Jan Risher

Jan Risher

The quarantine/pandemic has offered more time to play games than my family has had for years. We’ve played loads of Scrabble and a multitude of other games too, but sometimes I like playing a game on my own, when I think back and try to identify almost nameless places that played a bigger role in my childhood or perspective than is logical.

For example, in the house where I grew up, a short hallway connected the bedrooms to the kitchen and living room. Two significant things happened halfway down the hallway. First, the pulldown door to the attic had a string that hung down with a wooden pull. Secondly, just in line with that string was the pride and joy of our home — a set of brand-new (in 1972) World Book Encyclopedias, with Child Craft lining the smaller shelf below the encyclopedias.

My parents splurged when they bought the double set of reference books and got the bookshelf, which set the encyclopedias at a jaunty angle yielding lots of corners — which I mention in direct connection to the attic pull string and wooden pull.

When we moved into the house (a few months before the encyclopedia purchase), one of my older cousins was helping unload boxes. She was six years older than me and, as she was walking down the hall, she did a little jump and hit the wooden pull on the string, sending the wooden pull flying to the ceiling with a satisfying thwack.

I was only 7 years old and, no matter how hard I tried, I could not jump high enough to connect my hand with the string.

But I was on a mission.

From that point on, I did not walk/run down the hallway without giving that jump a solid effort. As in, I did an almost choreographed, speedy stutter step down the hall every single time I traveled that path — in either direction. That little act was joyful and reminded me of so many good things every time I did it.

The encyclopedia purchase and angular bookshelf served only to inspire me more, adding a touch of danger to the attempt. I had to jump more carefully and watch my balance more, doing my best to avoid contact between the sharp encyclopedia corners and my own flying limbs, in what was often a rather acrobatic effort to connect with the attic string.

I already loved that strange no-named place in the house. The encyclopedias and Child Craft books only made it better. When I had a question, my mother’s go-to response was, “Look it up.”

And, so I did, sitting on the floor in the middle of the hall, legs akimbo with the encyclopedia resting in my lap.

In the second grade shortly after we purchased the encyclopedias, my teacher assigned each student an American president to research. This assignment was tradition. Most students talked about their second-grade-assigned president for years to come (as is evidenced all these decades later.)

I was assigned Chester A. Arthur, 21st president of the United States of America (1881-1885). Arthur succeeded Garfield, who was assassinated. Arthur’s claim to fame was the reform of the U.S. Civil Service. In short, he wasn’t very interesting — something practically unforgivable in my second-grade perspective. (I would not come to appreciate the boring among us for years.)

Arthur only had three-quarters of a page dedicated to him in the encyclopedia. The library had no books on him.

In sharp contrast, I just looked up Arthur on the web and learned more about him than I could have possibly dreamed in the second grade.

In fact, in 1886 when Arthur died, the “New York World” summed up his presidency with — "No duty was neglected in his administration, and no adventurous project alarmed the nation." (As I mentioned above, he had what was probably the most boring presidency ever.) Mark Twain wrote, "It would be hard indeed to better President Arthur's administration."

I loved research then almost as much as I do now.

Within two years of moving in that house, I finally connected with the attic pull and earned my own satisfying thwack, successfully dodging the encyclopedias in the process.

When my parents moved away from that house, I was tempted to take the string and wooden pull, but what does one do with a string and wooden pull? Better to leave it for the next family. I hope it’s still there and that there’s a kid who can’t resist sending it skyward at every pass.

Sometimes nondescript, nameless places serve important purposes.

Email Jan Risher at janrisher@gmail.com.