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D and Ilion Wine
For those who have never read Ray Bradbury’s “Dandelion Wine,” let me give you a brief synopsis. It’s about a boy growing up in the small Illinois village called Greentown, and his insight on the people and events of the 1930s. His name was Doug Spaulding, and he was about 12 years old. If you are older that fifty, I would highly recommend reading it.
For those who have read it, I hope you’ll excuse my trying to reinvent parts of the story, because the 50s weren’t so much different for small towns in upstate New York. I’ll be writing this serially, as I recall things, and hopefully you’ll be able to feel the tone, even if the details don’t fit.
Jack’s Journey Through Town
It’s 9:30 A.M. Tuesday June 19th, 1956. School has been out for a couple of days, but today Jack has no chores. He’s wearing brand new sneakers that haven’t yet had the bounce worn out of them. He’s excited about riding his bike around town without the time limits school had put on him. September seemed years away. So, the first ride is down Second Street hill. Cars were few, because most people were at work at this hour, so he let the bike coast all the way down, allowing the fresh warm wind to blow through his hair. First stop is the Library. Yesterday, Jack and some friends climbed onto the center pillar of the porch to reach the sculpture of a man’s face between the two arches. He stuck a cigarette butt in its mouth, and almost fell off the porch laughing so hard because it looked ridiculous. He stopped this morning to see if it was still there. It was, and it still caused a snicker, but then more plans for old stone face started to fill his mind. He would finish those plans later.
It was time to move on to the second stop, The Odd Fellows Temple on the corner of First and Morgan Streets. There was a corner stone on that building which had the temple name, and the date it was erected. On the other side of the stone, someone had written in chalk,
“Odd Old Morons Temple- 700 B.C.” Even though he’d read it several times, it still made him giggle. Before leaving the temple, it was important to check the sidewalk under the fire escape. The temple is the tallest building in town, and from the top of the fire escape the tops of all the buildings to the south could be seen. It was a great view. However, once he got the idea to drop water balloons from up there, the next logical step was eggs, then pumpkins. So checking the sidewalk for fresh evidence that someone else was keeping up the campaign was important. Today there was nothing new, so Jack jumped on his bike, eager to begin today’s adventure.
Riding down Morgan Street to Main Street, he turned east, passing the Victory Restaurant on the Union Street corner. When Jack had earned a dollar or two, he would sometimes go in there and order a coffee, play the jukebox, and listen to the old timers sit at the counter and tell stories. He liked to imagine the diner was on a lonely road, in the middle of nowhere, and the folks there were travelers from all across America, some arriving on a bus, others from cars, traveling alone. But today Jack had neither the time nor the money to dally at the restaurant. He continued along past Grants, the banks, and down the canyon between the Remington factories. Soon he was turning north on East Street, headed towards his first adventure of the day, the village dump.
The dump was not only a place of burning garbage, but also a repository of curiosities. Here he would find the pieces of people’s lives, discarded because they were broken, or no longer needed. Either way, they were interesting, and sometimes useful, or worth money. Jack usually found a soda bottle or two, worth either two cents, or a nickel, depending on the size.
Today, riding past the sewage plant, he saw Chuck, one of his acquaintances, already exploring the mountains of junk. On this day, Chuck had found several hairspray cans and shaving cream cans, and was tossing them into one of the rubbish fires. These usually had compressed air in them, and would explode when heated. Chuck threw several in at one time, and the two boys ran back a ways to watch the show. Some would fly high in the air after exploding, and land where they were blown wide open at the seam, the metal laid flat by the force. After four cans blew, all was quiet. It was going to be a great adventure at the dump today.
Back at the Odd Fellows Temple, two other members of the gang showed up. They weren’t there to search for evidence of any previous mischief; they had their own plans. They were the Berger brothers, twins who had recently moved to town, and fit right in with Jack and his friends. Today’s adventure had begun for them when they discovered a bag of slightly rotten cantaloupes in back of the Loblaws store. They both knew immediately where two of the melons were going. So they grabbed two of the larger ones, and headed for the Temple, and the high fire escape. By now, it was getting near noon, so they hurried up the stairs so they could accomplish their mission before people started filling the streets on their way to lunch. Quickly, they launched their explosives, watched them splatter, then staggered down the stairs, laughing and trying to run before they were seen. They headed down Central Ave, then down the West Shore Railroad tracks toward the dump.
Meanwhile, Jack and Chuck started scrounging for more spray cans, but were soon distracted by a box of fluorescent tubes that were begging to be exploded. They set them up like a picket fence, then dropped back to fire rocks at them. Typical fun for ten year olds, but they finished them off too quickly. It was time to toss bottles, cans and boxes into the river, and then try to sink them before they floated too far away.
Just as they were headed toward the river, Jack caught a glimpse of bright red, from under a pile of papers. Grabbing Chuck’s arm, he pointed to the papers. This could be hidden treasure, and they both realized it at the same time. Kicking and throwing the papers aside, they discovered the bright red was a tin box, with a small hasp and padlock holding it closed. The box seemed too large for such a small lock, but that just aroused their curiosity more. Looking around, Chuck found a flat piece of steel, and started pounding and prying on the hasp. It didn’t take long before the hasp busted off, and the boys were looking at the treasure inside.
“ A potato!! All of that for a stinking potato?” Chuck yelled, as he kicked the red box across the dump. Jack picked up the potato to examine it. Nothing special, except that it was fresh and firm, unexpected under the circumstances. Chuck grabbed the spud from his hand, and threw it in the river. Half a second after the splash, the river exploded where the potato had entered
The Berger brothers were entering the dump just as the explosion happened. Suddenly, they were being rained on by polluted river water, along with bits of potatoes. At the same time, the slurry next to the sewage plant turned on, pumping brown water into the slurry pit. Jack and Chuck were running by it as it started, and were nauseated by the smell, along with the smell of the river water that had soaked them. All four boys then ran together to escape the stink, eventually stopping at Steele’s Creek to jump in and rinse themselves and their clothes. By now it was mid afternoon, but they all went their separate ways home. The spirit of adventure had left them for the day.
The next day, Wednesday, Jack had to wear his old sneakers, as the ones he wore yesterday were hanging on the clothesline, still wet. It slowed his enthusiasm a little, but once on his bike, rolling down the hill, things were back to normal. He swung by the Library briefly, but nothing changed there, so he checked out the Odd Fellows Temple. There, evidence of cantaloupe on the sidewalk made him wish he’d stayed there yesterday, to witness the drop. But he was happy to see the aftermath, hopped on his bike, and rode to the Victory Restaurant.
There weren’t enough people there yet for the tall tales to be told, so he ordered a coffee for himself, and put a dime in the jukebox, and listened to a Hank Williams song. Soon, several old guys came in, and started swapping lies just like Jack wanted. He sat there for an hour listening, soaking up stories, then left for more adventures.
The Sun was high by this time, so on the bike again, and he rode down Central Ave, to watch the barges and trains. He was about to pass Piser’s Auto Parts and the road down to the boat house, when he noticed a tow truck down there, backed up to the canal. Something must be investigated there, so down he rode. There was a police car there also, and Jack’s friend Tom. “Hey Tom, what’s up here?” Jack queried. “Don’t know Jack,” Tom replied, “They won’t tell me nuthin. They just keep telling me to go home. Ain’t no way I’m gonna miss this, whatever it is.”
The Scary Car
Down in the canal was a rowboat, with a guy in it looking into the water. The towing cable from the tow truck was angled into the water also. As Jack watched, a diver emerged from underwater, and climbed into the boat. They rowed the boat to the pier, and came ashore. The tow truck driver started the winch, and soon the front of a car emerged from the water. When it rose halfway, the boys saw a man in the driver’s seat, obviously dead. His arms were bent at the elbows, pointed up and covering his face. The windows were opened an inch or two and the doors on the car were tied shut through the windows, around the doorposts. Jack saw the man’s arms were bloated, and then saw his face. It was then that one of the cops forced them to leave. Jack didn’t tell Tom, but he was ready to leave as soon as he saw the dead mans face.
The rest of that day was not filled with the usual silly junk that it normally was. Instead, Jack and Tom went down to the “flats,” which was a name they used for the area where Steele’s Creek emptied into the Canal. They just sat around, throwing rocks into the canal, until Tom brought out a cigarette. They took turns puffing on it, not inhaling (they didn’t know they were supposed to,) and blowing big clouds of smoke out. Somehow, they felt more like the movie stars in the war movies they’d seen, puffing on smokes after deadly battles with the Germans.
