Framing

(short fiction originally published in The Battered Suitcase, June 2010)

We used to imagine the new framing, the pine joists and studs, as skeletons of giants, and we were peering through their rib cages out into the trees.  We raced the rise of unfinished stairways and pretended we were climbing the giant’s spine, vertebrae by vertebrae.  We leaned forward through the highest studs, steepled rafters above us intersecting clouds and sky, and we filled our small lungs with breeze, feeling more alive than we ever had in our young lives, leaning out over bulldozed lots, freshly cleaved earth, from our perch two or three stories high.  We wanted to never return home, to our carpeted, sheetrocked and painted houses.  We wanted to stay forever in these newly formed structures where the sky and sun tore through.  Skeletons, yes, but to us they were living and breathing leviathans, the steel corrugated electrical tubing stitched through the studs the veins, the dank, moist smell of new basements, soil and concrete, the being’s breath.

These new structures remained alive for us and served our sanctuary until the plywood was nailed to the studs, blotting the sun, the tyvac wrap that kept all light, all weather from seeping through.  That’s when we’d move on to the next open boned giant.  We’d watch from the periphery of the thinning woods as bulldozers ripped a new hole into the earth, and we’d wait patiently as new footings were poured, new foundation set in cinder block, and a new giant lifted its head from the earth.

Whole summers were spent in the bellies and spines of these giants.  New construction was plentiful in the stretch of suburban neighborhood at that time, and we had a choice of new housing structures to hide away in while the construction workers moved from building to building, from alternate subdivisions and back.  Our whole world became them:  we formed currency from the perforated metal disks punched from electrical boxes; we made bracelets from the blue and green and red electrical wire; we returned home with a dusting of sawdust in our hair and pant cuffs as though our bodies were becoming steeped in the lifeblood of new home construction.

Sometimes at night, we’d wander silently up the stairs of a newly floored upper story and we’d stare up at the moon and stars, each of us wondering, I imagine, what new family would eventually wander these same floors, sleep in beds under these rafters, breathe their lives and shape their stories and dramas and tragedies and joys long after our muddy footprints would be locked from view beneath hardwood flooring strips or carpet padding and stretched Berber.

 We were the original pirates who laid claim to these heaving structures.  Our exploration, our thundering across floor joists and lunges through studs, hanging from rafters christened them first, kissed our hearts and breath into their openings.  The families that would live their lives in them would never know of our time in their space.  The initials we carved in the framing, pictographs we drew with sheetrock chunks and roofing chalk would be forever invisible to their eyes, locked from view, trapped in the bellies of newly formed giants, a secret long whispered beneath their sleep.

 

When we first moved to Cabrini Fields, a culdesac framed subdivision anchored in the then leafy, northern suburbs of Saint Paul, my brother and I were two of four children our age in the neighborhood, by that time only half a dozen houses complete and only four of those yet occupied.  It was a new development, one that offered prospective homeowners the option of one of six house designs, from a basic rambler to a three story four bedroom, but for the most part modest middle-class housing, each lot with a small tongue of blacktop leading to an attached, two car garage.

 In retrospect, I imagine the difficulty my father must have had embracing our first home, his first mortgage.  As a young architect, then, he must have cringed at the act of pointing to one of six pre-designed floorplans and saying, “That one there.  We’ll take that one,” with as much creative input as one chooses one plastic wrapped head of lettuce over another.

 But my parents became pregnant with my brother Danny before they had even finished their undergraduate degrees.  And two years later, before my father had completed his architecture degree, along I came.  For the first few years as a family, we lived at on-campus student housing at the University.  Then a small rented house in Saint Paul.  When they had squirreled enough money away for a down payment on a house, we latched onto the most affordable subdivision they could find in the Saint Paul suburbs.  My father’s self-designed dream home would have to remain on hold.  Just then, he was working long hours at a small architecture firm downtown Saint Paul, helping design school and hospital facility remodels and the occasional house – strangers’ dream homes, but not his own.

The first few weeks at Cabrini Fields, our front lawn still mud, the long furled strips of sod not yet delivered, were days of adventure for Danny and me.  Twelve and ten years old, we were content exploring the thin line of the backlot framing woods, oak and buckthorn that shaped a curving berm behind the first plot of houses.  We had lived our lives confined to the grid of city lots, and the nearby wilderness, though not much more than a simple backdrop between the newer subdivision and an older one, was, to us, the stuff of great adventure.

After school let out, we spent afternoons in withered sunlight, chasing squirrels through trees, trapping our first in a wood box pitched at a forty-five degree angle by a peanut butter slathered one by one, watching the freed squirrel streak lightning through the buckthorn when we peered beneath the fallen box; we climbed tree trunks thick enough to hold our weight and flung ourselves from those that weren’t.

