Thursday, November 12, 2009

I've been a little busy...

Marrying off my eldest son to a wonderful woman, showing friends from London around our neck of the woods and a few other errands irrelevant even to Fbook. Fear not, though, soon I will have something to say about a few things political rattling around in my skull, and other thoughts as well. In the mean time, here's a little piece to tide you over from my short story archives.

The Tower

It was a perfect plan. Discussed at length, examined from every angle. It accounted for each contingency and even had a complete back-up plan just to be thorough. Supplies had been quietly acquired over the last year and training sessions conducted. Three dry-runs had been initiated and successfully executed. It was a perfect plan and tomorrow was launch day.
In study hall students in the loop exchanged smug glances, secure in the knowledge that a Senior Prank that would achieve immortality was only hours away.
I gazed out the window idly studying the trees unfolding shiny new sets of bright green leaves. It was a warm late-May day and I was distant and disconnected from the classroom in the way only a high school senior days away from graduation can be. Without conscious thought, I was confident in the role my particular skills would play in tonight’s effort.
Springtime in the Magic Valley of southern Idaho is a busy time. The fertile volcanic soil is released from its winter freeze and manipulated by busy tractors planting sugar beets and potatoes, corn and dry beans, alfalfa and Timothy hay. A little later in the year, watermelons and cantaloupe would ripen to sweet perfection in the sun-drenched Hagerman valley of the Snake River.
Actually, it was all this activity that lent itself to our plan. Farmers and farmhands alike rose early and stayed home in the evenings. Not many would be in our town’s three bars this time of year, and the town deputy would be sleeping in his patrol car at Gary’s Gas & Go where Main Street and Highway 30 crossed. This intersection sported the only traffic light within five miles, flashing red for Main Street traffic and yellow for Highway 30. Walter was as regular as a twenty dollar railroad watch and could be counted on to be snoring loudly by ten-thirty. Everyone in town knew this and if his services were ever needed, someone would go rouse him. He was rarely disturbed.
Overnight Tuesday into Wednesday had been chosen. Too many family obligations on Sunday what with church and all, and Monday to Tuesday left us open to retaliation by the school board. After Tuesday though, we seniors had fulfilled our last obligatory day to the state and the printed diplomas would have arrived. We were home free Wednesday morning.
Virtually everyone knew the open secret that Wednesday was Senior Sneak anyway, and some of us had been planning this since we were sophomores.
The last bell rang for the final tedious time and I sauntered out of the school and walked the block and a half to my Dad’s tavern. Kip walked with me—he was my best friend—and my assistant for the night.
“Hi, Dad,” I said as I breezed through the door. “What’s new?”
“Think I’ll close early tonight,” he replied.
I took a quick survey; Donnie was at the bar on his regular stool, clearly having had an early start today. He would stagger home by nine o’clock for sure. A middle-aged couple, probably at least in their late twenties, sat at a table near the front window nursing a couple of beers and chatting while a few uneaten slices of congealed pizza curled up on the serving tray. They would be gone in twenty minutes.
“Yeah, what time you think?” I asked.
“Probably about ten, I called Ernie and Red and they’re both dead too.”
It was an unwritten code in this three block town (each block with its own bar) that if one decided to close early everybody closed at the same time. It seemed only fair and it kept any one owner from having to manage all the town drunks single-handedly. You’d be surprised how many drunks one small farm town could produce. Well, maybe you wouldn’t.
“Kip & I thought we’d go plink some jack rabbits then maybe go fishin’ down where Rock Creek comes into the river. Probably camp overnight.” This was an altogether common practice for Kip and I, so Dad thought nothing of it.
“Sneak tomorrow?” He winked.
“Just a rumor, Dad, just a rumor.”
“You guys want something to eat before your go?”
“Sure!” I said enthusiastically. I had just turned eighteen and food was second only to sex at the forefront of my cerebral cortex, “Kip?”
Kip thought for a moment then said, “mushroom, beef & onion pizza.”
“One track mind,” I jibed. “I’ve know you three years and it’s the only thing you’ve ever had here.”
“Consistency,” he countered, “is the hallmark of an organized mind.”
“Or one with the needle stuck in the groove,” I retorted, “Ham & Swiss on rye and a bowl of chili, Dad.”
Kip and I walked past the end of the bar, around the corner through the dance lounge, and into the storeroom where a rather commodious space had been allowed for my work bench. After four days of pulling rogues from bean fields three years ago, and a spasmodic effort at picking potatoes one autumn, I had befriended an art teacher. He painted signs for extra money and I had studiously apprenticed him. I made a lot more money and it was a damn sight less strenuous than working the fields. It wasn’t that I was lazy, just that I was smart. Well, a little lazy too, I suppose.