After the cigarette, they built a small fire, and then smothered it so it would smoke. The trick was to make your clothes smell like wood smoke, so no one could detect cigarette smoke on you. Home was a distance away, and you never knew whom you would run into on the way there. It was suppertime anyway, and it had been a long day.
Thursday the 21st, morning was dark and threatening. Jack had a few chores to do around the house, and was in no rush to finish them. No adventures today, the radio said the rain was going to continue all day. He decided to occupy himself in the cellar all day. There were all sorts of treasures down there. Old wind up Victrola motors, pulleys and other hardware that had no name. He had just started browsing, when his mother called down to tell him Pete was here to see him. Pete lived 3 or 4 blocks away on Montgomery Street, so it must be important to come all the way over to Jack’s house. He was pretty wet, but didn’t seem to mind. They went out on the porch to talk privately. Pete had received an invitation to play cards at Carin’s house across the street from me. Carin had an older sister Jean, who was very pretty. Pete was older than Jack, and was already very interested in girls. He invited Jack along to keep the younger sister occupied with cards. Jack didn’t mind, because it was a rainy day, and playing cards on Carin’s porch could be fun.
So over they went, to Carin’s front porch. She already had the cards on the table, the radio on, and a pitcher of Kool-aid and glasses set out. They started out playing war, and were sitting around telling corny jokes when a loud crack of thunder and a flash of lightening happened at the same time. A tree up the street split, and half of it came crashing down. No sooner had that happened than the summer storm really began. The rain started pouring in earnest, and the wind was blowing it sideways. Thankfully, the porch was leeward of the wind, and sheltered by the bulk of the house, so the four of them could watch the storm in comfort. More thunder and lightning crashed, and the water rushing down the hill near the curb was getting wider and deeper. Sticks and pieces of paper and other debris were speeding down with the powerful current of the flood. Next, the fire whistle was blowing, sending out the code for firefighters to follow, directing them to the lightning strike, or fire. Shortly they heard the sirens also, but they weren’t coming towards them.
As quickly as the pouring began, it slowed to a light shower. Immediately the boys were off the porch and tossing pieces of wood into the gutter, to watch it race down the hill. Someone farther up the street had apparently left a kickball outside, because it came floating and rolling down the hill, followed by a tin can and more sticks. Soon, the water slowed, and the boys went back to the porch.
Cards were too boring now, so they began a game of “I packed a suitcase for Boston, and in it I put…” The idea was for everyone to think of something to put in it, and then the next person recited the sentence followed by what the people before them inserted, then what they themselves put in, and on to the next person. The game was over when someone couldn’t remember the complete list. It usually didn’t last long, and soon they started again, followed by similar games. Meanwhile, the music on the radio kept playing and soon they were singing along, and laughing at how bad they sounded. After a while, the magic had gone out of the day, and they all wandered off home, not wanting to deal with wet grass or mud.
Friday the 22nd dawned bright and sunny. Jack’s new sneakers were finally dry, and he was happy to put them on again. The night before, Mrs. Korns had called and wanted Jack to mow her lawn. That worked out fine, since at 1 PM he was meeting the guys at South Fifth Ave field for a baseball game. Mrs. Korns lived on South Fourth Ave, so if Jack timed it right, he could mow her lawn in the morning, then stop at Klippell’s store for a soda, then head to the field for the game. So he tossed his baseball glove into the basket of his bike, and straddled the bat across the handlebars, and took off up the hill.
At Mrs. Korns’ yard, he found the rain from the day before had made the grass grow thick and tall. So, he got the push mower out of the shed, and started on the back yard. It was going to be a harder job than he thought. But he dived into it with vigor until it was time to do the front yard. The house was set on a hill, so he first mowed the grass strip in between the concrete runners of the driveway. Pushing down the driveway was easy, but then he pushed the mower back up the hill so he could finish the driveway going down again. After finishing the driveway, he finished the small front yards, then pulled the mower under the shade of a tree, and sat down to cool off before tackling the remainder of the hilly parts. He had to tie a rope to the mower, because the hill was too steep for him to guide it down himself. It was the hardest part, but also the last part, so after resting he went at it.
Finally, it was done. He put the mower away, and knocked on the door to collect his $2. Mrs. Korns thanked him, and he thanked her, then away on his bike he flew, down to the store, and had a root beer float to reward himself. He was just finishing up when Pete and Stan walked in. They had seen his bike, so they stopped to get him for the game. Jack sucked the last of the float dry, then the three of them headed to the field.
The usual choosing up sides took place, and as usual, Jack was one of the last ones chosen, because he was skinny, and couldn’t hit as well as the others. Today would be different. Joe’s bat was engraved with Al Kaline’s signature, and was quite heavy. Pete used it is the first inning, and slammed a triple with it. Next, Jake drove Pete home with a single. Ed popped one up, and Jake tried to steal second, but got caught. That brought up Moose, our biggest hitter. He picked Jack’s bat also, and swung at the first pitch. He hit it, but the bat broke, and the ball went foul. Moose was apologetic, but Jack didn’t really care, he could always find another to trade for. So Moose used his own bat, and almost struck out, but banged a grounder between first and second, earning a single. Finally, Jack came to bat. His teammate Chubby suggested Jack use his bat, since Moose’s bat was too heavy. Jack picked it up, and it seemed tiny, compared to his old broken bat. He really didn’t have much choice, so he decided to just swing it hard, and maybe he could get a single, if he was lucky. Meanwhile, the other team had brought their outfield in, because Jack had never hit anything into the outfield. The pitcher was relaxed, knowing he had an easy out that would end the inning. The first pitch was right down the middle, and Jack nailed it. In fact, he caught everyone off guard as the ball flew way into deep right field. The outfielders were still chasing it when Moose crossed home plate, followed by Jack shortly after.
The other team demanded to see the bat, because they thought he was cheating somehow. The fact was, Jack had never used a lightweight bat before, and was able to get the timing right. He hit several more long drives before the game was over. He was still a klutz in the outfield, however, so they made him the pitcher. It turned out that was another surprise. He could sucker the batters into swinging at bad pitches. By the end of the afternoon, Jack was ready for a milk shake at Klippel’s, and then home to wash off the dirt and sweat from an entire day of exercise.
Return to Potato Land
The following day, Saturday the 23rd, Jack was up early because he went to bed early. Apparently being a baseball star was very taxing. He decided to watch Saturday morning cartoons. He seldom did that, because during the school year Saturday was the only day he could sleep late. He knew his pals wouldn’t be ready to move out yet, so he got a bowl of cereal, and turned on the TV. Rin Tin Tin was on, and then Fury. He watched as long as he could, but he was itching to go down to the dump again, to see if there were any repercussions from the spud explosion the other day.
So, out the door, on the bike, and started going from house to house to rouse his buddies. One of his friends had a cute sister, so he always went to his house first, hoping she’d be in her PJs. She seldom was, and he wasn’t sure why the thought of pajamas intrigued him, but it did. Finally, after much persuasion and name calling, the group was ready to go. They took shortcuts through the woods, and down steep hills, then had to follow the village streets until they reached the West Shore tracks. There was something wonderful about walking on the railroad tracks in the morning. It was walking through nature without the pricker bushes. Wildlife was always showing up. Snakes, turtles, birds, all types of critters were there.
Then, they were there! Their eyes widened as they saw the strange sight. The dump was grown over by short plants. But it was the slurry that amazed them. It was overgrown with huge plants! Chuck shouted, “Those are all potato plants! The ones in the slurry must be mutants; potatoes never grow that large!”
“Who cares,” Jack said, “nobody would be dumb enough to eat potatoes grown in this toxic mess. Let’s get the trash burning before the spuds cover all the good stuff in our dump.”
The Plot Thickens.
They passed by the slurry, not noticing the potato plants slowly turning as they walked by. They dug around the trash, looking for long sticks or pipes to bash the potato plants with. When each of them found such an implement, they started whacking the plants away from the piles of trash. They didn’t want the plants to cover up the treasure trove of used junk and explosive cans.
“Wait!” Chuck called, “We have another option.” Indeed they did, because Chuck had found two almost empty cans of charcoal lighter. They all knew what to do next. One of the cans was used to spray charcoal lighter on the potato plants. Then, both caps on the cans were shut, and laid several feet apart on the soaked plants. Chuck tossed a match on the plants, waited until the fire caught completely, then all ran towards the far side of the dump, behind trees and rocks, and waited. And waited. It seemed like ten minutes passed, but was more likely it was two minutes. Then, it happened! BOOM! A large ball of flame, and a mushroom cloud, and a larger patch of potato plants were burning. Next another explosion, and a smaller fireball, but flaming bits of plants spread over a much larger area.
