It has recently come to my attention that Halloween is over, there are 4 inches of snow on the ground, the temperature at night is around -10C, and the Santa Claus Parade is this weekend. If this is true then I am now almost completely willing to concede that summer may actually be over and that the 60 Days of Christmas have officially begun. Decorating must be just around the corner, and I don’t do decorating well , which my wife will undoubtedly confirm in the comments. This year, though, I decided to take a look at WHY I’m so bad at holiday decorating and I’ve found that it all comes down to repressed childhood memories of near-death experiences. Well, okay, not near-death in the near-death sense, I mean near-death in the “I’d-rather-die-than-do-this-again” sense. Here, let me explain.
First, some required background for those of you less familiar with me. My father was a dedicated do-it-yourself guy and when I was a kid we lived in a house that he built. After building it he apparently got confused about the definition of a “full basement” and proceeded to fill the living hell outta that baby, to the point that there were parts of it that were spoken of in the hushed manner of long-lost gold mines that explorers never returned from. I’ve got pictures if you think I’m exaggerating. One result of all this is that the Christmas decorations ended up being stored in the attic because… get this… it was far easier to get to the attic than many places in the basement, especially for boxes the size of large artificial trees.
The attic was originally accessed via a small trapdoor in the ceiling of the closet in my room, but early in my childhood my father (for reasons unknown and undocumented but possibly related to his … ahhh… “barrel chested physique”… though to be fair the size of the boxes may have been a factor, too) elected to put in a new trapdoor/ladder combination in the basement stairwell. If you’ve seen “Home Alone” then you’ve seen the type of thing I’m talking about; the ladder cracks one of the bad guys in the face. Ours didn’t slide, it unfolded instead, which leads to another set of problems.
At this point the astute reader is asking, “Did he say they put the attic ladder in the basement stairwell?”, checking the previous paragraph for confirmation, and then asking, “How the heck does THAT work?” You’ll have gathered from the tone of this post that the short answer is “badly” and the shorter answer is that a picture is worth a thousand words. Here’s a cross-section of the final setup.
The end result was that you got to the attic by walking partway down a staircase then climbing a 10 foot ladder over a 15 foot drop. What could go wrong? Well, for starters you could install the ladder so that it was exactly the wrong length to reach one of the stairs but naturally you’d compensate for this by stacking wooden blocks under the ladder legs. You wanna be safe, though, so you’ll secure the blocks to the stairs with good-sized C-clamps. Yeah, that’ll work. You could also have a son (me) who isn’t particularly fond of heights, that would complicate things, but there’s not much you can do about that one.
Then there was the attic itself. The attic was unfinished in the truest sense of the word. Think of the attic from “Beetlejuice” and you’re starting to get the idea. Now take away the light switch. Also take away the flooring, replacing it with loose boards scattered around to form pathways. Make sure that you step on the boards or the joists themselves or else you’ll put your foot through the main floor ceiling. But you can’t step on the ENDS of the boards because they may not be supported, in which case the teeter-totter effect will cause you to put your foot through the main floor ceiling a split second before the other end of the board smacks you in the head. And make sure that you can do all this in the dark until you manage to find the pull chain on the bare lightbulb suspended from the roof by an extension cord.
If you have managed to run the gauntlet so far, you can now begin chucking boxes down to the folks waiting below. NONONONONOnotthatonethatone’stheornaments… yeah, just hand that one to me. Phew.
Despite all of this, the ladder worked pretty well for the first couple of years. It provided access to the attic on a twice-yearly basis (once for ornaments down, once for ornaments up), the decorations got displayed, and Santa was pleased enough with the results to bring us presents so all was… not good, really, but acceptable.
Then Dad finished the basement stairs.
Prior to this the stairs consisted only of the treads (the flat part you step on) and didn’t have any risers (the up-and-down part between the treads). This had 3 separate effects:
1) It allowed you to look through the steps into a portion of the basement that I never actually figured out how to get to
2) It irritated my mother no end on those rare occasions when she ventured down to the basement
3) It made attaching blocks to the treads with large C-clamps very easy.
Dad finished the stairs by putting in risers and brand new, nicely finished treads that were much thicker and sturdier than the old treads. And all was good. Until Christmas, when we grabbed the blocks, discovered that there was no way to secure them, and then lowered the ladder and discovered that the blocks were now the wrong size. We made some adjustments, everything looked okay, and up the ladder I went.
If you’re one of those people who love stories that contain the phrase, “What we didn’t know….”, you’re going to like this next part.
What we didn’t know was that we had too much support underneath the ladder and it wasn’t able to fully extend, putting great stress on the hinges. It looked fine, but it wasn’t fine at all and as I climbed past the first set of hinges, the stress was too much. The ladder, desperately trying to extend itself further into space that didn’t exist, chose to go sideways instead. The hinges bent and the two sections of the ladder that weren’t actually bolted to the hatch shifted sideways until the failed hinge was stopped by the wall of the stairwell itself. Unharmed but with some difficulty breathing at a normal rate, I gently climbed down (and to the left) past the hinge, then down (and to the right) to the bottom of the ladder where my parents and I surveyed the damage and planned the next assault on the summit of Mount Attic.
Eventually my father came up with the next plan. We removed one of the supporting blocks so the ladder wasn’t stressed anymore, grabbed a board and 4 more C-clamps, slapped them across the failed hinge on the side of the ladder to keep it from bending sideways, and the climb resumed. By the time I made it up to the attic that year, the usual obstacles of darkness and no floor were child’s play and the rest of the operation was easy. The next year we fixed the ladder, right? Hah! We continued to use the same blocks, and the same board across the same failed hinge for the next six years or more until we moved out of that house. I’ve driven by the old house occasionally since then but I’ve never had the nerve to stop and ask the current residents if they’d tried to get into the attic lately.
Now that I’ve reviewed all this, I realize that our Christmas decorations are in the basement of the house I now live in, there are no ladders required to get them, and there’s nothing to fear but fear itself. In fact, I think I may actually be looking forward to putting them up this year.