The Den - April 1970
Our decorating ideas included the stretched-neck Coke and Pepsi bottles you see on the shelves beside the fireplace (got 'em at one of those huge flea markets that drive-in theaters found were great moneymakers for the normally-closed daytime hours), and mounting a toy rifle/handgun set on the wall. (The toy manufacturer had a World War II Army set, a Western set and the Magumba Big Game Hunting set you see here. The sets came with mounting plaques. I chose the hunting set because I liked the little plastic ivory elephant motif on the stock of the rifle and the touch-of-class elephant tusks on the mounting plaque.) Note also that by this time Dad had gotten around to painting the den walls avocado. (It is he looking up at us from the white Louis-the-Somethingteenth-inspired sofa.)
The little table with the high-intensity light and the desk calendar at the end of the sofa was my headquarters. From there I could watch TV, read or look at my View Master reels. Very cozy.
Apparently, Dad has just had his evening tea - notice the avocado teapot on the table opposite from the phone - and is surprised by my appearance with the Kodak Instamatic. If you look near the teapot you can see the inevitable economy-sized bottle of Rolaids. Heartburn was a given in the Clark household. We just accepted that popping Rolaids was normal - nobody ever gave a thought to the concept of eating sensibly.
The ship's hatch table is shown here in its final configuration. Mom had gotten involved with making swag lamps, lighters, clocks, ash trays and bunches of grapes out of resin epoxy, and she applied her creativity to our poor table. She rounded up her stamps and commemorative medals of the Presidents (gas stations used to give these, and other trinkets, away as promotional material in those days!) and encased them in gallons of resin epoxy which she poured on the table. After several layers the top was smooth and shiny while the sides had solidified drips (they're not readily apparent in the photo but they're on the edge of the table facing the camera). I used to enjoy snapping 'em off.
(NOTE: The real thing - a professionally-encased ship's hatch table - can still be found in nautically themed stores. I saw one recently. These, however, seem to sit in a block of plastic. I'm not sure how it's done, but Mom didn't have the know-how in the 60's and 70's, when the idea began to catch on. Click here for an image of a recent table found on the Internet.)
Mom's undoing was in the thermal properties of the resin epoxy she used. When the stuff finally dried - after a fashion, it never seemed to have completely dried - to an initial glassy shine, Mom moved the table into the den. We quickly discovered that anything hot, like a pot of tea, for instance, would stick firmly to the epoxy. Dad tried to circumvent this problem by setting his teapot on a piece of newspaper, but the newspaper stuck as well. A ship's hatch table covered with bothersome rings and scraps of old newspapers had no place in our overall decorating scheme, so it was eventually moved into the back yard to die from exposure to the elements (the usual fate for sofas, rugs, furniture and other things we no longer wanted).
Looking at it 35 years on, this photo brings back a happy memory to me, that of watching televised late night movies on Friday and Saturday with Dad. I'd post myself on the left hand side of that sofa, Dad on the right. We'd have tea and cookies. I recall seeing a bunch of great old films with him, that, as an adult, I'd rent and enjoy again: Black Narcissus (a personal favorite), La Strada (another favorite), Midnight Lace (Doris Day is menaced by a voice in the fog), Madame Sans-Gene (a scene where Sophia Loren, wearing a wet peasant blouse, helps to shove a cannon into place made it into my permanent memory), The Pride and the Passion (Dad used to grouse about "...Frank Sinatra shoving that goddamn cannon around"), Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch, The Last Days of Dolwyn, Pursued, The Postman Always Rings Twice (the following Sunday Dad took me to Schwab's, where Lana Turner was discovered), Trio (Dad liked to read W. Somerset Maugham short stories), Johnny Belinda, Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, The Lost Weekend (I have never forgotten the mouse and the bat sequence), Arturo's Island (an Italian film that I found provocative, to say the least - I wish I could see it again), The Boy with the Green Hair and Paranoiac all come to mind. Around Christmas we'd always make a point of watching Scrooge, with Alastair Sim; Dad and I loved old British films. We also liked to watch the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes films. I suppose I may have acquired a taste and preference for postwar American film noir and British films from this experience.
How I would love to again spend an hour and a half with the old man, munching cookies, watching some old film and listening to him comment... but that's impossible. We truly don't appreciate life's little pleasures when they occur.
One wild and windy night, when I was about thirteen or so, my father and I were in the Den watching late night television. He told me a tale about refugee slaves (presumably black African slaves in the South), and said that our house was a way station on the underground railroad to freedom, and that slaves were often hidden in the house. I expressed understandable skepticism. Knowing little about American history as I did at the time, the story still sounded implausible. I suspected that he was having me on, as he sometimes did - he was using that tone of voice. Escaped slaves in Southern California? Yeah, right.
Dad told me to bring a chair in, and put it to the left of the door, which I did. With a rising tone of triumph in his voice, he then told me to stand on it and to press my hand on the ceiling, which I also did. When I did, a trap door (access to the space above the ceiling) opened. Iím sure my mouth dropped open because the door was perfectly hidden. ďThatís where the runaway slaves were hidden, up in the attic!Ē he said, hammering home his little joke.
Fast forward 35 yearsÖ I told the story above to the (then) owners of the house, a nice older couple originally from Mexico. They didn't know about the concealed trapdoor, either. So, some time after, the lady stepped onto a chair and poked her head up into the attic, to look around. She slipped and fell, gripping onto the edge of the trapdoor for dear life, yelling for her husband. He finally rescued her.
November 2007: I'm on a visit to Burbank, meeting with the present owners of the house who had read this website and invited me to stop by. I was demonstrating Dadís story to the owner and his fourteen year-old son. The Den had been long since converted as the master bedroom, and at the climatic point of the tale the son was standing on the newly-made bed, pressing up on the ceiling. Just as it had when I was a kid, the trapdoor opened, surprising the boy. Neither the father nor the son knew about the door, so well was it hidden. This time, however, a bunch of dirty attic insulation fell on the clean bedÖ which Iím sure pleased the wife not at all. Still, I bet the boy will remember the incident. Itís fun to pass on household traditions.