When quizzed about my initial interest in comics my autopilot response is “Detective Comics issue 327 featuring The Mystery of the Menacing Mask ”, the Batman story by Carmine Infantino and Gardener Fox that introduced “The New Look” and saved the title from cancellation. In reality, interest in mysterious avengers was kindled five years earlier with The Mask of Zorro, Disney’s 1958 black-and-white retelling of the Zorro (Spanish for the word “fox”), sword wielding crusader righting wrongs and fighting oppression in the Spanish California of the late 1700’s. I loved the mask, I loved the swordplay, I loved the horses – but what really intrigued me were the secret rooms and passages which served as an 18th century version of the Batcave. These areas were accessed through a hidden door in his chambers where the foppish Don Diego changed into his mask, cape, and black garb before descending a stair to the cave where he stabled his black stallion, Toronado, and riding off into the night.
For days afterward all I could think about were those secret rooms and passages. On the surface the allure was the basic “ooo-wee-ooh-ooo” factor that comes with every unusual element in a mystery, but there was also a hint of empowerment offered long before that term became trendy. There were so many times when navigating through a screamingly bi-polar household made clearing a minefield seem like a parlor game, which made the ability to move around unnoticed, or just hiding an option to explore in every one of the eight homes we occupied between my cinematic epiphany and our final move to Sterling – options that included locations such as:
- The laundry chute in the rambling ranch house in Little Shasta Valley.
- A tunnel dug in a lot next to our duplex on Garfield Street in Anchorage.
- Stairs to the cellar in the hall closet of our Barbara Drive home in Spenard.
…but it wasn’t until our travels finally rolled to a stop in Sterling that I unexpectedly found a true, functional, secret passage. While our home with attached garage looked like it had been plucked from an Anchorage subdivision, it was in reality a small homesteader’s shack repeatedly modified; the changes hidden by clapboard siding nailed around the exterior. All those changes left odd spaces and loose boards that that offered ample opportunity for further modification, but it wasn’t until I moved into the attic loft Dad and I built in 1966 that I was able to take advantage of the situation.
My loft was essentially a wooden box sandwiched between the top of the original cabin(s) and the overall roof. For the first year or so I was too scared to explore the space around my room as I was convinced aliens would use it as a base for their conquest of the Last Frontier, but I eventually gained enough nerve to explore the rest of the attic. Whenever possible I was scrambling over the gritty surface texture of the original shingles, and testing my luck by carefully making my way from ceiling-joist to ceiling-joist, ever mindful that a mere one half inch of fragile sheetrock separated me from the rooms below.
My survey of the entire attic took about a week, and during those explorations I found my secret passage. A plywood panel at the junction of the house and garage yielded a space which was easy to hammer and pry-bar, allowing access to the area above the rafters in the garage – and while it was unfinished, the sheets of plywood and old double mattress stored up there provided me with (at last!) a secret hideaway. More importantly, I was now provided with an unobserved entry/exit way from my room through the attic(s) to a stack of discarded cable spools, crates and stepladders piled rafter-high in the garage. Unfortunately by the time I’d gotten everything set up there wasn’t much of a need for a secret exit. I still wasn’t completely comfortable with hitchhiking so any activity worthy of the consequences of a foiled sneak-out would have to be within walking distance, and there were only two of those: the annual spaghetti feed and the Halloween party held at Sterling Elementary, but by the time they came around it was too cold and dark to warrant the risk.
It was a quite a different situation the following spring. Life had finally become tolerable after surviving the beat-downs, family crises, and a wicked case of mononucleosis that plagued most of my freshman year, but I’d reached a weekend where it was all but impossible to cope with the boredom of a slow Saturday afternoon at the homestead. It was also one of the last “buddy” episodes involving my friend Wayne as we had both traveled far enough on our respective paths to have little in common. Where we had once shared interests in music, hobbies, and television, we now had just one connection, i.e. girls, as in Playboy Playmate pinups and the party jokes printed on the non-Playmate side, so it had been a bit of a surprise when he showed up early that afternoon, when his new thug-friends were otherwise occupied, so we spent an hour or two listening to music:
- “The Mighty Quinn” by the Manfred Mann
- “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay” by Otis Redding
- “Judy in Disguise (With Glasses)” by John Fred and his Playboy Band
It was thoughts of the aforementioned pinups brought on by the name of that last vocal group that got us surreptitiously making our way out of the loft and into the attic proper where I kept my “library”. The climb up to my loft had become quite a challenge for mom, but she still made random visits and I didn’t want to risk discovery of any imagery of the female form, much less any of the less-than-fully-clothed variety. There was also the lurking menace of my three little sisters, Flora, Fauna, and Merriweather. With both Mom and Dad gone for the day their chief entertainment revolved about tormenting us, and the risk of one of them popping up through the hatch unannounced and spotting our contraband was as much a concern as a mom-visit, but the fortuitous appearance of a rather ragged cow moose in the front yard drew their attention away long enough for us to A) make a quick trip to my girlie-magazine stash in the attic and B) a equally quick move through the missing plywood panel and eventual access to the aforementioned secret hideaway above the rafters in the garage.
