3/5/11

I have a raft of crap to share.

When I was a kid, my father had an amazing vegetable garden. He grew tomatoes the size of cantaloupe, and cucumbers the size of baseball bats. Our garden was awesome, and it was also stolen, but I'll get to that. I didn't mind going down there at dusk to gather vegetables, but I hated it during the day. I hated it because it was full of wasps, bees, and yellowjackets, and I was deathly afraid of them. It was the same reason I hated playing centerfield in baseball. Everyone else was concerned about fly balls, and I was concerned about the fact that they stuck me in a clover-filled, continually buzzing, bee-infested hell. It's no wonder I sucked.

Here's why I hate bees. When I was about 6 or 7 years old, we embarked on our annual trip to Markie's grandmother's camp on Lake St. Catherine in Vermont. The camp was right down by the water, and the road ran behind the camps, about a hundred feet up the hill. Since they frequently had multiple guests which usually meant multiple cars, they had built a retaining wall and leveled out a fairly large parking area up by the road.

When we got there, Markie was already up by the road waiting for us. The second the car stopped moving, The Snitch and I jumped out.

"Hey you guys! Wanna go fishing?" Markie said, not wasting any time.

My mother interjected. "Life jackets," she said. "And no standing up in the boat."

"Yeah!" The Snitch said. "Let's go!" We couldn't wait. We were so excited to finally be there, that we just leaped off the top of the retaining wall instead of taking the steps. The second we hit the ground we were in trouble for two reasons. One, because we knew were weren't supposed to jump off the wall, and two, because unbeknownst to us, this wall provided the living quarters for half the world's population of white-faced hornets. If you know anything about these things, I don't have to tell you what vile little bastards they are. If you don't, this sums it up nicely:

Bald-faced hornets are protective of their nests and will sting repeatedly if the nest is physically disturbed. They are more aggressive than both the wasps normally called yellowjackets and members of the Vespa genus, and it is not considered safe to approach the nest for observation purposes. The bald-faced hornet will aggressively attack with little provocation.

They are the Sean Penn's of the insect world, and they were all over us. We ran down the hill screaming, slapping wildly at our heads, necks and faces as the hornets stung us repeatedly. If we were smart, we would have immediately run to the dock and jumped into the lake, but we were kids so we did the dumb thing, which was to run inside the camp. The kitchen was thrown into complete chaos as Markie's mom, sister and grandmother were suddenly surrounded by screaming kids and a cloud of seriously pissed off hornets. By the time we got everything under control, we had all been stung about a dozen times each, and everyone else in the kitchen had been stung at least once or twice. It was a great first ten minutes at camp. We never did get out fishing that day, mostly because venom and Benadryl takes a lot out of you.

So now you know why I hate bees.

Back to the garden. Our backyard was bordered by a body of water that you could refer to as a bog if you wanted to be kind, and a disgusting swamp if you wanted to be accurate. We all called it the swamp because were were nothing if not honest. It was the kind of water that looked like iced tea, but if you stirred up the mud at the bottom it smelled like rotten eggs. As a result of this swamp being where it was, we had a chain link fence all along the border to our backyard, and just past the fence, there was a steep hill down to this crystal clear water. My father was loathe to give up this sloping land as a lost cause, so he put a gate in the fence to allow access to his beautiful waterfront.

Markie, The Snitch and I played along the shoreline of this cesspool constantly when we were kids. We caught frogs, pollywogs (our name for tadpoles), salamanders and probably a few random diseases, but we had fun. There was a narrow channel behind our house that led out to a larger body of water we called "The Pond." We ice skated on it every winter, and even tried fishing in it once or twice, since we knew there were bullheads living there. We knew this because one extremely hot summer, the pond dried up almost completely and the entire population of bullheads was concentrated in a writhing black puddle about four feet square. It was disgusting, but that didn't stop us from walking out there and grabbing a half dozen in a bucket and bringing them home and putting them in my mother's ornamental water feature in front of the house.

One day, when we were bored, I looked at Markie and The Snitch and said, "You guys wanna build a raft?" I thought it would be cool to build a raft like the ones I always saw on TV. It didn't look that hard, and we had access to everything we needed. It didn't take much to convince them, and they both signed on to the project since it beat fighting over who was going to grab the next leopard frog.