The guys were in awe at their success. The potato plants were almost all burned away, and the charcoal lighter too. There were only a few small plants still burning, so the boys went out to survey the battle zone. It was almost perfect. Spuds were gone, but the trash was still there. The search for the cans was completed, and both cans were ripped and flattened by the explosions.
After the explosions, snooping around for treasures seemed tame. It wasn’t long before Pete said he was headed home to do a chore he had promised his mother he would do. Chuck asked Jack about exploring the drainpipes that ran under the train tracks and the Thruway. Jack wasn’t ready to let a clear day be wasted, so the two of them started down the West Shore tracks headed for the North Ilion Bridge, at the end of Central Ave.
First stop after crossing the bridge was the big drain pipe that emptied into the canal. Looking in first, they didn’t see any wild animals in there. Jack went first, with Chuck right behind him. Once inside, it got darker the farther in they went. They could see the other end of the pipe, but that didn’t let in much light either.
Jack stopped suddenly. “Wait!” he yelled but Chuck was right behind him, and the concrete walls echoed his voice. He lowered his voice and said, “There is a large square area ahead of us. I can just see enough of it to see it’s full of water.” Chuck had poked his head around to see it and agreed with Chuck. They discussed going back out, and finding a stick or a rock, or something to see how deep the water was. Then Chuck remembered he had matches. He struck one, and then they both looked with wide opened eyes. It was just a junction of the pipes, the one they were in, and the one that led to the other side of the tracks. The water in the square was less than a quarter inch deep. While the match was still lit, Jack noticed iron bars forming a ladder on the side of the square. The match went out, and he noticed several small holes letting light in from the top of the square. “It’s a manhole!” Jack said. “It’s the one that sticks out of the ground near the tracks.” Chuck pushed by, and climbed the rung ladder. Reaching the top, he remembered the manhole was round. He reached up with one arm to push it up, but it didn’t budge. “We’ll check it when we get topside later.” Chuck said. He climbed down, and they continued on towards the other end. They had to go slower, because the pipe was getting smaller. The sound of a train whistle stopped them. They were under the tracks now, and the rumble of the train overhead was encompassing.
After the train had passed, the boys went stooped over to the exit, jumped out of the pipe, and fell down on the grass and weeds beside the highway. They were too excited to talk, so they just lay there, catching their breath. Finally, Jack spoke up and said, “That was the most amazing noise ever! It shook everything inside me!” Chuck agreed, and they decided to go across the road to the North Ilion Garage and get a couple of sodas from the machine there. Jack got a Hires root beer, and Chuck got a bottle of Mission orange. They sat on the concrete step outside, and watched the traffic on the highway, as they drank their sodas, and discussed their adventure more. From where they sat, they could see across the highway to the spot where the manhole protruded. Someone had parked his Studebaker with one wheel on the manhole cover. They would have to wait for another time to see if they could pry the lid off. Jack said they should schedule another day to do that, as well as checking out the drainpipes under the Thruway. This was already a summer to remember, and there was still a long way to go.
A Half-Day of Rest.
Sunday morning came, and Jack and his brother Fred had to go to 9 o’clock Mass. That was the children’s mass, so there wasn’t any fooling around there. Fred was 2 years older than Jack, so he called shots. This was the one time that Jack didn’t mind that, because Fred knew what Sundays were safe to skip church, and where to go to not be spotted. Sometimes it was down at Cook’s News, sometimes down to the flats, and on days like today, they simply sat on the footpath above the stairs behind the Catholic Church. Sometimes they’d be joined by kids skipping the Episcopal Church, because their church was just across the creek from the Catholic’s. Someone usually had a cigarette or two, so they would pass it around. No need to worry about smelling like cigarettes on Sunday, because when everyone was leaving the church, they’d all light up. Everyone had to walk through that fog, and if you went behind the church on your way home, the priests were out the back door puffing up their own storm.
Soon the service was over, and they could hear the car doors slamming and the tires squealing, so they’d finish their smokes and start walking home. Once they were home, it was quiet time until Jack’s Mom finished cooking dinner, usually between 12 and 1 PM. So, Jack and Fred would usually go out on the back porch and tinker with electronic stuff. Fred was a natural with radios and stuff, and Jack admired him for that, and tried to learn all he could from him. Jack didn’t have the talent that Fred did, so he never did catch up. Between the two of them, however, the came up with some pretty good ideas, and some very interesting gizmos. Eventually they would have their very own pirate radio station, but that was a few years in the future. Today, Fred wanted to see what would happen if he hooked an electrolytic capacitor to 110 volts AC.
Electrolytic capacitors were special components that must be hooked up to the correct polarity in a DC circuit.
So, Fred connected two wires, and plugged it in. Pwooff! In less that a second the capacitor blew up, spreading smoke and tiny pieces of fiber all over the porch. Fred rushed to open the outside door to help the smoke escape before anyone in the house saw it. He almost fell over himself laughing, and Jack was no help at all, He was lying on the floor, pointing and laughing. So now they knew. Don’t plug one of those things into a wall socket. When they finished airing out the back porch, they heard the Carillon playing from one of the Protestant Churches a few blocks away. That usually meant it was almost time to eat, so to avoid going through the kitchen and getting in the way, they went out the back door, and circled around the front, and entered that way, heading to the bathroom to wash their hands.
Sunday dinner was always a full house, and even their sister Elsie, who was married, would show up with her husband Hal. It was always a nice time, with usually no sibling quarreling. They all respected the Sabbath in that way. Once the meal was over, however, clothing was changed, the table was cleaned, the dishes washed, and it was time to argue about what radio or TV show was going to be on, who was going to play cards or other games, or who got the comfy chair. Jack and Fred usually didn’t have much to do with that however. Outside was free with lots of space, and no big sisters to get in the way. Today they met up with their neighbor Iggy, and decided to go down to Echo Stream Canyon. That was the name of their private club, which was only the creek under the Second St Bridge. It was always a treat to remove their shoes, roll up their pant legs, and explore for treasure that had washed down there, and had gotten stuck. Crayfish could always be found there also, but they were hard to catch, as they backed up really fast, and disappeared under the rocks that were the same color as they were.
The easiest way down the bank and into the creek was the side of the bridge where a tall apartment building stood. There was a nosey old lady who lived there, and every time they went under the bridge, she would send her son down with orders to tell them to get out of there. He was younger than all of them, so you can imagine what kind of response he got. Once that was taken care of, he went back upstairs, and wasn’t seen again until the next meeting of the Echo Stream Canyon Club.
Today, Jack was poking around the creek bottom when he spotted something light blue there. Picking it up, he discovered it was a kid’s change wallet. It was full of pennies. 39 pennies. He let the others know, and they decided to go to the Home Service to buy Nehi Cream Soda, and fudgecycles. The Home service was the only store open on Sunday, and was only a block away. So off they ran, after putting their shoes and socks back on.
Inside the store, they quickly gathered 3 bottles of pop, and 3 fudgecycles, paid for them, then headed for the park on the other side of West St. They sat there swapping stories, and enjoying their found treasure. Iggy was the best liar of the 3 of them, making up tales about WWII. His Dad had been in the Navy during the war, and had brought home souvenirs, but they all seemed to be from WWI. It didn’t matter to the guys at the time, War stories were just that; war stories. Iggy even had a wooden potato masher that he said was fashioned after the German style hand grenades.
After a while, through an unspoken agreement, the 3 boys started back up the hill toward home. It was Sunday, and suppertime was family time too.
A busy Monday.
Monday the 25th came, and Jack got an early start. He had promised his Mother that he would clean up the electronic mess that he and Fred had created over the last couple of weeks. Jack had a feeling his Mom knew about the great capacitor explosion from the previous day, so he thought it was good for everyone if he agreed without any argument. The only problem happened when unfinished projects sidetracked him. It seemed a shame to stack things up or put them in boxes when they only needed a small bit of tweaking to finish them up. After wasting a couple of hours, with little progress on cleaning or fixing anything, he hunkered down and put things where they belonged. He was sweeping the floor when down the stairs came Pete and Stu. He knew they weren’t there to help, but it didn’t matter, he was almost finished. Stu and Pete were heading to Oak Hill to fool around in the junkyard there, and then go exploring the drainpipes under the Thruway, high above the valley. Jack tossed his broom aside, and they exited through the back door, up the alley and down the hill.
