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Attic wandering

By March 18, 2016 No Comments


Like most every other retired gent, I worry, sometimes promiscuously but not to madness. Yet. 

But I do. I worry about lots of things, like whether or not houses have attics.

Curtis Harnack, a writer born and reared not far from here, spends an entire essay on the attics in his ancient Iowa farm house, one complete chapter of his celebrated memoir We Have All Gone Away. A few years later he followed up with an entire book of memories he titled, well, The Attic. His blessed memories of those dust bins got me to worrying about whether or not kids today have attics. Do they, or are attics just as far gone as a Smith-Corona?

A stuffed pelican stood guard at the doorway to the Harnack attic, he says, a miserably strange old thing his uncle shot on their farm simply because he’d never seen one before, then had it stuffed for the same reason. You just couldn’t toss a pelican, so it became an upstanding citizen of the upstairs attic.

We’d ride the humped, feathered back as if it were an ostrich, stare at the yellow glass eyes and stroke the lizard-skin pouch under the beak, not finding plump fish there, only shifting granular wood pulp, like in the limbs of dolls–stuff of no life.

That’s only half true. Harnack’s childhood imagination gave the bird life when he and his cousin found their way up and into “the fabulous tree house of the family, enchanted by these talismans of other lives, earlier existences.”

Make no mistake: attics are junkyards of stuff rarely, if ever lugged back into circulation. But something about those relics made tossing them unthinkable. What Harnack remembers is an assortment of oddities.

. . .chamber pots, chipped-veneer dressers with murky mirrors, empty dish barrels, used wrapping paper, cribs, playpens, old toys, copies of The National Geographic, Life, Collier’s, boxes of textbooks, novels of Winston Churchill, and a years supply of toilet paper.

What he conjures by his attic tallies is my own childhood attics, places not necessarily designated as playgrounds, but destinations that, as I remember, were as equally stocked with history as they were with mystery. 

One of my parents’ attics, one just to the left of my bed, held a pole strung with old clothes, including a fur stole–ripped from some cold mammal. But the only item from that closet that will always have a place in my memory is a faded orange megaphone two feet long and imprinted with three blocky letters–OHS. The cold of that megaphone’s shiny steel mouthpiece I can still feel up against my lips. It belonged to my mother, who, hard as it was for me to believe, was a high school cheerleader in the early ’30s. 

The attic just down the hall held our box of toilet paper, a huge thing my dad annually bought from the factory’s supply at the place where he worked. Essential stuff, of course. But what I will never forget from that attic is what lay on the floor just around the corner, the stuff he brought home after the war: marching leggings for his Navy whites, his sailor’s hat, a full dress uniform, everything packed in a white duffle bag, ultra tough canvas. And more–a Japanese bayonet that became a character in a novel of mine, and samurai sword that never made it out of the closet until, years later, he gave it to me. Today it hangs in our library.

They were treasures, mostly worthless treasures, but fertile ground for childhood visions. Sixty years later, just about all I remember is Dad’s war stuff and Mom’s megaphone. When, as a kid, I secretly held those things in my hands, they verified that mom and dad had once been real people, people maybe I didn’t know. In my fingers they were a proof of something I’d never quite get. 

We just built a new house. Above the garage there’s an attic that’s just about impossible to get into, but otherwise nothing. We had an attic upstairs in the house we left behind, an old Arts and Crafts place in a town not far away. But I don’t think I ever put anything up there. My children grew up in a Iowa house as old as Curtis Harnack’s, but I’m sure they have no great attic memories. 

This old man can’t help but wonder if once upon a time people simply had less and probably therefore kept more in their attic museums, stuck it up there in those windowless rooms waiting for kids to sneak in and make meaning. 

In the age of Trump, the storage business is huge, growing by leaps and bounds, simply because we all have so much that it simply can’t be stored in as confined a space as an attic. We buy storage units, lug stuff out, bring down the overhead door, lock everything up tight, and then forget what’s there until reality television reminds us that we’ve got some things stuck away.

I know. I sound like Jeremiah. Woe and woe and woe. 

It’s just that right now. when I think about it, my goodness I wish I had my mother’s old megaphone.

Then again, I don’t know where I’d put it.


James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.

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