 Appreciating the solace and subterfuge the woods provided, our lives becoming hidden, invisible momentarily from the adult world, we found ourselves drawn to making our escape even more rooted.  We began a project of digging a fort in the center of the woods, hidden in the trees behind our house.

Danny and I dug a hole two and a half to three feet deep, five feet by five feet, and we hauled a sheet of plywood through the trees and used it as our fort’s roof.

 We were happy inhabitants of our new earthen sanctuary – would fill plastic camping canteens with water and Tang, cart plastic sleeves of saltine crackers, and retreat to our fort locked in place in the roots of trees, our bodies cooled in the dank moisture of earth, our eyes peering up at sky through the two inch slat we left open between the plywood and the fort’s banked shoulder.

 What a shock it was to one day see that small slice of sky blotted by the round, blond heads and four blue eyes staring down at us through the same opening.

 “It isn’t only plywood here,” said a soft voice above.  “It’s covering a hole.”

 In an instant, our plywood barrier was hoisted clean and mine and Danny’s bodies revealed to the fall of sun and into the overhead view of Carl and Leonard Ashbach, our new neighbors, two houses down.

I’m certain my eyes blinked a number of times before I took a breath.  There was silence on their end, too.  They believed they had discovered a hidden dug-out in the woods; the two bodies nestled within that enclosure had not been detected until their small hands reached down and shucked the plywood clean.

 “Whoa,” said Leonard.

 “Hey!” shouted Danny.  “You mind?”

Danny and I stared in silence, immobilized, our hearts thudding as we listened to the fast, receding footsteps of Carl and Leonard Ashbach, trailing punches through leaves and grasses, their wordless retreat from their new discovery in the woods behind their home.

 

It was a matter of days before we saw Carl and Leonard again and mere weeks before we were slowly introduced to their somewhat eccentric world.

We spotted them in their front drive, bouncing a tennis ball to one another against the garage.  Danny and I decided to introduce ourselves.  Normally solitary and preferring things that way, we also knew there would be no avoiding our new neighbors, the two boys with parallel ages to ours.

Carl was the elder of the two, curly hair nestled over his ears and sticking up in obtuse angles, round, John Denver glasses and bulging eyes beneath them.  He looked like he had been left out in the rain and struck a number of times by wayward lightning, his lips swollen bee stings – his overall appearance more insect-like than human.  Leonard was easily the more normal looking of the two, closely cut toe headed hair, deep blue eyes, long arms and a compact torso – a ten year old in a wrestler body.  Unlike Danny and me, these two barely resembled one another as relatives.

When Danny and I got to the edge of their lawn, the Ashbachs noticed and fell silent, the tennis ball dribbling down the drive unfielded.

 “Hey,” said Danny.

 “Hey,” they answered in unison.

 For a moment I wondered if they recognized us.  The last time they saw us, we were lying prone, revealed under a hoisted sheet of plywood, even with the soil.

 “Cool fort,” said Leonard.

 Silence followed and then Carl spoke.  “You guys see The Great Escape?  Steve McQueen?”

We shook our heads.

“These prisoners of the Germans tunnel their way beneath the prison yard to freedom.”

 “If you want to try something like that with your fort,” added Leonard, “We could help.  We’d need some kind of cart and rail set-up to haul the dirt.”

  Danny and I just blinked.

 It was the first we noted these two had imaginations and schemes that easily surpassed the simple boundaries ours resided.

 

In their company, quickly we learned the Ashbach family wasn’t like any other family we had known – they were brilliant.  After spending our days with them, we’d retreat home to tell our parents about them over our dinners together – how Leonard and Carl were the sons of a science professor at the University and how he was building a hydroplane boat in his basement, a long, bent plywood craft with fiberglassed belly, sleek red gloss, a boat now too large to ever removed from the same basement chamber in one piece.  An obvious lover of water, a huge portrait of this same man hung above their living room, their father in a sailor cap, beard, a minute cigarette stabbed between his lips, wind in his face, the angled mast and sail pitched behind him.

But it was Leonard and Carl we were most intrigued by – our age, yet their comprehension of the world whole universes beyond our own simple grasp.  At ten and twelve years old, they had already read Salinger (Pierre and J.D.) and quoted Holden Caulfield as though he was a friend of theirs (for a long while, we believed he was.)  They could recite whole plots of Shakespeare’s tragedies, discussed Nikola Tesla’s theory of electricity and compared it against Thomas Edison’s (siding with Tesla), could note the fundamentals of sailing, the physics and the equipment nomenclature, even though you suspected these two had never even stepped foot on a boat.  They could state the differences in philosophy between Albert Camus and Jean Paul Sartre, even though Danny and I couldn’t distinguish these names from those found in Marvel Comics.

