The Thing in the Claw Foot Bathtub

Go ahead, think of a childhood dream.  Make it a cuddly, warm and fuzzy dream where someone you love is with you adoring you and keeping you safe.  It’s a nice feeling, isn’t it…recalling that dream?  You awoke in the morning with pleasant thoughts that stayed with you throughout the day.  Now, think of a nightmare that drew you from sleep. You jerked, cried and maybe screamed, that someone or something was going to “get you”.  Perhaps you awoke in the pitch dark of your bedroom and no one heard you cry.  That wasn’t nice, was it?

Now, think of a memory from childhood. Something you’re sure really happened. It may have been a camping trip where spooky stories were told around a bonfire.  Or, it may have been walking through Times Square, many decades ago, and seeing the Camel billboard with the puff of smoke blowing out from between the man’s lips.  You know this was real because you can read about the famous billboard in popular culture books of New York City in the 1940s and 1950s.  But what about that memory of you standing in some unknown relative’s house, with the entire family watching you, while your father struggled to get your thick bulky snowsuit off?  And what about another distant relative your family visited one afternoon so many years ago.  Did this “uncle” really have a massive model railroad setup in his basement?  That was probably about 1954…or was it 1955?  But the question nags you; did that really happen or was it just a dream?

These dreams, good and bad, and those troubling memories can get confused in your brain. You never really know for sure.

Like the time, when I was a child and I went upstairs to take a bath.

I lived in a large old house with five bedrooms.  There were two full bathrooms upstairs and a toilet near the living room, downstairs.  My parents bought the house in 1945.  I was born in 1947, so I spent my childhood years in that big, old and drafty mansion.  It had a cellar that terrified me with its darkness.  The attic? Forget it. Up there dwelt beings that spent all their time in attics, never coming down…always staying behind the door in the hallway that led up those old wooden stairs.

To avoid confusion, we gave names to many of the rooms in the house.  Names like “The Dogs Kitchen”, the “Back Room” or the “Upstairs Back Room”.  The bathrooms were “The Blue Bathroom” which was once painted blue, but I never saw it that color, only the pink flowered wallpaper that covered the old blue paint.  The other bathroom had two names: “Dad’s Bathroom” because it was close to the room where he slept alone.  Behind a glass door at the end of the hall, he had a veritable suite to himself. The other name was the “Back Bathroom”.  It was isolated and always seemed chilly even in the summer.  It’s tiny window faced east so it lost sunlight early.  I could scrape rime ice from the inside of the window in the winter.  It also had an old “claw foot” tub.  This is where I was heading to take a bath one evening.

I pushed the door open and nearly fell backward when I glanced at the thing in the tub.  I simply could not believe what I saw. How and when it got there was beyond me.  No one had said anything.  No one prepared me.  There in the tub, was a frozen pig, sliced neatly in half from snout to tail.  It must have been there all night because it had begun to thaw. A full-size pig that had been frozen as hard as granite would take some time to go completely soft.  But it had started.  I looked at the feet, the pigs feet, and saw blood slowly run along the bottom of the tub and take a few swirls before going down the drain.

I may have run. I may have walked. But I got out of the room faster than a rat heads for its hole.

My dad took me back upstairs and explained that he had joined a food buying program at the local GLF store. If you bought things in large quantities, you’d get a hefty discount.  So he bought half a pig.

Later my brothers stood around the tub and watched the slow thaw soften the flesh. My geeky older brother, the science guy, pointed out the various organs, despite the fact that most were shown in cross-section and were represented by only 50% of the original.  I avoided looking at the head, not wanting to see the half brain.  I assume it was dead and solidly frozen when the saw began its cut. But I couldn’t help to imagine how a thought or a memory gets split like that in only a few seconds.  I knew nothing about brain hemispheres then.  Perhaps, if the half pig were alive, it could have dreamy thoughts of the sow in the other paddock, but couldn’t comprehend the swill that filled the trough in the middle of the sty.  I wondered about these things.

