Hey Kid. C'mere. I got a job for ya.

It was kind of warm on Sunday and even though I still have almost three feet of snow in my yard, it got me thinking about the spring cleanup that is presumably not too far in my future. Looking at the muddy, slushy driveway and the dead brush just beginning to poke through the snowbanks, It reminded me of my first real job working for someone else.

When I was about twelve years old, I decided that my allowance wasn't enough. I wanted a bb gun with all my heart and soul, and my mother said there was no way she was going to sign off on that. I petitioned my father, and he agreed that I could have one. However, because my mother was completely against it, there were two stipulations. One, he said I'd have to buy it myself, and two, I could only use it when he was supervising.

Since my allowance was only two bucks a week, I think he figured that it wasn't going to happen for a long time, especially given my tendency to immediately spend at least half of my weekly money on popular 45s. (For those of you who don't know, "45s" were flat, circular pieces of vinyl with tiny grooves in them. Inside these grooves lived various songs, and when you put a needle in the groove and spun the disc at 45 revolutions per minute, this needle chased the song around and made it come out of your speaker.) The first thing I did was ask my mother for a raise in my allowance, but she knew why I was asking and said no. She wasn't totally heartless, however -- if I really wanted to work, she could always drum up something for me to do.

Up until then, I had never had a job that I had to travel to on my own. The things I would do for next to no money were ridiculous. For instance, I can remember sitting on the living room floor putting thousands of neon orange price stickers on plastic bread bags. I think I got paid two cents a bag, which meant I had to stick a lot of stickers to make anything resembling actual folding money. They all had to be facing a certain way, and be placed in approximately the same spot. I can't remember how my mother stumbled on to that money making venture. I think she signed us up for it because it kept us busy and it also kept us in one spot.

I have no idea why the Friehofers bakery didn't have machines for that, and I also have no idea how they got away with letting some little kid's grubby hands come into contact with something that would ultimately hold foodstuffs, but there it was. They'd drop off huge boxes of bread bags and rolls of stickers and The Snitch and I would sit there on the floor for hours slapping those stickers on the bags until eventually the plastic bag smell made us stoned and a little sick to our stomachs and we didn't even know what we were doing anymore. I still can't smell the inside of a fresh plastic bag without it making me a little queasy in the back of my brain.

Another job we got occasionally was to ride around in the back of a pickup truck running flyers, phone books, menus or whatever other crap the guy up the street was hired to distribute. He paid us three cents a house, and it was really hard work, especially in late July when the temperate and humidity combined to make it unbearable to even be outside. This guy Tom would sit in the air-conditioned cab smoking cigarettes with the window cracked, and we'd be breathing engine exhaust and getting heatstroke in the bed of the truck. And we ran the whole time. We ran because the more houses we hit, the more money we made. Every once in a while, when one of us started weaving or stumbling, he'd let us sit inside with him for a few minutes and give us a drink of water. After about the third time of going on one of these all-day flyer runs, I was done. I had to get a real job. One that was ongoing, and didn't involve the potential need for IV fluids. I needed cash, and lots of it. I was going to get a bb gun if it was the last thing I did.

When I imparted my tragic tale to my mother, she grudgingly said, "I'll see what I can do about finding you something, but you are NOT getting a bb gun, regardless of what your father says."

A few days later, she called me in from the backyard with some good news. "Would you be interested in doing some yard work for extra money?" she asked. "A friend of Carol's has a next door neighbor who is looking for someone to do regular yard work for him." I jumped at the opportunity even before I knew how much it paid. I was an expert at yard work, since my father made us do it every spring at both our house and our grandmother's house. I hated it, but it turned out that this Mr. Payne guy was supposedly willing to pay me $2.00 an hour -- and since my previous income was roughly three dollars a week (including extra-chore bonus money from my dad), I thought I had hit the bb-gun jackpot.

Of course my mother had to check out the situation first, so we drove over there and knocked on the door. A man answered, and he was the oldest person I had ever seen. Stooped and wrinkled, with his pants pulled up to his armpits and held there with suspenders, he looked like a garden gnome without the pointy hat and beard. He invited us in, and my mother explained the situation. He eyed me up and down like he was sizing me up for a coffin, and they agreed to the terms of my indentured servitude. I was to report for duty the next Saturday, at 9 am sharp. He would provide the lawn mower, garbage bags and other assorted tools. I would provide the labor.

The one thing we forgot to do? Actually look at the back yard.

That was a mistake.