Reserved and lacking the quirky emotions and affects of most our age, they simply informed us of the world as if it were their duty, accepting the mere truth neither Danny nor I knew much of anything, never once indicating embarrassment over the wide breadth of knowledge their young brains had already accumulated.   Unblinking, they pared away truths in the world of politics, history, science, the arts.

It was Leonard who informed me Santa Clause didn’t exist, a year after, perhaps, I suspected such rumor but clearly years before I was willing to accept its cold truth.  “Santa is dead,” he said, failing to resist the opportunity to draw parallels to existentialism.  “Show me the proof if he isn’t.  One photograph.  Explain the physics of reindeer in the clouds.”

At the height of the Watergate controversy, 1976, Carl was probably the only twelve year old costumed as John Dean, Nixon’s counsel.  He roamed our moonlit neighborhood collecting Halloween candy dressed in a blue suit, black framed glasses and reel to reel tape wound around his neck and unfurled from his pockets, “The missing eighteen minutes,” he said, pointing to the tape, when neighborhood mothers and fathers asked him of his costume at their doors.

These were not ordinary pre-teens, and Danny and I knew it.  Too young to be intimidated by their cosmic leap above our own intelligence, we were merely drawn to the oddity of their thought process and the even nature of their company.

As we slowly shaped our friendship with Carl and Leonard Ashbach, we got used to running back and forth between our two houses, four lawns apart.  Similar in size, our homes contrasted one another, if only by decorum.  Our house was always in slight disarray, our mother and father more outwardly artistic and expressive, dressing the living and dining room in vivid colors, sometimes experimenting in interior design by painting a single wall a bright yellow or wrapping aluminum foil from the baseboard to ceiling.  The Ashbach’s house was neatly organized, hard surfaces and minimalism.  Their living room hosted a small screen black and white television perched on a roll-top desk – a device allowed for an allotted amount of viewing, mostly regulated to broadcast via PBS.

The Ashbachs housed a wiry haired black poodle mix named after the three headed dog said to guard the entrance of Hades – Cerberus.  This Cerberus ran incessantly beneath your legs perched over the coffee table and plotted escapes through the chained linked fence gate by way of bartering for rides around the neighborhood in the Ashbach’s Volvo wagon – the one reward the dog loved more than freedom.

In contrast to the significant collective intelligence amassed by Carl and Leonard and their parents, the enthusiastic but thoughtless exuberance of their dog seemed an anomaly of the household, everything set in order except for this one curly headed, bulbous eyed, saliva drooling aberration.  Perhaps that’s why the Ashbachs all looked at Cerberus and his antics with Cheshire cat-like grins – the welcomed contrast to all the rest.

Danny and I held immediate affinity for Cerberus, too.  He was the only one in the household we didn’t feel dwarfed us intellectually.

Collectively, we four quickly developed into a force to be reckoned with across the gleaming streets of newly poured asphalt – the two Ashbach brains bolstered by mine and Danny’s exuberance and open eyed curiosity.

Nightly games of ding dong ditch, daytime bouts of capture the flag, kick the can, the neighborhood go-kart race we initiated, the four of us anchoring ourselves in the Ashbach basement for weeks, constructing our racer out of two by fours collected from housing construction and two wheelchair wheels we obtained from a garage sale for six shiny quarters.  When word got out about the one-day downhill race, entrants came from miles around to compete.  Our go-kart, with help from Carl and Leonard’s father’s hydroplaning skills, was bested by none.

Not all our schemes had as esteemed results.  I remember the afternoon Carl talked me into selling insurance policies across the neighborhood. 

“You look at the demographics of this neighborhood,” said Carl.  “Compare them against actuarial tables and life insurance is a pretty safe bet.”

No longer astounded by Ashbach intelligence, I merely nodded my head, forgiving myself for not understanding the heart of actuarial science at eleven years old. 

“You want us to sell insurance?”  I asked.  “Out of what?”

“Paper,” answered Carl.  “Paper for paper.  Insurance coverage, currency, these are merely theories to begin with.  In practice, neither one exists.”

We wandered off into the neighborhood, Carl with his cardboard attaché case, dwarfing his own stature, dangling at his side.  At the first door we came to, Carl took a moment to adjust himself, with a single finger pushed his eyeglasses up to the small bridge of his nose and reached for the doorbell.

“Excuse me, ma’m,” he started as the first unsuspecting homeowner opened the door to us.  “Do you feel your family is adequately protected financially against the unforeseen tragedy?”

We didn’t sell any insurance policies that day.  We did, however, provide an amusing photo opportunity for many chagrined neighbors.

