Several weeks ago, on my routine early morning bathrobe-and-coffee-cup patrol around the garden, a series of raucous cries shattered my reverie, noises not terribly unlike those of the tiny fawn who once fell into our straight-sided ornamental pool and would have drowned had it not been for its frantic shrieks for help.
Instantly alert, I listened for a few moments and then began to prowl my paths in an effort to locate the source of the present cries. Determining that the sound was coming from somewhere in the tall meadow grass below the main rock retaining wall, I headed in that direction, only to have the air go silent. I stopped and stood silent, listening. Nothing. Nothing for more than a minute. I retreated to a shady area and sat on the stone bench at the base of the ancient cedar to listen again.
The cries resumed, at first mournful and plaintive, but gradually escalating to an ear-splitting screech. Once more I ventured down into the meadow. Again the air went silent.
I don’t have time for this, I thought, and returned to the house to put my coffee cup in the dishwasher and throw on my gardening clothes. My list of chores was long. It included fetching the dolly from the garage to move a dozen heavy sacks of soil amendment, well-rotted manure, and potting soil from the back of my SUV to the spots where they were needed. I grunted and tugged the dolly up and down runs of rock steps connecting the different levels of the garden, steps built many years ago with my own hands, but with no regard for how difficult they’d be to navigate with a loaded dolly. I was only vaguely aware of the squalls coming from the meadow area. I couldn’t ignore the cries completely, though. If you’re a mother, you know that feeling.
Again I ventured down into the meadow, and again the cries stopped. But now my quest had become a mission. I retreated once more to the shade of the old cedar and plopped down on a moss-covered boulder to take up my vigil.
Presently a huge black crow appeared overhead, silhouetted against the bluest of skies as it swooped in narrowing circles and landed near the top of a ninety-foot Ponderosa pine just beyond the meadow’s lower boundary. Moments later it flew away. At first I paid no attention to the crow. I kept my eyes riveted on the meadow grasses in my effort to determine the source of the distress cries. Then I heard it again. I looked up. Finally I understood. The crying baby wasn’t a fawn at all, but a crow-baby fledging from its nest high up in the pine. I relaxed. Nothing was wrong. I’m not needed here. I went back to my chores.
For two weeks I listened to the crow-baby and watched this rite of passage. At first crow-mama fed the chick in place, returning every five minutes or so, gradually lengthening the intervals to ten, then fifteen. In between snacks, crow-baby yelled, its lungs obviously developing at a faster rate than its wings.
But now crow-mama began landing on another branch a few feet away, challenging crow-baby to work a bit for its meal. Oh, how it screeched, its voice indignant and demanding. If you’re a mother, you know that behavior too. I was disappointed that she held out for less than fifteen seconds before she flew back to the nest and shoved the morsel down the chick’s throat.
Late that afternoon crow-mama finally convinced the reluctant chick to try a four-foot mini-flight to a nearby branch. So far, so good. Then she hopped to another branch ten feet away. But crow-baby was having none of that. On its own, it flew back to the safety of the nest and again took up its raucous lament. What a cry-baby! I decided the chick had to be a male. I could imagine crow-mama’s exasperation as she flew off in a wide arc over the neighbor’s property and didn’t return for nearly an hour.
Several days of rain and wind kept me out of the garden. When next I caught sight of crow-baby, he was flapping his wings hard and chasing crow-mama from the nest to the six-inch candle atop another Ponderosa pine twenty or thirty feet away. The two birds were nearly the same size now. Good for you, crow-baby. You’re finally getting the hang of it. But when mama encouraged her youngster to try another hop, crow-baby’s courage vanished. He returned to the nest and refused to budge. Soon he was yelling again, but crow-mama flew away and stayed away the rest of the afternoon. Serves the kid right, I thought.
The next day, I saw crow-baby practice a couple of times alone, flying from the top of one pine to the next, but never more than twenty feet from the nest. At his insistence, crow-mama continued bringing him his meals. Late that afternoon the two of them finally flew off together.
