Chapter 40: In the Basement

There has always been a myth that New Englanders locked their crazy relatives in the attic.  Everyone knows, in the South, most of ours roam free.

However in the 1970’s another phenomenon occurred:  People started putting their teenagers in the basement.

It seems almost all of my friends of that era had their bedrooms in their basements.

Most of our parents grew up in old houses so they bought the new ranch houses, that were so popular in the 1950’s and 1960’s,  for themselves.  Almost all of these houses had basements that our parents “finished” for use as recreation rooms and dens as well as a convenient place to stash their teenagers out of their way.

Our basement was always partially finished.  There was a den and a laundry room down there and a half bath that was wide open to the back of the basement.  My father also had a 30 foot “J” shaped bar down there.  All done in knotty pine paneling.  The real, wood stuff.

This was quite convenient in the early years of my parent’s marriage.  When my Father and his friends had too much to drink, my Mother could simply lock the door and keep them in the basement.  She didn’t have to be bothered or worry about them.

There are countless home movies of parties and holidays in that old basement.  And everyone seemed happy then…

My Mother always wanted a new, larger house in a better neighborhood.  Preferably in South Danville.  She was always convinced that the “power” in Danville was all on the South side of town and that it had been a strategic mistake to buy a home on the North side.

They spent years looking at new houses in the late 1960’s.  Finally, in 1969 or 1970, my Father put his foot down:  “No New House.  We are going to redo the basement.”

My Mother did not take this well…

I think once she realized she was not getting a new house, part of her just gave up.  On the bright side, she was less of a social climber and kinder and more open about growing up in the Mill Village.  She also started to get a little bit bitter and defeated.  More so every year thereafter…She knew she had gone as far as she was going socially and her hope seemed to die out…That was when she really began to blame everyone else for everything she did not like about her life and become even more self-centered and petulant…

The new basement began by ripping out everything in the old basement.  That wonderful knotty pine wood ended up in the dump.  They redid the entire thing in that horrible pressed wood fake paneling that was so popular then.  Another strategic mistake.

My Father did have to make some concessions to my Mother.

She had to have a fireplace.  For years, she had a cardboard, fake fireplace that she would drag out every Christmas season and place against the wall.  She would always look meaningfully at my Father and say “Maybe someday I’ll have a real fireplace.”  We were all sick to death of  that ratty, tacky paper one and her dragging it out each year…

So my Father had them put in a fireplace.  In an underground room.  It must have cost a fortune to dig down to the foundation, cut through the wall and build one.  But it achieved his goal:  Shut my Mother up without buying a new house.

My Father, being my Father, hired a contractor he “knew” which meant everything was done half-assed.  Due to his tendency to cut corners, my sister and I are going to have to deal with a lot of issues before we can sell that house.

The new basement had a den with a fireplace, and office and a laundry room.  There was a bar area in the back hall.  A new full bath-with a shower that leaked for years until it was finally ripped out and replaced.  A storage room as big as most bedrooms.

And a new bedroom for me where my Father’s bar had been.  Many people have commented over the years on how appropriate it was that a bar became my bedroom.

My Father gave my Mother free rein in decorating the new basement.  She put black and red carpet in the entire place.  With black accents.  A black fake leather sofa everyone hated and was totally uncomfortable.  Two new black and red recliners for them to sit in and watch Lawrence Welk and have cocktails in front of the fireplace.

And the fireplace was ready by Christmas of that year so we didn’t have to put up with her dragging that cardboard thing out again.  My Father gave the workers a case of beer and a bottle of bourbon to work all night and finish it before Christmas Eve.  That’s probably another reason so many things were screwed up…

My Mother said the decor was Spanish.  When I saw the crushed red velvet bedspread she had picked out for my room, I told her it was more like Early American Whorehouse.  Within a year I had destroyed that thing and gotten a much nicer corduroy one…

She managed to piss off both my sister and I by imposing her tastes on our bedrooms.

Except for the decor, I actually really liked that bedroom.  I was away from the rest of the family.  I could pretend they did not exist.  I could lock myself in there for hours and play show tunes and plot my escape.  It had a huge  closet–that I still miss as I’ve never had one that size since then.

This layout meant the downstairs was pretty much self-contained.  That’s the only thing that saved me when I moved back there after College…

Most of my friends had similar situations.  The basements were our domains.  Most of our parents didn’t really care what we did down there as long as they knew we were in the house and not on the streets.  They figured as long as we were in the house, we weren’t going to be buying drugs or running off to join the Manson Family, so anything else was acceptable.  And they really didn’t like to be bothered by us too much…

Dennis had almost his entire basement as his bedroom, study and lounge.  We would spend a lot of time down there in High School supposedly studying, but really drinking beer and smoking cigarettes.

Another friend shared his basement with his elderly Grandmother.  We never saw anything but her hand.  She would stick her hand out with a glass that we had to fill with Gin and then she would leave us alone…

One of my friends had a water bed in their basement bedroom.  That fascinated us immensely.

Another friend kept us waiting for hours in his basement while he got ready to go out.  We would chat with his Father while his Mother blew dry his hair.  This was the late 1970’s and properly blow dried hair was very important…and he was straight.

We kind of felt sorry for our friends who had bedrooms on the same floors as their parents.  That seemed to make it so hard to have any privacy and sneak out late at night…

Now most of us live in older homes and not ranch houses.  They cycle is complete.  We had to buy homes different from the ones we grew up in…

Almost none of us have basements.  Now kids seem to like living on the same floors as their parents.  We couldn’t have imagined that being a preferable situation.

We all wanted to be different from our parents and out of Danville.  That’s what we spent most of our time plotting in those basement rooms.  That, and drinking and smoking…

Basements now are seen as a liability.  They are not in fashion anymore…

But my guess is that someday, people will want them again.

They are such a great place to stash your teenagers…

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3 Responses to Chapter 40: In the Basement

  1. Renee says:

    I have one question. Who had his hair blown dry by his mother???? It’s funny that I now live in a ranch with a basement. My son’s room is down there complete with a bathroom, access to the refrigerator in the garage . The room next to his belongs to my husband. It contains a pool table, tv and sports decorations including Virginia Tech, Boston Red Sox and Oakland Raiders. It is the man cave. I love the next room which has a tv and some items from trips we have taken together. The basement is a mix bag of items from our life. I am thankful that we have an area that our now young adult offspring can hang out and we can have the upstairs to ourselves!!!

  2. Van says:

    Loved this one! Brought back a lot of memories!

  3. gail says:

    OMG! I can’t believe you actually told the mom blowing the hair dry story! lol HE used to get so mad at me when I used to tell that story. One summer Van came over every day and we sat in my basement drinking kool-aid, smoking cigarettes and doing needlepoint. Nobody ever did anything in our basement, except that was where the big console t.v. was. Why is it that everyone used to hang out in my living room? with my mother no less! I guess it didn’t matter that my bedroom was next to my mother’s room, she didn’t seem to care when I went out or when I came home as long as she knew where I was. I miss that house.

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