I realize that there is a possibility that my sanity could be called into question because of this post – if it isn’t already. But I was thinking about an episode from my childhood today and felt a need to send the story out to the cyber-universe to see if there are any plausible alternate explanations that will put my mind at ease. I mean, I am forty-six freakin’ years-old and I still wonder about something that happened in the middle of the night when I was five. C’mon!
I had a lot of trouble sleeping as a child. I remember I often crept down the stairs and peeked into the living room to see my parents watching “M*A*S*H” or “Hawaii Five-O” while smoking cigarettes and drinking gin martinis. Or sitting at the kitchen counter smoking cigarettes and drinking gin martinis. (Are you sensing a trend here?) Or I would watch out the window for hours, looking for cars driving down the street adjacent to ours, which came by every twenty minutes or so, or for the Good Year blimp to pass over, which it did maybe twice, or for lightning in the distance, which happened only a handful of times in the temperate climate of the Pacific Northwest. Even now, the slightly musty, metallic smell of an old aluminum window frame reminds me of those long, late-night sessions searching for movement and lights.
When I was very young, we lived in a home with an intercom system. It could be set so that my parents could hear each of us on our rooms like a baby monitor, or we could turn the nob and call downstairs to them. Rarely, my parents would use it to call upstairs from the kitchen as well. One night, as I was laying in my bed waiting for sleep to come, I heard a voice. It was a man’s voice and sounded like it was coming from the intercom. At first I thought it was my father, but then the voice started saying things that were incredibly frightening to a small child, especially me. I remember him calling my name repeatedly and saying, “I’m going to take your stuffed animals.” Panic set in when I heard those words. My “stuffies” – as we referred to them – were fully anthropomorphized companions with complete back-stories, rich histories, and intricate personalities. They were not to be trifled with. Loss of a single stuffy would have been catastrophic. The fact that the voice called them “stuffed animals” made me doubt that any member of my family was the voice I had heard. Somehow, I gathered the courage to respond to the voice, rather than hide under the covers with my precious stuffies, and told him to go away. After a short time it stopped, after asking me repeatedly “WHY?” in a stern tone. Needless to say, I couldn’t sleep after this incident. I gathered up as many stuffies as I could carry, and went downstairs, not bothering to muffle my footsteps, to find my parents. The house was dark. It was apparently quite late and they had gone to bed some time ago. There were no cigarettes burning in the ashtray and the martini glasses were in the open dishwasher.
I went back to my room, barely sleeping the rest of the night, wrapping my pillow around my head so that I wouldn’t hear the voice if it spoke again. Maybe I was remarkably logical for such a young child, or maybe my memory is clouded with adulthood, but I remember reasoning with myself that the voice on the intercom was my father, who (here’s where the pediatric logic comes back in) was saying scary things on the intercom to get me to go to sleep. The next morning I went downstairs in my Holly Hobby nightgown, still clutching several of my most precious stuffed animals, and asked my mother about what I’d heard. I asked her if it was my father talking on the intercom. She said that it wasn’t and seemed surprised that I had gotten up in the middle of the night and she hadn’t heard me. Her bewildered expression brought back the fear that I had felt the night before.
For many nights after that I slept with my pillow wrapped around my head. There were several other occasions when the pillow slipped and the voice came back. He asked me what I was doing. He told me to leave my room or to look at him. (No, I never looked.) He asked why I wasn’t sleeping. To every statement I responded, “Go away!” and covered my head tightly with my pillow once again until I couldn’t hear him any more.
As we got older, my sister and I had a special code system of knocks on the wall between our rooms. Two knocks meant “Let’s visit for a while”. Three knocks meant “I need to talk to you. It’s important”. Four knocks meant, “Come spend the night”. One knock meant, “No.” The two to four knock code was then followed by one knock meaning my room or two knocks meaning my sister’s room. (For example, if my sister knocked three times followed by two times, it meant “I need to talk to you. It’s important. Come to my room.”) There were often long knocking negotiations between us before we would decide what to do and whose room to do it in. There were times when I would think about the voice, my anxiety rising, and use the code “knock-knock — knock-knock” to ask my sister if I could come into her room for a while.
Over time, the voice came less and less frequently. Eventually I stopped sleeping with my pillow wrapped around my head. When I was older I asked my parents on more than one occasion about these incidents, trying to get confirmation that the voice was only my father on the intercom. They always denied it and seemed to be sincere.
I sometimes wonder now what the voice was. Was it a disembodied spirit? Was it a neighbor with a walkie-talkie and a penchant for frightening small children? Was I dreaming? If it ever came back I don’t know what I’d do; I’d probably go to the doctor for anti-psychotics or just check myself into the loony bin. Maybe I should anyway.