Over the weekend, I worked in the garden in welcome peace and quiet, glad to have witnessed the conclusion of this miracle of nature. I didn’t see a single crow. Nor did I hear any. Probably they’ve all flown down to Pioneer Park to mooch scraps from the picnickers gathered there to take in the weekend outdoor concert.
Monday passed uneventfully. I had errands to run.
Yesterday was Tuesday. I went out early to plant two azaleas I’d gotten on sale Monday afternoon at my favorite nursery. What? What’s that? Screech, screech, screech! That crow-baby was back, perched on the edge of the nest and yelling his head off.
Should’ve changed the locks.
Though I was only five and a half, now that I had a bike, I enjoyed increased respect among the kids on Spaulding Avenue. The older girls like Eleanor played jump rope or hopscotch or jacks on our concrete front walk or our front porch, both painted a deep red and grooved to imitate flagstones. If they weren’t riding their bikes, the boys mostly played marbles. I was learning to play hopscotch and jacks, but I much preferred marbles. For a little girl, I was pretty good at it and could sometimes beat the younger boys, especially after I got a special shooter called a steelie.
I’ve never told a single soul the story of how I got that steelie. Just thinking about it now makes me squirm. But since there’s no longer any chance of my being punished for my childhood misdeeds, I’ll tell it just the way it happened.
The older of two brothers who lived across the street—he was probably around eight or nine, and no, I don’t remember his name—wouldn’t tell if I did—had three steelies. They were the most coveted of marbles, so of course I wanted one too. I really, really wanted one. First, I offered to buy one of his steelies for a dime. When he turned that down, I offered a quarter, but still he refused. Then I offered him three comic books. He wouldn’t go for any it.
Then one Sunday afternoon that boy told me he’d give me one of his steelies if I did a very naughty thing: go with him and his younger brother into their garden shed, take down my pants, and show them my bare bottom. “Why?” I asked, although I already suspected the answer. Because I didn’t have a brother, I’d never seen what a boy looked like under his pants; and since they didn’t have a sister, they were probably curious too. I thought briefly about trying for a reciprocal arrangement, but I was much more interested in getting my hands on one of his steelies.
He ignored my question. “Do you want a steelie or not?”
I thought about it a while longer, weighing the possible consequences. I knew what he was asking me to do was probably wrong. Why else would I have to wear long pants under my dress at school just so I could hang upside down on the monkey bars if it wasn’t to keep boys from seeing even my underpants, let alone my bare bottom? On the other hand, if we were ever caught, he and his brother would get in just as much trouble as I would, maybe even more, so I was pretty sure they’d never tell.
“Okay, but you have to give me the steelie first. And you have to promise not to laugh or anything.”
“Sure, I’ll give you the steelie first, but only after we’re inside the shed.”
I followed the boys across the street and down their driveway to the very back corner of the fenced lot, where leafy trees shaded the rough, unpainted shed. The older boy pushed open the door, and I followed him in, the younger brother bringing up the rear. I looked around. In the dimness, I could barely see the hoe, shovel, and rake hanging from nails on the wall, or the battered, rusty lawnmower shoved into one corner. There was no light other than what filtered in through a single dirty window pane, its top half covered with spider webs. A spider was silhouetted there—at least an inch across—waiting for a fly or a bug.
“Here’s your steelie,” the older boy said, holding out his hand.
I grabbed it and shoved it deep in my pocket, then just stood there.
“Well, go ahead, take down your pants!”
I kept my eyes riveted on the spider. My cheeks felt hot, but my fingers were cold as I pulled the straps of my overalls down over my shoulders and, with one quick motion, pushed everything down to my ankles. The boys circled me and stared. When he was right in front of me, the younger one squatted down for a closer look, then scrunched a few inches closer, like a crab. He clapped his hand over his mouth to suppress his giggles.