Obviously, all you need to build a raft are a few good-sized logs, and a bunch of boards to nail across them. It took us about two hours to go out to where they had started logging, and find two 24" wide, four-foot-long white pine logs, then roll them all the way from the woods to our back yard. We also "found" a pile of pressure-treated 2x4's in the woods and brought those home too. When we had the logs evenly spaced, we nailed the boards to the top. Boom. Instant raft. It weighed so much the three of us could barely move it. "You think it'll float?" asked Markie. "Yeah, I think once we get it in the water it'll be lighter," I said.

As you can see, my vast, encyclopedic knowledge of watercraft design was learned entirely from watching Saturday morning cartoons. We thought that once it hit the water, we'd all be bobbing around like Huck and Tom on the Mississippi.

We moved it by flipping it end over end. By luck, the last flip placed it upside down at the water's edge. One more flip would place the entire raft in the water, and then we'd be on our way. When we were ready, we all lined up behind it. "OK, ready?" Markie said. "FLIP IT!"

We heaved it up on end, then shoved it over hard. It hit the water and made a sound like "SPLUT!" which was clearly not a floaty sound. It obviously needed to be farther out. We all got behind it again and shoved as hard as we could, and instead of floating free, it plowed mud like that was its job. As we strained our puny, pre-teen muscles, the raft sunk down to the level of its top boards and got completely hung up on the swampy bottom. It had moved a total of about three feet from shore and was floating about as well as a bridge abutment.

Markie hopped from shore onto the raft and it sunk a little more, the tea-stained water lapping at his sneakers. He walked to the far edge, and rocked it a bit. It wasn't budging. "Go get the skimmer pole," I said to The Snitch. He ran back to the garage and got the aluminum pole from the pool skimmer. We handed it to Markie, thinking maybe he could push off with it. No such luck. It wasn't moving. At this point we realized that our cartoon physics had failed us miserably.

"I don't think this is gonna work," I said. "I think it's too heavy."

"At least we can use it for a platform to catch pollywogs," The Snitch said. He always was a "half-full" kind of guy.

We tried to pull it back out, but that wasn't any more successful than pushing it farther in. This problem required some additional thought. We didn't want to abandon it completely, since we figured we could use the wood for something else, but we also didn't want to stand in disgusting swamp water in order to dismantle it. We all remembered the story about the kid from Broderick Street who had gone swimming in the pond on a dare and came out covered in leeches. That wasn't going to happen to us. We weren't going to end up with leech feet. No way. We weren't going in there without some kind of protection.

We pondered the problem, and thought maybe we could use garbage bags, or even just wear a pair of old sneakers and socks. It would still be gross and disgusting work, but it would get our boards back. Our other option was to wait until late August when the swamp dried up a little, which might allow us to walk out there on relatively solid ground and pry the good wood off the top.

Meanwhile, my father was hatching his own unrelated plan. He didn't have room for a garden in our backyard, and that fact sorely pained him. What he did have, however, was about 30 feet of sloping shoreline that he didn't particularly care for. His plan was to expand his back yard into the swamp, thereby creating an area he could use to plant vegetables that would no doubt flourish from all of the disgusting fertilizer they would be able to suck up from the bottom. Roughly, this would involve cutting into the hill, building a retaining wall, then pushing the excess dirt out into the water until it created a new shoreline, which, while technically not his, was not likely to be contested by the actual owner of the swampy mess.

We were only peripherally aware of this civil engineering exercise, and didn't give it much thought. As long as we didn't have to do any of the work, we didn't care. We were preoccupied with getting the raft out of the muck without ending up with leech-covered ankles.

Unfortunately, this is where our two separate plans butted heads. One day we came home from school, changed out of our school clothes and went down to the raft, which we had taken to calling our "dock" since calling it a raft was kind of a misnomer since rafts generally float and move about freely, whereas docks do not.

In the meantime, my father had gotten himself some telephone poles from somewhere. I have no idea where they came from, but I can only assume he must have had lineman connections. Apparently, just chopping off the hill wasn't enough. He figured it would be hard to level the newly created ground, since he was originally planning to just push the dirt out into the water. In his new plan, he decided to use the telephone poles to actually box in an area of the swamp, and then get a few extra truck loads of dirt to fill it in, basically creating a giant raised bed for his garden that extended out into the swamp.

This was all fine and dandy, except for one thing: when The Snitch and I went to check on the progress, we realized that the far corner of the new garden plot was now entirely supported by our raft, which had apparently become an integral part of his design. We complained indignantly to our father, but it did no good. We watched as wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow of dirt finally covered our outstanding workmanship, turning it into the abutment it was always fated to be.

