It wasn’t comedic, like a “Three Stooges” sound effect, or creepy, like a horror movie castle door. It was definitely a skreek, though, however modest, decorous and practical it may have been.
For years, the skreek heralded the coming of dusk, as my grandmother would push the short, metal handle of a pint-sized switchbox up into its ON position, and the lamp above their garage would glow.
Hours later, after the late news, “Johnny Carson”, “Gunsmoke”, or, on Saturday nights, professional wrestling, the handle would be pulled down, and the skreek would sound again, signaling an end to the evening’s activities. And bed.
They called it the yard light, and it shone over a large portion of the acreage surrounding my grandparents’ farmhouse. There were no other light sources on the road leading to their place, so the yard light had become a landmark to travelers and a beacon to friends and family.
Embracing Conveniences — Reluctantly
Papa and Mama Gus probably would have been perfectly content to live without electricity, but when it came to rural west Tennessee, they adopted it with no nostalgia for kerosene lamps, wood stoves or drawing water from a well. An electric pump soon ran water to their kitchen, and a portion of the dining room was converted into a bathroom. A television appeared in the living room corner where a magazine rack once stood.
The air conditioner was among the last of the conveniences to arrive — and the most storied. Kokie, a black Pekingese, had come to live with Papa and Mama Gus in early autumn of 1958, after my parents had been to summer school in Boston. When they returned, Papa advised that Kokie was a country dog now, and he had no desire to return to an apartment in Nashville.
Mom and Dad took him at his word.
Papa had always resisted refrigerated air for health reasons, though what these were, he felt no need to reveal. On one particularly sweltering day, Kokie became so overheated and miserable that Mama Gus cleared a space for him on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator. She left the door cracked so he could get air and keep an eye on things, and there he stayed for the rest of the day.
When Papa came home and asked why Kokie had failed to bestow his usual greetings at the porch, Mama Gus revealed where the pooch had spent the afternoon. Papa bought a whole-house window air conditioner the next morning.
The household’s current was managed by three fuse boxes on the back porch, but the only one to receive any attention was the one that skreeked the yard light on and off. It never occurred to me to wonder why nobody had ever hit it with a shot of 3-IN-ONE oil or WD-40. Mama Gus and Papa ran a pretty tight ship, but the skreek was with them to the very end.
After all the predictable traumas of adolescence and young adulthood, but before most of the divorces, my cousins and I had learned to save all the real domestic warfare for our cars, and visits with Papa and Mama settled into a quiet and comfortable routine. About this time, Papa’s health began to fade, and he was spending most of his days in a wheelchair.
One night around bedtime I looked up from a book and saw Papa in his wheelchair at the kitchen table, a few saltines and a glass of water in front of him. He was resting his head on the back of his hands.
Saying nothing, I wandered into the kitchen and sat. He instantly brightened. “Hello, Cedric!”
Papa had started calling me Cedric about the time I went off to school. Dad and I puzzled on how he had landed upon this particular moniker. Dad thought maybe he had gotten it from Shakespeare — Papa had studied “Hamlet” in the eighth grade — but I looked it up in the index of “Complete Works” and no dice.
“What’s the pup up to?” I asked.
“Well, I took him outside to the bathroom before “Letterman,” and now he’s conked out on the sofa. In for the night.” He took a few bites from his saltine, then a sip of water. “Cracker?”
“No, thanks,” I answered. “Just brushed my teeth.”
“Don’t want all those years of barb-wire to go to waste, I reckon.” I chuckled, appreciating his term for my braces.
Soon he wheeled himself back from the table, placed his dishes in the sink, and rolled about halfway around, looking at the kitchen door. Just outside, to the right, was the switch for the yard light. We all knew that Papa could go onto the porch in his wheelchair, steady himself against the wall, then stand to reach the switch box.
“Cedric, how about you go out there and turn off the yard light for us? Don’t reckon that’ll be too much of a stretch for you.”
‘No, sir. I imagine not.”
I had never turned off the yard light before. There had never been any need for it. Beyond that, it had never seemed an appropriate task for me to undertake. As a youngster, it seemed as daunting as grabbing the controls of a 747. Now, it felt like taking over Easter blessing duties from the pope.
I reached for the handle and was surprised at how much it resisted. A wave of trepidation washed over me. There was nothing to break, but I was afraid of somehow getting something wrong.
I had broken plenty of things around here before. Fragility, close quarters, and insouciance were a bad mix for a lad learning to manage his height and brawn. A little more pressure … The mechanism broke free, with a feeling of friction and release. Then came the sound I had been hearing all my life.
Papa died a few months after that, and Mama Gus died about five years later.
The Last Time
The last time I was in Papa and Mama’s kitchen was after my mom’s funeral. We gathered around the red Formica-and-metal table for cheese and crackers and Cokes before the drive home.
The last time I saw Papa and Mama’s place was a few years later, after my cousin Dale’s funeral. Eighteen months my junior, he had died of complications from a long struggle with diabetes.
The house had been bulldozed. It lay in a pile of rubble, under the giant willow oak where we had played, picnicked and generally lived out the unmetered time of holidays, spring breaks and summer vacations.
Somewhere in the ruins would lie a plate or two of pot metal and a few scraps of steel and copper, disengaged, having relieved a mogul-based, 200-watt light bulb of its duties forever.
I don’t know who was last to pull the lever. Maybe a blood relative. Maybe just whoever bought the place or drove the bulldozer.
But one last time, someone called it a night, pulled the lever, heard the skreek, and broke the circuit. Night closed in, and darkness would have its way.