But what I remember most vividly across the shadow of that time, that neighborhood, was the wandering housing development we followed in its new swath into the trees and over bulldozed fields, long-stretching dozer tire treads like dinosaur footprints, muddy water indentations after the rain.  Each new house, the skeleton framing over newly dug foundations became temporary sanctuaries to us.  We used to lay with our backs against the upper level plywood floors and absorb the heat, the swell of sun-warmed wood lifting through our bodies.

We christened each new building with our presence, believed our whispering footsteps across newly formed floors would hold a sacred place for us within our wandering, expanding neighborhood.

As houses neared completion, tongue and groove maple flooring layered over subflooring plywood, sheetrock seamed with drywall mud, we abandoned the newly completed fortresses for the next skeleton frame rooted over newly poured foundation, preferring the raw bones of shelter over the wholly defined.

It wasn’t long before the new housing was crowded against those newly occupied.  We moved farther and farther to the periphery, young neighbors hanging laundry on backyard lines and construction workers chugging coffee and pounding hammers into two by fours closer and closer to our views between wall studs and floor joists.

Soon we had abandoned the housing shelters altogether and moved our world permanently to the wide spit of marshland, banked by willow, at the farthest reach of our neighborhood, hidden from adult view, the last stretch of sanctuary in Cabrini Fields – a beautiful reach of cattails and duckweed speckled water.  We spent whole days exploring, the pond becoming our new universe.  We dissected cattail stalks and roots, cleaved their sill.  We caught leopard frogs and salamanders in our bare hands, their cold, wet bodies pushing through our fingers.  At dusk, we combed through the itch weed and reeds with open mason jars, collecting lightning bugs – jars we’d set by our bedsides, mesmerized by the slow heart pulse of flickering light, sad, always, to find its magic invisible by dawn.

We spent whole days in the isthmus of the marsh, tucked behind trees.  We sipped  canteens of water, the Ashbachs enthralling Danny and me with stories of Ponce de Leon and Ernest Shackleton, the muffled rat-a-tat-tat of pounding hammers sifting through the trees, the wind smelling of newly cut wood.  We plotted new travels, new inventions we’d gift the world from behind the long stretching shadows of willow, fluttering breezes singing past cat tail stalks and trilling red winged blackbirds bending single reeds.

Like nomads pushed across plains, we had found our sanctuary in the duckweed lined ponds tucked in the shadows of the farthest trees. 

Only at dusk would we wander again through the new bones of houses, the only signs of carpenters then their bulldozed tracks studded with cigarette butts and empty and crushed cans of Coke.  When we discovered the development plans to turn the marsh into housing lots, too, we felt kicked in the stomach.

“Can they do that, dad?” I remember asking my father as he slurped a bowl of corn flakes, his necktie swung over his shoulder to avoid it dangling in milk.  He chewed the side of his cheek before he answered me and lowered his voice when he did.

“All they have to do is create new wetland elsewhere.  They can bulldoze this one and turn it into houses and lawns if they rescue property elsewhere and stick a shovel in the belly of it to create new wetland.”

“But what sense does that make if they already have perfectly good wetland here?  They can’t transport the same frogs and waterbugs.  There’s a whole world of life brimming right here and they’re going to kill it, even if they do make a new one somewhere else.”

“I know,” he said, and I could see the scorn on my father’s expression and the giving in at the same time.  “They really should leave that marsh alone.  But I don’t think anything is going to stop them from digging it out.  You guys will find a new place for adventure.”

“Can’t we file a protest with the state, or something?”

“It just wouldn’t go anywhere.  Unless they fail at their obligation, they’re within their rights.  Sad as that is to acknowledge.”

Years later I can better appreciate my father’s place in the world at that moment.  He knew better than I the forces of industry.  As a young architect, he also had to navigate complaints against development firms carefully, if at all.  He didn’t want to see that marshland gutted and then filled any more than the rest of us.  But he already knew what would be.  Unless the county discovered noncompliance with the wetland restoration policy, our marsh oasis would soon be leveled.

But the Ashbachs were less resigned to accept the cold truth of land development without battle.  “We can fight this,” said Carl, his fists clenched.

“Aren’t there laws against wetland destruction?” asked Leonard.

“They can’t bulldoze a living isthmus.  They can’t do that,” said Carl, whereas Leonard was more theoretical in his questioning:

“Setting a foundation over marsh is like building a house over an open cyst.  I don’t see technically how they can even do it.”

“The development company merely needs to make good on digging out new wetland elsewhere to rip this one apart,” I told them.  I tossed a rock into the middle of the pond.  “There’s nothing we can do.”

It was then Carl and Leonard debated the polemics of whether it was better to thwart the housing development expansion under the guidance of Gandhi or Che Guevara while Danny and I merely stared straight ahead at the soft cat tails, blown open by sun and wind, knowing whatever the political theory behind dissent, something should be done to stop the scooping of this life-teeming land.

