Saturday, April 2, 2011

Perfect Imperfection

I’ve sometimes wondered if the basement wasn’t build primarily to house the furnace. If so it was a long range plan. The furnace was many years in coming. Meanwhile the outdoor stairway leading down to the basement from the back of the house was enclosed in a small porch, protecting the stairs and the basement itself from rain and snow and giving access without the need to go outside.

A compromise was made regarding the height of the basement ceiling. The excavation could go only so deep and still drain into the city sewer. The house could only rise so high without appearing to be on stilts. So the compromise resulted in a basement with a ceiling barely more than six feet high. The many crossbeams supporting the house didn’t reach that height. All of the men in the family were six feet tall or more when they reached their full growth and our sister, Istra, was not much behind us. So most of us navigate the basement with bowed heads, sometimes with sore heads.

The multiple crossbeams were required, along with nine supporting posts, because the floor “joists” were not standard 2x10s, 2x8s, or even 2x6s. They were 4x4s picked from the Car Shop waste piles. The 4x4s were spaced about six feet apart and required the support of larger beams running crosswise under them. All of that innovation resulted in a very cramped space with severe limitations on its uses. Years later I replaced the huge old furnace that eventually occupied the center space in the basement with a modern little gas furnace and got nearly as inventive as Dad had been as I tried to wend the new ductwork around through the maze of his construction.

The concrete ledge that ran around the perimeter of the basement provided a place to pile things, allowing the dampness to gradually degrade them. It also stole many square feet of floor space that could have been used for . . . well, storage, like the rest of the basement.

But the basement wasn’t just for storage. An old piano was dragged down there and, until the moisture completely choked off its voice, it provided much entertainment for my sibs and me, and later for the grandkids. Eventually, in 1952, a shower, stool, and sink would be installed and, for many years was the main feature that made our house “modern.” And of course, there was that huge “one lung” furnace that soon came to occupy the center of the space, shooting its heat up into the house through one large grate that lay on the threshold of the archway between the living room and the dining room. One corner of the basement was partitioned off to serve as a coal room with a window through which the deliverymen would extend their shoot and fill the room once or twice each winter.

The primary use of the basement was storage, of course. But later, when modern plumbing came to the house it became the laundry room. And most important of all, to me, it became a little refuge; a damp, dark, cramped, but private place where I could retreat on unbearably hot days to listen to Harry Caray deliver the play by play of the St. Louis Cardinals’ baseball games. Few homes had air conditioning in those days, only the theater and a few bars and restaurants advertized such comforts. So a basement, in central Illinois, with all its damp, dank discomforts was the next best thing. And to a boy who knew only the value of what he had experienced it provided hours of relief from the heat in the cool of that room. Only in retrospect do I see what more it might have been. But I have no regrets and I hope that Dad has none either. Whatever he built, he built in perfect imperfection.


  1. 'Perfect Imperfection.' Yes, that says a lot. Sounds like a sanctuary. I think our parents didn't have a clue what all they might need for their families - but somehow they made it through, and so did we. I find it amazing how you can even write about a basement and make it interesting.

  2. Well, Sheila, I'm surprising myself at the things that come back to me as I write. That little basement as, in many ways a disaster. But it was the best that Dad could provide with the resources he had. And, as I say, I knew nothing better so it was a "santuary" as you say, for me. Oh, I knew other houses were better built and other basements more accomodating, but ours was the best I'd ever had. Thank God all of us kids had better "places" than the one we were raised in. But that doesn't mean that we did a better job of providing for our children. Time will tell.


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