Thursday, March 29, 2007


The greatest advantage of growing up in a home filled with four brothers and three sisters, and of having a father in the construction business, can be summed up in one word: "junk". (Note: there's a fine distinction between "junk" and "trash". Junk is once-useful stuff that one considers too valuable to throw away - it's trash with potential!) As a large family subsisting on a carpenter's income, we may have had to spread the peanut butter on our day-old bread a little thinner than others, but we had an abundance of the commodity kids value most. We had a virtually inexhaustible supply of two-by-four scraps, broken shovel handles, bent nails, near-usable screen doors, uncleaned broken bricks, used crankcase oil, rusty nuts & bolts, former Skil-saw blades, filthy rolls of carpet,… We had everything a kid with imagination and a tetanus shot could want or use. I remember actually feeling sorry for the children who lived along the paved section of Raynor Street. They didn't have any of our neat stuff in their manicured yards. And the uses for such treasure are limited only by imagination - which for us meant the uses were limitless.

On one dull Saturday morning when I was nine, our trove offered up an army footlocker and a four-foot chunk of gasoline-soaked garden hose. My two older brothers (Joel and Roy) and I discovered that the hose fit perfectly through a hole in the footlocker's lid (which if memory serves me, had been pierced by a capricious pick-axe we'd been abusing). Now, to the untrained observer it would appear that we'd merely created a footlocker with a four-foot section of siphon hose stuck in it. But to us boomers living in the early sixties, who'd all heard the scratchy outer-space voices of the astronauts, the word "capsule" was magical.

We, the intrepid, had built a "capsule", a craft suitable for childish exploration of unknown worlds. Because our capsule had obvious aerodynamic limitations, we ruled out the exploration of outer space. But if we couldn't go up, we could go down. Thus, deciding to embark on the exploration of geological space, we dug a hole in the barren garden next to the driveway and prepared to bury each other. Through a complicated selection process (which to this day I don't fully grasp) I received the high honor of becoming the world's first "geonaut".

I solemnly swore fealty to God and country. (Joel had done such a masterful job of inventing the oath that I hardly even noticed its similarity to the Pledge of Allegiance.) And then I, as had Alan Shepard before, boarded my tiny craft and closed the hatch to begin the exploration of uncharted space. But before Joel and Roy shoveled dirt back into the hole and covered my capsule, they were very careful to assure I had the hydrocarbon-laden hose between my teeth and I was inhaling through my mouth and expelling air through my nose. Joel, who'd had months of technical training in 7th grade science, emphasized the importance of not re-breathing the carbon-dioxide-laden air in the hose: "You could die that way - let us know if you think you're going to pass out and we'll dig you up." Only after we'd performed all the safety checks and gone over these vital emergency procedures, did I hear the thud-thud-thud of the dirt clods against my capsule's hatch. (You can never be too careful, you know.)

As this flight-of-fancy stretched into an endurance record that exceeded Alan Shepard's suborbital mission, the family patriarch drove up in his '58 Dodge pick-up. Dad (ever observant) had noticed that his two oldest children, who'd been talking to a hose stuck the ground as he drove up, were now gazing skyward and trying much too hard to strike innocent poses. In my mind's eye I can picture the scene (not being an eyewitness to this extraterrestrial inquisition, you understand). Dad must have closed the truck door and walked around the front of the hood as Joel and Roy came to rigid attention. Our insightful progenitor, looking down at the disturbed topsoil, asked, "What've you got buried down there?"

Joel and Roy answered so quietly I could barely hear their muffled reply: "Bobby."

But I recognized my queue and piped up with a sprite: "Hi Dad!"

With a deep sigh and his renowned brevity, Dad rumbled in his soft slow menacing baritone: "Dig 'im up!" Having thus set a flurry of activity in motion, Dad turned and went into the house to share our exploits with Mom.

As I emerged from my entombment, Mom emerged from the house in a way that can only be described as ballistic. For some mysterious reason she seemed displeased with us and launched into that old rant on the subject of "The moment my back is turned…." As Mom yammered on, it occurred to me that this was not the ticker-tape parade which my fellow voyagers, the astronauts, were accustomed to. I thought to myself, Just how could an adventure that began so nobly end in such a disaster?

And thus it was that I fully realized Gus Grissom's anguish when his hatch blew prematurely and he saw both his capsule and his acclaim sink into the Atlantic. Yes indeed, Gus: "How come that prick John Glenn gets all the glory?"


LadyBugCrossing said...

I can only imagine your mom running out the screen door... I'm sure my grandma did the same thing with my dad - his dad was in construction, too. Boys and imagination combined with good junk = TROUBLE!!

Bob said...

Yeah, Mom didn't see the humor of situation at all. Joel and Roy took the worst of her wrath, but I sensed she'd lost some respect for my discernment.

This story has a sequel I'll share some time soon.

zonker said...

Are you still grounded? I would be...

Bob said...

Being grounded - for a guy who works for the power company - not so good. Thanks Zonk. Made me laugh.