“This is war,” declared Carl.  He raised his fist in the direction of the din of hammers and distant idle of dozers.

 “The people always have power over the mighty few, even if the laws don’t spell that truth out,” said Carl.  “Mostly we don’t see it because they keep it hidden away, embers of truth banked by the shroud of fear and intimidation.  We can beat these guys.”

Leonard began nodding his head at his brother’s pronouncement.  He raised his fist in the air.  “Resist the enemy,” he said.

“How?”

“We must first assess the arms of the opposition,” said Carl.  “In this case, it’s the equipment that gives our enemy the upper hand.  We must destroy the bulldozers.”

“Destroy?”

“It’s the only real force standing between the swamp and its future paved lot status.  And we have one clear advantage.”

We stared blankly at Carl.  He moved to a soft hill, his back to the bulldozers behind him, a dramatic plateau for presentation purposes.  We knew he had watched George C. Scott’s Patton the week before, but we didn’t call him on it.

“The enemy leaves his equipment vulnerable.  He abandons his fleet at night.”

“We can’t destroy bulldozers, Carl.  They’ll put us in jail.”

I was on Carl’s side about wanting to stop the development of the marsh. It mattered to me as much as anyone.  But I wasn’t sold on the notion of destruction to get there.

“Violence is only justified when the root cause is violent in itself and can be ceased by no other means,” said Leonard.

“Violence?”

Danny and I were wondering if the Ashbachs had in mind an actual assault on just the bulldoze equipment or also the construction workers themselves.

“We’re just kids here,” Danny said.  “Four of us.  We can’t start a war.”

“A revolution,” said Carl.  “And yes we can.  We have the power.  We have the initiative.”

“I don’t think we should drag our families through the mud of anything,” I said.

“Sugar,” blurted Leonard.

We turned.  

He stood frowning.  “Refined, granular sugar.  Pour it in the gas tanks and it gums up the carburetor.”

“That’s it?” asked Carl.

“If it stops them in their tracks without tipping our hand, why not?” answered Leonard. 

“I can live with it,” answered Carl.  “If it works.”

 

With baggies of white sugar, under the cover of night, we fanned out through the meandering development of Cabrini Fields, the cool July breeze puckering our t-shirts.

We approached each bulldozer, blue in the moon, berthed between bundles of two by fours and stacks of roofing shingles.  We opened the gas tank panels and poured long streams of sugar into their deep bellies.

For emphasis, Carl poured an A with a circle around it at the fallen bucket of one of the dozers.

We crept our way homeward, our hearts beating at each sweep of headlights through the canopy of oaks.  We moved silently through woods and backyards, careful not to give away our presence in the world.  We were the neighborhood anarchists on a mission cloaked in subterfuge.

If we slowed the fleet of bulldozers, the open palm of development in our wandering neighborhood, we certainly didn’t notice.  The same bulldozers fired up in the coming days with barely a cough.  Maybe their smoke burned darker as a result of our sugar coated gas tank treatment, but we hadn’t achieved the equipment failure we were hoping.

“More sugar,” said Leonard.  “Every night another dose.  We’ll turn their fuel into a cough syrup sludge.”

“It’s taking too long,” said Carl.  “We can’t wait any longer.”

We three were perfectly resigned to the slow momentary disruption of equipment.  We also appreciated the minimal risk and traces of evidence this approach weaned.

Carl’s eyes, though, were larger.  It was just past Watergate.  We had observed the leader of the highest office of our nation slip into the shadows of schoolyard bully crime.  The movie Rollerball had just been released in theatres.  These two forces were like napalm in the soft hands of adolescent intellectuals like Carl Ashbach.  If not an overthrow of a corrupt government, he was prepared to reach deep into the dark heart of revenge to take back his neighborhood, by whatever means necessary.

“They can’t mothereat this swamp,” said Carl, the strings of his army pants trailing in the wind, the sun through his curly locks, expression emotionless as ever.  “We’ve got to turn these bastards on their ears.”

“The rights of the people must not be trampled,” trumpeted Leonard.

Danny and I looked at each other and nodded. When it came to revolutionary revolt philosophy, clearly we deferred.

“What you have in mind?” Danny asked.

“Pyrotechnics,” answered Carl.  “The sky full of discontent.  We’ll split the god damned stars open.”

Carl pulled us into his room that afternoon and folded open his copy of The Anarchist’s Cookbook, showed us the diagram for pipe bombs and explosive devices whose bellies were stocked with nails and screws.  Carl demonstrated the arcing life of a Molotov cocktail, favorite arm of rioters.  He filled a pop bottle with gasoline, stuffed a rag in the opening and wandered through the sliding glass door of the Ashbach porch.  With the resolve of a thirteen year old anarchist I had not seen, Carl peered calmly over the rims of his wire framed glasses as he lit the rag.  The rest of us backed up a step as it flowered into a flame.

