I woke up. Dad was wiggling my toe under the blanket on my bed.
“I’m going to drive the car to get fresh dirt for the backyard. You want to come along?”
I nodded. I was excited. This was what he called “an adventure”.
Mom was still sleeping. It was early morning. The light coming in through the windows in my room was different when it was early. It was fresher and softer. I took off my pajamas and put on my clothes. Dad made me a peanut butter sandwich for breakfast. We quickly ate and drank orange juice sitting at the kitchen table.
Outside the air was cool and quiet. The sun was a big orange ball just hanging there over the trees in the park. It was just hanging there over the trees and it was hard not to look at. Dad said not to look too long or it would hurt your eyes. That made the sun seem kind of scary. He put two empty trash cans in the trunk of our car but the top wouldn’t close so he tied it with a rope. He put the grownup shovel on the back seat. It looked kind of like my shovel but much bigger. I got to sit on the other part of the front seat of the car.
We drove down our street away from the park to the big street that dad called “Stadium”. Across the street was a giant “yard” with a really long building on the other side. He called it the “high school”, and he had taken Molly and me on our tricycles to explore it a couple times. After he looked both ways and no cars were coming, something he had taught me to do when I crossed a street, we turned right. I knew it was right because that way was the hand I didn’t throw a ball with. It was a wide street that had a curved part.
Dad stopped the car when we came up to one of those big metal poles with the hanging lights way above us, because the red light was turned on instead of the green one. He saw me looking up at it so he told me how it worked.
“So when you come up to the light in your car, you have to stop if the red light is on, but you can keep going if the green light is on.” So we had to wait, but not very long.
While we waited I was thinking so much about the lights and what you had to do that I asked a question. Dad was good at figuring out what I was thinking and answering my questions without me having to ask. But this time he didn’t, so asking was the only way he would tell me more that I really wanted to know.
“Why do we have to stop?” I asked.
He nodded. “Good question!”
I was glad it was a good question, though sometimes when grownups said that they did not have a good answer.
“It’s a rule we all agree to follow so our cars don’t crash into each other where big streets cross each other. Does that make sense.”
That sort of made sense. I had heard about those “rule” things before. And once we had gone by two cars that had crashed together and it had looked really bad. So I nodded.
When the red light turned off and the green light turned on, dad turned the car onto a different street he said was “Liberty”. This time we turned toward the hand I threw a ball with, so left. We drove under another road that was way up high with a bridge so we could get under it. Now there weren’t any houses, stores and sidewalks, but just trees, bushes and fields. It seemed very different. Dad said we were now “outside of town”. We turned left on another street and then left again onto a bumpy road that made a crunching noise and made dusty clouds around the car. There was a tall building ahead with no windows with a giant slide thing coming down from it.
It was so big and strange looking that I said, “What’s that?”, before even thinking about whether I was going to say that or not.
“That’s the elevator they use to take dirt or gravel way up there so they can dump it into dump trucks down there”, he said pointing at the different parts of the slide and the building. Then the next question was in my mind but he answered it without me asking. “The dump trucks take it to the people who need dirt or gravel for building or landscaping.” It all filled my mind up so much just looking at it that I stopped asking questions and just looked.
There was a man there in a blue shirt and blue pants that were the exact same color and a shiny yellow cap like he was playing baseball. Dad told him we just wanted a couple trash cans full of dirt. I kept staring at the giant building and the slide.
The man nodded and said, “Help yourself”, and pointed at a giant brown pile next to a giant gray pile of tiny rocks.
We got back to our car and dad drove it over to the edge of the giant brown pile. He untied the rope holding the top of the trunk and stood the two trash cans up in the bottom of the trunk so the open parts were on top. They had been shiny silver when we got them but now they were less shiny. Dad got the shovel out of the back seat. He stuck the shovel in the edge of the dirt pile so some dirt stayed on it so he could carry it over, lift it up, and dump it in the top of one of the trash cans. He did that a long time before both trash cans were full of dirt. By the time he was done there were drops of water all over his face, his white t-shirt had wet spots and his cheeks were a little pink. He wiped his face and head off with a white cloth from his pocket and grinned at me.
“Now we have to get it home”, he said, like that would be hard to do.
The top of the trunk could only close a little bit on top of the cans of dirt standing up in the trunk. But the rope was long enough to tie the top to the bottom part. He took a red cloth out of the trunk and tied it to the top part of the rope.
“That should be okay”, he said, ”The cans are so heavy with the dirt that it would take a really big bump to tip one over.” Then he looked at me and his eyes got fierce. “Here we go!”
