I smell something burning, but I'll push on.
Just the other day a local program, quite a good one, had a cute little old lady on the show who was celebrating her 104th birthday (see for yourself at WFSB.com, click on BETTER CT). I stared and listened in rapt fascination. I didn't get up to refill my coffee, wouldn't answer the phone when it rang. It was simply riveting because this little, really old woman not only had obvious control over all of her physical faculties (she had crocheted intricate doilies for the show hosts, and punched one of them in the arm when he made a smart remark), but mentally she was more alert than me; on my best day. I waited for the inevitable question, "What is your secret to living so long?"
This clearly was not the usual 'look how long this human has lived' feature. Lived being the operative word. In nearly all the stories of old people and alleged milestone birthdays I see, the subject of the milestone is sitting in a nursing home staring at the camera with a blank face and empty eyes. A nearby relative will always blow out the candles on the cake, while the chin of the victim of said birthday slowly slides down to the chest; and they doze. This person had lost It, a long time before.
Over the course of my career I had many occasions to listen to various individuals who had 'lost It.' Many of these people were elderly, some - quite a few in fact - were fairly young. Nearly all of them would refer to the infamous 'They,' as in, "THEY are out to get me...," leading to the question, "Who are They?"
Which serves to remind me of a time when I was young and first introduced to 'They.' I had watched a monster movie with my sister. The one where the Mummy that drags it's leg comes alive. When it was time to go to bed, the darkness brought The Mummy back to life in my imagination. Possibly near my room. The fight or flight instinct my sister had worked so hard to perfect in me was in full swing. After my mother had confirmed 'They' exist, ("There's no one in there."), she had to put a light in the closet and leave it on all night. Even after she pointed out that the Mummy would not mysteriously appear after the light was off, I would have none of it. Who could tell if The Mummy would not suddenly appear in my closet, as it had appeared so suddenly in that sand dune. Who could predict the movement and whereabouts of a Mummy until one heard that leg dragging behind it? It's the unknown variable that will get you every time.
It was that same fear of the unknown that was capable of instilling sheer terror in those who were subjected to my sister's infernal 'tapping' game. She had to have at least four friends, plus me, in order to play it. In the cellar.
The cellar had an old stone foundation, with newer sections of large granite blocks that were easier to see spiders crawling around on. A huge boiler took up a large part of one of the main sections of the basement, blocking the view of the cold cellar with a creaky wooden door. There were two main sections, a lot of dark, creepy, separate rooms, even an old coal cellar where the little trap door to the outside was. The coal truck would dump the coal down a chute that came off the back of the truck, into the hole. There remained an unused pile of aging coal in the corner.
Back to the infernal game. One had to throw the lone, main light switch at the top of stairs to see anything at all. It was pitch black down there. My sister would lead us all to the cellar doorway, dramatically flip the switch on, and we would file down the stairs, hit the landing, then bear right down the last few stairs. That landing presented a hazard when the time came to escape the cellar in a hurry.
Once in the cellar, we would draw straws to see who would be IT. That person would return to the top of the stairs positioned near the light switch and wait thirty seconds for the rest of us to hide in one of the many nooks and crannies of the cellar.
Then the lights would be switched off. Those hiding would be enveloped in darkness, left with their own thoughts, the trick being not to make a sound that would give IT a clue as to their whereabouts, hence eluding discovery. The last one standing won.
IT'S role in the game was to enter the cellar, and tap, on the walls, beams, water pipes, anything the tool they had chosen from my fathers work bench was capable of making a noise on. Just tap. Sounds really dumb huh? Try it sometime. Better yet, force your kids to play it, builds character.... Its the most nerve wracking experience I have had to this day.
We, the hidden, would start out alright. Just great in fact. Most of the time the tapping was somewhere else, not nearby. So the mind would wander. Wonder what's for lunch. Where was that Nancy Drew mystery, did I leave it in the barn? The tapping would come closer. Tap, tap, tap. The mysteries of total darkness would engulf the mind, the tapping would suddenly become paramount. TAP, TAP, TAP. And for some reason I cannot explain to this day, the closer the tapping got, the more terrified The Hidden would become. It should be pointed out at this stage, my sister was the only one who had memorized the way to the creaky cold cellar door, so that she could silently approach it, slowly move the door, thus adding the perfect monster movie creak to the mix. CA-REEEEEEEEK. Silence. Then TAP...TAP..TAPTAPTAP. If you could stand it the tapping might pass by. If not, you screamed your bloody brains out and lost the game, by now out of your mind and flying towards the stairs, up the landing, smash into the stone wall, hard left to the top. Phew. Those still hidden remained in that terrible place their minds had brought them to, made worse by the screams of the one who was caught.
Occasionally my mother would come home to blood curdling screams echoing from the cellar, followed by frantic footsteps barreling up the cellar stairs. "They got ya, huh?" she'd say.
I am now fully aware that it was the infamous 'They' that lurked in the cellar. The unknown that creeps us out so. Which in no way explains my sister's other favorite game. Stare into a mirror without blinking. You know you are staring at yourself. Yet stare long enough, and you scare yourself silly. No 'They' there, just You.
It's that fear of the unknown that had my butt glued to the couch watching this 104 year old woman chatting with the show hosts as if she had not a care in the world. What has she been eating. (OK I admit, these days it's no longer The Mummy we have to fear, its everything, including but not limited to, the food we eat). I waited. The time finally arrived.
"So, what is your secret to living so long?"
"I never had any kids!"
Yup. That did it. Answered the one question I had always pondered. Having lived through so many of my kids adventures that oft times had capabilities of giving me chest pains, I finally had the answer. My kids were trying to kill me.
Having thus far avoided my own demise by their inadvertent hands, I have made up my mind, this wise old woman had spoken the truth. Which must be why I memorized a button I saw a stranger wearing quite a while ago. Deep in my heart, I knew. The button said...
"I want to die in my sleep like my grandmother, not yellin' and screaming like the passengers in her car....."