When I was a little kid in the early sixties, my dad was serving his required time in the military, and before our family moved to a base in California he went out first to set up our life there.
After we arrived, I went with him to pick up his stuff at the off-base house where he’d been staying. It was an unconventional house rented by some single officers he knew.
The house itself was ordinary enough. But to an eight year old whose sphere of influence was conventional, that house changed most of the conventional ideas I had about how you could live. The world I was used to wasn’t unlike the lives shown in “Mad Men” forty years later on TV.
None of the guys were home when we showed up so I got to have a good look around. A few things struck me, and stuck in my little eight year old imagination. It was as if I’d only ever seen American football and then got exposed to rugby culture. They’re similar, related somewhere in the past, but really not the same thing at all.
I can’t remember everything from the visit to the house, but there’re a few things.
Walking in from the street, I noticed the yard was overgrown. It was fascinating, seeing what would grow without constantly mowing.
And the pool! No one used it or cared for it, so it was almost unrecognizable as a pool anymore. The diving board and blighted chrome rails at the deep end were the only give aways. It was being used – by frogs, bugs, and other pond dwellers.
The house seemed more like a ranger station in a nature preserve than a house.
Inside the house, a pull-down widow shade was tacked up on a living room wall as a makeshift projector screen.It was there for the latest research project, about the civil war maybe, for one of the guys living there. The project wasn’t for work, just something he was interested in!
Crawling out onto the roof, I saw where one of the guys sat at night sometimes, leaning back on the roof to star gaze.
If there was a white picket fence there once, it was gone.
It was my first encounter with a break in conventional living, an unexpected formative experience, one of a more organic, enriching, and less structured culture where the momentum of normal institutions had been dodged or kept at the sidewalk somehow.
I only experienced the unconventional house that one time. It was far away for the locating abilities of an eight year old but it’s always stuck with me.