How To Squeeze A Football Team Into A Sardine Can; Growing Up In Small Spaces
I’m not sure why I was thinking this today, but I was remembering growing up back in the 70’s and 80’s. Of course , no one grows up in exactly the same environment, but after I became an adult I realized just how unusual my home life was!
This is a story about squeezing into a house like a group of college kids might try to set a world record of how many
people they can fit in Yugo, or how you when you pack for a vacation or trip, you have five suitcases of “stuff” you’re trying to get all in one duffle bag. But before I tell you, how I grew up living in a sardine can, you’ll need just a little background information.
We were a blended family pretty much from the start. I was born in California because my biological dad served in the Navy there, and that’s where we lived at the time – East Los Angeles in the paradise known as Wilmington. For those of you who know, you can appreciate the sarcasm. For those of you who don’t know, East Los Angeles is not exactly Walton’s Mountain.
I was the seventh child born of seven kids at that time. As a matter fact had my mom not miscarried in the pregnancy before me, I wouldn’t be here today! But, like it or not, here I am!
I was the only child from my mom and biological dad. All of the others were from a different marriage and relationship that my mom had. It wasn’t too long after I was born that we migrated east to Minneapolis. And it wasn’t long after that that that my mom and dad divorced.
My dad left when I was about four and I would never see him again until I was 18 years old. We lived in a rented house right on one of the busiest streets in Minneapolis at the time, Lowry Avenue. Northeast for those of you who might know it! And for those of you who really know it – Nordeast!
This is me, Billy. 1972, 5 yrs. Old
Remember now – this is a story about sardine cans and overflowing Yugo’s and duffle bags!
So there was my mom, a divorced single woman in the 1970’s with a high school diploma and seven kids to take care of. No husband, limited work skills – enough to get her a job at a box factory. We were poor. Of course, I didn’t know that! I was just a kid! My brothers and sisters probably had a much better grasp on that reality at the time because they were older than me. Later in life, the picture became clear to me.
After a few years, we had already moved twice, first to an apartment and then to a different rented house. That’s when my mom met someone new and we moved once again, to his house. He was divorced and had four kids. So that made 11 of us. I have no idea what they were thinking, but cohabitating in a small three-bedroom rambler in an inner-ring suburb of Minneapolis somehow got put toward the bottom of the priority list. It was definitely a move grounded more in finances than it was in common sense!
So how in the hell do you fit that many people in a home that size?! Well, the fact is, you don’t. There was enough of an age gap between us kids that helped – but just barely. There were some other surrounding circumstances that never had us all living in the same place at the same time, too.
My oldest brother had run away from home years before that and I never saw him again until I was much older. One of my sisters was in a foster home, and a few others who were from my mom’s first marriage lived with us until they were about 16, I think. Then they moved with their dad who lived in another state. I know that there were some revolving siblings living in our house at any given time, but honestly, I couldn’t begin to tell you who, where, or why. If I do remember, that’s a topic for a different blog. Back to fitting.
My mom and her new relationship left us with usually about six kids and two adults fitting into that little rambler. And here’s how we did it:
There were three bedrooms, all upstairs. One of them was very small, which was half taken up by a piano that was about the size of Rhode Island. That went, for the most part, to one of my sisters. I have no idea why and thought nothing of it at the time, but the other two bedrooms upstairs were taken as well – one by my mom and one by my step-dad. In reality, he actually was never legally my step-dad because my mom and he never married. Don’t ask me why they had different rooms. I don’t know. They didn’t and then they did at times. I just took everything in stride.
The basement was cold, dark, and smelly. Like moldy potatoes rotting in a gunny sack. Which made sense, because in trying to feed a small group of growing bandits, we did indeed, keep huge bags of potatoes in a gunny sack in the compartment hidden just 10 feet under the front cement steps of our house.
The unfinished basement kept both the potatoes and us boys cool in our house with no air conditioning. And as we grew into our teen years, you can only imagine the mixture of body odor, cheap cologne, sweat, and hormones that were enough to even scare the skunks away!
Our basement was one big long room, with small slits of blocked glass as two windows (a fire would have been our demise), a separate laundry area and a space just behind the furnace. A toilet was put in eventually (not a bathroom – a toilet). My stepbrother claimed the space behind the furnace as his bedroom. How he fit I still have no idea. It was, though, the only room separate from the rest of us. Granted, he had to deal with the furnace turning on and off throughout the winter nights and the impending doom should there ever be a furnace explosion – but I think he thought it was worth it.
The rest of us set up quarters in the long room. Each of us four would get an equal portion of that room, which we divided with dressers, shelves, curtains nailed to the ceiling, small dogs.. really, anything we could find. Anything was fair game for a barricade that gave the illusion of semi-privacy.
Of course, that also meant that the kids who were in the outside rooms, of which I was one of, had to pass through the other “bedrooms” of my siblings. For those of you who are old enough to have ever seen the sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati, it was kind of like when Lester demanded that people knock on his invisible door, which in reality was an open office cubicle when they wanted to speak with him.
In our case, there were times where we would have to know the secret password or sneak by if one of us didn’t happen to be getting along with the other and had demanded isolation and a no-crossing zone! I think back on how silly that was! Because there was no way to get out of your bedroom to the stairs that would lead you to light, air, and freedom!
Eventually, in my remaining months there (I also moved out at the age of 16), I had the opportunity to move upstairs into the elevator-sized room with the mega-piano. I jumped at the chance. I remember a debate over who should get that room and I may have stretched the truth a bit when I sealed the deal after mentioning that I was very interested in learning how to play the piano. I wasn’t. But I did! A little anyway…. after two months of lessons with a quirky old lady who taught piano from her home just a few blocks away and trained me in the lifelong skills of how to sit up straight and use an eraser.
No worries, it all worked out. I eventually silenced all of the doubters who accused me of manipulating my quasi-interest in piano to get that room when I became a music major in college, and eventually a high school band director.
So when it comes to the art of persuasion, packing luggage, or living in a sardine can, I’m an expert and am more than happy to lend an empathizing ear and a few tricks of parental negotiation. And who knows, if you’re ever faced with the same or similar challenge, it just might lead to your next career!
From my basement to yours, my friends, I wish you challenges that you can overcome with happiness and hope, and leave you with a heart to fill all spaces, big or small.