Back when Westerns were popular, some villain sooner or later always stumbled into quicksand. As he sank, he'd thrash around, calling for help, until he was up to his cowboy vest in the muck – and then, of course, we'd go to a Trix commercial.
Back when Westerns were popular, some villain sooner or later always stumbled into quicksand. As he sank, he’d thrash around, calling for help, until he was up to his cowboy vest in the muck – and then, of course, we’d go to a Trix commercial.
As a child, I loved quicksand scenes. Not that I enjoyed watching people being swallowed up. I’d usually hide in the dining room during the scary parts of anything, including “Lassie” episodes.
But death by quicksand had an element of the supernatural that appealed to me. When I learned that quicksand was just sand made goopy by water – as opposed to sand, water and an urge to murder – it was strangely disappointing, like discovering the truth about Santa Claus.
You’d think a child who witnessed TV villains disappearing underground – OK, I watched them from behind both the dining-room table and my fingers, but still – would go looking for the facts. “What’s the story on quicksand?” you’d think she’d ask an adult.
But I wasn’t that kind of child. I was the kind who believed my older sister when she told me that putting even a slightly damp finger for one scant second on a plastic wall light switch would make me instantly drop dead. I spent years toweling layers of skin off my fingers before daring to turn off the bathroom light.
When she told me that stepping on a nail would give me lockjaw and I’d starve to death, I imagined my mother and sister having leisurely dinners in the dining room while I lay on the living-room couch with my mouth bolted shut, hungry and doomed. (The TV was on, at least. Maybe that’s why the scene seemed cozy in spite of my fate.)
I took the story into my own hands when my sister came home from first grade talking about fire drills. I suppose I was told fire drills were practice for getting out of the building in case of a real fire, because I decided schools dug deep pits in the playground, put all the children in the pit and started a fire down there. The students who got out were the ones who passed the drill.
“You believed that?” people have asked me over the years. Well, yes. I didn’t exactly worry about it. I didn’t wonder why I never heard about grief-stricken parents whose children failed the fire drill. I didn’t wonder why I saw no blackened holes in the playground. I didn’t even wonder whether my sister was good at fire drills.
Now, of course, I wonder a lot, mostly about what kind of little girl I was, anyway. Because it’s not as if I was a worry-free child. I worried all the time. That my mother would die. That I’d accidentally commit a terrible crime. That bad guys would break into my house at night and come creeping up the stairs to the bedrooms. (I had a plan for that: Drop out of my second-story window, run down the street and wake up the police-officer father of an older neighborhood boy. I had never met the boy, let alone the father, but I relied on this scheme the way a skunk relies on its spray: because it was all I had. Of course, I’d have probably broken my legs in the 2-story drop, so the other details hardly mattered.)
Eventually, I outgrew these misunderstandings, though I’m still cautious with voltage. That may be because a fifth-grade teacher once read the class a story about a woman who was electrocuted while vacuuming her front porch in the rain. “In bare feet!” the teacher emphasized, her voice shaking with anger – though it seemed pointless, at this juncture, to be annoyed at the victim.
But I still remember how it felt to believe in deadly light switches and life-threatening fire drills. I believed it the way you believe other things you can’t see, like tooth fairies and Easter bunnies and heroic police officers on the corner.
You may be reassured to know that, as an adult, even my daydreams are realistic. I don’t hold my hairbrush and pretend to be Taylor Swift. I hold my hairbrush and pretend to be Taylor Swift’s backup singer. I aspire to be a Merry Clayton. I envision being a Raelette.
I also notice I should clean my microphone.
Write to Margo Bartlett at firstname.lastname@example.org.