There’s a Zoo in the Basement

Some nights, I still dream about that house on Carter Street, the best of all my childhood homes. Small by today’s standards, it loomed large for me. It had everything a small girl could want. There was a big back yard, good climbing trees, and mimosas bursting with hot pink blooms crawling with fuzzy caterpillars perfect for mini-races down the driveway.

Mama kept the big kitchen warm with the best of her eastern North Carolina cuisine and all the hugs we needed. Daddy worked for Lindale Dairy and brought home so much ice cream we had a separate freezer to store it all. (We were popular with the neighbor kids on hot summer days.)

Lindale products were so good that Hopolong Cassidy himself came to town to advertise for them. Hoppy led a parade down Main Street, riding his white horse, Topper, and wearing his six-shooters. He gave Daddy, a Lindale manager, one of his distinctive black hats. Years later, after I moved to Colorado, I took that hat to a western wear store to have it cleaned and preserved. Word got around until every employee in the place came by to look at it like it was the Shroud of Turin.

As you can imagine, we were all inspired to play cowboys. I wanted to be Dale Evans, and watched “The Roy Rogers Show” whenever I beat my big brother to the Saturday morning test pattern. Otherwise, I was stuck watching “Sergeant Preston of the Yukon.” His dogs weren’t nearly as impressive as Trigger, Fury, or Flicka, much less Dale’s horse, Buttermilk.

But the television was all mine when my brother went outside to play his biggest hero, Tarzan. He, his buddy Dennis, and our cousin, Skip, spent countless hours in the trees and on top of the garage acting out their jungle escapades and crying Tarzan yells that would give Johnny Weissmuller and Carol Burnett pause. I was jealous of the boys only “Tarzan Club,” so promptly started a “Jane Club.” It wasn’t very popular.

Of course, the missing element was animals. You can’t be Tarzan without Cheetah, elephants, lions, and other jungle animals. Who would you summon when you were in trouble, calling out “Ungowa!” at the top of your lungs? When I nagged my brother about that little detail, he told me the Tarzan Club secret. There was a zoo in the basement. And the elevator to the zoo was in his room.

We didn’t even have a basement, but I believed him. Furthermore, I was determined to see that zoo. But there was one small problem. I didn’t know which bump on his plastered bedroom wall was the elevator button, and the club wasn’t talking. I spent weeks pushing as hard as I could on every single spot on that wall. My brother delighted in acting like he had just come through the elevator if he heard me coming into his room.

Hey, I was only three or four. I eventually figured out that the zoo in the basement was as delightfully make-believe as Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. But I like to think I won out in the end.

I kept Hoppy’s hat.

Freelance writer and educator Jean Sanders Shumaker is a native Tarheel, living under Carolina blue skies and the towering Rocky Mountains.

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