Soon, they were climbing up Oak Hill through a pathway that lead to the junkyard. It was a marvelous place to explore, all kinds of old cars and trucks up there, some on their sides, some upside down, others upright, but with no tires or wheels. Today, however, there was a bonus. The junkyard was laid out in a narrow little valley, with cars strewn on both sides, and some on small hillocks, probably dragged up there to make room for newer additions. On top of the highest of these hillocks rested a rusted out Henry J, lying on its roof. They all knew what was going to happen after they finished exploring old Studebakers, taxicabs and milk trucks.
With the exploring complete, the three boys climbed to the top of the hillock, and discovered what they had hoped for. The car was easy to swivel and teeter! They spun it around to line it up to the easiest position to push it, and the closest to the small cliff leading to the wrecks below. All three started pushing, until it was on the very edge, and one more small push would send it plummeting.
There was a scraping sound as the old wreck started to move, then a louder screech, then for a long half a second, no sound, then…CRASH! The boys were silent for a moment, then started whooping and laughing. The old Henry J had landed on an old Buick, which didn’t budge or dent. It was like a 12-ton tank. The J, however was so rusted, it just folded wherever it hit. It was another great adventure in the still new summer. But now it was time to evacuate, before some adult caught on to what they were doing.
Still laughing and retelling what each one had seen, they climbed up the hill farther, until they were hidden by a clump of trees and bushes. They stopped when they saw several rectangular boulders surrounding a campfire. Sitting on one of the boulders was their friend Tom. They all started telling the story of the junkyard at the same time, until Tom yelled at them to stop, and speak one at a time. They did, each telling about exploring the old cars, and then pushing the wreck, then they all started talking and laughing again. Finally they noticed Tom was cooking a large can of beans over the campfire. He said it was good they had joined him, because there was too much for him to eat alone. Jack thought that was a good idea, so they all sat on the flat boulders, and took turns eating the beans. Soon the beans were gone, and Jack asked Tom why he was in the woods alone. Tom explained that he had heard some older boys talking about pirate treasure up on oak hill under some flat boulders, but they didn’t know where. Tom remembered the boulders from a previous trek through the area, so he took his entrenchment shovel his Dad had when he was in the Army, grabbed a can of beans and a can opener, and climbed up to look for the treasure. He realized his mistake when he arrived, and saw the boulders were too big to move by himself.
The Treasure Hunt
Once the beans were gone, it was time to try to move the boulders. Digging, prying and pushing didn’t yield even a slight movement. Finally, they gave up when they discovered an unopened can of Campbell’s chicken noodle soup stuck between 2 of the boulders. It was rusted and dirty, and had been there for years. The boys couldn’t pass up the challenge, so they all got to work with sticks and the shovel, trying to get it out. Finally, using 4 sticks in unison, they were able to skid it to the top of the opening, where one of them could grab it. Out it came, and cheers and congratulations were exchanged. After everyone had examined the can, and confirmed that it had indeed been there for years, it was time. The campfire was refueled, and the can set in the middle of the fire. Then they all huddled behind one of the biggest boulders to wait. What seemed like hours was really only 5 to 10 minutes, and the can blew. It wasn’t a large noise, but it was enough so the boys saw the noodles flying through the air, some sticking to the trees, others falling on themselves. It didn’t matter, they were laughing too hard to care. There were noodles splattered on the rocks, and in the leaves and tree branches above the fire. The fire was almost out, partly because of the force of the explosion, but mostly from being sprayed with hot broth. The can itself was lying a foot away from the fire, split open at the seam, and almost flat. All in all, it was much more fun than digging for treasure.
After everyone had stopped laughing, and caught their breath, it was time to assess the results of the soup explosion. It really wasn’t as cool as they thought it would be. A lot of the noodles were so limp from being in the broth for years, and then boiled by the fire, that they simply disintegrated when they hit something, whether it was a leaf, a rock or a tree trunk. A few survived to hang from the trees, so that made it worthwhile. But now it was time to search for the treasure.
There were only four of them, Jack, Pete, Stu and Tom. Using Tom’s shovel, they dug holes under the boulders. They then used logs pushed under the rocks as levers, and were able, with all four of them on the lever to move the boulder, inches at a time. Eventually, they moved all four boulders enough to discover no sign of treasure, or anything underneath except bugs. By the time they had finished, they were all sweaty, tired and thirsty. It was late afternoon, and time to call it a day.
It was quitting time for the factories in Ilion too, and traffic was jammed as it was everyday at this time. The fortunate thing about the traffic jam was, Jack spotted his neighbor’s Chevy stopped in the street, waiting to get free from the snarl. Jack walked up to Mr Canova’s car, and asked if they could hitch a ride. “No problem,” Mr Canova said, so in the crawled, contented to rest while the car slowly worked its way free, and started to move. It was almost half an hour later when they turned into Mr Canova’s driveway on 2nd Street. The boys all thanked him for the ride, then slowly each went their own way toward home.
Tuesday the 26th arrived hot and humid. In the afternoon in the woods behind their house, Jack and his brother Fred were playing guns with their friends Eddie and Steve. Fred and Jack are the Americans, and Eddie and Steve are the Nazis. Moving carefully through the trees, Jack was alert for Nazi snipers that could be anywhere. Suddenly, the silence is broken by a shrill “Wee-o-Woop!”
That was the signal that everything was on hold because someone had made a discovery that canceled the adventure they were on. The rest replied with the signal themselves, and signaled back and forth until they all found each other in one place.
It was Eddie who had called off the game. “I’ve found something buried here,” he said, “it looks like a strongbox. I need help digging it out.” Sure enough, there in the hillside, the dirt had been eroded by the thunderstorm of a few days before, and the corner of a wooden box with reinforced metal corners was embedded deeply in the earth. Only a corner was visible. The ground was rocky, with tree roots in a serpentine cage over the box. They set to work, digging with sticks and sharp rocks.
“We need better digging tools.” Fred said after several minutes of frustration. Jack remembered seeing a pitchfork lying against Hawkins’s house, near the cellar door. He ran to get it, and Fred got a pickaxe from the tool shed behind their house. Their father had padlocked the shed, but Fred had found a way around it, so they were careful to put the tools back so it looked undisturbed when their dad entered the next time. Soon they were back to work, digging and chopping roots, prying out big rocks. Jack worried they wouldn’t finish before dark, and if someone else found the hole before they could return, they’d lose their treasure.
“One of us should gather twigs and leaves to disguise our hole, in case we can’t finish today.” Jack said. They elected him to perform the task. It wasn’t long before he had dragged a bunch of fallen branches from various spots in the woods. Evening was upon them by the time he returned, and Jack knew they’d all be getting called in for the night very soon. So, they covered their tracks, agreed to begin again at 9 AM the next day. They returned the tools where we took them from just in time to hear Eddie’s father whistling for him.
When Fred and Jack arrived home without anyone having to call them, their older sister knew something was up. She kept quiet though, because she knew they’d let her know about it soon enough. They didn’t keep many secrets from each other. There were seven kids in the little house, and there wasn’t much privacy, so they learned not to fight it.
A Spy in the Bushes
Wednesday the 27th
9 A.M. the next day, Fred and Jack were out the door in a flash, bringing their toy guns to keep up the pretense. They ran between the garages, and entered the shady woods, and stopped, waiting for the others to arrive. It wasn’t a long wait, so they sent them on to start, while Fred and Jack sneaked back and got the tools. They grabbed a couple of shovels this time, hoping to get the job done that day.
When we arrived at the dig site, Steve and Eddie had already cleared away the camouflage, and were ready to dig. They took turns with the shovels, because chopping through the tree roots was hard work. Two of them dug, while the other two pried out big rocks.
By midday, they had discovered the box was larger than they had imagined. They speculated what it could be, to need such a large box. Thoughts of Nazi spy stuff, pirate treasure, a time capsule, or booty from a civil war era bank robbery. Eddie was good for all kinds of wild ideas, and he kept us all working and guessing.
Suddenly, Jack got the feeling they were being watched. He looked up the hill, back toward the garages, and in the trees. No one was there. But the hairs on his neck were still prickling. Nobody else seemed affected, so he decided it was his imagination. Then, he spotted some color in the bushes that didn’t belong there. He sprang into action, and jumped on the intruder, ready for a fistfight. He stopped when he realized that the intruder was Steve’s little sister, Diana, or Danny as the kids called her. The rules for boys back then stated that you never hit a girl. Even tomboys, like Danny. Many times she had been involved in their adventures, so when she said she was exploring the woods alone, they believed her. She said she’d seen them coming and was going to jump out and scare them when the time was right, but then became fascinated when the camouflage was removed. They didn’t dare keep her out, because she was still a girl, and she’d blab if they didn’t include her. So, they gave her a shovel and told her to pitch in, which she did.