Carl held the ignited bottle a long moment and then rifled it into the trees.  It landed in a soft explosion of flame, its dark twist of smoke a question mark through the lower branches of oak, reaching for sky.

“We oughta put that out,” said Danny.  We listened to the sizzle of leaves and branches in the soft ball of flame.

“What’s your plan?” asked Leonard.

“Take out the machinery,” answered Carl.  “Let them have it in their teeth.  Full scale attack.”

“They’d have our parents in jail,” I answered.

“Do you have a shovel?” asked Danny, immobilized, still, by the sight of the curling flames in the woods.

“They can’t jail our parents if they have nothing to do with it,” said Carl. 

“They could be held financially responsible, though,” answered Leonard.

“Really, a shovel,” asked Danny.  He ran into the Ashbach garage, came out with a garden spade and ran into the woods, pulled dirt from the rooted earth and tossed it on the flame, now licking the lower leaves of an oak.

“There’s another way,” said Leonard.  “Gandhi defeated the whole of the British army by it.”

“Peaceful protest?” asked Carl.

“Yep.”

“Won’t work,” answered Carl.

“We chain ourselves, each to a bulldozer.  They can’t flatten the swamp and in the meanwhile we gain attention of the press, all without the pale of violence.”

It suddenly became clearer to me, the Greenpeace newsletters folded open on Leonard’s desk and how he had leveraged their politic.

“They’d move past that in a heartbeat,” said Carl. 

“Not if the press comes,” answered Leonard.  “It’s our only chance.  A construction company draining a swamp against the chained hopes of four youth isn’t the kind of publicity they want.”

There was silence.

“We’d need heavy chains,” said Carl.  “Something they can’t cut through with bolt cutters.”

“Thickest there is,” said Leonard.

“We’d need to write compelling notices to the press in advance.”

“We could sign the god damned letter in blood.”

At this, Carl succumbed to the first trace of smile since the discussion began.

Danny emerged from the woods, sunlit smoke drifting behind him, all flame drowned in the cover of earth.  He sighed heavy breaths.

“So what’s next?” he asked.

“We’re going to Gandhi the dozers,” said Carl, and I was pretty sure we had crossed the soft line of turning back.

 

In Leonard’s small corner bedroom, we plotted our plan of attack while Mahatma Gandhi stared down at us from a poster near the ceiling, cross legged, bespeckled smile warming his expression.  I pictured the four of us, each wrapped in a white sheet around our waists, bare footed, turning back the revving bulldozers by sitting cross-legged in their path. 

We punched out letters to the local newspapers on Leonard’s 1930’s typewriter.  We pooled our funds, allowance savings and the complete bankroll from our various neighborhood schemes and haunted houses and purchased forty feet of thick tow chain from the marine surplus store, padlocks from the hardware store.

We hid in the periphery of trees, thin elm and fat oaks, and listened to the construction crew and their foremen discuss the timing of the swamp leveling.  The night before the slated event, a humid night in late August, we pitched a tent in the nearby woods and woke early, before the sun had emerged, when the unfinished house framing nearby was still blue in the moon. 

Danny and I wandered from the tent, wiping sleep from our eyes.  We both acknowledged the sour hold in our small stomachs.

“I’m not sure we should go through with this,” I told Carl and Leonard as they rolled the deflated tent across the dewy grass and began to fold it.  Leonard paused and looked for our expressions.

Danny and I stood, cold, our arms clasped across our chests, knees hiccoughing.

“It might not go right,” I said.  “We could get into trouble.”

Carl and Leonard exchanged a glance.  Leonard was silent as he halved the tent, quartered it and kneaded it into a loaf and pushed it into its bag as Carl held it open for him.

Leonard got up off the grass and walked toward us.

“We’re only chaining ourselves to those dozers.  We’re not destroying any property.”

“What if the construction company charges us for the misplaced construction time?” asked Danny.  “How could we pay for that?  What money do we have for that sort of thing?”

“They’re going to bulldoze that swamp,” answered Carl, his finger pointed behind him at the wet blades of marsh, the pond reflecting early morning clouds.

“I know.  And it’s not right, not what we want,” said Danny.

“We just don’t know if we can really do anything to save it,” I added.  “Why put our parents through anything for nothing?”

It was then Leonard got up and walked toward us, and with the calm voice of a prophet, a poet philosopher in training, placed his soft hand on my shoulder and said, “It’s not enough to know right from wrong.  You have to participate in its shaping, its breath into the sky.”

I backed up, a moment, and took in Leonard’s advice, of shaping breath into sky.  In his mind, perhaps, the statement we would make, whether successful or not, would resonate beyond our success or failure.  We would, at least, voice protest rather than merely regret our silence.  It was the first I understood.

