Cousin Chris lived in Mountain Lakes, New Jersey (after his family moved from Brooklyn), which was about a twenty-minute drive from the bungalow in Hopatcong. Our families were close, and we visited often.
The house was quite a bit larger than the bungalow, as it was their primary all-year-round residence, and while it was all on one level, it had hallways, many rooms, and a finished basement. In that basement was everything you could want in a recreational area: a ping pong table, a pool table, a piano, even a puppet theater.
We would visit typically on a Saturday night after dinner; the adults would settle in the den to watch television, with coffee and cake – I remember a favorite being Mission: Impossible, and us kids would go down to the basement to play a board game (never-ending Monopoly) or play a game of billiards (of which I was particularly bad at), all the while listening to Cousin Brucie spin the latest pop hits.
But every once in a while we would play Hide and Seek. The house was perfect for it with its nooks and crannies, dark corners, and long hallways.
Now is a good time to remind you that I was considerably younger than my brother or my cousin, and playing a game like Hide and Seek was a perfect opportunity for them to play tricks on me and try to scare me. It turns out however they needn’t bother; I could do that to myself pretty darn well.
Cue the puppet theater.
It stood against a far wall in the basement; it was about six feet high, four feet wide, painted a kind of powder blue. The bottom half of the front of it was solid, and the top, of course, was the “stage”, a platform behind curtains where the puppets would appear to act out whatever drama or comedy was on the bill that night. The back of it was where the puppeteer would crouch down out of sight and manipulate the hand puppets that were visible to the audience. Aunt Ruthie was an accomplished puppeteer and I remember her making those simple puppets –Punch & Judy, a policeman, a king, a thief and one sinister one that reminded me of Satan himself – come to life and delight young and old alike. There were also a couple of Marionettes suspended from the rafters, but they required a whole other skill set, one that Ruthie was equally adept at.
So back to Hide and Seek. Cousin Chris was chosen as the one to do the looking; Don and I would hide. Chris had to stay in the kitchen, eyes closed and count to one hundred Alligators. When it was time, Don nodded once to me and ran off out of the kitchen and down a dark hallway to one of the bedrooms. I slowly opened the basement door and descended into the darkness, the only light being the dim glow from the casement windows that looked out onto the lawn. I thought I was pretty clever, as Chris would never think that a scaredy-cat like me would choose the basement to hide in. But I would go one better than that.
I felt across the room until I found the puppet theater. I was small enough that I could slide behind it without having to move it; I was doing good, not making a sound, proud of my choice of hiding place. I mean what was more ingenious than hiding in a dark basement, in a crawlspace behind a theater with………puppets.
“Ready or not – Here I come”. I heard Chris shout out, and his footsteps took him in a distant direction.
It hadn’t occurred to me that I could be in that box for a long time. Maybe he wouldn’t even look down in the basement! But it was too late for second-guessing. So there I was trying not to make a sound, of course needing to pee almost immediately, and suddenly not liking all those plastic dead painted eyes that surrounded me. I started to think about an old movie I had seen where a young girl hides herself behind a curtain while playing this same game, only to find another young boy who she didn’t recognize, already behind the curtain. It turned out of course that the young boy was a ghost, and she and the audience didn’t realize it until later. Way to go, Rob, good thinking to remember a scary movie at a time like this…….and then there was that Twilight Zone one where the puppet comes to life…..and …..then…..
Just then I heard the door at the top of the stairs open and heard both Chris and Don’s voices. Chris must have found Don easily and now they were both looking for me. I heard their footsteps on the stairs.
“I say you’re wrong – no way he would come down here.”
“Well, maybe he’s braver than you think”.
“Rob?? Get real”.
I stayed completely still; they had reached the bottom of the stairs, headed for the pool table and the piano beyond. Cold and getting colder, I thought happily. Wait….what was that?…..that noise like fabric moving……Clack!….plastic….plastic hitting plastic!! The puppets!!!!
Don’t be a fool, I told myself, you are just making yourself nuts…you must have made the things move – now stay still and don’t make a sound. They will never find you! Just stay calm……I felt a draught…where had that come from?…….Clack! there is was again! I didn’t touch anything I told myself; yes you did, my other self told myself. I looked up, saw the dangling legs of the marionettes, thought I saw eyes move, was that one smiling at me?!!
“What was that?” I heard Chris say.
“What was what? I didn’t hear anything”. Don responded.
“Maybe he’s in the closet”.
A door opening.
“Nope – not there.”
“I tell ya – he’s upstairs somewhere.”
“Yeah maybe you’re right….let’s go.”
Go?! I thought – Go and leave me down here with these demon puppets??!!
Clack…Clack….Moving….they’re moving….that one is smiling at me….what’s that I feel, something at my neck…..a hand…. A plastic painted hand!!….. I had to get out…now.
I didn’t bother to squeeze out the way I had gotten in – I shot straight up, banging my head into the stage above, flailing my arms, trying to shake off the hands that were trying to grab me….I could feel the theater start to teeter…fall forward….
“AHHHHHHHH” I screamed, falling.
Don jumped out of his skin, spinning around to see his little brother emerging from the theater, covered in painted faces and garish outfits, hands, limbs flying everywhere.
“AHHHHHHHH!!!” he screamed.
Chris, who had gotten to the top of the stairs, came running down to the sight of Don batting away a flying hand puppet, screaming at the top of his lungs, and me sprawled on top of what was left of the theater, surrounded by torn curtains, cracked plastic, and splintered wood.
“AHHHHHHHHHHH!!” Chris screamed.
It was a puppet apocalypse.
The sounds of footsteps running above; the grown-ups one minute were watching Jim Phelps and company take down some foreign dictator, and the next minute hearing wood crashing and kids screaming coming from the basement. They arrived within moments.
“What’s going on? – Is everyone ok?” Calm, caring Uncle Vincent.
“These kids….these crazy kids!!” Dad- who else?
Eventually, everyone calmed down. It soon became apparent to everyone what had happened. I felt horrible about what I had done to the puppet theater and of course, started to cry. Before the first tear hit the ground, Mom and Aunt Ruthie were hugging me.
“Rob – it’s Ok…we can fix it….don’t worry…it’s ok…as long as you aren’t hurt…don’t worry about it”
Well, besides a few scrapes and bruises, I wasn’t hurt, at least not physically. But I was embarrassed, and feeling pretty stupid. We all started to make our way up the stairs, Don giving me a look that said “what a knucklehead”. And I guess I was, scaring myself like that. But it was a good hiding spot; they never would have found me.
It was quite a sight we left behind that night. Broken wood, shreds of costume, painted plastic faces and limbs, all strewn across the basement floor.
Just another Saturday night made possible by a way too vivid imagination, and a nagging, dangling fear.
Lesson learned: monsters not needed, bogeyman needn’t apply, ghosts, goblins, zombies, vampires, demons of any denomination, go back whence you came.
I got this covered all by myself.