That wasn’t part of the bargain! I reached down, yanked up my underpants and my overalls, turned and raced out the door and back toward Spaulding Avenue, pausing just long enough to pull my straps up over my shoulders. Once across the street, I headed straight for our backyard gate, where I knew Rusty would be waiting inside the fence. He wagged his tail and licked my neck as I hugged him tight and buried my face in his fur for a long time before reaching into my pocket to make sure the steelie was still there. I stayed in the backyard all afternoon, until Mommy called us for dinner.
The heavier steelie gave me a big advantage in knocking an opponent’s marble out of the chalk circle on the sidewalk, and then, if we were playing “keepsies,” I got to keep it. Soon I had enough marbles to fill a red leatherette pouch with a drawstring, which I put under my pillow at night, where Rusty couldn’t get at it and chew it to pieces.
I remember one day I was winning and had taken most of a boy’s marbles when he got mad and grabbed my steelie and ran off down the street with it. Knowing perfectly well that crying or complaining wouldn’t get me anywhere, I chased the culprit and caught him and knocked him down and punched him in the face until he gave me back my steelie. I thought that was the end of it, but somehow the story got back to Mommy, not about showing my bottom but about punching the boy who took my steelie. Mommy sat me down at the kitchen table and started in.
“Patricia, that was a very, very bad thing you did. You shouldn’t ever hit anyone, no matter what. How would you feel if someone punched you in the face?”
“But he took my steelie,” I wailed, “and he was never going to give it back.”
“I don’t care if he took your steelie. I don’t care if he took all your marbles. You promise me you’ll never do it again. If you don’t, I’ll take your marbles away and you’ll never get any of them back. Maybe you shouldn’t be playing marbles with the boys anyway.”
“I promise I won’t ever do it again,” I said. But deep down inside, I didn’t really mean it. I knew that if any sorry loser ever again took my steelie or my bike or anything else, whether it was a boy or a girl, I’d run after them and catch them and knock them down and punch them in the face until they gave it back.
Later that evening, while Eleanor and I were doing the dinner dishes in the kitchen, I overheard Mommy telling Daddy what I had done. I froze, certain he was going to get out the pledge paddle and give me a lesson I’d never forget. But he didn’t. Instead, he started to laugh.
“That kid can certainly take care of herself,” he said.
Cynthia Ellerby, who had tormented me for sucking my thumb at the child-care center, was now in my kindergarten class at Washington Elementary. Although we were both a year older, she hadn’t changed one bit. As soon as she saw me on the playground on our first day, she sidled up and asked with a smirk: “Still sucking your thumb, you baby?” I didn’t even have a chance to answer before she stuck her nose in the air and flounced over to the swings.
Cynthia still wore pretty ruffled princess dresses every day, and she still waved around her little gold ring with the amethyst birthstone for all to admire. But something had changed. We had a new teacher, Miss Bacon, a middle-aged, no-nonsense woman who wore round, metal-rimmed glasses and wore her iron-gray hair pulled back into a tight bun just above her neck. She always wore navy blue or black suits and sensible oxford shoes.
From the first day, Miss Bacon had her eye on Cynthia Ellerby. Twice since school began, she had called Cynthia up to her desk and had talked with her about acting prissy and having such a high opinion of herself. Everyone in the class could hear. But Cynthia paid no attention and went right on acting prissy.
Then one morning Cynthia came to school wearing a brand new dress her grandmother had just made. It was sewn of white polished cotton sprinkled all over with bright green shamrocks. White lace and narrow green velvet ribbons decorated the neckline and the puffed sleeves. I’d never seen a prettier dress. Her grandmother had even tied tiny green velvet bows onto the barrettes she wore in her hair.
As Cynthia strutted up and down the aisles between our desks, giving everyone a chance to admire her new dress, Miss Bacon had had enough. With eyes narrowed and her lips pressed into a thin line, she jumped up from her desk, approached Cynthia from behind, grabbed her shoulder, and pushed her toward the cloakroom at the back of our classroom, slamming the door shut behind them. Though we couldn’t understand the words, we could hear Miss Bacon talking sternly. Then Cynthia began to cry.
