Every family has traditions.
Some families get together on the weekends and have big, happy barbecues.
Other families have movie nights or yearly trips to the coast.
My family got together on holidays, ate a bunch of food, drank a bunch of beer, and then terrorized the children with stories of the giant homicidal pirate who lived in the basement.
Peg Leg Pete.
Even his name sounds creepy.
Now that I’m older it seems a little odd that this would be my family’s pastime, but at the time we children were just grateful that the adults were willing to warn us about him.
I mean, without their help we might have actually gone down into the basement and played, completely innocent of the fact that we were inches away from a bloody, gory death.
Phew. We sure were lucky to have their help.
You know, now that I’m thinking about it, I just realized something.
Kids are very different from adults.
As an adult, if I knew that a 7 foot tall pirate with one eye, a wooden leg, a burned-off face, gigantic sword and a nasty disposition lived in the basement, I would stay the heck away from him. I’d call the cops. I’d move. I’d lock all the doors and become an agoraphobe.
You certainly wouldn’t see me anywhere near the basement.
But as a child?
As kids, we were fascinated. We hovered around the door to the basement, fluttering about like moths before a flame, arguing with each other in nervous whispers. I was one of the youngest grandchildren, so I was caught somewhere between self-preservation and a desire to seem brave in front of my older cousins.
"Open the door!"
"No, you open the door!"
"Let's go play tag!" I'd interrupt with false enthusiasm. "Let's go to the front yard! Let's play tag in the front yard!"
Naturally, I was ignored.
"You open the door! I opened it last time!"
"Nuh-uh, I did! Besides, you're older!"
It's a universal kid law -- when in doubt, refer to age as a tie breaker and argument-winner.
The hapless victim would sidle up to the basement door, hand hovering above the flimsy latch.
I'd interrupt once again, voice shrill. "C'mon guys, let's go play tag in the front yard! Let's go! C'mon," I'd whine.
"SHHHH! You'll wake him up!" Normally there was no way to shut me up once I'd started in on my whine, but this method was incredibly effective. I shut my mouth with a clap, dancing anxiously from foot to foot.
The unlucky cousin would reach a hand out, fingers scraping against the cracked paint that had begun to peel in the Bakersfield heat.
I'd bite my lips as long as I could, but come ON.
"Don't do it! Don’t do it!” I’d shriek.
“SHUT UP, BECKY!”
“You shut up!”
"Both of you shut up…I think I can hear him! Listen!"
We would freeze, ears straining for the slightest sound from the basement.“What are you guys up to?”
We all jumped at the same time, simultaneously whirling around with alternating sounds of fright – squeals, shrieks… I seem to recall that I would usually bolt blindly in any direction away from the noise.
My grandfather was normally a quiet spoken man, but he always had the worst habit of booming out his questions every time we were trying to sneak up on Peg Leg Pete.
I’m sure it was just a coincidence.
“Grampa! They’re trying to wake up Peg Leg Pete!” If I couldn’t convince them with words to move away from the door, then I’d do the next best thing: I’d tattle on them.
“Is that right?” He eyed us all, looking down at us solemnly beneath his bushy eyebrows. “What are you going to do if you do wake him up? Where are your weapons?”
We looked at each other, ashamed. We hadn’t thought that far ahead. “We don’t have any,” we’d say, scuffling at the dusty earth with our toes.
“Well, we’d better fix that.” He’d descend the stairs from the back porch and head over to the covered bottom porch area. It only took him a few minutes to outfit us all. We stared at each other importantly, chests puffed out, steely-eyed with determination. After all, we had swords and helmets! Granted, the swords were made out of two pieces of dry kindling tied together to look like a sword and our helmets were hats folded up from yesterday’s newspaper, but that didn’t matter.
We had weapons! And ARMOR!
Of course, all that fire and determination usually melted away when we realized we still had to go downstairs.
Luckily, we had Grampa. Sensing our nervousness, he always valiantly offered to go downstairs first.
Grampa was sweet that way.
