For years, I had cartoonist Roz Chast's piece "On Display at the Children's House of Horrors" tacked to my bulletin board, which depicted these hair-raising things in her signature neurotic, quaky line: The Hall of Snowsuits, The Plate Where All the Different Foods Are Touching One Another, Live Demonstration of the Shampoo, and the Gallery of Inexplicable Fears, which included a butterfly, a pineapple, a kite, a fan, and a blow dryer.
The Resident Teen, not afraid of eventually hopping back on her horse even after falling this weekend and suffering a concussion, is scared of bees and wasps, and as a three-year-old developed a sudden fear of cows strolling into her bedroom at night. Cows are not legion on the streets of Seattle, but there you go. (Fortunately, a hastily drawn sign declaring "Cows Not Allowed" with a cow depicted in the circle-and-slash "not allowed" logo made bedtime peaceful once again.)
Here, in one more Halloween Hurrah for the month of October, is my own list of the Top 10 Things that either scared the bejesus out of me as a child or induced extended anxiety (in addition to the more typical anxieties about the dark, loss of parents, school exams, gym class, clowns, and the like).
1. Strange Toilets
I truly felt deep empathy for all the kids of today whom I've squired into modern public bathrooms with automatic-flush toilets. I learned to carry duct tape with me--armed with a piece of duct tape to place over the sensor, a child can ensure that he or she can use the privy in peace, without it flushing every two seconds, then, upon completion, rip off the duct tape and run like hell out the door.
2. Cement Mixers
|Photo courtesy Wikipedia|
At some point cement mixers began appearing in colors and patterns other than utilitarian gray--a cheerful rainbow-polka-dotted one prowled our neighborhood, but it did not fool me; I knew it was a wolf in sheep's clothing.
3. Cinder the Collie
My dog trainer friend D. loves this story. "She was just doing her job as a sheepdog," she told me. "She was herding a small, bleating object and making it stay in one place."
4. Disemboweling by Giraffe
soaking their fingertips in dish soap.
Poor Madge; what was it about her that gave me the creeps? I vaguely recall feeling unsettled at these peeks into what adult life was supposedly like because I didn't know how you learned to do all those things; it was the same weird vibeI got from coffee commercials in which hostesses made terrible java and visitors made faces after one sip. What was I going to do? I didn't know how to make coffee.
Or maybe it was the thought of doing all those dishes. Luckily, somebody invented dishwashers in the meantime.
6. "How Dry I Am" Jug
When you lifted it up, it began plunking out the tune "How Dry I Am" in deep, echoing notes. When I was tiny, this alarming sound was somehow connected to the idea that I could fall into the jug and disappear. (See also "Strange Toilets" and "Cement Mixers.") Don't worry. I got over it. I wonder where this creepy object has gone.
|Photo courtesy Wikipedia|
However, we did not live in Tornado Alley. Long Island didn't suffer many tornadoes. So there was no reason, really, to pore over the "tornado" entry in the World Book Encyclopedia, to figure out which corner of the basement was the safest one to be in based on the typical trajectory of a tornado, or to sit up in bed in the dark fretting that a tornado would suddenly roar out of a calm summer night sky and rampage down the street.
8. The Crescent Moon
Well, nothing, really, except the crescent moon has a really sharp hook at both ends, and sometimes sits very low in the sky. There was the chance that if you went outside in the dark (a scary enough prospect in its own right), you could get hooked on the lower point and carried off into the sky. I mean, it could happen.
Especially when you don't know that the moon is actually about 239,000 miles away.
Thunderstorms were frequent and fierce on Long Island in summer, so there was plenty of opportunity to cower in attempts to appease the weather gods. My grandmother (not the one married to the lightning-struck grandfather) told us about a brother back in Germany who had been killed by lightning (apparently while walking across a field with a metal farm implement over his shoulder--don't do this!) and would not allow us to handle metal cutlery or Matchbox cars in the house while a thunderstorm raged.
No wonder I seriously thought that turning on the bedroom light and lying stock-still for two hours straight would prevent my being struck at night during a storm.
I think that's how its frequent use got started in our family; my Dad was German, and my parents were good friends with a Swiss family, and the word got bandied about amongst them just because it was a funny word (another favorite was Schnabel, German for "spout," which cropped up in reference to a teapot and was jokingly pronounced "schnobbly").
I recall being told there was a Blitzableiter in a dark room in the back of our friends' house, and since I didn't know what one was, it could be anything, most likely a menacing anything. The phrase "Here comes der Blitzableiter!" uttered by an older brother sent shudders down my spine.
Happy Halloween--and watch out for that there moon.