It rained all week, so I was thinking I wasn't going to be able to go, but Saturday morning dawned bright and clear. I jumped out of bed and changed into what my mother embarrassingly called "play clothes" (and I just called "clothes") -- jeans and sneakers that were too ratty to wear to school, and an old T-shirt that was slightly too small for me and had a hole in the back from where I ripped out the tag because it made my neck itch. I went downstairs and my mother was already sitting at the kitchen table with her coffee, talking on the phone. I grabbed my regular bowl of Cap'n Crunch, poured in some milk, and sat down to eat. I was so gung-ho that I didn't even take the time to let it get a little soggy, which, if you know anything about the Cap'n you know that's a recipe for disaster. Fresh Cap'n Crunch was like eating a bowl of broken glass -- it would shred the roof of your mouth something fierce.

My mother hung up the phone and turned her attention to me. "Big day, huh?" she said. "Do you want me to take you over in the car, or are you going to ride your bike?"

"No, I'll ride my bike over," I said. "I know where the house is."

I was also excited about the fact that she was finally letting me cross Central Avenue by myself (even if I did have to promise to walk my bike across) and the hill on the back side of Red Fox Drive was really steep and fast. Once I got to the top, I could coast the rest of the way to his house if I ignored the stop signs.

When I got there, it didn't look like anyone was home. The curtains were all closed and there was nobody outside. I walked up to the door and rang the doorbell. I could hear this loud, weird music coming from somewhere deep inside - old music that sounded like black and white movies. I rang the doorbell again and waited some more, eyeing the front yard to see how bad it was. The grass was long from the week of rain, and there were some leaves in the shrubs up by the house, but it didn't look too bad. I opened the screen door and was just about to pound on the inside door with my fist when it opened, and Mr. Payne glared at me. "Do you always just walk into people's houses uninvited?" he asked.

"No, I was, I mean, I rang the bell, but --," I stammered, backing up a step and letting the screen door close again. This was not going well. He stepped out onto the front stairs and said, "Come with me and I'll show you where the lawnmower and rakes are. I'll expect you to put them all back exactly where you found them. Understood?"

I nodded.

He shuffled to the side of the house and opened the garage door. There was an old car in there with no plates that looked like it hadn't been on the road in ten years, and on the wall next to it hung a few different shovels, a thing that looked like some kind of spiked roller, a fertilizer spreader, and below that, leaning against the wall, was something I didn't recognize. "Here you go," he said. "Start with the front, and then do the back. The back will probably take you longer."

"Where's the lawnmower?" I asked.

"Right in front of you," he said, irritated at my stupidity. I looked again as he pointed to the thing I didn't recognize. It turned out that Mr. Payne's lawnmower was a reel mower, probably purchased around the time the Korean war ended.

"I'm paying you two dollars an hour," he said. "I don't want you working slow on purpose and taking advantage, understand? There are work gloves on the wheelbarrow over there if you need them."

I nodded again, and he turned abruptly and walked back into the house, leaving me standing there in the garage. I took the mower out to the front lawn, and pushed it experimentally over a patch of grass. Little green snippets of grass cascaded out of the back, and my nose was instantly filled with their sweet scent. The mower was in good shape - sharp and well oiled -- but holy hell, it was like pushing a stalled volkswagen. I had to lean my whole body into it to get it to move, then I had to keep it moving or do the whole procedure over again. Momentum was my friend that day.

It took me about three hours to mow the lawn and rake under the shrubs and bag the leaves, and by then it was getting pretty hot outside, and I was sweating buckets from pushing the stupid mower. I hadn't brought any water with me, and I was thirsty. There was a hose by the front of the house, so I walked up to it, turned it on and waited for it to get cold. I drank deeply, tasting rubber and chlorine but not caring. It was cold and wet and quenched my thirst, and I gulped it greedily.

"Don't drink out of that!" a voice snapped from the window just above me. Startled, I dropped the hose, and soaked my foot as I scrambled to turn the faucet off as quickly as I could.

""You're not an animal," Mr. Payne said. "Dear God, you'll probably be pissing in the bushes next. If you want a drink of water, or need to use the bathroom, come up to the house and ring the bell."

I hadn't even thought of that, but now that he mentioned it, I did kind of have to go. "Yes Mr. Payne," I said. I paused, then added, "Can I... use your bathroom now?" He didn't answer, but a few seconds later the front door opened. "Come on," he said. "I'll show you where it is." He paused for a second, looked at the front yard and said grudgingly, "Not bad."

That was high praise indeed. At least I was pretty sure I'd get paid now. I walked into the house and it was nice and cool. It was dark too, with the shades drawn. He closed the front door, then motioned down the hall at an open door. "Be quick about it," he said.

