- By Alan Matthews
- Sunday, May 23, 2010
- Hits: 828
Lately my job has put me in a lot of hidden places. I run computer cables both in construction and renovation projects. Cabling, be it copper or fiber optic, backbone or horizontal, goes through some of the most interesting environments imaginable. The one I frequent happens to be the hospital my parents worked at for 35-plus years and my birthplace. It also is the place I suddenly re-experienced my earliest, and deepest buried childhood memories.
Most health care institutions are conglomerations of buildings added, abandoned and demolished as the size of the population swells and dwindles. I end up contending with doors that go nowhere, stairwells that go straight up, floors that switch angles at 45 degrees — all manner of cracks, crannies and dead ends.
Likewise, human memory — my memory — is made up of piles of facts acquired, consolidated and reworked. Without a map, retrieving memories is often like getting lost in the basement of one of my hospitals. It is a conglomeration of dead ends and wrong turns along with misplaced props. A technique to better recall those long lost memories is called "priming." One example is having smells, sights or sounds prime the memory, bringing about a flood that can wash over one without warning. According to my good friend Wikipedia (who's memory is much more solid than my own), "A property of priming is that the remembered item is remembered best in the form in which it was originally encountered." That's important.
Recently I found myself climbing a supremely vertical staircase into the oppressive heat of the boiler room in the same hospital that ushered me into this world. To get there, my companions and I had to locate the wooden-floored creaky old beast of an elevator that dipped all the way to the sub-basement. It lived, in its antiquity, at the back of the shiny stainless steel cafeteria. The environmental shock of trading cool, polished metal for raw steel columns and impromptu chain-linked fence with "DANGER!" emblazoned at every turn was enough to set me on edge without the stifling heat.
We crossed an untreated concrete floor to a small room holding a rickety metal structure that pretended to be a staircase — little more than a ladder, really. A trip up the rungs led to a quasi-floor, in between sub-basement, basement and first floor. It may well have been the basement of one of the added on areas of the hospital, but I was now far from making any comparison between my current location and the world above.
A tang infected the air — steam mixed with old oxidized metal mixed with God knew what. Every square inch of a hospital is one mop bucket away from becoming storage space at any given time, and this boiler room was no exception. Being the treasure-hound that I am (my wife would say junk-hound, or on days when I bring the stuff home, crap-hound), I worked my way to the back of the entourage so that no one could pick up on my head bobbing and weaving, eyes darting furiously over the treasures at hand.
In my short walk I tried to take in decades of history attached to the remnants of miscellanea too valuable to throw away, but too worthless to remember. Down here was the good stuff, inches thick with dust, one minute looking like medieval medical torture devices, next like forgotten studio props from an episode of General Hospital.
My breath caught in my lungs. The toe of my left shoe hit the heel of my right. My heart whistled a tune that would've put a smile on any cardiologist's pocketbook. When those memory primers hit, they do a lot of collateral damage. I was standing in front of a small, stainless steel cage. It was the height and dimensions of a typical '70s era patient gurney, but the mattress area was enclosed on all sides by shiny metal bars. The slats were narrow enough that a small child's arm might get through, but likely only up to the elbow and certainly not past the shoulder. One side had a nasty looking latch at the top that allowed the entire section to swing open for insertion and removal.
Ahhh, but insertion or removal of what, you might ask? A lion cub? Circus bears? "Rodents of Unusual Size"? No, my friends, for the insertion and removal of human children. And 30 years ago — the particular insertion of me.
The memory cascade was intense and powerful. I wanted to call my parents immediately — not possible in the quasi-sub basement. I wondered — were my memories correct? Could I be leading myself astray somehow? How could I suddenly feel such a violent and vital connection with something I had no recollection of only seconds before? As the raw emotions and memories flooded back, my shocked mind worked to attach them to facts I knew about my childhood and stories I had heard, to form a full narrative around this explosion.
At 3 years old, my grandmother tried to tickle me and I recoiled in horror. When pressed for an explanation I told her, "It hurts to laugh." Days later I was diagnosed with a hernia and admitted to the hospital for surgery. My earliest memories, memories of anything at all, begin after being admitted to the hospital. Everyone was very smiley. I remember that clearly. Smiley in a completely insincere way. The only time I saw sincerity was when a look of fear crossed behind the eyes of the person smiling too broadly in my face. I don't remember seeing that fear in the eyes of the nurses, chain smoking their way through the day, but I caught it several times on my parents' faces. Every time my parents were out of the room nurses would, with the greatest and utmost care, jam me into a cage and throw the latch. My sole confidant was a small black boy, likely my age, whose name I can't recall. We spoke to each other through our prison bars. I'm not sure if we traded Pall Malls for extra rations, but it wouldn't surprise me one whit.
Still — I got my freedom sometimes. They took me to the playroom, a circus-colored affair with a vaulted ceiling that stretched into next week. It was bright but garish, all reds and oranges set off with browns. Considering it was the '70s, I'm not sure how it could've been brighter and more garish than any other room, but it seemed to be. I rode a tricycle when I could — it wasn't as cool as my Big Wheel at home. I tried to make a break for it when the nurses wanted my temperature. NO THANK YOU VERY MUCH. They caught me, and since I wouldn't sit still, my father held me down as they took my temperature rectally. Some excuse, that's the way they had taken it every time before — that's why they kept having to chase me.
I could press myself against the bars of my cage and see out the window (in our shared room, I had the window seat - "membership has its privileges") and look down into the parking lot. I could pick out my parent's Pinto even from the high floor I was on — it had trash bags over the windows because the doors had rusted out inside. The entire thing was rust-colored, but that wasn't the original color. A lot of things felt rust-colored during those days.
And that's where the cascade ended. No other memories remain until my first spanking, a year or more later. The memories were brought about by this one piece of furniture. One that I would have told you didn't, wouldn't, couldn't exist. I thought, who would do that? Sure, maybe a wooden crib, but a fully enclosed metal cage? It was true, because I was looking at it. One of the members of our pack noticed me, legs tangled, mouth open, paused in certain free-fall, and came back to see what had put me in such a state.
"Yeah," he said, "aren't those cool? I've got one at home — I raise puppies in it. Very humane, keeps 'em up off the floor."
It took everything I had not to hit him.
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