There between the cases of beer and chili and behind the twenty five pound bags of popping corn and five gallon cans of popcorn oil was my sign shop.
Over the last week I had moved the brushes & rollers I would need for tonight. All that remained was to take the pounce patterns and I would be ready.
Kip and I unrolled the huge banner and gazed at the perforated outline of letters and a picture.
“Are they big enough?” Kip wondered aloud.
“Seven foot caps, five foot lower case. Easily read from at least two miles, maybe more,” I replied. Dad came into the store room as I was rolling the last banner.
“Your food is ready.” He glanced at the enormous roll of paper.
“Johnson Lumber,” I lied smoothly. “Saturday and Sunday probably, I was showing Kip before I put them in the truck.”
“Oh, well eat your food while it’s still hot.”
“Right there, Dad,” I replied.
“Wow,” Kip intoned. “That was close!”
“Naw, Dads' seen dozens of these by now, he could care less. C’mon, let’s eat.” We voraciously pounded down the proffered food like only teenage boys can then we gathered up what we needed for the night and headed out to the truck.
“What are you gonna shoot?” Dad asked.
“I’m taking the Winchester pump,” I said. That was a 15 shot .22 caliber genuine Model 1894 pump action rifle with a checkered walnut stock and slide action, and a trigger pull as smooth as glass. “Kips’ gonna use his over/under and his pistol.” My friend had an unusual firearm. A two barreled affair with a .22 caliber rifle on top and a 410 gauge shotgun below. He also had an eight shot .22 caliber Ruger pistol. He was a great shot at moving targets, easily nailing everything at which he shot . However, standing still, right in front of his gun was the safest place on the planet a critter could be. That was my area of expertise and between us no creature in reasonable range was safe.
There wasn’t anywhere in particular to be for the next few hours so Kip and I actually went to Rock Creek and did a little fishing. We snagged a few squawfish suckers and tossed them up the bank for the magpies, but caught nothing worth keeping so about half an hour before sunset we headed back toward town.
We met some of our classmates at the warehouse of Steve’s father’s painting business; Industrial Painting and Coatings. Over the last two years Steve had been accumulating the required supplies in a dusty backwater of the huge building. Under the old tarpaulin was nearly three hundred gallons of industrial enamel paint; nearly two tons worth. Steve was on a forklift loading the pallets of paint onto one of the three trucks we would be using that night. Fred and George, both of whom worked for Steve’s dad after school and in the summers, were loading slings, harnesses and belts onto the pressure truck along with the four power lifts that would be used to transport all these supplies to their final destination. I tossed my patterns and other equipment in the back of the one of the trucks and ambled over to Steve.
“How long will it take to get set-up once we get there?”
Steve stopped loading for a moment, “About an hour if we don’t attract any unwanted attention.” We had not been what you might call friendly during our high school careers, but this was a unifying moment for everyone, so petty differences were temporarily held in abeyance. Besides, school was over, and after tonight the only time I had to revisit these losers was graduation day.
“Don’t forget to shoot my areas first, and don’t forget to add the drier. As it is, I’ll be the last one up there in the middle of the night,” I reminded him.
“Don’t worry, you’ll get your precious spots painted first, and I’ve already mixed the drier in the paint. It should be fully workable in two hours. You’re not painting the Mona Lisa up there, yah know. Just whip it out and get down as fast as you can.”
“Nonetheless, I do take a certain pride in my work,” I countered, slightly miffed.
“So do we butt wipe.” The forklift swung back into action as Kip and I left the warehouse headed for the next rendezvous point.
Tanya had the life most of us wanted. Her father was the town doctor and lived in the biggest house with the biggest lawn and the longest Cadillac. They actually went on real vacations to places where they stayed in motels, not with relatives. In other words, they were rich, rich, rich. Most of the girls from the class were there and a few of the boys who lacked technical skills, or even coordination for that matter, and were therefore considered a danger to themselves and others for this project. We breezed in with the update.
“Steve says about an hour to move the stuff, another hour for rigging and set-up, so about ten before anything really starts. Kip and me can’t really get to our part probably until about two a.m. I’m not worried about us though, the real coverage will be most important till about one I think. After that everybody should be asleep. I just hope nobody hears all the equipment and racket from tearing down the set-ups.”
