My oldest memory is electrical (I think). It used to come to me in dreams. I see an old-fashioned electric floorlamp (Thirties or Forties vintage, I imagine) standing in a corner against some rather ugly vintage wallpaper, yellowed. The four-inch floorboards are painted white, carefully I think, with the routered top curl. All quite period: cluing us in that this image is from my childhood, possibly very early. That is all there is to it: a floorlamp standing in a wallpapered corner. I donʼt even know if the lamp is on. And it terrifies me (asleep in my dreaming — so much so that when I dreamed this image I usually woke up, sweating or something like that, nervous, not willing to talk the dark walk to the bathroom and having a little trouble falling back asleep).
I havenʼt had that dream in decades, although it persisted into my adult life, into my time in Maquoketa, I believe even into my married life (but not here in our gray house). But I still remember it. Vividly. Obviously.
And I donʼt know why. I tried talking about it with my older sister Margaret (at least I tell myself I did), and she told me (or I told myself in my imaginary conversation with her) that the description could sound like our family house in Colorado Springs, where we lived when I was quite young (less than two, if I recollect correctly — and I frequently donʼt). The frustration of getting the clarity of the image clear to other people (and the image is very clear in my dream, but it is only visual with no other senses involved; of course, most of my dreams are predominantly visual) made me realize long ago how isolated our internal experiences are. My favorite line from Conrad (Heart of Darkness) is: “We live as we dream — alone.”
So why is my dream image so frightening? My guess is that it is a real memory of a two-year-old who then grabbed the presumably frayed cord for that floorlamp (probably only those as old as myself or older recall the stiff friability of those old-fashioned cloth-covered — probably asbestos-lined — power cords that were already aged and hazardous in the Fifties and Sixties) and accidentally, partially electrocuted himself. The terror is the repressed remnant of the experience in which I inflicted electrical pain on myself.
Thatʼs what I remember. Thatʼs what I once dreamed. Thatʼs my conclusion about it all.
And from such small beginnings lifetime engagements begin…
Years later, when the family lived in Rock Island, Illinois, one year at Christmastime, when I was still in elementary school, possibly fourth or fifth grade, my folks dropped brother Paul and me at the movies for an afternoon. (I am sure it was so they could go shopping without us, probably with Margaret who was so much older and more mature.) I wrote about this before. The whole afternoon was set up for kids to have fun, including (beyond a movie or two of which I remember nothing at all) games, a magician, and (most importantly and best of all) prizes. And I won a chemistry set (probably to the dismay of my mother and delight of my science-teaching father), which taught me little if any chemistry except for (as the link I just created nostalgically reviewed for me) the names of chemicals (some of which I am sure I actually ingested under the influence of Thirties and Fifties horror flicks) and a youthful appreciation for experimentation (pretty worthless and destructive experimentation in my case: my biggest goal was to create foaming beakers of chemical compounds as seen onscreen in those aforementioned movies). Paul and I also had some electrical train equipment, mostly abused and forgotten by this age. However, my next-door-neighbor friend Bill Lindahl and I used the train set transformers (AC to DC) to perform our own little experiments à la Edison on various threads and things to see if we could discover our very own (nonvacuum-enclosed) electric filaments. Of course we also got totally distracted into creating bigger and better conflagrations as the electricity burned lots of those substances before our very eyes (and noses). The sturdy transformer lasted an amazing length of time (at least in my memories) burning cotton threads, dust bunnies and every other filamentlike object we could lay across the DC terminals, including various remaining chemicals from the chemistry set (disregarding their nonfilamental structure). And so more electrical experience permeated my consciousness.
(How we kept my mother from preventing those “experiments” I have no idea. Of course, I also collected an amazing amount of my own and Paulʼs urine in jars — where did I get those? — stored in our bedroom closet before discovered by Margaret, too. What did I think I was doing with that pseudo-experiment? Not to mention the anatomy explorations performed on Margaretʼs discarded — thatʼs my view of their condition, and I am sticking to it, regardless what she says — Barbies… And probably this paragraph is entering the realm of too much information.)
I actually did learn some basic electricity from setting up the trains and even from Bill and my peculiar electrical experiments with the transformer. I think I had acquired a good basic understanding from my fatherʼs Traveling Science Teacher act and equipment, too. (Yes, I clearly recall in the basement of our house in Rock Island going through those deep green footlockers holding the TST equipment in quest for playthings/experimental equipment for myself.)
By the time we moved to Michigan (eighth grade for me), I was ready to wire up my own lights in the dungeonlike cellar of the huge old (former fraternity) house which my father received/rented (I donʼt know the financial arrangement, having been oblivious of real life as a child) for the family from Olivet College. One stony chamber of the cellar, remote and originally black (thatʼs my version, and again I am sticking to it), became my private realm to assemble model cars and airplanes — I am pretty sure that the model Wolfman and Dracula and Frankenstein were already behind me, in the Rock Island era — (and perhaps itʼs the overenclosed atmosphere of model-airplane glue fumes that makes my memories of those experiences so vividly colorful and lifelike… and probably have limited my mental abilities ever since) and read (illicitly acquired?) comic books and science fiction and fantasy (as I partially disclosed earlier). But I had to rig some lighting in there first…