“We need to fight for this,” said Carl.  “We need to participate.”

Danny and I nodded, shook the morning from our bones, helped stash the tent and our sleeping bags in the bushes and carried our separate lengths of chain toward the dozers.   We both knew the Ashbachs better knew how the world worked.  In the end, we saw little choice but to follow and observe.

Each of us draped a placard from our necks emblazoned with the words: “Save the swamp.”  We huddled momentarily near the edge of the cat tails.  “Remember,” said Leonard.  “It’s a noble heart that stares down his adversaries.”

“Stick it to the man,” added Carl, and we all raised single fists toward the morning stars, nodded wide grins at one another and, for the first time in our young lives, turned to initiate a collective act of defiance over the pending shape of the soft world before us.

We each stepped into the cold bucket seat of a bulldozer and chained our own wrists to the steering wheel.  We waited, our breath soft clouds in the early morning dawn.  We listened to the murmur of the frogs and crickets whose salvation we hoped to preserve.  Our hearts thudded in our chests.

Two headlights pricked the horizon and rolled through the winding backroad of development on the edge of Cabrini Fields.  The blue pick-up truck with dented door stopped, the haze of the dirt road hovering like a ghost in its tail-lights before the engine shut off.  A man dressed in blue jeans and plaid shirt, fingers wrapped around a large paper cup of steaming coffee hopped out of the truck, leaned against it a moment, lit a cigarette with a lighter flash, sighed a long stream of smoke and with coffee and cigarette in hand, walked toward my dozer.

When he got close enough to see the chain in the moonlight, he stopped.  He looked me in the eyes and said.  “Hey kid, are you alright?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “We’re just trying to save this swamp.”

It was then he noticed the placard around my neck and the outline of Danny and Carl and Leonard at the other dozers.

“Jesus Christ,” he said.  “How long have you kids been out here?”

“Just since this morning,” I answered.

“Did someone do this to you? Are you okay?”

“We did it on purpose,” yelled Carl.  “We don’t want you to bulldoze this swamp.”

By the time the next pick-up truck parked next to the first and its door opened to reveal another plaid shirted occupant, the first was still standing in place in front of my dozer.   He turned to the other and yelled: “Hey, Jeeter!  I gotta kid chained to my Caterpillar!”

“A kid?”

“All four Caterpillars got kids chained to them.”

The second dozer driver walked toward the center and paused.  We could see his breath in the blued light.

“You got bolt cutters?”

“In the truck.”

“Cut ‘em.”  The orange end of his cigarette swelled like a rose and he exhaled a long stream of smoke that curled into soft loops.

“Wait!” yelled Leonard.  “We’re trying to take a stand here.  Can we just talk to you both?”

The first driver continued his saunter to the tool bin behind his pick-up cab.  He dug through it and withdrew a large bolt cutter.  In silence he walked toward us, his co-worker Jeeter approaching at the same gait.  They both passed close enough we could finally see their expressions.  They were men our fathers’ age, softer expressions than we had probably imagined.  Jeeter had a four or five day growth of beard peppering his chin.  The worker with bolt cutter in tow wore a red bandana around his forehead.

“Shouldn’t you kids be at home in bed?” bandana asked.  “You haven’t been out all night have you?”

“We’re trying to protest the leveling of this swamp,” said Leonard.  “We live in those houses at the end of the culdesac.  You’ve flattened everything else in this reach, this whole shoulder of land.  Do you really need to flatten this one last piece of environment, too?”

I caught Carl’s expression through the darkness.  His eyes were fixed on the men who stood before us with bolt cutters in hand and idling trucks behind them.  I knew he was already attempting to process defeat, how it seethed within him.  I knew he was now second-guessing his compromise to peaceful protest in place of violent assault.   Almost more than anything, I wanted us to recover one small victory in the moments ahead of us simply to satisfy one portion of the anger I knew Carl was warming through his blood.  I wanted more than anything our failure at battle to be more complicated than the dozer driver’s sudden slicing through our chains with bolt cutters, before the sun had even punctured the horizon, wanted our moment of taking a stand to at least last through the blue dawn.  The collective efforts of four twelve and thirteen year-olds would hardly amount to a force strong enough to thwart leveling this small patch of land, but I wanted our attempt to last longer than the mere moments it seemed to be heading for.

“Kid,” said the man.  “If I lived in this neighborhood, I’d want that little swamp to remain in place, too.  It’s god damned beautiful, the last little tick of nature in this entire development.  And leveling that sonofabitch and all the duckweed and peeper frogs that live there isn’t going to amount to anything more than one more god damned footprint for another of these cookie cutter houses.  But you and I, we’re not the ones at the wheel of control.  Believe me, I’m not any more happy with that sorry truth than you are.  If you ever find your way to that seat, you give me a call.”