“What about setting up” Tanya asked, “won’t people be more likely to hear that?”
“Yeah, but that’s the beauty of the plan. Everybody knows the I P C trucks. They’re around setting up jobsites all the time. No one will give it a second thought, especially with Steve’s dad out of town unexpectedly.”
“Yes, that was a bit of good luck,” Tanya agreed.
“Hey, where are your parents, Tanya.” Melanie was seldom heard from. She was shy and unattractive. With mousey hair and a sharply pointed nose to go along with pimply skin and an overbite with a weak chin, she was the unofficial spokesman of the female Outcasts. Every class has such a group, one for the girls and one for the boys. That she and her friends were here at all was evidence of the importance of the event at hand.
“Bridge night in Twin, they won’t be back before midnight. Besides, they think we will all be gone on sneak anyway. They won’t worry about me.”
“I wish I could be gone all night,” Melanie whined. “My parents would have the Sheriff dredging the river for my body if I weren’t home by eleven.”
“That’s good though, tonight,” I said. “It’s important that at least some of us appear to have a completely normal night; really important to all of us.”
“Thanks Bob. Nice try.”
“No, really, it’s an important thing.”
“Okay, I suppose.”
“Beside,” Tanya observed, “after about three a.m. you sneak out anyway and head for the City of Rocks.”
“Well, let’s review our assignments and get going.” Alan was the nerdiest of all the seniors, and perhaps all of humankind. He actually understood calculus. He actually carried a small slide rule in his pocket and knew how to use it; his pocket protector protected a pocket filled with pens and mechanical pencils. “And let’s not travel around like a herd of buffalo either, that would seem very unnatural.” As the consensus deep thinker of the class we did precisely as he directed and after having reviewed our assignments and wholly unnecessarily synchronizing our respective watches we drifted out to our stations to bide our time.
It was useful that the target of our work was located away from any residences in what passed for the industrial part of our tiny village. By ten Steve and his crew were fully set up and had begun the frantic work that would consume them for most of the night. Kip and I helped where we could, mostly keeping sprayers loaded with paint and yards of hoses untangled. About 1 a.m. my special materials were hoisted skyward and secured to the railing and Kip and I began the long ladder ascent to our goal.
By a little after two we had the pounce pattern in place and the two of us dusted the blue chalk on the perforations that would leave an outline for us to follow when the pattern was removed. Next we set up the paint and while I painted the edgework my partner followed along with a roller to fill in the outline. It took a little longer than I expected and Steve was completely unrigged and had left the site by the time we put on the finishing touches.
The first streaks of daylight were appearing in the eastern horizon as we lowered first our equipment and then ourselves back to ground level. We were cutting it much closer than I had expected—or wanted—as farm traffic was already beginning to stir. By now someone had almost certainly seen our handiwork, so we crammed our stuff in the pickup and left down the alley and out the back way from town. We got to the City of Rocks about an hour later, had a couple of beers with our friends and promptly fell fast asleep.
It was a busy few days before graduation. The school board had a special session. So did the City Council. Then they met together, which wasn’t too difficult since about half the members were on both bodies. In the end, after lots of head scratching and hand wringing the conclusion was that there wasn’t much to be done, so that’s what they did, nothing.
Graduation day dawned gloriously in our little community. About noon all the graduating seniors had donned robes and mortarboards and were sitting on folding chairs on the football field facing friends and family in the bleachers just across the track. One by one our names were called into the tinny P A system and we marched across to receive our diplomas, sneaking a peek at our handiwork which served as the backdrop to the proceedings and the real focal point of the audience this year.
Towering one hundred twenty feet over the city was a now shocking pink water tower, complete with blinking red light on top. Emblazoned on both sides in Chinese red were AMBERLY, then, Class of ’70 and the school mascot bulldog.
It had been the considered opinion of the relevant boards that the water tower had needed painting and while pink wouldn’t have been the first choice it was well done and the signage was. . . .well, professional, so they left it. Ten years later at our first reunion it was still that way and had earned the nickname we had all so earnestly hoped for. Amberly was the proud home of the Titty Tank.

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