Months later, the body was gone.  Some of it was eaten for dinner and some of it was cut up and placed in our deep freezer…the one in “The Dogs Kitchen”  that looked like an oversized white coffin. It too was also part of the buy-in-bulk deal.

I made my father wash out the tub several times.  He assured me it was quite clean, but the tub was never the same after that.  It was years before I could take a bath in it.  Can energies of the departed occupy solid objects?  Ghosts, we all know, can walk through doors, walls and even living people.

Can a tombstone, a house, an axe, a tree, a small plot on a battlefield become “owned” by something, some kind of spirit that we cannot see or touch?

I’m middle-aged now.  One hobby is to browse antique stores for interesting objects from the past.

When I come upon a claw foot bath tub…I keep walking.

 

© 2012 Patrick Egan

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Lost On A Glacier in Alaska

Let me begin by setting the historical record straight, to slow the nay-sayers and bloggers who would be only too happy to challenge and dissect all that I am about to relate.  I was never lost ON a glacier (not in this story, anyway) but about nine feet from the lip of ice that marked the terminus.  I had stepped off the ice as easily as the last rung of a low ladder.  I walked about nine feet and became stuck in the quick sand.  If one stood perfectly still, one was fine.  But any movement from your boots and the fine silt would begin to liquify, grab your feet and you would slowly begin sinking.  You would be stuck and dragged down faster than if you met a red-headed hooker on a warm and thirsty afternoon in Texarkana.

It was late August, 1964, the end of the field season for the scientists on the Juneau Icefield. I was just seventeen and the youngest, to date, person to be accepted to work on the Icefield. My duties were to help the research scientists gather data on ice flow, collect and collate weather observations and to carry equipment.  Being a fit teenager, I carried more than my share of pack loads up nunataks to the camps or ski behind what passed for snowmobiles in the mid-sixties.

The season was now over.  But getting several dozen personal off the Icefield and back to Juneau presented a formidable challenge to the Staff.  It ended up working out like this: the group of botanists were to get a helicopter ride to a chosen location on the outwash plain of the Norris Glacier.  There they were to establish a camp and await the rest of the scientists. My team was chosen to make the descent of the Norris on foot…with full packs (60+ pounds).  This group included my brother, Chris, a graduate student from Bagdad (who had never seen snow in his life before that summer), and three others. The remainder of the large group would be making the trip on foot in a few day. During our descent, which took two full days, we were forced to bivouac for a night on a mountain side.  It rained and I woke in the morning wrapped in wet down-filled mummy bag that had turned from a 3 lb. sleeping bag to a 20 lb. mass of soaking wet feathers.  I squeezed it out like a kitchen rag and tied it to my packframe.

When we stepped off the glacier there was no sign of the advance team of botanists.  No doubt they were out somewhere in the few square miles around us with their noses among the moss and lichen.  By now it was late in the day and by now we realized we were quite lost.  We had run out of food, we were wet, chilled and as I said…lost.  None of us displayed any emotion, but I was very concerned (read near panic stricken) by the thought of our isolation.

We decided to split into two groups: my brother and I were to head in one direction, the others were to hike away from us.  In this way, we thought, we’d cover more ground and locate the botanists quicker.  When we parted, I felt my gut begin to heave with unsettled nerves. [Today the area is a landing spot for tourists who want to walk on a glacier.  Sight-seeing planes fly over often.  THIS WAS NOT THE CASE IN 1964!]  Chris and I hiked for an hour or so (it stays light quite late even in August) before deciding to camp.  Camp? I thought.  Where? How? With what?. We shared the last of a large bland cracker.  I pulled out my sleeping bag and it dripped onto my boots.  My spirits, what was left of them, sank. You can share my bag, Chris said.  He had kept his dry…somehow.  I nodded and prepare to ‘put in’ for the night.  I have never felt lonelier in my life.  I honestly felt that our situation had slipped rapidly into the danger (lethal) zone.  I reached into my pack and withdrew a packet of letters.  These were the collected ‘love letters’ from my girl friend (see my Post “Dear John” for additional information) I had received by mail drops throughout the summer.  I walked off among the short pines and placed the bundle under a 6 foot tree.  Someone would find them when it was all over.  Someone would know a little about me.  Was it raindrops or my tears that made the ink run?  I crawled in with Chris and actually fell asleep.  (Chris passed away in 1995.  I miss him.)

