Column: Adventure better in fantasy than reality

Published 12:00 am Thursday, August 16, 2001

If there be among my readers one who has never luxuriated in a Walter Mitty fantasy, accept my condolences.

Thursday, August 16, 2001

If there be among my readers one who has never luxuriated in a Walter Mitty fantasy, accept my condolences. You will recall that Walter Mitty was Thurber’s protagonist in &uot;The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.&uot; He was a somewhat bland person, who made life more interesting for himself by day-dreaming colorful little episodes of which he was always the hero.

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I confess that I have long enjoyed my Walter Mitty life. It began early and abided as the frosting on my personal cake long after more sensible friends had outgrown it. I always had mental pictures of myself jumping on a horse over a fence, or stepping up modestly to fill in for the first violinist, who had gone a bit over his limit, just before a concert at Carnegie Hall.

Probably because my father was a fireman, my favorite is of rushing into a burning building to rescue someone or something. In my more modest moments I rescue a dog, the family’s beloved pet. Riding high, it’s a Shirley Temple type child I wrest from flaming peril.

We moved from Nebraska City to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, before my 18th birthday. I was, however 18, when I entered a life-saving class at the Y swimming pool.

My family lived in a respectable neighborhood and the Y was in a respectable neighborhood, but the area between the two could have been termed respectable only by the greatest optimist, and he a bit wanting.

I took the class twice a week and in the bright afternoon. Even bright afternoon did not satisfy my protective father. He gave me money for street car tokens.

Street car tokens cost 11 cents apiece or three for a quarter. If I went before 6 p.m. I could attend a double-feature movie for 16 cents. I could buy five good big candy bars for a quarter. Daddy would have been wiser to have given me the tokens.

For the most part I trod those mean streets too immersed in my Walter Mitty dreams to pay much attention to all that was going on. Then one cloudy day as I passed a particularly grim and a shabby tenement house I was electrified to see flames roaring out of the chimney.

I’m glad to remember that I rushed to the door of that building without hesitation. It’s the only part of the incident I can remember with anything like gladness.

I pounded on the entrance door, but when no one came in response, pushed my way into the hall. The hall was festooned with criss-crossing clothes lines and I had to walk at a crouch in making my way under the laundry to the nearest inside door. When I pounded on it I could hear voices from inside. Finally a woman called, &uot;Coming, Coming.&uot;

It took her some time. Impatient though I was I remember being surprised that she was wearing a kimona in the middle of the afternoon.

&uot;She says the house is on fire.&uot; she called back to her companion.

&uot;Well get rid of her and let the damned thing burn,&uot; he called to her.

&uot;I tell you what,&uot; she said &uot;Why don’t you knock at the door across the hall. A family lives there. They’ll be more interested.&uot;

I didn’t even have to knock – a plump rosy woman had the door open before I could raise a fist. Muttering something about &uot;No better than she should be,&uot; in reference to her neighbor, the plump one led me into a room that was full of more children than you would expect to see outside of an orphanage.

&uot;She says the place is on fire,&uot; the woman told her husband. Hearing the doubt in her voice, I suddenly realized that she thought I was crazy.

Her husband reassured her. &uot;Just nervous,&uot; he told her. &uot;She’s young and skinny, probably half-starved.&uot;

&uot;We eat early,&uot; he told me, &uot;because my work hours aren’t regular. You come in and sit down. It’s plain grub but thank the saints above there’s plenty of it.&uot;

&uot;Your house is on fire,&uot; I repeated. &uot;And thank you, but I can’t eat. I’m expected at home. But the house is on fire. We’ve got to get the children out!&uot;

&uot;We’re just ready to sit down at the table,&uot; he told me &uot;If you think a little old fire is going to stand between those kids and their supper! Why we’d have a riot. If you don’t want to eat, how about a little beer. Beer is good for the nerves. I’ve got a couple of daughters not much older than you. Gave ’em beer from the time they were confirmed. Both married now with kids of their own. Fine fat girls. Neither of them nervous.&uot;

It was all too much. I walked toward the door. Encouraged by his wife, he accompanied me to the outside door.

&uot;I saw the flames,&uot; I told the man as I left the house. &uot;Doesn’t anyone care that the building is probably going to burn to the ground?&uot;

&uot;Don’t feel so bad about it, sis,&uot; he said. &uot;You’ve got to remember that the building doesn’t belong to any of us who live here. We just rent.&uot;

Love Cruikshank is an Albert Lea resident. Her column appears Thursdays.