He put the shovel in the back seat and we both got in the front. He drove the car very slowly by the dirt and stone piles and the crazy building with the slide, all the time there was the crunching noise under the car and dust everywhere. Back out at the regular road we didn’t go the way we came.
“In case you’re wondering Cloob”, he said, “We are going to take the long way home because there are less cars and we have to drive slowly to make sure the trash cans don’t tip over.”
I nodded, feeling worried. I didn’t like it when grownups were around and there was something that they were worried about but I felt there was nothing I could do to help.
We drove slowly down the road. We drove by lots of fields with bushes or trees by the road. It took a really long time, but there was only one other car that drove by. I sat on my knees on the seat so I could look at the trunk in the back part of the car and stuck my head out the window to see the edge of one of the trash cans in the trunk. I could feel the wind on the back of my head. It felt nice and the air smelled good.
When we did hit a bump the whole car bounced up and down.
“Cans still there?” he asked.
I could only see the edge of one, but I figured that if the other had fallen out I would see it behind us in the road. So I pulled my head in the window and nodded, then stuck it out again. I liked being the lookout.
“So we’re on Wagner Road headed south”, he said. “We are looking for Scio Church Road, where we’ll turn left back to Seventh.”
Pulling my head in the window I nodded and then stuck it out again to keep looking at the can.
Finally the car stopped. I turned my head and looked forward. There was another road crossing the one we were on. We turned left and moved slowly forward.
I knew what the dirt was for. Dad had gotten some before but I didn’t come with him. He would put it in a pile just behind the house under the big tree and right by the window that I could see into my room. Then I could play with it and make things like hills, roads and forts, whatever I wanted, and then set up my soldiers there.
I could tell dad was happy. And when he was happy and mom wasn’t around he liked to start singing, which he did now as he drove the car slowly down the road. It was a song he had sung many times, and when he sang it was fun for me to sing with him…
Oh, give me land, lots of land under starry skies above
Don’t fence me in
Let me ride through the wide open country that I love
Don’t fence me in
By this time I had joined in though my head was sticking out of the car window looking back at the trash can…
Let me be by myself in the evening breeze
Listen to the murmur of the cottonwood trees
Send me off forever but I ask you please
Don’t fence me in
It was funny that we drove by a fence while we were singing about fences. It was silver and looked like the fence around the football stadium where dad would take Molly and me on our tricycles, only not as tall. I remember him saying that when you saw a fence you had to figure out whether it was for keeping you in or keeping you out.
Finally the car stopped again. Then we turned left again and soon came to a stop by a tall pole with lights hanging from it, the red one lit up.
“Almost home”, he said, stopping his singing.
I pulled my head in from the window and said, “Still there.”
“All right!” he said.
The green light came on above us and he crossed the big street. I remembered it was the one we had gone on earlier. Stadium. As I looked down the street we were crossing I could even see the stadium in the distance. A few right turns and we came up to our front yard. He drove the car slowly by our house then stopped. Then he made the car go backward and turn into our driveway all the way back to the corner of the house where my room was. The back of the car was right by where the dirt pile would go.
“Made it”, he said, turning the car off. “Thanks for coming along Cloob, it was quite the adventure!”
I said, “Yep!”, and nodded.
He untied the rope and pushed up the top part of the trunk. He used the shovel to dig some of the dirt out of the top of one of the cans. Then he just pulled on the can until it tipped over and the dirt spilled out. It was interesting how it dumped out like water but not the same, it didn’t go as far. But it did go mostly in the right place. He did the same thing with the other can, then used the shovel to put the dirt now on the ground in just the right places in the area with no grass under the tree.
Mom came out of the side door of the house while dad was shoveling. She still had her big stomach that she said had my brother or sister in it, but that made no sense to me. She walked different now like it was harder. She looked carefully at all the things dad was doing and the places he was putting the dirt.
“Fresh dirt”, she said, “Good work guys!”
I looked at the dirt carefully too, and saw hills with forts on them, guarded by soldiers but about to be attacked by pirates. All the area with bare ground where the dirt was could be an island. All the area around it with grass would be the sea where the pirates would come from. My mind was getting excited thinking up all the stories there could be.
“Well Cloob”, mom said, “It’s all yours! I’ve got to do the wash.”
Dad pushed his lips together and nodded. “And I’ve got to work on my thesis”, he said.
Mom and dad went inside the house and left me outside with the dirt. I wondered if the sun was still orange, and I walked around the house to where I had seen it before hanging above the trees over in the park. It was still there, but higher above the trees, and now more white than orange. When I stood where I could see it, my body felt warm. When I moved back to where I could not see it I did not feel the warmth anymore. This morning it had looked like a ball just hanging in the sky. Now it seemed like just a flat circle and so bright it made my eyes hurt. I remembered that dad had told me not to look at it too much. But how could you not look at it when it was the only thing in the sky. I could lie on my back and look at clouds in the sky for a long time. But today the only thing to look at in the sky was the sun, but you weren’t supposed to, so I went back to the backyard.