In the morning we somehow rejoined the other three.  They had located a bright orange notebook planted atop a small muddy hill with directions on how to get to the botanist’s camp.  Wrapped in a plastic bag was a sizable chocolate bar for us.  I nearly cried with relief.  I was starving but to thank the mountain god that guided us, I gave my share of the chocolate to the others.  We walked off. We were “Brave Mountaineers” as Gordon Lightfoot once sang.

I flew over the site with my wife in a tourist plane in August, 2010, 46 years after that adventure. I looked down for a sizable pine tree…there were many.  But letters and ink and past emotions have long ago decayed and became part of the lichen-covered glacial soil.

The Dearly Departed

I derive a great deal of pleasure by wandering among people who are dead.  I have always found graveyards to be ideal places to contemplate life.  Understand, however, that there have been times, when shadows lengthen, I find being among the dead is an unsettling experience.  But most of the time I find it creatively satisfying to find myself staring and thinking as I stand in front of a tombstone.

There are many gravesites that I am drawn to: my family’s plot, famous monuments, cenotaphs, 19th Century landscaped cemeteries and old forgotten burying grounds at the edges of fields or overshadowed by trees.  I love trees in a cemeteries.  They provide shade when one needs it the most.

In recent months, after I moved to the north country of New York State, I found the perfect excuse to visit graveyards.  You see, I have joined an internet organization that uses volunteers to photograph headstones at the request of family members who do not live close enough to take these pictures themselves.  It is a great site for the genealogists and local historians to locate the stone of someone important to them.

This past summer, I stood in the middle of a treeless cemetery looking for the requested names.  The sun blazed down on me like an open furnace.  I swatted black flies and gnats.  My broad-brimmed straw hat did little to keep me comfortable.  I headed to a nearby cluster of trees and sat on an old stone wall for relief from the torments of a hot July afternoon.  I began to think about what I was seeing.  I began to put together my own version of the local history I was recording in pixels for the last few hours.

I thought of the words spoken over the remains of the departed.  I did some quick mental calculations.  It was a small cemetery of perhaps three hundred interments,(rather small in comparison to the acreage of Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn).  My crude math came out like this:

  • Each grave contained an individual whose life connected in countless ways to others (some of whom lay nearby).
  • These individuals all (with some exceptions) had words spoken about them during and after their final days.
  • I assumed that these words, mostly prayers I would guess, were uttered when they were on the sick bed, at their funeral, at the graveside service and, finally, in obituaries or stories told after the burials.

This adds up to many words.  Were these words heartfelt, honest and spoken in good faith?  Did the preacher know them?  Did he (or she) know if they were in love with the wife of the nearby farmer, slept with a cousin, had impure thoughts about a sister, desire another (male or female), drank too much, spent the family piggy bank in a rigged game of cards in a room behind the makeshift tavern, die of grief,  kill someone, wish someone dead or walk out behind the woodshed on a rainy afternoon and put a bullet through their head?

The famous and powerful had the means to pay for such high-spoken eulogies, truthful or not.  The poor and hardworking immigrant, dirt farmer, losers and forgotten souls could not afford this price to post-mortem glory.  The words for them were likely to be few and unremembered.  The preacher maybe knew their foibles, but certainly not all of them.  So many aspects of a human soul are resting six feet under.

Then I began to mentally wander away from the graveyard.  What of those buried in Potter’s Fields?  What about the drifters, bums, hobos and travelling salesmen who found their darkness in now overgrown motor courts, Coney Island fleabag hotels or at the edge of a cornfield beside the Rock Island Line roadbed?

And what of those unborn fetuses and premature births, lying in a few feet of soil beside a nunnery wall?

My own conservative estimate is that for every marked and maintained burial site, there are six with no stone or flower to mark the persons time on this earth.

It makes a simple R.I.P. all the more meaningful.