We went across the street and broke the news to Markie. He was bummed and a little miffed that my father had the unmitigated gall to use our raft without asking us first, but he also realized that there wasn't much we could do about it. Later that summer, we discovered an old styrofoam sailboat that someone had dragged to the pond, and that was infinitely better since it actually floated. We used a long pole and pushed ourselves around the pond and down through all the feeder channels and it was amazing, like the time Scooby Doo and Shaggy had to rescue the rest of the gang from the swamp witch, only in our version there were way more mosquitoes and (we think) one less swamp witch.

Over the ensuing years, we never really forgot about the raft, and always joked about how our kid logic told us it would actually float. Even today, we give my father crap about using it without our permission.

I can still remember being down in the garden years later, studiously avoiding bees while gathering vegetables for my mother. Sometimes I'd take an extra second to walk over to the water's edge and look down, where I could just barely see the edge of our raft sticking out from under the stacked telephone poles, just to see how it was holding up.

We moved out of that particular house when I was a junior in high school, but even now, in my mind's eye, our raft is still there, solidly supporting my dad's old garden just like it was meant to.


[edit: Holy crap! Thank you, Google Earth.]



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PS - we have a winner! Actually two winners. While there were quite a few good ones, (and some that made me a little scared to piss you guys off) my favorite was written by ArtistMommy because I didn't expect it. I also liked Magic27's "Didn't see that truck" entry (even though there was an extraneous word in there), so I'm going to call that one a winner too.

Congrats! E-mail me your mailing addresses and I'll get the books right out to you. Also let me know if you want me to sign it. Thanks for playing everyone. I enjoyed it and I hope you did too! You guys are more twisted than I am.




16 comments:

  1. Awfully Tom Sawyer of you. I'm especially jealous of your casual mention of being able to ICE SKATE in your OWN BACKYARD.

    Since some of us are city kids who weren't allowed to play in front of the house without supervision.

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  2. Love it! So typically Johnny!
    Peace <3
    Jay

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  3. Hm... why does this story smack of "Stand By Me"? At least the leeches would only be attached to your ankles...

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  4. TEM, Yeah that was pretty sweet.

    Thanks Jay!

    Heather, I know! When I first read The Body and saw Stand by Me, I loved the leech scene! It reminded me so much of our pond.

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  5. so many of my best childhood memories involve stolen lumber.

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  6. my dad was a lineman. (you thought i was going to say "for the county", didn't you?) he brought home old utility poles (which are still lining beds in the yard) and giant cable spools which we used for coffee tables. the 70s were particularly ugly at our house.

    there was a swamp across the road at the bottom of a cornfield. the fact that we couldn't tell how deep it was made it all the creepier.

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  7. kristina12:23 PM

    That was an amazing raft of crap...

    Stinging insects - hate 'em. One sting causes a grapefruit-sized welt, so twelve would have me dying.

    P.S. Congrats to the haiku winners!

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  8. "It hit the water and made a sound like "SPLUT!" which was clearly not a floaty sound"

    :D Ha ha haaa!! Loved the post JV! :)

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  9. Hmmm..
    Johnny, if *you're* calling *us* twisted..well what can I say? Heh

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  10. My sister refers to something she calls the "muck" when she talks about a local swamp near our house. I'm surprised to hear you use the term since I thought it was a local word! But on a side note, did you live in that giant house in the picture? I think I see a shed of some sort near a crossroads, a gazebo in the woods, and a giant space building that looks like it has sliders to a deck on the side. That's a big-ass house. At least your raft seems to be untouched!

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  11. daisyfae, mine too...mine too.

    Marianne, we had spool tables in our fort!

    kristina, I'm not allergic, I just hateses them. i still haven't heard from the other winner....

    WordAddict, thanks. I figured nobody liked it since the comments were light.

    Morris, I stand by my statement.

    Jen, the original house didn't have a chimney...everthing from the chimney over was added later.

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  12. I can't believe you didn't pick mine. It made me laugh out loud, anyway.

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  13. yeah you should get one. email me your address and I'll give you the one that was supposed to go to the guy I haven't heard from yet. it's like the lost and found up in here.

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  14. islgrl7:04 PM

    Ok, this whole thing is pretty funny - BUUUUTTT, more importantly (to me) is that I grew up right down the street from Lake St. Catherine so to see it randomly mentioned in a blog totally made my day...

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  15. really? pretty cool. That was a nice, clear lake.

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