I peed as fast as I could, aiming for the side so it was quiet, and then flushed and washed my hands. I didn't want to use his clean hand towels since I was pretty grimy, and I couldn't tell if they were towels for using or just for looking at. I didn't really understand the finer details of this, however my mother had both, and it stood to reason that Mr. Payne might too, so I just wiped them on my shirt. It felt good; even though my shirt was clammy with sweat, the water was cool against my chest. I walked back down the hall to the front door, which he had reopened and seemed to be guarding. "Come on, come on, hurry it up," he said. "You're making me let all the cool air out."

The door practically hit me on the ass as I stepped out onto the front stairs. Mr. Payne was clearly serious about his internal air temperature management.

OK, I thought. Halfway done. I grabbed the mower and walked toward the back of the house. The back yard was fenced in with a six-foot-tall stockade fence, and I propped the lawn mower up against it and went back to get the rake and bags. The gate looked like it hadn't been open in a while, and there was a rusted padlock hanging open on a clasp. I took the lock off, and grabbed the handle. The hinges were spring-loaded and they screeched loudly as the gate moved. When I finally got it open, I couldn't believe my eyes.

The grass in the back yard looked like a wheat field. I don't think it had been cut in four or five years. In the far corner of the yard was a gigantic maple tree, and the ground under it was thick with rotted, wet leaves. The leaves had also blown up against all three sides of the fence and the back of the house. I could just make out the top of one of the basement windows poking above the matted vegetation. The only place there wasn't grass up to my waist was under the tree and up against the fence - and those areas were a six-inch-deep, spongy mess.

I'll say this for my young self. I didn't give up easily. Or maybe it was a case of not knowing my limitations. I grabbed the bags and my work gloves and started in on the leaves first, thinking if I could get them cleaned up I might be able to do something with the grass.

The leaves smelled like death when you stirred them up, and there were....things....living in them. Squirmy pale grey things that didn't like the light, ants and beetles and worms and centipedes. His entire backyard was a fucking compost heap and it was alive with the process of decomposition. After the first hour I was soaked in sweat and swamp funk, and had collected four hefty bags of muck. I looked around at what I had accomplished. I had collected the leaves on maybe 1/8th of the yard. I tried to move one of the bags, and I think it weighed more than I did. I dragged the wet sack of putrescence toward the gate, and about half-way there, the bottom of the bag broke and I fell on my ass. The leaves slurped from the bag as a single, juicy mound.

I sat up and just stared at the mess. The heat and frustration and the utter ridiculousness of what I was trying to accomplish suddenly struck me full-force, and I hung my head down between my knees and started crying. This was no job for a 12 year old. There was no way I could do this alone. The yard from hell had beaten me.

Embarrassed by my tears and the small amount of progress I had actually made, I did what any 12-year old in my soggy, rancid shoes would do.

I quit.

In fact, I actually stood up and proclaimed my intention. "I quit this," I hissed vehemently, wiping the traitorous tears from my eyes with the back of my glove. I picked up the rake and threw it down again for effect. "I QUIT!," I repeated, more firmly this time.

Then I got on my bike and rode home. I didn't put the tools away, and I didn't tell Mr. Payne I was quitting -- I just left. By the time I hit the top of Red Fox Drive, I had convinced myself that I no longer cared. I was done with that place. I just wanted to get clean and forget about the whole thing. There was no way I was ever going back there, and nobody was going to make me.

I stuck my bike in the garage and went up to my room and just sat there. My initial elation at having had the balls to quit began to give way to other thoughts. Guilty thoughts. That's what happens when you think too much. My parents were going to kill me, or even worse, be disappointed in me. Mr. Payne was probably going to have me arrested for leaving all his stuff out to be stolen, and worst of all, I'd never get my $14.

I didn't remember falling asleep, but I woke up when the phone rang. I didn't think anything of it, until I heard my mother yell, "It's OK, his bike is here!" and then I heard her come inside and run up the stairs. A second later, the door to my room burst open and she looked like she didn't know whether to hug me or kill me. "What are you doing here?" she asked. "You scared me half to death! I was about ready to call the police! I can't believe you just left without telling anyone. Mr. Payne called me, and he was frantic. He said all the tools were just lying in the middle of the yard and you were nowhere to be seen. He thought you were kidnapped or something. Jesus, John, what were you thinking?"

She paused for a second, slightly taken aback when she finally noticed my condition. "You look like you were rolling around in the swamp," she said.

"I practically was," I answered. "I'm not going back there. It's too hard. And he's mean," I added.

