My cousin, Molly, is lucky to be alive.
I don’t remember exactly how old we were, but I’m going to say ten, eleven, and twelve–Andy the oldest, Molly the youngest, me right in the middle. Growing up on the farm, the three of us were peas in a pod (I couldn’t resist!); designations like “sibling” and “cousin” meant nothing to us. Together, we were brilliant inventors, intrepid adventurers, best friends. We explored, charted, and touched every inch of that farm, and I’m sure if you look closely, you can still see the marks we left behind.
Me, I don’t even have to look closely. All I have to do is close my eyes and I can see them perfectly, as if no time at all has passed.
So this one day, Andy suggested we build boats to sail across the Upper Pond. I don’t actually remember if it was Andy’s idea, but I’m assuming it was. He always had the riskiest ideas.
First, you need to understand something about the Upper Pond. When it was constructed in the 1950’s–one of three irrigation ponds on the farm–it was a pristine masterpiece, a gravel oasis stocked with bass and bluegill, filled to the brim with fresh, clear water. Then thirty-five years passed, and it became a wild, weed-choked mud wallow, its murky depths the stuff of nightmares. Despite the old photos we’d seen showing gleeful farmhands splashing in its sparkling waters, my cousins and I had never dared set foot in it. The Upper Pond was scary.
Just up the hill from the Upper Pond sat our grandfather’s tractor shed. It was a long, brown, corrugated steel structure, home to four tractors–a pair of Fords, a John Deere, and a Kabota–barn swallows without number, and our holy grail: Grandpa’s workshop, with its wooden benches; herds of sawhorses; boxes of nails and bolts and screws; tool racks hung with pliers, wrenches, hammers, and saws; bags of seed stacked in the corners; gas cans milling about the door; and there, beneath it all, the smell of sawdust and oil and earth. I’ve never been anywhere else that smelled exactly like it.
It’s strange–I have no memories of Grandpa working in his workshop (he was too busy in the fields, I guess)–but that didn’t stop Andy, Molly, and me from putting it to excellent use. It became our workshop, our laboratory, our think tank, and on this particular day, our dry dock, too.
We pillaged the scrap wood pile, searching for perfect keels and masts, and it was soon apparent that while Molly and I were on the same page, laying out the pieces to our fine model sailboats, Andy had other plans. BIG plans. His boards dwarfed ours, and the sheet of plastic he’d cut from the leftover bolts of greenhouse sheathing was enormous–a king-sized bed’s worth, at least. Molly and I were intrigued, but despite our pleas, Andy wasn’t revealing his design. We’d just have to wait and see.
I can’t say how long the construction process took. It might have been a few hours, or it could have lasted a few days. That’s the beauty of childhood: time doesn’t matter. You don’t worry about things like schedules or deadlines. You simply create, deftly wielding your imagination while time melts away around you. Then, without even realizing you were gone, that you’d been lost in some make-believe world, you snap back to reality, look down, and see that your boats are built, ready for their maiden voyage.
I was proud of my effort. I really wish I had a picture of it somewhere. (More on that in a minute.) The design was simple: I nailed two boards into the shape of a cross–the longer of the two (five feet, I’d estimate) served as the keel, the shorter (four feet, perhaps?) as an outrigger. We’d found some old styrofoam seed flats in the greenhouse, which I glued to the underside of both keel and outrigger for buoyancy. A long wooden stake, held fast with guylines of twine, was my mast, while I’d fashioned a sail out of the same greenhouse plastic Andy had used (albeit a much smaller piece).
Andy’s craft had taken shape, too. Not content constructing a model boat like us kids, Andy had built an actual boat, complete with crude scrap wood oars, fully intended for human passage. Looking back now, it was little more than a rickety, oblong frame, the greenhouse plastic wrapped around it, forming a precarious hull. At the time, though, Molly and I thought it was the Titanic reimagined, a luxurious ocean liner compared to our little toy dinghies.
We lugged the boats down the hill from the workshop to the shore of the Upper Pond. Andy needed help maneuvering his through the tangle of cat-o-nine tails at the water’s edge and by now, a small audience (okay, it was really just Andy and Molly’s step-mother, Michelle) had gathered to witness the christening.
Molly and I took turns scooting our boats out onto the water, where they lolled and bobbed like so many pieces of flotsam, adrift on the current, slave to the breeze. We all oohed and aahed in appropriate measure–at least the things floated–but what we really wanted to see was the S.S. Andy’s sea trial.
Andy’s boat twisted and torqued as he slipped it into the water for the first time, and almost immediately, it began to leak. That’s what happens, I guess, when you use staples and nails on a plastic hull rather than rivets on steel.
Then, Michelle said something that made a whole lot of sense to Andy and me: “Molly, get in for a sec. See if it holds you.” Sometimes she had the riskiest ideas.
It required more than a little goading, I recall, before Molly finally stepped into Andy’s boat, a look of mild distress written on her face as the water continued to blub blub blub up from the dark abyss that was the Upper Pond.
Michelle was laughing by now. “Oh my god!” she said. “I have to get my camera. Stay here!” And off she jogged, up the hill, past the tractor shed, to the old farmhouse where she, my uncle, Andy, and Molly lived. A minute or two passed, then she reappeared, camera in hand, jogging back down the hill toward us.
Now, for many years, Michelle was our family’s only photographer (then Charles came along, but that’s another story), the only person who documented everyday moments such as…well, such as the S.S. Andy’s first voyage. To this day, phrases like, “Your eyes were shut!” and “Hold it right there!” and “Wait, one more!” flow from her as effortlessly as breath.
And flow they did that afternoon as Molly slowly sank into the pond.
“Oh, Molly, these are great!” she said, ruthlessly snapping away, the camera shutter clicking with rapid-fire efficiency. Molly didn’t appear convinced.
“Just a few more. Andy, push her out a little farther.”
“Michelle!” Molly protested.
“This is it, I promise! I just want to get a couple without the weeds.”
So with his foot, Andy gave the boat an obliging push, and away Molly drifted, another five or six feet from shore. It might as well have been a hundred miles.
It must have been terrifying standing there in that boat, seeing the inky water pressing in against that thin, diaphanous hull, knowing she was on her way down with the ship as Michelle captured the whole thing on film. Molly wasn’t one to panic, though; she kept her wits. That’s probably why she’s here today.
Satisfied at last with the shots she’d gotten, Michelle beckoned Molly back to shore. By now the S.S. Andy had taken on so much water that it sat low and pregnant in the pond, a dead weight not easily propelled. Molly dug in with one of its scrap wood oars and rowed for her life, moving toward us with grim determination, each stroke drawing her a few inches closer to safety, the flimsy boat threatening to come apart beneath her at any moment.
I gave her a fifty-fifty shot.
It seemed to take forever for her to reclaim the five or six feet Andy’s foot had given her, and even when the boat nudged its way in through the cattails, Molly’s ordeal wasn’t yet over. There were no stepping stones, no safe toeholds. She’d have to splash through the shallows to reach dry land.
Out came Michelle’s camera again as Molly took a deep breath and plunged into the pond.
I can’t speak for Andy, but I think I half expected the water to burn Molly’s feet away like some kind of caustic acid, that she’d totter unsteadily onto dry land, balancing upon two smoldering stumps. Instead, she scrambled up the embankment, her pants soaked below the knees, her muck-slathered shoes each containing an intact, unburned foot. The only thing burning just then were Molly’s eyes. She glared at Andy, who’d built her such a flimsy boat, and then at Michelle, who’d insisted it would hold her. I’m not sure whether she glared at me, but she probably did just for good measure. Then she stalked off toward the house, squelching as she went, no doubt planning a revenge that included tattooing Michelle’s squeaky-clean floors with pond scum footprints.
Later, Andy towed his half-sunken wreck from the water and scrapped it. Not bad for a first attempt, we agreed, but perhaps from now on we’d leave the shipbuilding to the folks up at Bath Iron Works. Besides, we weren’t brave enough to attempt another crossing in one of Andy’s designs, and Molly wasn’t talking to us. It was time to move on to new projects, new ideas. We had a whole farm to explore, after all.
Oh, remember how I said I wished I had a picture of my boat? You might be wondering why I didn’t end up with one or two given all the shots Michelle took that day. Well, as it turned out, her camera didn’t have any film in it–a danger of the pre-digital era–so while Molly risked life and limb for that perfect picture, Michelle was shooting blanks, capturing imaginary photos on imaginary film.
In the end, though, it didn’t matter. The memories of that day live on, perfectly preserved for all time.
Like Molly, they survived.