I liked our backyard. It had different parts that were interesting and fun in different ways. It started with a very big tree just behind the window to my bedroom that mom called a “maple”. She liked to tell me the names of all the plants and what they did that was different in the summer than the winter. It went up higher than the roof of our house and the dirt was piled underneath it just outside the window to my room. It had shiny green leaves now because it was summer. They had come out tiny before in the spring, but were much bigger now. She said they would turn orange, yellow and brown and fall off before the winter came. I couldn’t imagine that happening, but I did remember winter with the snow on the ground and this tree with no leaves and just dark branches reaching up towards the sky.
On the other side of the maple tree was grass going back to the back of the backyard. It was fun to run on and when you fell down on it it was soft and did not scrape your hands, elbows or knees much, just made them green. It smelled good too, especially when dad cut it with the mower. On either side of that grass there were two trees that looked very different than the big tree that mom called “spruces”. She said they had dark green “needles” instead of bright green leaves and were “evergreens”, because those needles did not all fall off in the winter. Though their middle part went straight up like the maple, they had a lot more branches, branches really close to the ground so I could hide inside all those branches like in the lilac bushes across the street in the park. All the branches of the maple tree were way up above my head, and when you looked up you could see parts of the sky between the leaves. On the other side of each of the spruces were the backyards of the people that lived next to us.
Farther back over the grass beyond the spruce trees was a garden that mom made with dirt and seeds. She was growing plants that grew up like tiny trees and were getting round green balls on the branches that mom said were “tomatoes”. She had shown me how they started out as tiny flowers. Then the flowers fell off and they turned into tiny little green balls that got bigger each day we looked at them. Now the balls were bigger and starting to turn red. She said once they got really red you could pick them and eat them. A different plant grew along the ground around the little tomato trees. It had tiny flowers too that turned into tiny little green hotdog shaped things with prickles on them that kept getting bigger. She said they were cucumbers and when they got big enough you could pick them and eat them too. I didn’t think so, but she seemed to be pretty sure.
I went inside the side door of our house and walked down the stairs into the basement. Dad was over in his office corner reading a book and writing things on white cards. I could tell he saw me but he didn’t say anything. I went over to my corner where my toys were on the shelf and found the box with all my soldiers in it, the green good guy American soldiers and the gray bad guy German ones. Looking at the gray soldiers, I started thinking that when making stories, sometimes the bad guys did more interesting things than the good guys. They caused trouble that made the story interesting. That’s what happened in Treasure Island.
I took the box of soldiers outside by the pile of new dirt. I took out all the green soldiers and put them in a long line with the captain in front. They were coming to the dirt island to build a fort before the bad guy pirates came. All the grass around the dirt island was the sea where the pirates were. I decided that instead of turning all the dirt into a fort and then putting the soldiers into it, I would have each group of soldiers go to one part of the dirt island and start working on it to turn it into part of the fort.
So the captain climbed to the top of the dirt island and started to tell his other soldiers where to go and what to build. Some had to make walls and others made towers. Still others had to build places where all the soldiers could sleep when it was nighttime. I piled and pressed the dirt into the different parts of the fort. For the sleeping places I first tried making big mounds of dirt that I would dig out the inside of like a cave. But as I tried to dig it out just a little more the top parts of those places kept falling down.
Having this happen several times, I started thinking really hard about some other way to make the top part so it didn’t fall down. I thought about the box my soldiers were in. When it had shoes in it it had a top part that was now on the bottom of the box instead. I didn’t keep it on top of the box, because then I couldn’t see what was in the box if the top was on. So I used it as the top part of my sleeping place for the soldiers, and it turned out that it was strong enough to let me make the sleeping place bigger so more soldiers could sleep there.
After the good guy soldiers had worked for a long time mom came out and said it was time for lunch. She looked at everything that had been built in the dirt, now full of soldiers watching out for pirates while others were sleeping.
“Cloob, you really put in a lot of work on this!” she said. Her words made me feel shy. I didn’t like grownups saying things about what I was doing, even if they liked it. So I just nodded and said nothing, and tried to wipe the dirt off my hands.
“Please take your shoes off in the landing when you come inside”, she said, “And wash your hands before you eat!”
She had made “grilled” cheese sandwiches in the oven. The bread was brown, warm and crunchy and tasted like butter. The cheese was warm and soft, and it all felt good in my mouth as I chewed it.