|By Sidney Underwood 2015|
I have previously written about some of the adventures that Bill Umstead and I experienced together while growing up in Grantsville in the early 1950’s. This story is about another adventure that we shared.
It is truly surprising what can be remembered when the mind starts prying into the past. Psychologists often use the term, “trigger response” to explain the process when someone remembers a long ago event that had been hidden away for years in the recesses of the mind. The trigger can be anything and can happen at any time. It can be a word, sound, smell or a familiar place after a prolonged absence.
An individual who does remember a specific event has the power to awaken it in others. What this means, for lack of better words, is that each of us unknowingly carry around slumbering memories that someday may be awakened.
For me, the trigger in this story was the memory of the Mulberry tree in the Umstead’s backyard when they lived on River Street and I lived nearby on Hardman Alley. In the early 1950’s, Bill and I spent many days together in that backyard playing football and pretending that we were Otto Graham and Dante Lavelli of the Cleveland Browns. We also played cops and robbers with our “cap” guns that looked like real revolvers. Today, those “cap” guns would be so politically incorrect.
I remember that I had never seen a Mulberry tree until Bill pointed it out to me one day. When I first tried the little hanging down fruit, I didn’t care for the gritty taste of it. That tree is long gone, but because of it, I remember the clubhouse that we built beneath it.
I don’t remember whose idea it was to build a clubhouse, but for two 10 year old boys in 1952 it seemed like a good idea to have a secret place where we could hide out from everyone else. It was to be our exclusive abode and we would only allow invited guests to enter. During that early summer, we may have gotten the idea from a HARDY BOYS book or one of those OUR GANG movies we had seen at the Kanawha Theatre uptown.
I think it actually happened because Mr. Umstead had his Son-In-Law, Bubby Boggs, replace the back porch floor and add a new set of steps. When Bubby finished that task, it resulted in a pile of scrap flooring being readily available.
As a kid, I thought Bubby Boggs was really cool. He was the “ Fonz” long before Henry Winkler claimed the title. I mean he had that look, tall and muscular and good looking with long black hair combed into a duck tail. He sported a black leather jacket, wore jeans with a white tee shirt and carried his LUCKY STRIKES rolled into the shoulder just like Marlon Brando and James Dean. He had a 49 Ford coupe with a tricked out flat head V-8 engine. It had an Offenhouser intake manifold with special carburetors, and sat low on its fender skirts and had a purposeful “don’t mess with me” look about it.
When the thing sat idling, it had a distinctive uneven cadence about it. I can still remember hearing the throaty rumble of dual “ glass packs” as Bubby eased it along River Street like a big cat on the prowl.
When Bubby and Bill’s sister, Patricia, who I thought was beautiful, got into that car together and rumbled away, I was seriously impressed. A cool guy with a fast car and a pretty girl beside him, well that was the stuff of dreams for a 10 year old boy. Even to this day, that memory remains etched in my mind and Bubby will forever be my version of the “Fonz.”
Neither Bill not I knew much about carpentry, but we figured we would learn on the job. We knew about saws and hammers and Bill had used them occasionally, but my experience had been limited to helping my Mom hang a picture when I had been asked to drive a nail into dry wall. I had watched my Dad drive nails before and it seemed so easy for him.
But, when I tried it, I bent more nails than I drove. I found that if I choked up on the handle a bit, I had better control of where the hammer was going but that resulted in more of a pecking than actual hammering and it took a long time to sink the nails.
Sensing my inaptitude, Bill suggested that I do the sawing and he would do the hammering. We had a vague idea that the clubhouse would be 6 feet square more or less and we would not worry about installing windows because we wanted it to be dark and secret looking.
Bill found some old two by fours and laid them on the ground. He measured the planks and I sawed them to a length of four feet. We quickly realized that standing in the clubhouse would be impossible, but that was ok because we would be mostly sitting in the thing anyway. One section at a time was completed and when four had been finished, we started raising them up.
We soon realized that we two boys could not hold all four sides in a vertical position and be in any shape to fasten them together. We needed help, but no one was around, so we laid the sections back on the ground and we sat down and thought about it for a while.
Bill suggested that I hold up two sections while he spliced them together. It was about this time that we realized that we had not made any provision for a door. Bill marked the opening on one of the sections and told me to start sawing, but when I tried to ease down the two sections I was holding up, they fell and some of the planks came loose.
What we did after we thought about it some more was to lean the back section against the line fence thus freeing us to proceed with the sides. Somehow, we secured the four sides with a small opening at the front that I had sawed. That opening was so small that we had to turn sideways to get through it.
We decided that was ok because we weren’t going to allow adults or fat kids in there anyway. The clubhouse was now standing with the aid of the back fence, but just barely. The side planks looked like crooked teeth where they touched the ground, so we busied ourselves making them fit together and look more even.
