Thursday, February 03, 2005

Timmy doesn't live here anymore

I snapped this photo earlier today while on walkabout in the areas surrounding downtown Albuquerque and the historic Huning Highland district. There is little doubt in my mind that this tree once served as the majestic living foundation of one of the finest tree houses ever constructed in the Rio Grande Valley. Today, this ladder into the sky stands as a silent reminder of lost childhood dreams and adventures.

As I slip into my mental time machine, the sun dissects the sky from the western horizon to the east approximately 11,473 times- at least as quick, if not more so, than a Nolan Ryan fastball. The effect is quite blinding so I shut my eyes. When I open them again they are stinging slightly with sweat, and my mouth tastes of dirt- Midwestern dirt.

I’m standing knee deep in a large hole that my older brother Kevin and I are digging next to the old shed in the backyard of my youth. It is a Saturday. It is summer. The fact that we had made so much progress by mid-morning must indicate that we had already seen that week’s episode of Land of the Lost.

I don’t remember “why” we had decided to dig a hole that day, but only the sense of urgency in that we both knew it would have to be completed before nightfall. We dug like madmen to be sure, pausing only briefly to investigate rusty horseshoes and other interesting objects as they were unearthed.

The hole measured perhaps 4 to 5 feet square, and perhaps as much as 4 feet deep by the time our neighbors Ron and Jack were allowed out of their house and came over to see what we were doing. Their younger brother Joel wasn’t able to come outside that day as he had been grounded- having been caught, I believe, wearing his father’s underwear. As quickly as they saw our project, Ron and Jack dashed home and soon returned with shovels of their own.

For some odd reason, four people digging with shovels tend to move more than twice the amount of soil as only two people digging with shovels. This is true! In fact, it has been my observation that possibly the only way one could sabotage that equation is to hand one of the four people a PhD. Well, be that as it may, on that particular day we expanded the area of our excavation by double in a flash and were soon down to a depth where even the bravest of earthworms feared to tread. I was convinced that we must have been nearing the center of the earth when I caught what I thought then was a good whiff of brimstone. (Now however, based on my better understanding of the makeup of our planet, confined spaces and people in general, I believe that what I probably had experienced was one of Jack’s farts.)

We decided that there was really no need for our hole to extend any deeper since none of us spoke Chinese nor liked Chinese food. Lunch had really never entered into our minds. Instead, our tiny brains were preoccupied with designing a wooden bridge over our pit, and constructing walls on the western side of the hole to fend off possible attacks from teenage hooligans who would ride dangerously near while navigating our town’s alleys on their bicycles so they could smoke cigarettes without being noticed by adults.

I swear, I have no idea where all the lumber came from that we used that afternoon. Some came from under the shed, and quite possibly the rest was removed from the shed itself. Nevertheless, it was all put to good use.

It must have been around 5:00 that evening when our dad ventured onto the back porch of our house, and eventually made his way back to our happy little construction camp. I doubt that any of us could have been prouder as he stood silently and surveyed the scene we had created with our own hands, sweat, and blood- and a good deal of his lumber. Obviously, he could tell that our substantial fortress would serve us well in any future dirt clod war that we found ourselves engaged in. We had plans for making the thing completely enclosed before the end of autumn, as our fort would prove essential to our desire to dominate the neighborhood snowball fights that coming winter. It would also be used as a swell place where we could sleep outside, and as a base camp for a wide variety of top-secret nocturnal reconnaissance missions. Of course it would also be used as a clubhouse where Ron and I would trade baseball cards.

My dad said nothing as he studied the earthen embankments surrounding our unfilled moat. We simply hadn’t had time to run the garden hose over to fill the darned thing- having wasted too much time discussing where we would purchase an alligator, and trying to guess how much one might cost.

Surely he could tell how much effort we had invested in our labors simply by the amount of dirt that covered our faces, hands, and clothing. It seemed like an eternity before we got a reaction from him, but given that he is a math teacher, he probably had to first calculate how many buckets full of sediment we had removed to create the hole. Most likely, he was also marveling at the fine bridge we had built and was dreaming of the day when we would all become engineers.

Finally the silence was broken. He said, “Nice hole. Now fill it in.” With that, he returned to the house and the relative sanity of an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel. I remember exchanging looks of disbelief with my brother and our friends- as if we were ballplayers and the weatherman had just forecast freezing rain on opening day. It was awful!

Interestingly, and I wonder if anyone is still reading this, it didn’t take nearly as long to fill in the hole as it did to create it. My brother gets most of the credit for having figured out that we could fill it in very quickly by tossing in all the lumber and other stuff first.

From time to time, I wonder about the people who live in that old house now. Do they ever look out the window and wonder about the origin of the large depression next to the old shed? Probably, the old shed and depression no longer exist, but in their place stands a “modern,” yet aging two-car garage.

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