Top of my world, down there

New England, to the great comfort of those of us who delight in our own and others' childhoods, is a place of basements. I realize this may sound terribly quaint to those Sunbelt readers whose houses need nothing more than thin slabs of concrete beneath them. I will grant them their sunshine, and their relative ease of bulding, and even their benign indifference to floods in the crawl space. I lived happily among them for years. But here in New England we have what's called a frost line, below which you must dig your foundation -- and lay your water mains -- unless you want the most appalling heaves and bucklings of pipes and walls when winter comes. Hence the basement. And hence one of the inestimable delights of childhood: a cellar to call one's own.

I was two when we moved into the hundred-year-old Massachusetts basement (with, of course, a house attached) that I would come to think of as home. No doubt I was prevented, by a particularly steep set of stairs and an alert mother , from exploring it right away. My earliest memories of it include lumps of coal left over from the pre- iol days, a firewood pile and my father's shop, and some dim and spooky regions stretched out under the kitchen ell. As I think back on it, it was everything a boy's basement should be: walled in great chunks of stone, floored in cement, and giving onto the side yard through sloping bulkhead doors covering wide granite steps. Yet for all its unshakable stability, it had a marvelous fluidity, an unlimited potential for the imagination. Because it was undeveloped, it was infinitely flexible; being a kind of nothing, it could become, in a boy's mind, everything.

One year, I recall, it was submarines. At that time my brother was a ham radio buff, and his corner of the basement was a mine of wires, knobs, and old radio chassis stacked in a halfway discarded state. We pillaged that pile (with his belated and grudging permission, I recall) and lugged off what, in our eyes, were radar scanners, sonar bleepers, and vastly sophisticated pieces of torpedo launching equipment.Our hull, on which we mounted this gear, was a series of large cartons, with judicious amounts of garden hose and rope linking its various chambers. It was there, in that basement, that we toured the Atlantic, fought off evil, and liberated Europe.

Then there was the night when we discovered the delights of hide-and-seek with the lights off. Why my mother permitted a rabble of pre-teen-age boys to howl through her cellar late into the evening I have never understood. Perhaps she didn't know. Or perhaps, seeing our disorder contained by granite rather than by finer textures upstairs, she knew more than we thought. for if boys will be boys, cellars will also be cellars; and she may have known that there wasn't a boy around whose imagination could outrun the capacity of that cellar to give it play.

In later years, it took on different looks. For a while it was chemistry sets in one corner and radios in another. Then it was a long and lingering apprenticeship at my father's woodworking tools. Finally we walled off one corner into a kind of music room, complete with couches, dim lights, piano, and what in those days was still called a hi-fi. We even pressed the bulkhead stairway into service once when, during college, my crumbling Jaguar needed new main bearings. We timbered up two sloping tracks above the stairs, drove the car up onto them, and crouched on the steps beneath to pull off the oil pan.

And through it all, the basement remained much the same, I suppose, in many ways, we shifted faster than it did -- like a good book which, though different each time you read it, changes you more than you change it. Living in cellars, in fact, is a little like reading: It fosters a sort of imagination that all the skillfully contrived store-bought playhouses, or all the visually dazzling movies and television shows, can never match.

For basements are largely mental constructs.I suppose we grow up and out of them only as we find other kinds of expansiveness, other undefined sweeps of space and opportunity that outdistance our best efforts at containment. Some find those sweeps in sports, or business, or homemaking, or the many crafts that compose various objects out of a few well-defined skills and a handful of basic materials.Others find it in writing, in which 26 letters shape themselves into combinations more endless and various than any basement could hold. And still others find it simply in life, in the magnificent kaleidoscope of existence that turns trivial moments into bright and ordered color.

Beneath this sort of expansiveness -- wherever it rises to excellence -- I suspect there is always a basement. The superstructure rises. The cellar remains, a deep foundation of the imagination in an age too used to slabs.

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