Friday, December 04, 2009

The Musical Bed

When a new parent first cradles their newborn babe,
An innocent bundle from above,
An instinct previously latent blooms
Imperceptibly mingled with love.

For unrealized in that moment sublime
Are the seeds of deep impulse unseen
That cause each child to intuitively treat
Each bed like a trampoline.

And within each new parent freshly kindles
An urge equally intense and strong
To put a stop all childish bed bouncing
From that moment ever on.
As you know, all children love to jump on beds. And all parents are continually on watch for any such errant behavior. It’s as if parents have a sixth sense that allows them to detect when a child jumps on a bed. Or maybe that’s just how children see it.

Which brings me to the topic of the bed I had when I was a child. It was one of the oddest contraptions you’ve ever seen. It was obviously created for the lower end of the mass market. And that’s probably why we had it — because it was affordable.

The thing that made this bed somewhat unique was that it was made entirely of metal, except for the mattress. You’d be surprised how much the bed’s all-metal construction enhanced its noisemaking capacities.

The headboard and footboard were of a similar make, except that the headboard was taller. They were painted to look like wood. They were shiny, so that they had the rich appearance of fake wood. I think it probably looked better than the phony wood paneling they used to put on the sides of cars back in those days.

These endboards each had a frame made of sheet metal formed into square-ish tubes so as to look like wood beams. The central space within each frame was filled by a panel of sheet metal. Now, I don’t know if this was the result of the manufacturing process, the shipping process, or if regular wear and tear that caused this; but these panels were slightly bowed.

If you applied the right amount of pressure in the center, the panel would suddenly bow the other way, providing a satisfying and resounding thump in the process. The larger headboard had kind of a bass drum sound, while the footboard had more of a mid-range tympani tone to it. Releasing the pressure caused the panel to thump back to its previous position. As you can imagine, this provided for endless hours of entertainment.

These sheet metal panels weren’t the end of the percussive possibilities. Almost any child is innovative enough that they can make noise by finding something with which to beat on any hollow tubular object. And so it was with the tubes of my bed’s endboard frames. These frames could produce multiple tones, depending on where they were struck. This added numerous sounds to the percussion section.

The endboards of the bed were attached to a completely exposed box of springs. The box springs of most beds are built on a wood frame, and the springs and frame are encased in heavy fabric. Not so with my bed. My box springs were built on a metal frame and had no covering at all. Not only did each spring produce its own unique noise, but parts of the frame were flexible so that they added to the cacophony.

I guess you could say that the box springs were sort of like the string section. But they could only be played with blunt force so that they couldn’t be made to sound like the string section of the New York Philharmonic — unless the orchestra was playing an evening of heavy metal hits, or something of that nature.

The bedrails were incorporated into the box springs so that the box springs attached directly to the headboard and footboard, providing four metal-on-metal joints. Each of these joints could be counted on to produce a distinctive squeak when the bed was played quietly, or a loud jarring screech when played at higher volumes. Sometimes these joints sounded like novices on flutes or piccolos. Other times they sounded like the wild bleat of a trumpet or trombone, followed by the sound of the horn being thrown to the floor.

This whole amazing musical contrivance rode atop four metal wheels. Two were attached to the headboard and two were attached to the footboard. The slightest movement of the bed caused these metal castors to rotate a bit. A vigorous jumping session could move the bed two feet or more. The rotating wheels produced many varied squeals that I sometimes thought sounded like operatic sopranos warming up on a cold morning, perhaps while being strangled.

While my bed was a remarkable multifaceted musical instrument all on its own, my bedroom was an important part of the ensemble. When I was young, the room had hardwood floors. We had little other furniture in the room. There were scarcely any soft things that could absorb sound besides the curtains, the mattress, and the bed linens. The whole room acted as a type of amplifier.

No matter how carefully done, any movement by someone on that bed would reliably produce a variety of squeaks, groans, and squeals. Not only did all of this noise reverberate off the floor, walls, and ceiling of the room, but the direct contact of the bed’s wheels on the floor transferred all vibrations directly into the hardwood floor.

Back in that day, the basement of the house was uncompleted. Sounds that transferred into the floor echoed off the concrete walls and floor of the basement, went into the ventilation system, and were quite effectively broadcast into even the most remote regions of the house. It was as if some mad musical genius had designed a whole building that was its own kind of strange musical instrument, with my bed as the console upon which the musician played.

As a child, I was fully aware of the melodious tones that emanated from my bed. But there were holes in my logic capacities. I understood the cause and effect of applying pressure to the bed to make noise. But for some reason, it didn’t dawn on me during my early years that my mother could hear this noise too. In fact, she couldn’t escape it without leaving the house. Every time I tried to jump on my bed, I could only get in two or three bounces before Mom showed up in the doorway with a stern look on her face.

Kids are like that. They’ll tiptoe and whisper when they’re trying to get away with something. But then they’ll turn around and make other noise that is sure to get them caught. That continues until the child’s brain development gets to the point where this concept can be grasped. Then they get away with a lot more mischief. Judging from what I read in the newspaper about some criminals, there are adults that never develop that far.

When my brother and I eventually got new beds, I thought I was being rewarded. It didn’t dawn on me until much later that the new beds were actually a gift for my parents. Bill Cosby likes to quip that the thing parents with young children prize most highly is quiet.

I was still pretty young when we got carpet in the main areas of the home. It took longer before carpet was laid in the bedrooms. By and by, we got more furniture and wall hangings, and the basement was finished. All of that significantly reduced the echo chambers of the home, devastating its previous musical grandeur.

I don’t know what happened to the old metal bed. Maybe it went to the dump. Perhaps it was donated to charity so that some less fortunate family could discover the joys of that terrible noise. Maybe some five-year-old somewhere is right now jumping on that old creaky thing. If so, his mother is no doubt stomping her way to his bedroom with a scowl on her face.

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