We had just started our formal debate on the merits of the curriculum vita of Nancy Harwood (Miss February) as opposed tp that of Gale Olson (Miss March) when the ear-piercing screams of Flora, Fauna, and Merriweather echoing like bloodhounds in pursuit of a fox broke out from the garage below us.
(Why were they screaming? There were always screaming. They would ring the downstairs landing to the loft access and keen for hours. It was like the albino zombies in The Omega Man chanting “I’m telling Mom” instead of “Neville! Ne-e-ville”.)
The moose had left the front yard all too quickly, and upon returning to the ladder-in-a-closet entry to my attic loft they were all-too-briefly puzzled by our disappearance before fanning out to search the house and garage. Wayne and I did our best to remain hidden and silent but between the relentless searching of the three little girls and the finite interior space of our home, we were discovered within minutes.
I don’t know if it was the hypnotic effect of tthe sight of two brunette beauties au naturel, the soporific effect of the late spring sun heating up the space directly under the garage roof (or more likely) the mortal fear of my Mom’s Celtic wrath – at that point I stopped thinking rationally. Somehow I became convinced that our best course of action would be to dash back through the connected attics into my loft bedroom and then somehow convince my sisters – and by extension mom – that we’d never left my room, so after a brief side trip to stash the pinups I sped over the old rooftops, across the rafters, and through the back entrance to my loft with Wayne closely following behind me. Unfortunately, the requisite hop from rafter to rafter over sheetrock wasn’t quite as automatic with my friend, and as I hit the door a muffled crump caused me to spin around just in time to see sunlight erupt through the attic darkness around Wayne’s lower body.
He’d stepped through the sheetrock ceiling.
I scuttled downstairs to the dining area to meet with the never-to-be-forgotten sight of my friend dangling by his armpits between two rafters while his feet and legs bicycled in mid-air. I worked as quickly as possible to get him down and the worst of the debris cleaned up, but before I knew it almost an hour had passed, and even worse, mom’s station wagon was pulling into the driveway. In a colossal feat of legerdemain I managed to get Wayne out the door just as Mom was coming in, but the lady had a gift for noticing detail that would put and eagle (or Joe Friday) to shame and I I was sure she hadn’t missed a thing as she watched him walking briskly toward the highway and a thumbed-ride home.
I braced for the worst. My parents had only recently and reluctantly abandoned percussive discipline with me, but the poor grades I’d earned during the previous nine week grading period had already brought on severe restrictions of entertainment and social life, and I couldn’t think of how it could be made worse. What really scared me though was Mom’s silence; after I took the bullet for Wayne and told her that it had been me who’d fallen through the roof, she just sent me to my loft and waited in the now-drafty dining area to confer with my dad when he came home. Listening to dad fix the ceiling was much like the unnerving swish/thud of the guillotine that French aristocracy had to endure while waiting for the world’s shortest haircut, but eventually it grew quiet and I was summoned to Mom and Dad’s bedroom for sentencing.
The first item of business was that despite my protestations, Mom knew that Wayne had been the ceiling-busting culprit instead of me. She’d made that determination based on:
- My little sisters’ testimony.
- My well-known lack of sufficient upper-body strength needed to suspend myself in the rafters for forty-five minutes.
- My (almost) clean trousers as opposed to Wayne’s denim jeans covered with white chalk from the sheetrock he’d stepped through…
I waited for the ax to fall…but it never did. With a slight smile she made the comment that while I wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer I was loyal, and with the uptick in my GPA when report cards were issued the following week, even that first observation was moot. Thrilled with the stay of execution I continued to keep my grades up for the rest of the school year, but the improved GPA wasn’t the only change to stay in effect: the “percussive discipline” never came back, and from that point forward Mom started to deal with me as a person rather than a Neanderthal, taking time to talk with me rather than at me.
It was kind of nice, and for the first time in my life I stopped looking for an easy escape route whenever Mom started a conversation…