“I have some gasoline,” Todd said.
“My dad has some gunpowder in the garage,” Ricky said.
“Perfect. My mom has a bunch of old pickle jars,” I said.
Our holiday break had been extended due to heavy rains, and I was at the point where I actually fantasized about being back in the classroom. With the extra time, however, we had begun some of our life-long construction goals.
Our first feat had been to dam up the drainage ditch in an attempt to form a fishpond in Mr. Jones’ backyard. The project was not a complete triumph. Our team felt like if only the dam were bigger there would have been no question of the project’s success. Mr. Jones, however, provided another perspective: “What the heck are you kids doing flooding my garden?” he had asked loudly more than once.
Our second attempt was more commerce-related. We dug an enormous pit in my backyard to compete with Calistoga’s lucrative mud-spa businesses, but we were thwarted by our mothers’ collective overreaction and, we argued, scientifically unproven linkage of our earthen research to a pesky roundworm outbreak within the engineering team.
During those days we also had moderate success at bridge-building, raft construction and frog-farming. But it had been my father’s idea of a gutter-cleaning business that had been the most successful. It was also the most welcomed by our neighbors. When we approached homeowners with tools in hand their faces were initially taut with anxiety, but then they relaxed. They breathed a collective sigh of relief when they learned we hadn’t come to flood their backyard or dig up their landscape in search of buried treasure but instead had arrived to offer some useful service.
Cleaning gutters during an unrelenting deluge of rain by three young boys poised precariously on slippery-rung ladders may have appeared to an untrained observer as if a Cirque du Soleil act were being performed by a collection of drunken monkeys. However, if they had looked more closely those skeptical critics might come to realize they were actually witnessing true acts of death-defying dexterity with a dash of bravado.
“Watch this!” was a common shout heard throughout the neighborhood that winter.
But there were only so many houses that required — or were willing to risk — our services. In the end we had spent three days and made $28. After buying as many cans of sugary soda, packages of crunchy Pop Rocks and gooey Snickers bars as we could stomach, we still had a remaining $8.12. Ideas for how to invest the remaining funds included saving it for fireworks purchases in the summer or bankrolling a fleet of 50-cent balsa-wood gliders from Sprouse-Reitz. In the end we decided on buying a roll of waterproof fuse sold at the hardware store.
Why a fuse that would remain lit underwater was even sold was a question for another time. All we came to realize was that we needed some — and fast. Who knew when the rains might stop? The realization came in a flash of insight during one of our late-night finance-committee meetings in my bedroom. Todd calculated that having 12 feet of such fuse was the key to completing the necessary excavations that would advance our stalled dam project.
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That night Todd tapped his pad of paper with his pencil.
“If we set the charges at 1-foot intervals along the bank just below the water’s surface I calculate we’ll have enough new earth to add a good 3 feet in height to the dam,” he said.
Leaning back on his chair, Ricky rubbed the chin of the Frankenstein Halloween mask he’d taken to wearing over the last few days.
“But wouldn’t that create a channel for the water to flow around the dam?” he asked.
Todd squinted his eyes and then went to erasing and scribbling as he redrew out his thoughts.
“Not if you perform the excavation farther upstream,” he said, and then he smiled broadly as he lifted up the pad to show us his construction plans.
The drawing looked rudimentary but adequate. A thick squiggle represented the ditch, a huge explosion with a towering mushroom cloud signified our soggy pyrotechnics and an enormous pond with a smiling stick figure in a bathing suit represented Mr. Jones on the pond’s shore.
“Makes perfect sense,” Ricky said and turned in my direction, eyes blinking behind the expressionless mask.
I nodded my agreement, and Todd laid his drawings back down on the desk. We were silent for a while, each imagining a summer of playing and fishing in our own neighborhood pond.
Outside the rain had picked up, and the sound of the heavy drops on the clean gutters sounded like shaking maracas.
When we awoke the next morning the rain had stopped and we learned from our mothers that school might open back up as early as the following day. Money in hand, we rushed toward town. What happened next is another story.