Morning slid by quickly, and soon it was late afternoon. All of the gang was covered in dirt, stuck to them by sweat. They usually got dirty playing in the woods, but this was excessive. They’d attract attention if they showed up this dirty for supper, so they knocked off early, camouflaged the dig, and snuck off down the hill to “Echo Stream Canyon.” Today, it was just to clean themselves up, partially, to avoid suspicion from parents and siblings. They left just enough dirt to look normal, then headed back to the woods, and home for supper.
The next day was rainy, so they weren’t allowed out to play in the mud. Fred and Jack amused themselves on the front porch watching the rainwater rush down the hill near the curbs. They also took the time to plan their next attack at digging out the final part of the “treasure chest.” They still hadn’t figured out what it was, because they had discovered it wasn’t made of wood after all. It wasn’t metal either, so they couldn’t figure what it could be, having been underground long enough to be surrounded by tree roots. It had to be old, but what kind of material could it be made of? The more they talked, the more anxious they became to get back to the woods, and start digging again. It rained all day, so they remained frustrated. So they decided to experiment in the cellar with treasures that were there.
There was an old TV set down there, with no cabinet. It still worked, but very poorly. They plugged it in, and then Fred took an insulated handled long screwdriver, and put it near the high voltage tube. An arc of blue lightening flew from the tube to the screwdriver blade. It was fascinating, and Jack wanted to try it. He did, and sure enough, he got the same results. It was then that Jack noticed the fresh air smell. “That’s
Ozone,” Fred explained, “It comes from the electric arc acting with the oxygen, and turns it to ozone somehow.” Jack didn’t care; he put the screwdriver in there again, and moved it around, watching the arc change shape as I followed the blade. Fred stopped him, saying too much ozone isn’t good. Besides, he wanted to experiment with the other tubes. He unplugged the set, touched the screwdriver to the high voltage tube and the chassis
to dissipate any charge left in it, and then swapped two different tubes, and turned the set on. There was the picture, a soap opera, but the image was negative. They laughed at how silly the actors looked in reverse.
Suddenly Fred stopped, and Jack could almost see a light bulb go on over his brother’s head. He turned off the set again, unplugged it, and discharged it again. Then he took out a soldering iron and some solder. Next he dug out a plastic case with several switches mounted in it, and wires dangling from it. He then he started cutting wires around the neck of the picture tube, and soldering them to the switch box wires, and soldering other wires from the switchbox to the places he had remove the wires from the TV.
It took about a half an hour, with Fred soldering and Jack assisting, but finally they finished. Jack plugged the TV in, and Fred turned it on. The soap opera was over, and Art Linkletter’s House Party was on. Fred waited for the commercial to come on, and then flicked a switch. The box of cake mix on the screen turned into a mirror image, and all the words were backwards. When the picture of a chocolate layer cake came on, Fred threw another switch, and suddenly the cake was upside down. They went through lots of TV shows and commercials for the rest of the afternoon, watching housewives pouring milk upwards, and airplanes flying upside down near the bottom of the screen, then suddenly reverse, and go the other direction. Finally it was dinnertime, and they went upstairs to wash up.
The rain turned into thunderstorms during the night, but morning arrived clear and cooler. 9 A.M. came, and they were headed to the woods for another day of digging. When they arrived at the site, they discovered the rain had washed away their camouflage, but had also contributed to exposing more of the box, or chest, or whatever it was. It was then Steve noticed that all the weeds around the hillside were leaning toward the box. What was this thing? They would soon learn.
The digging that morning was hard work, because the hole had filled with water, and the mud was heavy. They decided to dig a drainage ditch, because they were on a hillside, and the water would drain quickly. Afterwards, they gathered fresh camouflage, and covered their tracks.
The Trembling Earth
They were about to call it a day early, and come back the next morning, when they noticed the bushes and trees shivering. Then they discovered the ground was trembling also. A whooshing noise coming from the buried object caught their attention just as the camouflage blew away. The box started to rise. They all ran to hide behind trees, in case it was going to explode, but it didn’t.
It just lifted high enough to clear the hole, and then settled above ground and leveled itself. Quietly, a slot appeared in the side, and a ramp slid out to the ground. All five of them watched with gaping mouths for ten minutes, but nothing happened. Curiosity finally overtook them, and they cautiously crept out from their hiding places and approached the ramp.
They were fairly close to the box when piece of sheet metal came out of the slot, and slid down the ramp. The ramp slid back inside the slot, and the slot disappeared. Eddie picked up the sheet of metal, and then the ground started to tremble again. The whole bunch of them retreated again, and suddenly the box flew straight up in the air, and quickly flew too far away to see.
When they all caught their breath, they came back to where the box had been sitting. To their amazement, there was no evidence the box had been sitting on the hillside. The hole they dug was filled in, and even the vegetation was back like it hadn’t been disturbed. They poked the ground to see if it was an illusion, but it wasn’t. It was like nothing had happened. They all turned and looked at Eddie, who was still holding the sheet of metal. He lifted it to see what it was, when Danny pointed to the backside, and said there were letters on it. Sure enough, engraved or etched into the metal were these letters, in large uppercase font…
VQPLWQ CY CVLNL &
RKQLZQ ECM’U ZOXQQAQ UJQ DILWNTM
JL JL JL
None of them had any idea what language this was, if it was a language at all. Fred wanted to take it home and study it more, so they agreed to that. They had too much excitement that day to care, so everyone went home.
Later that day, Fred called the gang together to discuss what he discovered. When they all arrived, they sat on the front porch, so the rest of the family wouldn’t hear. Fred began…
“Because the message was written in American letters, I figured it must be written in English, only in a cryptogram. I learned from reading Sherlock Holmes stories how to decode these things, so my first step was to find the most repeated letter. It was the Q. According to Sherlock, the most used letter in English is the letter E. So, Q=E. I put the E everywhere there was a Q, and here’s what it looked like.” He showed them a paper with the Qs replaced by Es.
VEPLWE CY CVLNL &
RKELZE ECM’U ZOXEEAE UJE DILWNTM
JL JL JL
Next Fred said “You notice there is a word in the second line with an apostrophe. The letter to the right of the apostrophe could be several possible letters, but usually it is an S or a T. T is the most frequently used letter of the two, and if it’s a T, then the letter to the left of the apostrophe will usually be an N.” Fred rewrote the message with the M and U replaced with N and T.
VEPLWE CY CVLNL &
RKELZE ECN’T ZOXEEAE TJE DILWNTM
JL JL JL
“The next thing I noticed was fourth word in the second line was now TJE. The only word I could think of that would fit is THE, thus the J=H, so I replaced that. To make this short, I’ll just give you the code breakdown, and let you finish the decoding.” Below is the code Fred wrote.
A=Z C=O D=C E=D J=H K=L L=A M=N
N=M P=W Q=E R=P T=I U=T V=B W=R X=U Z=S
The guys worked it out and were baffled by what it said…
BEWARE OF OBAMA &
PLEASE DON’T SQUEEZE THE CHARMIN
HA HA HA
“What the hell does that mean?” Eddie asked. Fred just shrugged his shoulders and admitted he didn’t know. They all decided they would each take a copy home, and see if the would be able to figure it out. So off they went, each to their own home.
Jack awoke with a start! It was 8 AM, and something was wrong. He didn’t remember going to bed the night before. Fred was already awake and dressed, tying his sneakers. He looked like a boy with a mission. Jack asked where he was going, and Fred reminded him that today he had promised to take over Iggy’s paper route, because Iggy and his parents were going to meet relatives at Caroga Lake for a family reunion. Jack said “I thought that was Tuesda…” and he stopped. Tuesday was the day they had been playing guns in the woods, and found the buried box. Fred interrupted his thoughts; “Today is Tuesday bonehead. You need to stop eating that chocolate at night before bed. You were talking and snorting in your sleep all night. Now you don’t know what day it is.” “But what about the sheet metal with the message etched on it?” Jack asked him. Fred looked at him strangely, and said, “What are you babbling about now, Knucklehead? You need to splash cold water on your face to wake up!” With that, Fred was out the door, and down the stairs. Jack took his advice, and went to the bathroom, and splashed his face with cold water. He thought for a while, and then decided it was Fred who needed to wake up. He finished in the bathroom, went back to the bedroom to get dressed, and started down the stairs just as Fred was closing the front door behind himself.