I explained the whole thing to her. She agreed that it sounded horrible, but she made sure I understood it was wrong of me to just leave. Some jobs are hard, she said, and that was the nature of them. She explained that by taking the job, I had agreed to a contract of sorts and I couldn't quit without telling Mr. Payne my reasons, and I was not getting out of doing that. "If you don't want the job, that's fine," she said. "But you owe Mr. Payne an apology for leaving without telling him. And if you don't finish the job, you can't expect to be paid for the work you've already done. That's not fair."

"I think he owes us an apology for not telling us how bad it was," I countered, still sulking.

I lost the argument, however, and shortly thereafter we were in the car on the way back to Mr. Payne's house.

When we got out of the car, my mother walked to the side of the house and looked through the open gate. "Holy shit!" she said. "You did not just hear me say that," she added hastily.

"A reel mower?" she said, shaking her head. "I guess I can see your point."

I TOLD you," I replied.

We walked up to the front door and rang the doorbell. When Mr. Payne answered, my mother explained that I had something to say to him. "I'm sorry I left all your stuff out and took off," I said. "And you should've told us about the back yard," I added quickly. My mother smacked me in the shoulder with the back of her hand. "John!" she said, trying to be stern and failing completely. "That's not how you talk to adults."

I apologized again, and my mother told me to go wait in the car. She and Mr. Payne spoke for a while and when she came back to the car, she said, "Mr. Payne has a deal for you. Since you did such a good job on the front yard, he's agreed to pay you an extra two dollars an hour if you finish cleaning up the leaves in the back, and he's agreed to buy a new gas-powered lawn mower if you want to keep doing his yard work for him. I'm supposed to call him tomorrow morning with your answer.

"No," I said immediately.

"Well, I would advise you think about it over night and let me know tomorrow," she said. "Four dollars an hour is a lot of money, and I'm sure he could get someone else to do it for less. I don't want you to be sorry you passed up this opportunity."

The next morning, I told my mother that I had reconsidered. I had thought about how long it would take me to save $50 for the bb gun using just my allowance versus the four dollars an hour Mr. Payne was willing to pay me. Given the math, I decided that I wanted to keep the job, as disgusting as it may be. The next time I went over to Mr. Payne's house, there was a brand new gas-powered lawn mower sitting next to the dusty car, all ready to go. I knocked on the door, and told him I was back and ready to get started again. He handed me a box of extra-heavy-duty bags like nothing had ever happened and said, "Don't over pack them and you'll be fine."

Over a period of about two weeks I got the back yard cleaned up. Eventually, I even started to take pride in how it looked. I edged around the big maple tree, and even fertilized the grass for him and set the sprinklers. I figured the faster the grass grew, the more times a week I'd have to mow it and the more money I'd make. It didn't take long before I had my bb gun money, but by the time I had enough, I no longer needed it.

Much to my mother's dismay, my father had come home with a C02-powered Marksman air pistol that looked like a Colt 45 and shot bb's, pellets and darts. He set up a range in the back yard, and we took turns shooting at targets and learning all about gun safety. Oddly, it turned out to be not as much fun as I thought it would be. I think sometimes that's the way it is with stuff you lust after as a kid. Sometimes, the anticipation and sheer, naked longing for something you want makes the fantasy of owning it better than the reality.

I worked for Mr. Payne for almost four years, and only quit when I got my first job making deliveries for the local drug store. He was actually a pretty cool old guy once I got to know him, and doing his yard work taught me a lot about personal responsibility at a time when I really needed the lesson.

Oh, and the booming music? It turned out that he and his wife had been classical music lovers, and he collected antique audiophile equipment. He had a 78 rpm record collection that spanned an entire wall of his finished basement listening room. He told me that she had passed away a few years before, and playing their favorite music always made him feel closer to her. I was too young to really understand that at the time, but now...well, now I know exactly what he meant.

One day he asked me if I liked music. I said I did, and he asked if I wanted to see a cool "new" record player he had just purchased. He seemed really excited about it, so I said sure. He took me into the listening room and showed me a record player that had two tone arms, set opposite from each other, one to play records that spun clockwise and one for records that spun counter-clockwise. I guess at some point in history they hadn't quite decided which way a record should spin, so for a short period of time, some turntables had both. He was elated that he had finally found one and could now play some of the records in his collection that he couldn't before.

That day, he paid me eight bucks to sit there for four hours and listen to classical music with him and drink lemonade. I didn't want to take the money, but he insisted.

You know what? It was totally worth it. To both of us.


Jaipuri Pants. Made from stuff.

I ordered these for my wife.*

It's good to know they're made of....something.

I just hope I don't get the pair that's made from human skin. I hate sending shit back.

*not really.


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.]


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.