Sitting silently at our desks, the rest of us looked at each other with our mouths hanging open, and then began giggling as Cynthia’s wails grew louder and louder.
After several minutes, the noise died down, the cloakroom door opened, and Cynthia came out, holding the back of her shamrock-sprigged dress with both hands. Her eyes were red from crying, and greenish snot from her nose oozed down onto her upper lip. I’d never seen such a lovely sight. Cynthia went straight to her seat, and Miss Bacon returned to her desk. “Please, children, turn your readers to page nine.”
A few days later, during morning recess, I saw Cynthia sitting all by herself on a bench by the wall. She looked like a broken doll, all slouched down and sad. Even her princess dress looked limp and ordinary. Ever since the spanking, nobody wanted to play with her. At first I relished the sight of her, sitting all alone over there. She was a brat and had had the spanking coming for a long time! After a while, though, I began to feel sorry for her. I knew how it felt to be left out. Sometimes it hurt so much you could hardly stand it. I walked over and sat down next to her on the bench.
“I don’t suck my thumb anymore,” I said.
She didn’t reply. She didn’t even look up.
“And my big sister is teaching me how to skip on both feet.”
Still not a word, but Cynthia turned her head a bit, just until she could see me out of the corner of her eye.
“If you want, I won’t be your emeny anymore,” I offered.
Cynthia couldn’t resist. She turned to me and, in her best singsong voice, said, “It’s not emeny, silly. It’s enemy.”
I bit my tongue to stop the first words that came into my head. Instead of calling her a know-it-all or a snot, I said sweetly, “Oh, I didn’t know that. Enemy. Maybe we could not be enemies anymore?”
“Okay, but you have to promise you won’t call me Cindy. Cyntha is okay, but not Cindy. It’s a common name, you know. My mother says so.”
We got up from the bench and walked together over to the swings. Cyntha let me have the first turn.
Our Woodlake trip satisfied Daddy for a couple of months, but then he started to get restless again. “Antsy,” Mommy called it. He bought a book about camping, and in the evenings he pored over it, underlining things and making pencil notes in the margins. He drew pages and pages of diagrams and made a long list on a tablet.
“What on earth are you doing?” Mommy wanted to know.
“You’ll see,” Daddy said, humming happily to himself.
He made several trips to the lumberyard and the hardware store. Then he closed himself in the garage and began sawing and hammering. Nobody was allowed to go in. After working in the garage for three weekends straight, Daddy wheeled his masterpiece out onto the driveway.
“What is it?” Mommy asked.
“It’s a camping trailer,” Daddy announced proudly. “As soon as school’s out, we’re going to Lake Almanor!”
It wasn’t a fancy camping trailer you could sleep in, but rather a plain, brown-painted wooden box with an open top and a wheel on each side, small enough to be towed behind our Plymouth. The tailgate of the trailer dropped down on hinges to form a counter, and behind that Daddy built cubbies to hold kitchen goods: tin plates, cups and cutlery, a cast-iron skillet, a couple of pots, matches for starting a fire. Bisquick, Crisco, pancake syrup, ketchup, mustard, salt and pepper, sugar and coffee. At an Army surplus store he bought a Coleman stove with an attached screw-top metal bottle for kerosene, a couple of Coleman lanterns, four down sleeping bags—mummy bags, he called them—and four air mattresses, the kind you had to inflate with a foot pump that looked like a turtle. Finally, he bought two khaki-colored canvas pup tents.
“Why are they called pup tents?” I wanted to know. “Is that where the doggies sleep?”
“No. They’re called pup tents because they’re much smaller than full-size tents, just like pups are much smaller than full-size dogs. Pup tents are made smaller and lighter so soldiers in the field can carry them on their backs.”
“Don’t soldiers have doggies?”
“You, Trish, ask too many questions.”
A hatchet, a couple of buckets, a card table, two canvas director chairs, a folding shovel, and lots of fishing equipment rounded out our gear.
For a cover, Daddy made one last trip to the surplus store and bought a heavy tarp with grommets around the sides. He tied it down over the load with a long rope that crisscrossed over the top from side to side, held in place by sturdy hooks from the hardware store.
“Day after tomorrow,” Daddy announced, “we leave for Almanor!”
“We’re going camping,” I informed Mike Bradley, puffing out my chest, “but you can’t go. Rusty gets to go this time, and we’re going to sleep in sleeping bags on top of air mattresses inside our new pup tents. They’re real Army tents, not like the ones at Yosemite, and they’re small enough so the soldiers in the field can carry them on their backs.”
“Wow,” said Mike, suitably impressed. “I wish I could go too.”
On the way to Lake Almanor, the rope holding the tarp on the trailer came loose, leaving one corner flapping in the wind. Daddy said “dammit” and pulled off on the shoulder so he could tie it again, more securely this time.
We hadn’t been back on the road five minutes when I had to go to the bathroom.
“Why didn’t you go when we were stopped?” Daddy snapped.
“There wasn’t any bathroom.”
“Haven’t you ever peed on the side of the road?”
“No. I didn’t know we were allowed to do that.”
He pulled off again and told me to get out and go.
“But what if somebody sees me?”
“Nobody’s going to see you. Go ahead and pee. We haven’t got all day, dammit!”
I jumped out on the passenger’s side, yanked down my jeans, peed as fast as I could, pulled my jeans up, and jumped back in the car. “I got some pee on my shoe,” I said.
Our tires squealed as Daddy pulled back onto the pavement.
Not thirty minutes later we heard a loud pop, and the trailer began thump-thump-thumping down the highway. Daddy said “dammit” two more times as he braked and veered onto the shoulder. By now it was over ninety degrees. He had to unhitch the trailer and take a bunch of stuff out of the trunk in order to reach the car jack stored at the bottom. Then he jacked the trailer up and took off the flat tire, pulled out the inner tube, and got out his repair kit to patch the hole. Sweat ran down his face and dripped from his chin right onto the glue he was using to fix the tube. “Dammit,” he said.
Meanwhile, Mommy and Eleanor and I sat on the ground in the shade next to the car. I had hold of Rusty’s leash, but he wasn’t interested in sitting. He sniffed around here and there and then, stretching as far as his leash would reach, he peed right on the trailer tire lying on the ground. “Goddamn that dog,” Daddy muttered.
We pulled into the campground at Lake Almanor late in the afternoon and got our first taste of what camping was all about. Daddy hiked down to the lake to fill two buckets with water, strung up the rope from the trailer as a clothesline, and then showed Eleanor and me how to use the turtle foot pump to blow up the air mattresses. We had to take
turns because it was hard work. Then he put up the pup tents and used the folding shovel to dig a shallow trench around each tent and continuing off into the trees. “In case it rains,” he said, “the water will drain away and not seep into our tents and soak everything.”
Our last chore was to spread our sleeping bags on top of the air mattresses inside the tents and gather a pile of kindling. “In order for an outfit to run smoothly and efficiently,” Daddy reminded us, “everyone has to do their part.”
While he was telling us this, Rusty went over and peed on the side of one of the tents. Daddy yelled at him and tried to catch him to give him a spanking, but Rusty ran under the car and wouldn’t come out. “Goddammit,” Daddy muttered under his breath. “Goddammit to hell.”
By now we were all starving. Daddy set up the Coleman stove on its stand and worked the little metal pump with his thumb so the kerosene would go to the burners. Mommy opened two cans of pork and beans, and while the beans heated, she spread a piece of bright yellow oilcloth on the redwood table provided at the campsite and got out the bread and butter.