Jack’s mother was in the dining room clearing off the table to make room for the rest of her children who would be down for breakfast soon. Apart from Fred, Jack was the first to the table. He asked his Mom what day it was, and she replied it was the 26th. “No, I mean is it Saturday?” “No Jackie,” she said, “its Tuesday. You need to get to bed earlier. You’ve got the early morning goofies.” She wiped some hair away that was dropping on his forehead, and asked him what he wanted for breakfast. He didn’t really want anything, because his stomach was in turmoil, but he told her he only wanted a bowl of cereal. He knew he would never be allowed out of the house without eating, so he poured a bowl of Cheerios for himself, added milk and ate. When he finished, he went out through the back porch, and left by the back door.
A trip to “The Flats.”
Of course, the first place he went was back in the woods. No sign of anything, there was some slight signs of the rain from last Thursday, but most was covered by new growth of weeds. He slowly walked back out of the woods, and noticed there was no pitchfork behind the Hawkins’ house. He went to the tool shed behind his house, and there was no secret technique to sneak in. He finally decided that it had all been a very vivid dream, or he had taken a trip to another dimension for a few days. He walked back out front, got on his bike, and rolled down the hill. Today was a day to spend some time in the Victory Diner, drink coffee, and wait for the mid morning geezers to come in.
Jack sat there for 2 hours, listening to tall tales, then left and headed for the flats. There was an old cobblestone road that ran next to the West Shore tracks, so he followed it until he was alongside an old brick ruin. Parking his bike, he climbed through the broken walls, and up on the concrete foundation that was divided into several rectangular sections. He hadn’t been exploring in here since the autumn before, and was sure he would find some interesting artifacts from long ago. The only difference was, the trees that had been growing in the middle of these cells were bigger and the weeds and vines were thicker. He gave up on the old warehouse, and rode around several loops in the dirt roads that ran through what once was a dump. Nothing there either, so he went to the shore of the canal, where Steele’s creek emptied in. There were 2 or 3 concrete slabs that lined the corner of the creek, and kids had painted obscenities on them. Jack ignored the graffiti, and sat down on the slab. It was always a place to sit near the water without getting muddy, or being bothered by bugs. He enjoyed just sitting there, watching the slow current carrying whatever was there that day.
“Hey Jack!” a voice boomed behind him. He was caught daydreaming, and almost fell in the water as he jumped in surprise. He caught himself, and looked up to see Jim Douglas standing there laughing. Jim was in his twenties, and spent a lot of time fishing from the canal. He was also full of tall tales about his time in the Army, and all the women he had. All the kids knew he was full of baloney, but his stories were interesting anyway. Jack knew he would never eat any fish that came out of the smelly canal, but he’d never seen Jim taking any home either. He had seen him catch several large carp and suckers, but he would usually throw them down hard on the shore, because they weren’t trout.
Today, Jim cast his line in the canal, propped it up on a fork shaped branch he’d pushed in the ground, and sat down and lit a cigarette. He told Jack about the gigantic fish he’d hooked here 2 days prior, but it broke his line and got away. Today, he said, he was using 50-pound test line, so it wouldn’t get away. Of course, Jack knew there weren’t any fish in the canal as big as Jim described, but it was fun to listen to his fish stories. Jim was about to light another cigarette, when they both noticed the tip of his fish pole twitching. Something was nibbling on his bait. Jim stood up, and jerked his rod to snag the fish, but suddenly the reel started spinning like crazy. Jim grabbed the reel, and managed to stop it, but his rod was bending severely. Suddenly, not 20 feet away, a huge fish jumped up and back under again, and then the rod sprung back. The line had broken. As Jim stood there swearing at the fish that was long gone, Jack sat there wide-eyed. That fish was as big around as Jim, and Jim wasn’t a little guy! Which meant that Jim wasn’t telling fish stories about the big fish he’d hooked. Jack knew before this happened that Jim was one of those guys who had a talent for catching fish that most people don’t have, despite superior creels and tackle. But what bothered Jack the most was, if Jim wasn’t lying about his big fish, what about his war stories? They were unbelievable, but were they based on true experiences?
Jim was angry about his broken line, and after swearing for a while, he packed up his gear and left. Jack got on his bike and left in the other direction. This was too much to swallow in one day.
Wednesday, the 27th, Jack had some chores to do at home, so he took the time, ate lunch, and the headed for Montgomery Street to see if any of the gang were up to anything. They were. He ran into them as they were headed to the field at the east end of Montgomery Street. Apparently the Berger brothers had been experimenting with CO2 cartridges to propel model cars, and became bored with that. They had a bunch of empty cartridges, and decided to stuff them with match heads to see if lighting them would propel the cars better. Well, it did. About a thousand times better. In fact, it propelled the car so well, it slammed into a wall and busted into a million pieces. The cartridge kept going after it bounced off the wall, and got lost. That was when they decided to use another match-filled cartridge to propel a model plane. They didn’t have one, so they went to Pete’s house, but Pete didn’t have one either, then they went to Stu’s house, and he didn’t have one, but asked why didn’t they just put the cartridge into a piece of pipe, and make it into a rocket. They all agreed, and found a piece of pipe in Stu’s garage, modified it a little with a hammer and hacksaw, and took off to the field to launch it. They used a couple of clothespins stuck in the ground to hold the pipe upright, used some adhesive tape as a fuse, lit it, and jumped down the bank to shield themselves against any malfunction.
The cartridge took off like a bullet, leaving the pipe behind. In a second or two it was out of sight, and they never did see it return. They thought it was on its way to Mars or something. Although the launch was an overwhelming success, they really wanted to track it. Jack remembered he had a tire pump for his bike that no longer worked, and the outer tube seemed, to his memory, to be almost the same diameter as the CO2 cartridge. The Bergers said they had more cartridges, and what was left of a package of blue tip book matches. They felt sure there was enough for at least one more rocket. Jack said he would go home and get the pump tube that would contain the cartridge, and do something to make it more visible. In the meantime, the other guys said they would go with the Berger brothers, and fill another cartridge. Jack grabbed the launching pipe, and headed home.
Once at home and in the cellar, he found the pump right where he had left it. He disassembled it, and then drilled 2 tiny holes in the open end. Next, he went to the attic, and found the Christmas decorations. He grabbed a spool of red ribbon, went back to the cellar, grabbed the tube, and went to the Berger’s house. They had just finished when he arrived, so they headed for the field again. Once they arrived, Jack inserted the cartridge into the tube, and it was a perfect fit. He removed it again, and tied some pieces of ribbon to the tube, while Stu hooked up the adhesive tape fuse, and handed it to Jack. He stuck it in the pump tube, then carefully slid the ribbon, the fuse and finally the assembled rocket into the launching pipe. Once it was upright on the ground, he carefully pushed the ribbons up into the launching pipe so the fuse wouldn’t ignite them.
Everything seemed ready, so they lit the fuse, and jumped over the bank again. Again, the sound was GWASHINNG! But this time, because of the long pump tube, and the ribbons streaming behind it, they were able to watch it climb. Up, up, up it went, then seemed to hang there for a second, then flipped over, and started back down, the ribbons trailing behind. Unfortunately, it wasn’t heading back down on the field, but down the bank, into the woods. They saw where it fell, and they all started down the embankment to where it landed. When they arrived at where it should have been, it wasn’t there. They spread out, searching a wider area, but it seemed to have vanished. Discouraged, they climbed the hill, collected the launch tube, and sat on the steps that led down to the 1st Street Bridge, and discussed what went wrong. They decided they needed a bigger rocket, one with a pointed nose and stabilizer fins. They also thought maybe if they fueled it with gunpowder, and attached a parachute to it, maybe they could track it better. But they were only kids, and had no knowledge of how to make a metal rocket ship. So they decided to put the project on hold, and go down behind Loblaws, and look for some rotten fruits to drop from the Odd Old Moron’s Temple fire escape. That was the second best adventure, if they couldn’t be successful rocket scientists.
When they arrived behind Loblaws, they were disappointed again. There was nothing there at all. Pete had a quarter in his pocket, so he told the gang to wait in the woods behind the store, because he was going to buy a pack of cigarettes, and they could sit in the hobo jungle there and smoke. So, the rest of the guys went down to the woods, and Pete went into the store. When he went into the woods after leaving the store, he was surprised to see the gang sitting on the ground watching 2 bums making stew in a 2 gallon tin can, filled with creek water and the fruits and vegetables from the waste pile of Loblaws. Jack recognized one of the bums as “Dancin’ Slim,” an old drunk who hung out in downtown Ilion, and tap danced while asking for donations for his drinking habit. He was actually a pretty good dancer, but no one took him seriously. He was tall and skinny, and was another teller of lies. The other bum no one recognized, but there was no doubt he was another drunken bum like Slim.
