Uncle Dale and Aunt Bubbles lived in a rambling old house comfortably seated on the south shore of Conneaut Lake in northwestern Pennsylvania. Every summer, all the local cousins would gather there, and my mother, father, and I would make the two-and-a-half hour drive from Pittsburgh (we were birds that sat on a far-away branch of the family tree) to renew old bonds. I don’t know what the grown-ups did during the day, but the cousins took turns sitting on Uncle Dale’s considerable lap as he drove us around on an antique farm tractor, swam or water-skied in the lake, went to bed on a screened sleeping porch, and, on the next morning, tumbled down to the kitchen for bacon and pancakes while Aunt Bubbles poured juice and warbled “I’m Only a Bird in a Gilded Cage.”
But first, I had to learn how to make it past the downstairs knight. There were two empty suits of armor in that old house: an upstairs knight and a downstairs knight. The upstairs knight always seemed to me a benign presence in the hallway, but for some irrational reason, the downstairs knight scared the bejesus out of me. For the first couple of years, when it was time for bed, my father had to carry me past the downstairs knight. Eventually, I was able to summon up the courage to dash past him on my way upstairs, probably because none of my other cousins seemed to have any fear of the downstairs knight. By the time I was a teenager, I had completely outgrown my fear of that empty iron suit and hardly gave it a glance when it was time for bed. I had forgotten to be afraid.
Maybe that passage marked the dividing line between childhood and—if not adulthood—at least adolescence. Shortly thereafter, on a warm summer evening, one of my cousins and I snuck into the little room where Uncle Dale often retreated with his cronies to play cards and raided the little refrigerator that hummed under the picture of a tableful of dogs playing poker. It was there that I took my first sip of beer (a Schiltz), another momentous step on the slippery slope to being a grown up.
The downstairs knight became nothing more than a mute and impassive witness to my teenage years. If I thought about him at all, it was to only to shake my head at how babyish it was to have been afraid of such a shadow. Whatever it was about him that had scared me as a child—like the alligator that once lived under my bed—now, I just whistled in the dark when I walked past him on my way upstairs.
Uncle Dale and Aunt Bubbles passed away long ago. Their house on the lake was sold to strangers. I haven’t seen any of my cousins since Hector was a pup. Who knows whatever became of the downstairs knight? But maybe I do know. Lately I’ve heard him clanking about in my mind, reclaiming his fearsome shape and stature as I begin to be afraid of the dark again. The years are beginning to turn back on themselves. Fear abounds these days—maybe not the baseless kind of fear a child once had for a suit of armor, but real fear about how things can quickly spin out of control, about how life can change in the blink of an eye. Now I realize that when I whistle in the dark, it’s nothing more than teenage bravado. Maybe it’s only a cruel trick of aging, but as much as I would like to think I’m still a brave boy, I know I’m really not.
It’s late; the sky is getting dark. There’s heat lightning out over the lake and a far-off roll of summer thunder. My father bends down, hoists me up. I wrap my arms tightly around his neck and turn my face away as he carries me past the downstairs knight, up the stairs, to bed.
I’ll be right back.
Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer who lives in Chestertown. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy Magazine. Two collections of his essays (“Musing Right Along” and “I’ll Be Right Back”) are available on Amazon. Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com