Thursday, June 05, 2008

A Life in Four Colors (Part Seventeen)

While I had a new comic buddy and had made a couple of more comic friends, much of my fourth grade year was a period of individual adjustment. A new school, a new house, a new friend... they pretty much reshaped my world, and I had to get used to that.

One thing that Mom and Dad did to help me feel at home was to refurnish my room. And rather than just picking my furniture, as they had in the past, they actually let me go with them and pick out the furniture for myself. Of course, Mom and Dad had already done a preliminary recon run to the furniture store, and they had some ideas... including a bunk bed.

And as far as I was concerned, a bunk bed was the most remarkable piece of furniture ever made.

My parents had a good reason to suggest a bunk bed; my room was relatively small (just slightly larger than 8' x 10' with a small 24" deep entry alcove and a fair-sized closet), and a large bed would have left very little room to move at all. However, my parents also knew that I liked to have friends spend the night with me on the weekend, so I'd need to have room for them to sleep. So bunk beds were ideal.

Even better, my bunk bed had a small desk at one end of the bed, along with a couple of shelves. I had a place to work, to draw, to do my homework, to assemble model kits--it was true multipurpose furniture, and I loved it.

I spent some time deciding which level would be mind. Initially, I thought I'd prefer the top bunk, but there were two problems. First, I have a slight fear of heights, and that left me slightly uncomfortable when I slept in the top bunk. Worse, though, was my fear of spiders... and our new house, built in what was previously heavily wooded land, was home to more spiders than I ever would have imagined... and those spiders loved making their home at the junction of wall and ceiling. Now when I was sleeping at normal level, that put them far away from me... but when I was on the top bunk, I could touch the ceiling... and that put me within contact range of the spiders. During the daytime, I could see if there was a spider there... but once the lights were out, I had no idea where the spiders were.

So the top bunk quickly became the guest bunk, and I made the bottom bunk my own. Sleeping with a mattress and frame over me and a shelf with a radio on it just above my head was akin to having my own sanctum; I had a window to my left for ventilation (the Marchmont house didn't have central air conditioning until years after I moved out and got married, and the only wall-mounted unit was in the living room, where it supplied some coolness for the living room and kitchen area, so we used fans and open windows to make the summer tolerable), so the bottom bunk never felt stagnant or closed-in. I spent many hours listening to the radio while reading comics on that bed; when I felt inspired by a comic I had read, I would climb out of bed, go to my desk where I kept an ample supply of newsprint trimmed to standard paper size for Dad to use as typing paper when he worked at home, and I'd begin to draw comics of my own. I felt like I had everything: beds for me and a guest, a daytime upper bunk I could lounge on, my own "sleeping chamber," a small dresser, and a closet large enough to boxes of comics books. I even had a small record player of my own, and I had a few records--not many, but I wasn't that interested in music in 1962 or 1963.

I didn't have a television in my room--that wouldn't come until 1964--so the radio was my window to the outside world. It was a large gray plastic box radio with knobs on the left front and a round speaker grid on the right; the tuning dials lit up slightly, but not enough to illuminate the room to any real degree. In fact, if I draped a comic book over the radio, I could block the light entirely--a trick I learned early on when I wanted to listen to the radio very faintly without my parents noticing that it was on.

I would go to bed at 9:30, and I'd lie there, dozing and listening to the murmuring conversation of my parents in the other end of the house as it blended with the sounds from the large console television in the living room. "The other end of the house" sounds more distant than it actually was--the space from my doorway to the television was only twenty feet or so, since the television was just at the other end of a short hallway, facing into our living room. (And unlike many whose "living room" was the one room where no one was allowed to live, our living room was the hub of our evening family time; we were all there every night, watching television together and talking and laughing and reading and building memories in a thousand different insignificant ways).

Then, after a while, I'd turn on the radio and tune the AM dial to a distant station. I knew where the Rome stations were, and I'd make a point not to tune to them; I wanted to hear a voice from another state, from halfway across the country--and sometimes from beyond our borders. I'd find a Spanish-language station and listen to it for a while, even when though I couldn't understand it; there was something fascinating about a signal that travelled across hundreds or thousands of miles to my room. I'd often go to sleep to the radio, and I'd have to wake up during the night to turn it off lest Mom find it on when she came in the next morning to awaken me for school.

I had also begun doing some other tasks to earn extra money--cutting the grass, raking leaves, all the usual childhood things--in order to supplement my allowance. The extra money made it possible for me to spend 98¢ plus tax for an Aurora monster model, 25¢ plus tax for a Famous Monsters of Filmland, a nickel a pack for Universal Monster trading cards, and still have a dollar or more left to support my comics reading and a dime or so for ice cream two or three times a week. At 12¢ a comic, I generally tried to budget at least $1 a week to ensure that I got a minimum of eight new comics per week; often I'd spend more than that if I could find tasks to earn the extra money.

And of course, every six weeks I'd get a report card, and I'd learned the value of A's and B's; an A was worth a dime, a B was worth a nickel, and that meant more comics or more monster models or more trading cards or more ice cream--or ideally more of all of them. The reward program worked like a charm for me; I always worked for straight A's in order to maximize my report card money, although I'd usually pick up at least one B along the way. Never ever got a C or lower, though, because they weren't worth anything financially.

My own room, my own furniture, my own radio... these were things I didn't have before we moved to Marchmont, and it made me feel like I was really growing up. And as I settled into life at Elm Street School (where I would ultimately spend only my fourth grade year), I was very happy with our new home, where I felt like we had everything that I could ask for.

By the time the fourth grade came to an end, I rarely thought about Garden Lakes any more; West Rome was my home. I didn't even mind it when they told me, at the end of the school year, that I'd be going to the new West End Elementary School next year. My friend Phil was going there as well, so I didn't have to find a new comics buddy.

It's a good thing I had a comics buddy, too--because the rest of 1963 and 1964 were going to be remarkable in their impact on my life.

No comments: