out of the corner of my eye on that long journey, the only sound being the blood in my ears, the swish of courdoury and socks pumping lightly on the carpet. I knew I had to hold the scream in until reaching the last hallway with our door, sanctuary, at the end.
Scaring myself silly became a way of life! I kind of miss it now…
Once there was a hurricane in Houston, and the rooms were full of civilians flooded out of their homes. I remember Mom marching down the hall being helpful but strict. “Some of these people have chickens in their rooms!” she said. I tried walking by just to peek in the rooms, and sure enough: I saw three chickens and a pig.
One story I never told Mom at the time, because I was afraid it would get me banned from my visits throughout the dorm, was the time when a high school cheerleading convention took place at the University. The ground floor was full of high school girls for several days. My reliable partner, Kenneth, and I were playing with a big cardbox box in a hallway. I threw the box at him, but it hit a door. To our surprise a girl came out and stood in the middle of the hall, completely undressed! “Theresa?” she said. She say two 11-year old boys sitting at her feet looking up at her with I can only imagine what expressions. She screamed and ran in slamming the door.
Looking back in all seriousness, and with some dismay, I’m sure there was no event in at least 5 years in past or future that caused such strong laughter. I laughed from the depths of my soul. Kenneth and I were rolling and crying and hurting with laughter for at least 10 minutes. It was, of course, funny, but it was like a gift from God too because we, completely undeserving, got to see a “naked lady” as part of the bargain. And to share that experience! It’s like, not only was it funny, but it said that, in life, we were going to Do OK. The loose dust bunnies of insecurity that had begun to cling to us even at that age were blown away so completely that I’m tempted to divide time into Before and After.
How many evenings as the summer wore on would we share a Dr. Pepper and remember that day? So, so many.
The girl recovered, and re-emerged with a mission for us. She led us into the bathroom quietly where her roommate was taking a shower. She PULLED back the shower curtain with predictable results. Were we performers or observers? That’s the beauty of it, we were both! By this point, I was laughing more by thinking from the point of view of the girl in the shower: how strange to see two slack-eyed little boys standing incongruously in the steamy bathroom! After that the fun was over and they sent us packing.
Sometimes, I guess in the younger years, I was a little mascot. Girls would pick me up and spin me around. I remember them being all Juicy Fruit, earrings, makeup and feathered hair. I would make a few bucks by feeding fish while they were on winter break.
Other memories of those years are my cat Dorshka, who I bonded with strongly. He slept on my bed every night, reliably rolling onto his back so I could rub his stomach to loud purrs. Also playing the violin. I read my first adult book at that time, something science fiction that was really hard to read but I forced it down because of the skepticism in my Moms eyes. “Are you sure you can read that?”
I would visit my dad some weekends, often taking the bus to Houston, spending a lot of time among those little black and white televisions bolted onto waiting room seats. I would come home from those visits kind of a wreck, stomach tied in knots from stress, legs cramping from too much walking at some kind of Astrodome Winnebago convention.
I remember Mom studying, making spaghetti, sitting on the couch she’d reupholstered in blue. I think she was really smart in the job she chose. I really don’t remember her “working,” though there were stories of having to rescue one girl or another from the bar across the street. Once a girl got drunk on shampoo. But these were always nocturnal events, when I was safely in bed with Dorshka.
Next time I’ll write about Malone Apartments, where Mom managed a “married student housing” row of cinderblock dwellings. This was a very different experience, but it had a full share of fun as well.