Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Top Ten Terrifying Terrors of Terror in Childhood (Mine)

There's no telling what's going to freak out a particular child.

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

Aiiiieeeeee. There was nothing scarier than commodes not located at home or at least in a house. Public ones were large, loud, and much noisier. And you usually had to face a battalion of them, all hiding behind doors and just waiting to devour you.

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
Cement mixers were nothing more than supersized strange toilets set loose upon the world on gigantic wheels. They appeared arbitrarily, growling and grinding, and could make paste of you in the blink of a sparrow's eye.

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

Cinder was a lovely black and white collie owned by one of my mom's best friends. She was completely harmless, and I liked her. However, when you're small and eye to eye with a dog, they're pretty scary. Especially when you find yourself backed into a corner of the yard, pressed against a fence, weeping, while the dog barks at you and dances back and forth, darting toward you every time you try to get past it and run into the house.

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

I loved animals (despite the Cinder experience) and read about them voraciously. This pursuit frequently turned up alarming facts. Such as the one about how a giraffe's kick is enough to disembowel a lion. I had a nightmare one night in which a giraffe cornered my older brother in the house. The gory scene was thankfully hidden by a conveniently placed floral sofa. I forgot about this particular dread for decades, at least until I had to sign a waiver before working as a docent at a zoo that called for acknowledging that I wouldn't hold them liable if I were gored, bitten, trampled, or otherwise injured by an animal.

5. Madge

Oh, Madge, the wisecracking manicurist of Palmolive dish-washing liquid fame! Any 1960s kid who spent time watching afternoon reruns of "Bugs Bunny" cartoons took in dozens of repeat episodes involving Madge chatting to customers who were alarmed to find they were 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

This Stoneware Jug of Menace resided on a high shelf in the family room, along with other bric-a-brac. I don't know how it came into my parents' possession, as they were not drinkers, but I have a sneaking feeling it was given to them by my uncle, collector of truly weird things.

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.

7. Tornadoes

Photo courtesy Wikipedia
Tornadoes! Right! OK! There are many perfectly legitimate reasons to be afraid of tornadoes! Like, they destroy towns, carry cows for miles, drive straws through tree trunks, and stuff.

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

The crescent moon? What could possibly be scary about that?

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.

9. Lightning

So, again (see "Tornadoes") there are many perfectly good reasons to fear lightning. What's not to fear? It's huge, it's electrical, it's sizzling hot, and it's random. If it wants to crash through your bedroom window at night and zap you, it can--as witnessed firsthand by my own grandfather, who was sleeping in a hut at Rockaway Beach on a bed with an iron frame and was thrown from it when lightning entered the window and struck it.

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.

10. Blitzableiters

A Blitzableiter is simply a lightning rod in German. So you'd think a lightning-loathing child would embrace a Blizableiter (not literally, but figuratively, especially during a storm). "Blitzableiter" is also a funny word to say.

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.