In the Basement

A True Story

Recollection from a WWII veteran
who became my friend . . .

“Mother was so mad!” Steve, an elderly gentleman, lifts his head. Bright blue eyes sparkle beneath wrinkled eyelids. “Throughout my entire childhood, never had I seen her so angry—at me, my brother, and most of all, Dad!”

He pulls a plastic bag out of his lunchbox and plops it in the middle of my desk. “Here, help me eat these carrot sticks.”

I take one, nibbling and waiting patiently for Steve to continue.

“Mom threw her fishing gear into a wheelbarrow and pushed it out to a catfish pond at the far end of the property—her happy place. She stayed there. Didn’t talk to any of us for days.”

A smile spreads across my face. “Yes, I know about the happy place. But there’s not a lot of free-standing water here in Arizona, so I escape to my garden to find sanctuary.”

My fingers fumble for another piece of carrot and then poise it in the air, thoughtfully. “You know, I can see why she would be upset, but why was this so terrible?”

My friend sits quietly, thinking. I can almost see the gears whirring in his mind as past events, hidden for so many decades, struggle to the surface.

When I first met this gentleman, I was the volunteer coordinator for a large non-profit organization. He was seventy-nine years old and ‘wanted to volunteer and learn the computer.’

Unfortunately, the staff that tried to train him soon lost patience with the older man’s failing short-term memory. Always respectful to Steve, his coworkers came to me to express concern. So I took this wonderful man under my wing and taught him how to do data entry.

To compensate for his memory loss, Steve took copious notes. He could find a forgotten password or computer technique by searching his spiral notebook.

_________________________________________
This faithful volunteer worked by my
side, all day, five days a week.
_________________________________________

As my position in the organization changed, my special worker followed me—for almost 15 years.

Now at ninety-something, Steve’s excellent long-term memory recalls a childhood mishap with vivid clarity.

“Maybe Mom felt betrayed because I was the ‘good son.’ My brother, Bill, always got into trouble . . . but this time, it was mostly me.” His eyelids almost close as his mind takes him back into the early 1900s.

“I went into the basement to find a tire pump for my bicycle,” he begins. “That’s when I discovered a ceramic crock covered with cheesecloth hidden in a corner behind a stack of old tools. Mom often brined pickles in that kind of container. Hoping for a quick snack, I took off the fabric and wooden lid.

“A wonderful smell caught me by surprise—not dill, but more like Mom’s yeast bread and home-canned jam at the same time. White bubbles gathered at the surface of dark wine, still in the fermentation stage. I couldn’t resist sticking my finger into the foam and licking off the purple-red juices. It tasted sweet and vinegary at the same time. A rich fruitiness lingered on my tongue, wafting up into my sinuses. I ran upstairs to fetch my brother, and then we snuck back into the cellar.”

“How did the wine get there?” I ask.

He laughs. “Well, it was only Mom and Dad and us kids living in the house. My mother was a teetotaler, never touched a drop of alcohol in her life.”

“So your dad was brewing up a batch of homemade wine?”

“Yes, it tasted suspiciously like the wild berries that grew around our Alabama home.” He takes a breath and continues. “Bill and I didn’t take any candles to the basement because we wanted to hide in the darkness. My brother followed me down the unlit stairs; our bare toes groped for each step. At the bottom, we knew the layout of the room from memory. I found the shelf where mother stored her empty canning jars, grabbed two of them, and pressed one into Bill’s hand to use as a drinking glass.”

Steve looks up at me and smiles wickedly. “We dipped our glasses into the crock and then sat on the floor in the dark, guzzling berry wine and telling ghost stories until our heads spun in circles!”

“Was this the first time you had tasted alcohol?”

“Yes, I didn’t try it again until I was in the military.” His eyes grow dim as he thinks of past events.

I wait reverently, almost piously.

This man served in the Battle of the Bulge, the bloodiest military engagement of World War II. In the winter of 1944, Germans attacked a thinly defended front line in the Ardennes Mountains in Belgium. Caught by surprise, the Allied forces could not defend the region, causing a bulge on the maps outlining the western front and resulting in a record number of deaths and casualties.

_____________________________________
That Steve was seated across
the desk from me at this moment
was a miracle!
_____________________________________

I can’t imagine the friends he must have lost.

“Bill and I fell asleep,” he continues. “The next thing we knew, Mother was holding a bright kerosene lamp and screaming bloody murder! She came to the basement to fetch a quart of peaches to make cobbler and found us drunk and passed out on the floor from wine my father had secretly made.”

The elderly man laughs. “Dad ran down the steps to see what was going on. Mom had already figured out the whole sordid story without having to ask a single question. That’s when she gathered her fishing tackle, stomped up the stairs, threw her stuff into a wheelbarrow, and disappeared to the pond.”

Steve picks up a sandwich, opens it, and takes a bite. I open my lunchbox, too, and we eat in silence.

My friend and I have shared this midday meal every weekday since he began volunteering. He tells me wonderful tales about growing up in the rural, Depression-Era South, being a soldier on the European Front of World War II, and working as an engineer on a steam locomotive.

“That train was a lot of hard work,” he once said. “So I went back to college to become another type of engineer—the aeronautical kind.”

I’ve felt privileged to hear each precious story. Through the years, Steve became a grandfather figure to me. Now, I love this man, dearly.

“Steve, I’ve been sitting here thinking and doing some math in my head.”

He raises an eyebrow.

“This must have happened during the early 1930s.” My mind searches lessons from past school history classes. “That was during Prohibition, when the federal government banned the manufacture of alcohol nationwide. Is that right?” I ask, surprised.

He nods.

Prohibition puts a new spin on Steve’s story. Perhaps his mother felt the weight of not only her own convictions but also widespread opposition of ‘demon alcohol.’ While those supporting the movement deemed it evil, federal legislation called it a crime and prosecuted offenders. Steve’s family could go to jail!

“Well, you might have mentioned that!” I blurt aloud. “It gives a whole other level of meaning to ‘my mother was mad!’”

He smiles.

“Did you and your brother get into trouble?”

“No, Mom stayed out at the catfish pond for two days. She caught her own meals, cooked them over a fire, and slept outside. Dad felt partially responsible for the incident, so he couldn’t find the heart to punish us. We all took turns making sure Mom was all right—from a distance, of course. She came back inside the house early Sunday morning to dress for church. My mother didn’t mention the wine, not then, and not ever.”

I shake my head in disbelief, laughing. Then I tuck Steve’s story safely away inside my brain—a precious treasure to cherish forever.

* * *

Author’s note:
Steve passed away at age 90, after working by my side for 15 years at a local non-profit organization. I was a paid-staff member, and he was a volunteer, serving 40 hours per week. He was also my friend and every-day lunch partner. Many of the recollections he shared still bounce around in my memory, begging for escape. Perhaps there will someday be a collection of ‘Steve’ stories.

This piece was first published in the 2015 annual anthology (collection of short stories), produced by my writer’s group,  Inkslingers. “In the Basement” was my only contribution, but the book contains great additions from many of my fellow authors and friends.

2015: Doorway to Discovery (Inkslinger’s Anthology)

 

 

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