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Doug Clark: Fear is getting lost in your elementary school’s boiler room

I’ve been scared a time or three in my life.

The first time I saw the movie “Psycho,” say.

There was the time a lightning storm with gale-force winds struck while I was fishing in a tipsy rowboat in the middle of Kelso Lake.

Richard Simmons’ debut on David Letterman? Terrifying.

Still, nothing I’ve seen – and I mean nothing – compares to the satanic dread I felt as a second-grader when I peered into the dark and hellish boiler room at Franklin Elementary School on Spokane’s South Hill.

I was heading to the boys lavatory down the hall.

The boiler room door was open.

I’d heard the rumors from older students. This is where they lock up the really bad kids.

Mind you that this happened decades before Macaulay Culkin faced his own furnace demon in the Christmas classic, “Home Alone.”

So I paused and shuddered as I took in the octopus network of pipes that were connected to a massive steel orb stamped with an ominous biblical-sounding name: “Gabriel,” followed by “Portland, Oregon.”

What could it mean?

Suddenly a creature stirred in the shadows. Yeah, it could’ve been the custodian, but I wasn’t taking any chances. Like a scalded gibbon, I raced off for the restroom nearly leaving a wet trail.

Last Friday, I entered Franklin once again to pay my final respects to the creepy boiler room, the gymnasium that bears my name and the old stairwells and classrooms that I know so well.

My alma mater will soon be forever changed.

A multimillion-dollar makeover will begin in June. The original 1909 structure of red brick and granite will be gutted and modernized, with the historic exterior preserved.

The wing added in 1953 will be demolished. Ditto all those eyesore portables that sprouted up over the years as the school grew beyond its capacity.

During the year and a half of construction, the faculty and student body will retreat to “Camp Franklin” in the old Jefferson school building at 37th Avenue and Grand Boulevard.

Change is always a bit sad, sure. But it’s also a natural part of the aging process.

Time passes. Things fall apart. Last rites are given, and …

“Dougie Clark!!” I heard my name hollered.

“I haven’t seen you since you were in diapers!” another voice exclaimed.

I thought of saying something snappy, like, “So that was you outside my window last week?”

But these days you have to be careful about things like that.

As it turned out, Carol Johnson and her sister, Nancy, lived for a time in the neighborhood where I grew up.

And sure enough, Carol swears she saw me running around the yard back then in my nappies.

Thank God this was long before cellphone cameras and Instagram.

Carol and Nancy were among some 50 other former students and history lovers who had been drawn to the Friday Franklin tour.

Leading our parade was Brian Shute, Franklin’s speech pathologist and school historian.

Shute is a great guy and wonderful tour guide, oozing with interesting anecdotes and historical lore.

I discovered, thanks to Shute, that the Titanic-sized boiler that scared the bejabbers out of me was so massive that workers had to first put it in place and then build the school around it.

An earlier Franklin, he said, had been built in 1889 on what is now Trent. It doubled as a part-time jail and torture facility during the time of violent labor troubles. Small wonder it burned down suspiciously.

I’ve never been much of a school pride kind of guy. Other than showing up at a few pre-functions, I don’t bother attending my high school reunions.

Franklin’s a different story. I truly adore every brick and stone in the old joint.

I went to Franklin through the seventh grade. Learned to play the trumpet there. Had my first performance with a guitar at Franklin, too.

My older brother, Dave, went to Franklin. So did my kids, Ben and Emily. My lovely wife, Sherry, worked in their classrooms as part of the Franklin APPLE program.

My sister-in-law, Wendy, still teaches at Franklin.

Heck, before the state sucked the life out of our election system with mail-in ballots, I always voted at Franklin.

Because of all that history, just stepping inside yields a flood of memories, some bad, but mostly good.

Speaking of bad, I remember one fill-in principal hacking me hard on the fanny with a wood paddle after I was sent to the office for misbehaving.

I was more stunned than hurt. The guy was one of my dad’s closest friends.

I was what some teachers called a piece of work.

“Has trouble settling down,” was a common teacher comment on my string of unremarkable report cards.

Fortunately, I found one of the only professions where you can actually get paid to act out.

Had I gone to school in the 1930s, I’m sure I would’ve joined the adventure club that some of the livelier students formed.

“The Lucky Five,” it was called, said Shute.

Kate Fahey Sorensen, who was part of the tour, said her late father, John, had been president of the group one year. He kept hilarious and meticulous minutes in small notebooks that are still treasured by the family.

“The meeting was called to order after we had a big fight,” said Sorensen, quoting one of her favorite entries.

Another Franklin lover, Stan Parrish, joined the tour with a couple of his brothers.

We talked about those infamous “duck and cover” drills that we young students engaged in when we thought the Russkies were gonna nuke us in the early ’60s.

Yep. Nothing wards off atomic annihilation like curling up in a ball.

It’s easy to laugh now, but all this tension with North Korea is starting to dredge up some of those Cold War anxieties.

“Let’s all meet back here” if World War III breaks out, I yelled to my comrades, drawing a laugh.

And then on to my gym. I listened as Shute started relaying the story of one of my final pranks at Franklin.

“As long as you’re here,” he said, “why don’t you tell us what happened.”

One night after a Scouts meeting, I think, I hung around the gym long enough to hatch an idea.

I climbed up onto the iron chin-up bar and, with a piece of chalk in hand, etched my name high up and into a couple of the bricks.

Next school day I heard the intercom summoning me to the office and into the lair of our no-nonsense principal, Margaret “Peg” Tully.

According to her, my act of defacing the school had put my upcoming matriculation in serious doubt.

Well, that chilled me. Especially since I didn’t know what the heck a matriculation was.

Then she ordered me to the gym where a custodian was waiting with a ladder, toothbrush and small container of soapy water.

I did my best to expunge my autograph, soon discovering that cleaning chalk out of rough bricks is not as easy as it sounds.

Which is why if you look carefully, you can still see my act of vandalism to this day.

Lucky for me, Principal Tully cooled off and my matriculation went off as scheduled.

My parents were plenty mad, but it could have been a whole lot worse. Had Tully been thinking straight she would’ve tossed me inside the boiler room and thrown away the key.