“You girls set the table for your mother while I find some larger logs for our campfire. In order for an outfit to run smoothly and—“
“Yeah, yeah, Daddy, we know.”
After dinner we were all so tired that as soon as the dishes were washed and put away, we crawled into our sleeping bags for the night. Rusty was tied on a rope outside, but it didn’t take him long to wriggle under the mosquito-net door of our tent and snuggle down between Eleanor and me. It was, after all, a pup tent.
The next day we went fishing. Daddy showed us how to stick the hook through the worm’s body several times, starting with the head. Eleanor and I hated that part, but Daddy said it didn’t make any difference because the fish were going to eat them anyway.
I caught my first trout that afternoon, and Eleanor caught two. Daddy caught a whole bunch. The colors running down their sides reminded me of shiny rainbows, all pale, shimmery red and green and blue. Daddy kept them alive in the water on a string threaded through their gills and mouths, kind of like Rusty on his leash.
Late that afternoon, he cut off the fishes’ heads right behind the gills—yuck!—slit open their bellies—yuck, yuck!—cleaned out their guts—yuck, yuck, yuck!—scraped off their scales with a little scraper, and turned them over to Mommy. Her job was to dip them in beaten egg, roll them in Bisquick seasoned with salt and pepper, and fry them in the frying pan. When they were all brown and crispy, she squirted on a little lemon juice and set them on the table. Daddy showed us how to use a knife and fork to carefully lift the fish meat off the string of bones that went down the fish’s middle, but I guess I wasn’t doing such a good job because Mommy came around and finished it for me. “If you swallow fish bones, she said, glaring at Daddy, “they could perforate your stomach.”
The pink trout meat was delicious, and I ate every bite.
Later, as we sat around the campfire, Mommy said she and Daddy had a surprise for us.
“Tell us, tell us, tell us,” I yelled. “Tell us the surprise!”
“Well,” Mommy said, “you girls are going to have a new baby brother or sister in a few months. I have a tiny baby in my tummy, and it’ll be ready to be born this fall, probably before Christmas.”
“Just one?” I wanted to know.
“I think so,” she said. Sometimes people do have twins, but I’m pretty sure I just have one baby in my tummy.”
“How will it get born? Do you have to squeeze it out like Mittens squeezes out her kittens under the boxes in the garage?”
Mommy laughed. “No, Trish, not quite like that. I’ll go to the hospital to have our baby.”
“Is our baby a boy or a girl?”
“I want a baby brother,” Eleanor said.
“Oh, yes, I want a baby brother too,” I chimed in. “I want a baby brother with blond hair and big blue eyes and fat red cheeks like an apple.”
“I want a boy too,” said Daddy, “and I don’t care what color his hair and eyes and cheeks are just so long as it’s a boy. I wouldn’t even care if it’s two boys! But one of them will have to be named Arthur, after me.”
“We’ll see, we’ll see,” Mommy said, patting her tummy and smiling a nice happy smile.
That night, as I snuggled down in my mummy bag, I dreamed about the new baby, only in my dream there was a whole litter of babies and they had to stay under the boxes in the garage at night because Daddy wouldn’t let them come in the house because they had fleas.”
At the end of July, the Bradleys invited us to spend a weekend at their family cabin up at Russian River. Daddy was thrilled to have another short vacation on the agenda, and the rest of us were excited too. Even Rusty was invited.
I didn’t like the drive up to Russian River so much because toward the end the road started twisting and turning, and my tummy began to feel sick. Mommy handed me a saltine cracker and told me not to look out the side windows. She said if I sat in the middle of the back seat and looked straight ahead out through the front windshield at the painted line down the middle of the pavement, I’d feel better. And guess what? It worked! I kept my eyes glued on that center line every second until we got there.
The Bradleys’ cabin, surrounded by towering trees on the bank above the river, was dark brown with red-painted trim around the windows. Mommy called the cabin “rustic,” but I thought it was beautiful. It looked like the Alm Uncle’s house described in my favorite book about Heidi and the goatherd, Peter. Or maybe Snow White’s house in the woods, with dwarfs and squirrels and tweeting bluebirds. The roof was tall and pointy and covered in thick wooden shingles right up to the stone chimney.
