Al Batt: We kitchen-tabled everything

Published 8:45 pm Tuesday, January 19, 2021

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Tales from Exit 22 by Al Batt

The wind gained speed as it blew through the cracks of the old house.

My upstairs bedroom was called the freezer. I was the only one who called it that, but that means it was called that. My science teacher told me that hot air rises. I was convinced cold air did, too.

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Our house had a furnace in the basement which provided rumors of heat. The furnace could have been in Idaho for as much heat as it supplied my room.

I believed the furnace was haunted because of the eerie moans it generated. I visited the library and endured an avalanche of librarian shushes to get to the encyclopedias and research haunted furnaces. There was a definite dearth of information on that subject. The heat from the haunted furnace was supposed to scour the house until it found the heat register on the floor in a corner of my bedroom. I suspect its remains (wherever they are) still search.

I got warmth from the kitchen stove along with a soothing morning alarm combining the smells of coffee and bacon. It was wonderful. I’d wanted to try coffee until I did. I don’t hanker for the taste of coffee but I love its smell. Sometimes, my mother started making pies early in the morning. She loved to bake and cook, and because she loved to do it, she was good at it. A baking pie is what heaven smells like. Did those scents get me out of bed? Heck, yeah! When my nose detected pie fumes, I smiled so widely I needed stitches.

I jumped out of bed. The floor was as cold as ice to feet not wearing skates. My clothes were arrayed upon an ancient wooden chair making it possible for me to don them quickly before I succumbed to the cold. The shower was in the basement, not far from the haunted furnace. The shower offered two temperatures — frigid and Antarctic. Ice cubes fell from the shower’s head. I ran under the shower stream, getting wet enough to soap up and then sprinted through the waterfalls once more to knock off most of the suds. To stand under the shower was to invite hypothermia.

The kitchen had an Airline AM radio purchased at Monkey Wards. It was considerably older than me. It had tubes and a Bakelite cabinet. Bakelite was a light and durable plastic also used in cameras, billiard balls, jewelry, clocks, telephones, handles and car parts. A 1924 article in Time magazine predicted that Bakelite “a material of a thousand uses” would one day make up nearly everything we touch, see and use. That radio was locked in on WCCO, 830 on the dial. WCCO and Lutheranism were Minnesota’s two largest religions in those days.

We breakfasted in the kitchen as I hoped to hear a snow day school announcement before Boone & Erickson sang, “Good morning, good morning. It’s grand to be on hand. Good morning, good morning, to you.”

WCCO was given a voice in the dairy barn as well, except during milking. Dad felt country music encouraged the cows to give more milk.

There was more than eating done at the kitchen table. It was the seat of the family treasurer. Anytime mother accumulated more than one bill, she sat down and wrote out checks. She licked and applied stamps with such gusto it was as if she was happy to pay the bill. I suspect she was.

My father used the kitchen table as his desk. He penciled mysterious numbers into small, gimme notebooks acquired during some transactions. He sometimes worked on the worry stone he’d pulled from the pocket of his bib overalls. It was a smooth stone with an indentation about as wide as his thumb. Native Americans carried similar stones in a pouch and handed them down to the younger generation as a connection to their ancestors. My father told me he’d rubbed the indentation into his worry stone with his thumb while worrying if his numbers were correct.

Decisions were made at the kitchen table. When I did something I shouldn’t have, I knew my case would be adjudicated at that table after I’d gone to bed. When I heard my parents’ voices, I crawled on my hands and knees to that heat register, carefully avoiding a creaking floorboard, and put my ear to that grille. No chance of burning it. I listened to the prosecution’s case against me, allowing me to prepare a Perry Mason-like defense.

Al Batt’s columns appear every Wednesday in the Tribune.