The entrance to the basement was straight out of a cheesy horror film – a dilapidated wooden door padlocked with a rusty lock. When you pushed it open it creaked eerily. Steep concrete steps disappeared into a dank, black, yawning hole that grew noticeably cooler the further you descended. My grandparents fumigated regularly but never bothered to sweep up the dead bugs, so there were always a couple of black, cockroach-like beetles curled up, waiting to crunch beneath your bare feet.
Of course the light switch was halfway down the stairs. Where else would it be?
To this day the place still gives me the creeps.
Down these stairs my grandpa would go – somehow forgetting (without fail) to turn on the light switch.
“The light! The light!” we would cry to Grampa as he passed it by.
“Oh, shoot. It’s okay. I can see just fine. You guys can get it once I make sure he’s gone.” He disappeared from view.
The steps disappeared beneath a low-hanging ceiling that blocked the rest of the basement from view. The setup was quite simple – descend the steps, walk along a narrow hallway and open a door to a small 10 x 10 room.
We’d hear Grampa open the door and wait, petrified.
“It’s okay! You guys can come down! I think he’s wandered out. But he’s left his sword behind! Come see it!”
Even with the reassurances I usually ended up lingering at the doorway, barely able to follow my braver cousins down. I mean, come ON. It was a bloodthirsty 7-foot-tall pirate with a melted-off face. What if he came home early?
The group would huddle together, wooden swords held in front of us, generally trembling with our fear. Newspaper hats were squared on the head. By the time the leader hit the light switch, we began to feel comfortable.
“Wow, this is interesting!” my grandpa’s voice would coax.
“What? What?” we would cry.
“I can’t explain it. You’ve got to see it for yourself.”
We shuffled down the hallway with greater speed, intrigued. Oooh, what was in there?
His timing was impeccable.
Just as we reached the point of no return, he would peek his head around the nearly closed door, blue eyes smiling behind his large glasses with the yellowed lenses. “There’s some neat stuff in here. You should come in and se—“ He stopped, abruptly, eyes bugging. From where he was standing all we could see was his head and his neck---
His neck, which now had a large, reddish hand wrapped around his throat. “RUN!” he managed to choke out. “HE’S BACK!”
We completely lost it.
Amid full throated, ear-piercing shrieks we scrabbled to make it back to the surface. Weaker cousins were pushed aside in the mad scramble for safety back into the baking hot sun. Forget propriety and a love for your fellow man– it was every cousin for himself where Peg Leg Pete was concerned.
“DAAADDY! DADDDY! DAAAAAAAAAAADDY! AAAAAH! PEG LEG’S GOT GRAMPA! PEG LEG’S GOT GRAMPA! AAAAAAAAAAA! RUN! RUN!”
We’d burst through the door of the house, tumbling into the kitchen frantically and tugging at our parents' shirts. “PEG LEG GOT GRAMPA! PEG LEG GOT GRAMPA!”
“Shhhhh!” the adults would intone, oblivious to the fact that our beloved Grandfather was slowly being strangled to death by the disembodied hand of an angry pirate. “No yelling in the house.”
“BUT HE’S GOT GRAMPA! HE’S GOT GRAMPA!” Despite the horror in our voices, the adults never seemed all that concerned.
“I’m sure he’s fine.”
“NO! NO HE’S NOT! HE’S NOT FINE!” I was appalled. How could they be so blasé? “HE’S DYING! HE’S DYING!
“Shhh. No yelling, Becky. Go outside and play.”
Go outside and play? With the flesh-eating, child-hating sociopathic pirate? Were they nuts?!
Usually about the time our fear had been whipped up into a borderline hysteria, in would saunter Grampa, cool as a cucumber.
“GRAMPA!” we’d shriek.
“SHHHHH!!!! Stop the yelling!” the adults would say.
“Grampa!” we’d try again. “How did you… why… where’s… ?!?!”
“I managed to get away,” he’d say smugly. “Gave him the slip. And while he was trying to get a hold of me again I managed to grab his sword and give him a little stab with it.”
We crowded around him, enthralled.
“He won’t be bothering us again anytime soon. All the same, you kids better stay out of the basement for awhile. He’s bound to be in a bad mood after all that.”
We stared at our pirate-conquering grandpa in awe as he strode back to his favorite easy chair and set himself down with a contented groan.
Wow. Grampa was awesome.