Jeeter’s lips puckered as he exhaled the last stream of smoke.  He scrunched his face.  “That’s about right,” he said.

Bandana bowed his head and clipped free the chain link around each of the steering wheel columns in two single clips.  Carefully he pulled the broken chains into the air, clumped them and placed them in our small hands with the soft landing of a wren.

“Go on home,” he said.  “We’ll be as careful as we can with your swamp.  You guys did the right thing trying.”

Our henpecked typewritten letter hadn’t garnered a single reporter in the blue morning light.

We moved silently from the Caterpillars, our heads bowed, only the slightest trace of daybreak though the treeline.  In silence we rubbed our wrists as if the chains still held them.

When we got to the edge of the development lot, newly framed houses blue skeletons at our sides, Carl was the only one to turn and stay.  We waited for him a moment and then walked on, abandoning him to alone observe the destruction at our failure, one lone soldier watching the aftermath of battle, the bloom of the early morning sun spreading across his shoulder blades like wings.

It was the last we saw of our swamp.

Danny and I didn’t see the Ashbachs for the next few days.  Partly, I think, we were let down by believing in their idealism we could reshape the path of development, unfurl the iron fist of establishment.  Partly we were merely exhausted and ashamed of our lack of success and didn’t want to be reminded.  Gandhi had lost.  Goliath had won, and we didn’t want to see the Ashbachs or the paved swamp in articulation of that result.  Probably they didn’t either.

I also avoided wandering near the marsh, not wanting to view the aftermath of its demolition.

 But my father, on a drive home from a little league game, drove the two of us by it, as he often did – wanting to observe the development and its spreading shoulders.

 At a curbed rise above the former swamp, between two newly framed houses, he pulled his car off to the shoulder, left it in idle and got out to observe the long stretch of newly tilled earth below, bulldozer skeins pocking its surface all the way to the trees.  You couldn’t see a single sign this low stretch of land once rose with cat-tails and flickering red winged blackbirds.  It was now merely a berm of newly pushed soil.  It looked small, ordinary.  I wondered if the owners of the house that would eventually stand there would even know they were living on a spot tadpoles and cricket larvae once wiggled beneath the moon.

My father was silent a moment, his hand on my shoulder.  I heard him mutter, “They fucked it flat,” softly, as if at last he simply couldn’t help himself.

It was the moment I had realized my father shaped his breath into sky, too.  His was simply lost in the aftermath, quietly uttered.  It carried no more weight, in the end, than the breath Danny, Leonard, Carl and I had shaped.  The only difference was my father hadn’t done anything to try to save the swamp.  Danny and I had tried and failed.  I wasn’t sure which place was worse. 

Danny and I lost touch with the Ashbachs after high school and into college, after we all left Cabrini Fields for new horizons years later.  At last notice, we had heard Leonard had dropped out of a philosophy doctoral program at Harvard due to a single but undisclosed difference in opinion with the faculty.  I always wondered what idealistic and controversial pivotal disagreement led him to quit his academic career and become, instead, the cook I heard he became in different diners and restaurants in Minneapolis. 

Carl’s withdrawal from his academic potential occurred more swiftly.  Right after his undergraduate degree, he had taken a job as an over the road truck driver.  I pictured him behind the wheel of an eighteen wheeler, suspiciously out of place in his slight, five foot six frame, fright wig mop of hair and thick wired eyeglasses, driving freight loads of teddy bears and frozen pizzas across endless interstate.

There was always a part of me that understood their voluntary removal from the greater academic and capitalistic universe, but there was always a stronger part of me that regretted it just the same.  In contrast, through my lifetime I would witness many individuals with less brain and spirit rise steadfast and sure in that same universe, those who remained to conquer the mountains Carl and Leonard could have walked in their sleep.

When I think of Carl and Leonard Ashbach, I remember, fondly, the two wide eyed children, brilliant beyond their young age, who unearthed me and Danny from our subterranean shelter in the plywood covered earth, drew us into their world of intrigue, philosophy, politic and protest, introduced us to theory and relativity and showed us the integrity of principle and the importance of participating in the open world.  I’ll always be sorry to know, in the end, their sheer intelligence and lack of same surrounding them eventually pushed them both along a path where they participated less than they should have.  The world is sadder without the voices of Carl and Leonard Ashbach.  Trust me on this.

We failed to save our swamp, but I still think back on our first neighborhood, summer days we ran through dewy grass, across dozed reaches of clay and soil.  I remember how we ran through the open house framing where the wind whispered and the orange sun bled clean through the trees, the soft nights we flew the open staircases, our small noses pointed into stars.

© Kipp Wessel, 2011.

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