We noted that the clubhouse was now leaning precariously away from the Mulberry tree that stood just to the side. Bill went into his garage and returned with a length of rope. He threaded the rope through a knot hole and I tied it to a stick inside the clubhouse. It was then pulled tightly toward the Mulberry tree and anchored there.
The clubhouse now stood taller and straighter. We were running short on lumber, but we knew that we had to finish the roof. I tried to nail one of the roof planks, but with each hammer blow, the clubhouse shuddered and threatened to collapse. By now we were both getting tired and we decided to just lay the longer planks on top of the structure and that would have to serve as the roof.
Bill and I stood back and looked at our handiwork. It sort of wobbled when the wind blew and didn’t look like much, but it was ours. Bill said there was an old tire in the garage and he would lay it on the roof and that should prevent the roof planks from blowing away on windy days. To me the clubhouse with that flat roof looked like a short outhouse and I had the urge to say that to Bill, but decided not to.
I said instead that we needed some sort of floor so we could keep our knees and butts dry. So Bill went into the garage again and came back carrying a small tarp that we spread on the ground inside the clubhouse. We crawled into the thing and lay there on our backs resting while looking up at the light streaming through the spaces between the roof planks.
We had done it, we had our own special place where we could hide from everybody else. We started talking about what the clubhouse rules would be and who we would invite inside. We decided that Robert Lowe and Jackie Arthur would be allowed in since they lived nearby. We agreed not to invite the older boys in the neighborhood because we were sure they would laugh at what we had built and tear it down just for spite.
Like any new thing, we spent quite a lot of time in our clubhouse over the next several weeks. We would sit in it in the evening and light candles, tell scary stories about The Frankenstein Monster and Werewolves. As the night wore on we would watch the lightning bugs fly in and around us and pretend that we were camping out in a lonely place.
Sometimes we would crawl outside and watch the stars in the clear night sky and talk about a program we had heard on the radio called SPACE PATROL. Other times Bill and I would sit quietly in the clubhouse and listen to the sounds of the night: A door slamming somewhere, a car horn, a dog barking in the distance, an owl calling from above North Side, a heavy truck laboring up Town Hill and occasionally that unique sound of silence itself. These things I remember when I think about those summer nights in the clubhouse.
Mrs. Umstead would eventually call from the house and tell Bill it was time to come inside and upon hearing that, I would cut through a neighbor’s yard and walk back up the alley to our house.
During the summer that the clubhouse stood, I really don’t remember anyone visiting us. Over time we resumed other activities such as playing ball and doing other things just as we had before we built it.
When the summer rain came, the inside of the clubhouse became damp and it acquired a mildew smell about it. Soon it started to sag as the planks loosened and we spent less time in it. Bill’s parents started complaining that it interfered with keeping the yard mowed and it was turning into an eyesore.
One late August day just before school started I was visiting Bill and he said that we had to do something about the clubhouse as we hadn’t used it for a long time and it was looking bad. I didn’t relish the idea of prying the planks loose and having to remove the nails.
When I mentioned this to Bill, he suggested that we just burn it down. I agreed that would be quicker and involve less work for both of us. Bill and I gathered up some old newspapers and dry sticks and placed them inside the opening. When Bill struck a match and lit the pile, we stood back to watch it burn. At first there was fire flashing upward, then there was smoke, then there was nothing. Our first attempt had virtually no affect as the clubhouse looked as it had before we started.
We stood there looking at it and Bill said that we needed fuel to complete the job. He thought for a moment and then said that he would get his Dad’s rubbing alcohol from the bedroom and poor some of that on the structure.
After Bill had doused the clubhouse with the alcohol, we paused for a moment to look at it one more time. It had stood most of the summer and we had spent many happy hours in it. I had the fleeting thought that we should not do this, we should save it.
I think Bill had the same thought. It may have been a rite of passage moment for us but we didn’t realize it at the time. When Bill started the fire on this second attempt, we watched as the flames quickly snaked along the sides and roof and soon it was fully engulfed. For me in that moment, after all the work that we had done to build it, it felt like part of our childhood was burning away.
James Hardman must have smelled smoke because he ran over to the fence and pointed out that our building was on fire. Bill told him we had been instructed to burn it down. In a matter of minutes it was gone. After it had burned and the ground had cooled, we raked the area and picked up all the nails that we could find. It was now just a black charred spot on the ground. I think Mrs. Umstead may have planted flowers there the following spring. The Mulberry tree survived although some limbs nearest the fire were blackened.
When I think back on that summer when Bill and I were 10 years old, I mostly remember us doing stuff outside like building our clubhouse or exploring the river bank gathering up junk for “Izzy.” We also rode bicycles on River Street and Mill Street and played ball and we were content.
We didn’t have computers, play stations and X-Box games that would have kept us indoors. I have absolutely no regrets concerning the things we did together because it seems now to have been a magical time for us.
So now you know the story of the clubhouse under the Mulberry tree that stood during the summer of 1952 in the Umstead backyard on River Street in Grantsville, West Virginia.