“The cabin is made of redwood,” Daddy explained as he began unloading our suitcases and sleeping bags. “It doesn’t have to be painted because bugs don’t like to eat redwood and it lasts for a century without rotting.”
Inside, most of the built-in furniture was made of redwood too, even the built-in bunks in the bedrooms.
In the living room, a massive rock fireplace rose from the floor all the way up to a giant beam that supported the roof. I’d always been fascinated by flames dancing and sparks swirling in a fireplace, but there was something I loved even more about this particular fireplace after Mr. Bradley told us their family tradition: “When company comes up here to the cabin for the first time,” he said, “each visitor makes a wish and then hides a coin in one of the crevices among the rocks.”
“What a charming, delightful idea,” Mommy gushed.
Daddy reached into his pocket and gave Eleanor and me each a dime to add to the collection. After some thought, I wished I could stop chewing my fingernails right down to the quick so that maybe Mommy could paint them pale pink and I could get a gold ring with my birthstone in it. I hid my dime as high up as I could reach, deep in the crack between two rocks right next to the wall. Eleanor hid her dime too, and Daddy and Mommy each tucked a fifty-cent piece into cracks higher up on the fireplace. Of course, I didn’t know what any of them wished for because, if you tell what you wish for, it won’t come true. Everybody knows that.
That afternoon Daddy and Mr. Bradley and all the kid
s put on bathing suits and clambered down the path through the huge boulders that protected the cabin from the Russian River. The sandy river bank was gradual, and the water, except for the deep channel on the far side, shallow and slow-moving enough in summer that we weren’t in danger, even if we couldn’t swim yet.
Partway across the river, at the edge of the deepest part, a giant dead tree lay stuck in the sandy bottom. Mr. Bradley claimed the tree had been knocked down in a big flood long before he bought their cabin and had been stuck there for so many years that it was now worn satiny smooth by the current and had its own name: “The Old Man.”
A neighbor brought his rubber raft down to the water’s edge, and Daddy and Mr. Bradley helped him load up driftwood chunks for the fireplace. They used Mr. Bradley’s axe and wedge to split the bigger pieces into smaller ones and some of the smaller ones into kindling.
As the men worked, we kids had a fine time splashing in the water and climbing on The Old Man, stuck forever in the sandy bottom of the river. We pretended he was a pirate ship and we were the pirates. Using driftwood branches as swords, we sailed an imaginary ocean, yelling “Ahoy, ahoy there” as we boarded every ship we could catch in order to steal their cargo. “Ahoy, mates! Arrgggh, look at all me gold!” hollered Mike Bradley, waving his pretend sword menacingly overhead.
The neighbors joined us for hamburgers that evening. Mommy served the fruit salad she’d brought with us from home, and the next-door lady contributed a chocolate sheet cake for dessert because it was her husband’s thirtieth birthday. He made a wish—of course, he didn’t tell what it was—then blew out the candles with one l-o-o-o-n-g puff.
After dinner, we all crowded in front of the roaring fire in the fireplace and took turns telling stories. Mike’s story was all about swashbuckling pirates and stolen gold, and Mr. Bradley followed that up with an exciting tale about rescuing mermaids on the high seas.
When it was time for bed, we kids unrolled our sleeping bags on the built-in bunks in the biggest dormitory bedroom. Rusty hopped up next to me and snuggled close. The others dropped off right away, but I couldn’t go to sleep. I didn’t have my thumb anymore, and all I could think about were the nickels and dimes and quarters and fifty-cent pieces—and, who knows, maybe even a silver dollar or two—hidden away in the deep, dusty crevices of the fireplace in the living room, probably enough money to buy all the bicycles and roller skates and princess dresses and birthstone rings in the whole world.