I suppose that there is a bit of explorer in each of us. I was definitely a free range kid when i was growing up and my friends, brothers and cousins and I often set out in search of adventure. My city of Houston had not yet reached a population of one million back then, so there was a great deal of what we considered to be unexplored territory. We would wander through the wooded areas in my neighborhood as though we expected to come upon a lost city of gold at any moment. In truth we were never far from the vigilant eyes of our mothers, but in the kid world it felt as though we had flown away with Peter Pan.
Visiting my maternal grandmother during the daytime was always filled with surprises. She lived just off of Navigation Street, an area that had become mostly industrialized by the time I was born. Just a few houses down from hers the old neighborhood ended and was home instead to a grocery chain warehouse. Around the corner and a few blocks away there was a company that housed mountains of sand and rocks and crushed concrete.
While we managed to shinny under the fences around those businesses without ever getting caught, they were never quite as interesting to us as an old abandoned home that sat beckoning us to enter its shadowy entrance. We must have passed by, or rather run by, the eerie place dozens and dozens of times before we finally screwed up the courage to venture inside. Getting in there was one of those double or triple dare events that kids create when they know full well that they should instead run back home.
The house was a two story affair that appeared to have once been a lovely abode. We had several gory theories as to why it had been left to rot away, all of which involved murder and intrigue. The entryway was a long hall with rooms on either side. To the left there were the remnants of what must have once been a rather spacious living room. It was filled with cobwebs as though someone had purposely attempted to create the effect of a haunted house. Shards of glass from a broken mirror crunched under our shoes. Wallpaper hung in shreds from the walls.
Across the hall there was a smaller room with a dilapidated kitchen behind it. We assumed that this must have been a dining room although there was nothing left to prove our theory. It was a featureless area filled with so much dust that we all began sneezing and then laughing at our chorus of reaction to the dirty particles in the air. It was then that we saw the stairway in the back of the house taunting us to ascend into the unknown.
My cousin Jack went first, bounding up the stairway as though it was his house and he was simply going to his room. We knew we had to follow even though little voices in our heads sent a danger signal that we ignored. The journey upward was treacherous because the wooden structure was unstable and filled with holes. One false step might have sent us plummeting to the ground. There was no turning back, however, and so we tentatively continued climbing higher and higher until we finally saw our brave cousin standing over what appeared to be someone’s recently occupied pallet.
This was no doubt the home of a squatter who had gone out for some unknown reason. There was an old careworn mattress on the floor covered with a tattered blanket and a stained pillow. In the corner there was a change of mismatched clothing and some cans of food along with a can opener and a rusty spoon. An empty bottle of whiskey lay on its side as though it had been tossed in a moment of disgust.
We felt as though we had violated some sacred trust in just being there and realized we needed to leave quickly out of respect for whatever poor soul may have chosen this desolate place as his home. Besides, if our theories about the house were true, he might be violent and intent on killing us if he found us trespassing so boldly. We leaped down those rickety stairs with a speed that would have garnered us an Olympic medal and continued running all the way back to our grandmother’s house.
There we mused over what the true history of that house and its current occupant may have been. Our favorite idea was that the person now living there was actually a descendant of the original owners. We surmised that things had gone well for the family until the Great Depression stripped them of their money and their former way of life. In a moment of fury over the situation someone had decided to end it all and take the other members of the family with him. Only one person survived the onslaught by hiding. When he was found the authorities sent him to a series of foster homes where he felt unloved. Somehow in spite of valiant efforts he was never able to overcome the tragedy that had befallen his once sunny and happy home. He became a derelict wandering the streets of Houston begging for enough handouts to scrape by and living his sad life in his old home.
Of course we were children who were easily drawn in by fantasy and gruesome tales. We never really knew what the truth of might have been and since we did not want our parents to know what we had done we never asked them what they might have known about that mysterious place. It remained our secret adventure hidden away from the eyes and ears of adults.
Eventually someone tore the house down to make way for yet another business. My cousins and I grew older and wiser and explored the world in our own separate ways. Still, the enchantments of our youth have never left our minds, especially the ones like visiting that house. Such times made us feel courageous and bold. I suppose that if truth be told we really were great adventurers in our own small ways. Those were glorious times.