The wooden thing and other musings about growing up in a big family
We called it “the wooden thing,” with an emphasis on thing. You see, the four of us, ages 3 (twins), 4 and 5, with birthdays in 1961, 1960 and 1959, didn’t have a deep knowledge of early American furniture.
And since we weren’t supposed to be playing on, near or around the large, cumbersome piece anyway, we didn’t inquire too much about its proper moniker.
All that mattered was the fabulous possibilities for play, exploration and invention that the “wooden thing” represented, sitting there in front of the window of the bedroom that the four of us shared upstairs in the drafty, standard-issue military base housing unit in Upstate New York, just miles from Lake Champlain and the Canadian border.
Why an entire story about what now appears to be a battered, utilitarian “dry sink” with a deep cavern on top and two unevenly hinged doors underneath? I suppose the “wooden thing” represents so much of what was good and sound and wholesome about my childhood, and so much of what seems to be missing among children today.
As the eldest of the clan of four, with another tag-along brother joining us more than a decade later, I was in charge of play and projects. The younger three, especially the twin babies, were mine to supervise and entertain, or at least that was my memory of it all. The “wooden thing” emerged as a critical element in my imagination. It was so useful, in so many ways.
Here’s a typical scenario. It is say, 6:30 a.m. on a Saturday. Daddy, the sergeant, would be asleep for once and mommy, too, and none of us dared wake them. So, we would shut the door to our room and turn to the “wooden thing.”
As children of the early 1960s, growing up on a military installation, the space race loomed large. I would say something like this: “Mr. Moo (short for moon) is calling me. He says that we have to come to the moon now. Get in the spaceship.” At my command, the doors to the “wooden thing” would be opened, exposing the two shelves inside. These would be used for climbing into the dry sink and manning the controls (the blinds on the windows) in front of the furniture. The sink area held only three small children, so one of the twins, whichever one wouldn’t cry as much, would be stowed in the bowels of the cabinet with the doors shut. The doors had to be shut for takeoff. Everyone knew this. So why would the baby wail and bang on the door and get us in trouble?
This scenario played out as long as I could think of things for Mr. Moo to tell me over the radio, the one that played in my mind, or until our parents began to yell down the hall: “What the heck is going on in there?” The yelling by parents (not babies) was our signal to abandon ship and get back into bed or look at picture books, an acceptable occupation.
Sometimes, while still en route to the moon, my little brother would ask if he could talk to Mr. Moo on the radio, or even why he couldn’t hear Mr. Moo at all? I always told him that when he was as old as me, he could hear Mr. Moo. Silly boy didn’t realize that this would never actually happen. I sometimes wonder if my denying him the chance to talk to Mr. Moo led my little brother to a successful career in police work, where he can now talk on radios all day long.
The “wooden thing” not only took us to the moon. It was also excellent for the game of “vacation.” The only place that we ever went to for vacation was our grandmother’s home in New York City. So, we spent lots of time replicating our station wagon in the form and feature of the “wooden thing.” I would sometimes allow my little brother to “drive,” which meant sitting at the front of the dry sink.
Playing school, “shopping,” and various forms of “hiding” from one another also gave the “wooden thing” a workout. It still amazes me, how we could drag out a game of hide-and-seek in one small bedroom, stuffed with beds, cribs, toys and, of course, that perfect, omnipresent “wooden thing.”
Sometimes, we would all simply climb up and into the dry sink area to look through the window, down from our perch to “outside,” which was snowy, very snowy, from about October to May. Though we spent as much time as we or our mother could stand outside, the temperatures were brutal and snowsuits could only do so much. Thus, “outside” was always a highly desirable place, especially when the wind blew the drifts into giant, towering shapes, which we, of course, imagined to be monsters of every kind.
“Why are the blankets on the floor again?” our mother would sigh and bend to pick them up. It appears now that the dry sink actually had a purpose, a real purpose in the adult world. It held piles of blankets, crib sheets and bedding that a nursery serving four little ones would require. The “stuff” as we called it, got in our way, so the shelves would be cleared as soon as we got the “all clear” that no adults were about.
There was an exception. Two blankets, one pink and one blue, soft and woolly plaids with fringed edges. These became capes, hoods, curtains, weapons, ropes, and nests, depending on the game at hand. Sometimes, a baby twin would simply curl up with one and go to sleep. That was to be expected. The “wooden thing” could wear a child out.
I still dream about the “wooden thing.” My siblings, now grown and quite respectable, responsible, well-educated human beings, report frequent dreams and recollections of their own. I miss it to this day.
Dr. Linda Karges-Bone is professor of education at Charleston Southern University. She teaches workshops on “creativity” and spends time with her four siblings, all of whom live in Summerville, and all of whom possess excellent imaginations of their own.