In 1963 or ’64 there was an abandoned school house just a few yards from where I lived. Far enough away to be safe from the prying eyes of adults if we were careful, but close enough that we kids had to keep our exuberance under control. The lot was fenced along three sides, but the front was open and there were huge gaps in the fence along the back allowing easy access to small bodies. The lot was overgrown with tall grasses and weeds that were almost as tall as I was by the end of August.
The building itself was yellow brick, and had been a one-room-schoolhouse back in its heyday. It was tall and had a row tall windows that were boarded over down both sides of the building. There were double doors up a wide stairway of about five to seven steps but only a single door in the back with a very small set of steps as if only one person would ever be exiting out the back door at any time. If I remember correctly, there was a tall, boarded over window on each side of the double doorway.
Once inside, there was almost a hallway like area directly inside those double doors which was full of boards tumbled about like giant tinker toys leaning against the walls which had large metal hooks on them for hanging coats. A shelf ran around the bottom twelve-eighteen inches of wall, probably to separate boots from shoes would be my guess. Or maybe small hats and mitten sat on that shelf above where melting snow would have cause puddles of water on the floor.
Because those front doors were elevated they stood clearly above the tall weeds and grasses making them easy to view from my house. Since the old yellow schoolhouse was “off limits” to us kids, we needed to find another way in that couldn’t be so easily seen. As luck would have it, one of the basement windows was covered by a piece of wood which was held in place by a log. Just the kind of opening we kids needed. It wasn’t a long drop to the basement floor and once inside, we quickly built a small stairway of odds-and-ends that would allow us an easy way back up to that window affording us an escape hatch that an adult would find difficult to navigate.
The old building was dark, gloomy, filled with cobwebs and dust motes that stood out in the few rays of light that snuck in along cracks or knot holes in the wood boards that protected the remaining glass. Combined with the musty, dusty smell therein that place formed the mental reference of a haunted house which has served me my entire life. It’s a smell I still remember and have smelled several times since those days; it always evokes the word ‘decay’ immediately. It wasn’t necessarily a bad smell, but it was a smell of usefulness long passed, of hopes and dreams gone awry, of intention and purpose unfulfilled. It made me sad and I couldn’t grasp pictures of happy children playing and yelling and laughing. I tried to connect with the buildings memories to find the happy times long gone, but I couldn’t make the connection and without it, there was just the sadness of the decay and imminent death that loomed in the building’s future.
Until then, though, it was our secret playground. If we each told our parents we were going to the other’s house to play on rainy days, we could sneak around and go into the old schoolhouse instead. It was filled with castoffs of furniture, lumber and paper. The chalkboards remained on the walls along with chalk and the big erasers we used to clean by clapping them together and allowing the chalk dust to fall to the ground. On our first trip in we eventually turned our eyes to the chalkboards and found the chalk and erasers.
We drew pictures, we wrote naughty words and then realized an adult would eventually enter and realize we’d been there and we knew they’d know it was us who’d written those words. It only took another few moments to find those big erasers, but they were loaded with chalkdust and refused to erase the words we weren’t even supposed to know, much less know how to spell (asuming we did know how to spell them, while in actuality they may have been spelled phonetically rather than accurately).
Being a year older and wiser than I, S grabbed two of those bad boys and whacked them together. Wow! a thick white cloud the size of an elephant filled the air blinding and choking us. We were so afraid someone would hear the coughing jags that ensued but we couldn’t move until the air cleared enough to see. We crouched down, listening, hearing mostly our own heartbeats and the blood rushing past our eardrums. After what felt like an eternity we decided no one was coming to investigate the odd noises coming from the abandoned schoolhouse so we resumed our playing.
I wish I could say we found velvet robes and crowns and such to play dress-up in, but mostly we found old tables, desks, music pages, song books, and so many pieces of wood and lumber in so many sizes it was incomprehensible what they were doing in the building, but there they were and we stumbled over the piles of them looking for something good.
And while we never found any “treasures” of remarkable beauty or value, we did spend hours pretending to be teachers and/or students; archeologists, space explorers, time travelers, and all manner of things that our rich imaginations fed us. I still remember the deep and almost overwhelming sadness I felt when the old school house was torn down. I cried myself to sleep a few nights over the loss of such a rich playground of darkness that fed our imaginations much the way I imagine a stage in an empty theater would do for an actor.