Pete sat down with the others, and Slim offered to share his “stew” with them, but the boys declined. Pete took out his pack of cigarettes, and offered one to each of the gang. Slim and his nameless pal asked for one also, and Pete obliged. Then Slim and his buddy scooped out a tin can full of the stew, and sat down. Then nameless bum said, “Do you boys know that Slim is famous? Well let me tell you about it. 5000 years ago, Slim walked across the Atlantic Ocean. Barefoot!” With that statement, Slim said “ Haw haw haw, get outa town, baby.” Then nameless started again. He pointed to Slim’s skinny bald head, and said ”Look closely at Slim’s head. Did you know that none other than Bad Masterson fashioned the head of his cane after Slim’s head? Yessiree!” Then Jack said “Well that’s great stuff, but we have to meet a friend in a few minutes, so we have to get going.” They got up, and headed up the embankment toward Weisbecker Hill.
Heading home, Jack said, “That was weird, those old galoots were pretty crazy. If my Dad ever found out I was hanging around those old bums, he’d have a fit.” The other guys agreed, but they all knew if they ran into them again, they’d hang around to hear more stories. Stu asked about visiting the dump the next day. They all agreed, and the Bergers took the right fork up Belleview Ave, and the rest continued up the left side.
Thursday, the 28th, the guys all met at Stu’s house, and then headed down to the field, then down the paths through the woods to Main Street. They crossed the bridge over the creek, and then across the street and through the park, zigzagging around side streets until the West Shore Railroad tracks led them east. So far, the day had been great, and the trip down the tracks was, as usual, an adventure in itself. Bugs, snakes and other critters were in their usual abundance, but when they reached the siding near the dump, there was an added bonus. A boxcar was sitting on the tracks, all by itself. The guys were disappointed when they found the doors were locked shut, but it didn’t stop them from climbing the rungs on the side. Soon they were all on top, and surveying their kingdom from on high. The sky was blue, the breeze warm, and they all knew this was going to be another great day, with new adventures.
After a short while, they climbed down, and were about to continue down the tracks, when Jack stopped them. He walked partway alongside the boxcar until he found an L shaped metal rod sticking out the side. Then he grabbed it and pulled. SHEEEEUUSH! The airbrake let go of its pressure in a huge gush that awed them all. Jake Berger grabbed the lever to do it again, but there was no more air left in the tank. That was their cue to continue on toward the dump.
They arrived at the dump and were surprised to see a fire truck parked near the slurry. There were several firemen and a couple of cops standing around talking. Jack saw why the fire department was there. The slurry was packed tight with potato plants that were about twelve feet tall. Then one of the firemen walked up to the slurry with an Indian pump in his hand. He pointed the nozzle toward the top of the potato plants, and squeezed the release valve. A stream of liquid squirted up, and started drenching the plants. He went all around the plants, making sure all was doused with the liquid. It was then that Jack smelled gasoline, and understood what was going to happen. The cops and firemen backed away from the slurry, and one of them lit a torch, and threw it towards the slurry. Before it even touched the potato plant, the gasoline fumes ignited with a loud FWOOF sound. A mushroom cloud of black smoke blew straight up into the air above the slurry, and the entire bunch of potato plants were blazing. While this was going on, the firemen were connecting hoses up to the fire truck, and then waited for the fire to do its work. After a while, the flames died down, and there was very little left of the potatoes, just blackened ashes in a pile. Then a backhoe emerged from behind the incinerator plant, followed by a dump truck. The firemen sent a stream of water on the ashes, then waited while the backhoe scraped the ashes from the slurry, and put them in the dump truck. Then he started digging into the slurry, and piled the stinky soil next to the slurry. The dirt was loaded with huge potatoes! When the slurry was completely emptied, the truck and the backhoe went back behind the incinerator plant again. The same fireman that had sprayed the plants with gas then went forward and doused the potatoes and dirt with gasoline. He walked away, and another torch was tossed on the spud pile. Soon it was crackling and popping. Every so often the fire would emit a sound like a dog howling, or a crying woman. It was obvious this fire would last longer, because of the potatoes burning, and the humus rich soil.
The backhoe and the dump truck reappeared, and they scooped up the ashes, and put them in the truck. The truck then left the dump. Next, the fire truck filled the slurry with water. Some kind of pump kicked on in the slurry, and the water seemed to be pumping out and back in, with lots of mud and bubbles. The water was then pumped out, and the fire truck and everyone else left. Then, the big pipes in the slurry started to fill it again, but this time it was with thick, brown smelly fluid. The guys knew what that was, so they retreated to the far side of the dump.
There had apparently been a lot of activity since they were last there, because there was lots of new treasure there. They got busy sorting through stuff, when Jack spotted a fresh looking cardboard box in the woods near the canal. It was about two feet square, so Jack quietly sauntered over, imagining a box full of money, or perhaps a new TV or phonograph. When he got there, he opened the top flap, and yelled. He quickly shut and folded the flap shut. The rest of the crew arrived to see why he yelled. “There’s a huge sewer rat in that box!” He yelled. The other guys laughed at him, but Jack was not interested. He picked up the box, and ran with it to the canal, and boosted it as far out in the water as he could. Then, he started throwing rocks at the box, trying to sink it. The other boys joined in, and soon the box went under the surface. Jack was still angry, and kept throwing rocks in the water. Then he went and sat on a boulder, and caught his breath. The other guys were praising him for his courage, but they were cautious because they hadn’t seen that wild side of him before. That day, they decided to never mess with Jack.
The Egg Capers
After everyone had calmed down, Stu walked up to Jack, and said, “You’re going to love what I found over there.” pointing to the trash pile. “It’s several dozen rotten eggs!” Jack’s eyes lit up, and quietly asked Stu to not tell the others about the several cartons, but only one. Stu said, “I’m one step ahead of you. While you and the rat distracted everyone, I hid most of them in the bushes off the end of the dump. I figured they could last us all summer, if we played our cards right.” Jack was complimenting him for his wisdom, when someone asked why they were mumbling with each other. Jack replied that when the treasure hunt was over, they were all going to have a pleasant treat. “What, rat burgers?” Jake asked jokingly. Jack responded, “No Jake, that would only be a treat for you. The rest of us don’t eat rats.” They went back to picking through the trash, tossed a few spray cans into the fire, and gathered their precious loot. Jack asked Stu to show them the treat, and most of the guys loved it, except Pete, who said, “What good are a dozen rotten eggs?” Jack assured him that he’d be pleased on the way home. They followed the West Shore tracks all the way to Central Ave, and then took Main over to Morgan St, and by then they all knew what was going to happen. After turning right onto First St, they all started up the fire escape to the top floor of the Odd Old Moron’s building. They each grabbed an egg, and on signal, released them, yelling “Geronimo!” Laughing down the stairs, they stopped long enough to enjoy the disgusting mass of yellow and black yolks splattered far and wide. It was then time to high tail it to the First St Bridge, then up the stairs and the north path. Stopping at the top of the path, and sitting on the steps, they discussed their next move. They would meet here again after 9 PM that night. The Library would be closed, and it would be just dark enough to find their target, and scatter after to avoid capture if they were spotted. Yes, they were going to egg the sculpted head on the front of the Library.
9 P.M. The conspirators were on the north path leading to the First Street steps. After each one was armed with one egg apiece, they concealed their ammunition in pockets, and walked toward the steps, and the assault. Down the steps they went, across the bridge, then turned right and went behind the Catholic Church and school. That brought them out just two doors away from their target. Slowly, they moved closer, cautiously watching in all directions for traffic or pedestrians. They wanted no witnesses. Finally, they were in front of the Library, and the street was deserted. With no signal, they fired the eggs in unison at the red stone face, then casually walked to the Second Street side, and strolled west. Finally, they couldn’t control their laughter any longer, and headed down the Episcopal Church driveway towards the woods, and safety.
Once they were deep in the woods, they all sat down and laughed while they each described their part in the attack. It was near 9:30, and the village was quiet, and time for the gang to split up, and head home, before they got in trouble. So another exciting day was over.
