A Hero in the Basement by
(118 Stories)

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We moved to Bayonne, into the house where I grew up, when I was three or four years old, so in about 1959. The basement was accessed by a staircase deemed dangerously steep, so I was not allowed near it and the door was kept locked for some years afterwards.

Eventually I was permitted basement access, and found it a fascinating place.

Eventually I was permitted basement access, and found it a fascinating place. It was musty and damp down there; the local water table was probably not far below the floor during dry spells. During heavy rains only the sump pump kept it from flooding. Once, during a hurricane, that was not enough and we lost several boxes of priceless (to us) family photographs

The basement was where our big old oil-fired furnace lived. I was afraid of that furnace. When it came on with a click, whoosh and whoomp, the orange light of the fire would shine out through a small window of thick glass in the furnace door. I imagined it was looking at me. This was not helped by Dad telling me that it could get me if I ventured too close to the door. It being surrounded by a two foot high wall for flood protection made it seem even more menacing.

The basement did not run under the entire house. The back was a later addition built over a crawl space. With a flashlight I could see under that part of the house, into a darkness that seemed to go on forever. I imagined worms and worse.

One day, Dad needed to open the wall of the staircase to the basement. I helped. Removing the sheetrock revealed a bit of history. During World War II, someone in the house had pasted onto the wall a long story from a local newspaper’s Sunday Color Supplement. It detailed the exploits of one of Bayonne’s three Congressional Medal of Honor recipients, TSgt Stephen R. Gregg.

Dad carefully removed the rest of the sheetrock, and together we read about TSgt Gregg’s heroism in France in August of 1944. Gregg was, in fact, very local, having lived until the war only a few blocks from our home. My father had spent the war in the South Pacific, in the SeaBees, didn’t get back to NJ until 1946, and had never heard of him. In less than a generation, TSgt Gregg had receded into obscurity in his own hometown.

Gregg survived the war, and had a long career in local law enforcement. He died in Bayonne in 1990. Today, the largest park in the city bears his name.



Profile photo of Dave Ventre Dave Ventre
A hyper-annuated wannabee scientist with a lovely wife and a mountain biking problem.

Tags: basement, furnace, scary, Stephen R Gregg, Medal of Honor
Characterizations: well written


  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    I understand about those gas-fired furnaces, Dave. They do look scary. We had one in my childhood home too.

    Amazing story that you discovered TSgt Gregg had lived a few blocks from your house long before you got there, based on that old newspaper article on the sheetrock. Truly, a hero in your basement!

  2. Khati Hendry says:

    Nice that you got some follow up to the story that was unearthed in your archeological excavations. Pretty cool. Steep rickety stairs, sump pumps, furnaces, laundry, sundry recreational uses and dark spaces seem to be recurrent basement themes. I think I also met my first harvestmen there (which I know from your previous story are the daddy long legs).

  3. Thanx Dave for you intriguing basement story – first your childhood fears of the furnace , and later your discovery of a piece of local New Jersey history – and as always well-written and evocative!

  4. Laurie Levy says:

    What an interesting discovery, Dave. And by the way, I shared your feelings about the basement as a child. Although we had a sump pump, ours flooded several times. Once, my parents tossed some old luggage into the flood waters so they could make an insurance claim. That was highly disillusioning for a child taught to always be truthful.

  5. Marian says:

    What a moving find, Dave. Makes your forays into that basement worthwhile. Thanks for the reminder about those oil-fired furnaces. They were scary, and you brought back recollections of an oil truck pumping fuel into everyone’s basement furnaces.

  6. John Shutkin says:

    Just a great story about your own home’s archaeology and the town’s heroic history. I wonder if whoever put the article in the wall viewed it as sort of a time capsule.

    We also had a huge, scary furnace in the basement of our house when I was growing up, and I also remember being afraid of it. In fact, I’m amazed that I never had nightmares about it; I sure kept it at a respectable distance.

  7. Suzy says:

    Hurray for New Jersey basements! Thanks for this story!

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