9 A.M. The 29th, and Jack had to spend time at home, scraping paint from the side of the house. It was all peeling, and was going to be painted the following week. The family decided that the older kids would do the painting, but Jack could do the scraping on the lower part of the house, and others could do the more dangerous parts. Jack put his mind to it, and finished the west side just before noon. Then he went inside, cleaned up, had lunch, and rode his bike to the Library. Parking his bike, he walked up the steps to get a close look, stifled his laughter, and went inside. He went directly to the magazine section, picked up the latest Look Magazine, and sat down at a table near the Librarian’s desk, so he could hear the chatter when the older folks came to the desk.
It wasn’t long before a skinny old lady came marching up to the desk, and loudly and indignantly started telling the librarian what had happened to the face sculpture. The librarian shushed her, and told her in a low voice that everyone had seen it when they arrived to work that morning. The police were investigating. The skinny lady replied with the usual “That kind of behavior wouldn’t have been tolerated in my day, blah blah blah…” Finally, she went to the fiction section, and began looking for her usual stuff. She hadn’t been gone a minute, before a fat lady came in, and basically did and said what the previous lady had said. When she had finished, Jack walked up behind her, shushed her, and commented how his generation knew better than to raise their voices in the library. He saw the librarian stifle a smile at that one, and then he left. Out on his bike and riding again, he was amazed that the librarian wasn’t upset with him. She was a straight-laced old biddy that usually wasn’t happy when kids entered her domain at the library. Yes, this summer was turning out to be legendary.
The Gorge Adventure
Stopping at the Odd Fellows wasn’t profitable, but as he was about to ride away, Jack saw the Berger twins wandering his way. They stopped to talk, and said they were headed to the Gorge to look for fossils. That idea appealed to Jack, so he decided to join them. He took his bike home, and then met them at the library.
It was getting toward 2:30 before they arrived at “the barrels.” It was called that because there was a retaining wall next to the creek there, built out of 55-gallon drums and concrete. It is built on a curve in the creek, so it caused the water to pool there, deep enough for swimming. But today they were there to go fossil hunting. Across the road from the barrels, the hillside was all shale, and red iron ore. That’s where they were going to explore. They spread out, and started sifting through the shale. It wasn’t long before they realized that the shale was too pulverized to hold any fossils. Just sifting it to find larger pieces sent little cloud of dust into their faces. Looking up, they could see ledges of large shale sticking out of the cliff-like hillside. It was all loose shale there, and almost straight up, so they knew they couldn’t climb the hill there. So, they walked down the road until they found a spot that looked solid enough to climb. They found a spot, and up they went.
Once they arrived on top, they walked a very short distance to the shale deposits. Unfortunately, the big chunks were below where the solid footing was. But, there were trees nearby that were solidly rooted in the earth, so they hung on to a tree with one hand, and yanked big slabs of slate with the other. All was going well until Jack lost his grip on the tree he was holding, and stated to slide toward the cliff edge. He was lucky enough to grab another tree, but it was much smaller, and was rooted in the loose shale. Jack suddenly found himself in mid air, hanging onto a tree that was flying with him. He let it go just as he hit the pile of loose shale below. When he opened his eyes again, all around him was a gray fog. It was then that he found breathing was hard because he was surrounded by shale dust. He got to his feet, and ran toward the breeze that was blowing, and almost hit a car that was stopped on the road. He was free of the dust, but was still coughing and sneezing. The driver got out, leaving a blinker light going, and asked Jack if a bomb had gone off. Jack was covered with dirt, and lots of minor cuts and scrapes, so he looked worse off than he was. He recognized the driver as a high school kid named Dan O’Donovan. Jack told him he was okay, and had only fell off a cliff. The cloud of dust was still blocking visibility up the road, so he still couldn’t see where he fell. Dan asked if he wanted to be driven to the hospital, but Jack declined, stating that he had two friends still on top of the hill. “No we’re not,” said a voice behind Jack. It was Jake Berger. They had climbed down below the cliff, where they had climbed up. They asked Dan if he would drive them to Jack’s house, so his parents could decide about a doctor visit. Jack agreed to that, because he was worn out from the fall, and the coughing up dust. Dan said he didn’t mind, because the dust was still blocking the view of the road. His windshield was covered too, so a little fast driving would clean his car off too. So they all got in, Dan turned the car around, and sped down the road and up to Jack’s house.
When Dan dropped Jack off at home, he entered the house quietly, and went straight upstairs to his room. He grabbed some fresh clothes, and went to the bathroom, and started filling the tub. Removing his dirty clothes, he tossed them all in the hamper. Then he climbed into the tub, and quickly bathed and washed his hair before anyone noticed he was in there. He dried off, dressed, and went to his room again to wait for his hair to dry.
After his hair was somewhat dry, Jack slipped down the stairs, opened the front door, shut it again, and walked in the living room. There, standing near the entrance, were his brother Fred and sister Maggie. He knew that they knew he was hiding something, so they guided him quietly to the front porch. Jack understood that they were going to blackmail him about whatever it was that caused him to be sneaking around. Once he explained that he didn’t want to worry his Mom, it took all the curiosity out of it, and they all went inside. It was suppertime, so all was back to normal.
Saturday, the 30th
Jack slept in, but got up when Fred came in and told him Stu and Pete were downstairs, waiting to see him. So, Jack threw on some clothes, and went down to see what was up. They went out to the porch to discuss things in private, but there was Fred, waiting. Pete said it didn’t matter, Fred was okay to be in on it.
It seems the Bergers had made another rocket, but they had used up their blue tipped matches, so they bought another box of them, but they turned out to be red tipped. They didn’t think anything of it, but when the launched it, it exploded instead. The pipe they were using as a launcher was blown apart also. So the Bergers are back home, filling 2 more cartridges, and then the whole crew are going to the dump to blow up some junk. Jack thought that was great, but Fred, being a little older, was being a little more cautious. It didn’t matter to the other guys, and if Fred wanted to stay farther away, it was okay with them. They headed over to the Berger’s house, but the Bergers met them half way. They all headed happily to the dump.
They arrived at the dump, and were astounded to see a gigantic potato, seemingly pushing its way up from beneath the ground, where it had apparently been covertly growing. It was sticking about 2 feet out of the ground, and was apparently still growing. The boys knew what they had to do. They only had 2 cartridge bombs, but they decided if they gouged holes in either end of the spud, and pushed the bombs deep inside, they would have enough explosive to at least stop the growth.
Gouging out the holes wasn't a problem, because they had jackknives, so it wasn't long before the preparation was done. After inserting the cartridges and fuses, the looked around to be sure there were no vehicles approaching to dump their garbage. All was clear. There was a pile of dirt about 20 feet away from the spud, so they left Jack to light both fuses, while the rest hid behind the dirt pile. Jack wasn't worried, the wind was calm, and he knew the fuses were slow burning. He lit them, the ran to join the others behind the safety of the dirt pile.
The first bomb exploded, and it was much louder than Jack expected, and the second one went off before he had recovered from the noise of the first. The gang started to slowly creep out from behind the pile, when suddenly they were being rained on by pieces of potato. There was no place to take cover, but it didn't matter because the spud shower was over quickly. They approached the remains of the potato, and found they had been successful. There were a few larger pieces around, but the spud had been blown clean out of the ground, leaving an empty hole. They were about to peer into the hole, when they heard a low pitched growling sound, and the ground started trembling.
A Disaster Underground
Suddenly, the ground collapsed below them, and they were all sliding down into the dirt hole. The slide stopped when they landed on a smooth concrete floor. They were in an underground building, in a hallway. Another growling sound came from above, and they saw the ceiling sliding across the hole, sealing them in. Next, a group of men in black outfits with masks came from a door behind them, handcuffed them, and marched them down the hall, and locked them into a room. At the far end of the room, a long window was bordered by floodlights, shining at them. They couldn't see what was behind the glass, but they felt someone was behind the glass watching them.
“Stay seated on the floor!” a voice ordered, the sound coming from speakers in the ceiling. “You have interfered with our potato surveillance devices too many times. You are now captives of the Fascist Potato Army. You have caused damage, and have inadvertently entered our facility here under Ilion. You are now condemned to a life of servitude to us, here underground. We will be expanding here, and growing our influence above for at least 50 years. Once we are in power above, we will probably set you free, since the entire population will be brainwashed by then, and you will all be in your sixties.”
“You will be virtual slaves, under constant guard, and any disobedience will be severely dealt with. Your guards will be bringing you food and water soon, so rest while you can.”
This is the finale of the D and Ilion Wine series. I am unable to disclose more about their adventures, because the Great Potato Conspiracy would silence me if I said too much.