The other day I was standing on the front porch with my sixteen year old son Will, waiting for his family car pool ride to school, sophomore year now in the homestretch. I was on spring break from my school and was savoring the opportunity for a little morning one-on-one we don’t normally have; younger son Sam and wife Amy were already off to their respective schools.
Mug of coffee in hand, I watched Will sitting on the porch swing, organizing his contemporary teenager-self: loaded, full-size backpack, small, nylon pull-string backpack, insulated cooler lunch bag, personal electronic device (with ear buds dangling from his neck) and cellphone. His school I.D. badge and flash drives dangled on lanyards beneath his beatnik-hearkening goatee. He was texting his girlfriend and I could see him smiling beneath the brim of his ever-present grey baseball cap.
Leaning against the porch post and looking down the block I motioned to the big pile of dirt two lots down; another new home for the neighborhood as the post-Katrina revitalization continues. I jokingly mentioned that the big pile of dirt made me want to “Get some old Tonka trucks and go play in the dirt for a few hours.”
Will finished his text and glanced at the dirt pile. “Do you remember that crane we had in our yard back in Marshall? That thing was so cool.”
I nodded, remembering the homemade wood-and-steel contraption: a small, square, carpet-remnant covered seat attached to a couple of wooden runners hat made it look like a really small sled – except for the two-foot long arm with a two-levered metal crane bucket attached to it. One lever made the crane arm extend, the other made it curve inward like a hand and wrist, which allowed the actual digging to occur. A kid could sit on the thing, dig a hole, swivel around (360 degrees, even!) dig another hole, then another. Homemade and won by Will’s uncle Ted at a church raffle after his own sons were past sandbox stage, we placed it in the sandbox beneath the ‘crow’s nest’ of the big, wooden playset we had built in our backyard when we moved to Marshall, Minnesota – when Will was seven.
Will gleefully dug a few holes in his day with that thing, as did three-years-younger brother Sam. We more than got Ted’s dollar raffle ticket worth out of it.
“You remember that thing, huh? Uncle Ted won that in a church raffle, if I remember correctly.”
“That’s where we got that? From Uncle Ted?”
“I think so.” I nodded, taking a sip of my coffee. Just then, Will got a text from his girlfriend Lien. Without looking up from his cellphone, fingers flying on the tiny keyboard, he added, “That thing was so cool.”
I nodded, and got to thinking…
A few years before the crane, some friends of ours found a swing set being dismantled and put on the curb by neighbors. With their help and a borrowed pickup truck we got it, took it apart and brought it to our yard in south Minneapolis.
Nothing fancy, just two plastic swings on chains, a short sheet-metal slide, a plastic glider and a swinging trapeze. Four-and-a-half year old Will was fascinated by the prospect of the pile of spot-rusted metal actually morphing into a swing set. He would pick up the yellow seats and then stare at the pile of tubing with a quizzical look on his face. But a few dollars’ worth of new nuts, bolts, bushings and three hours of re-assembly later, there it was.
The shiny new hardware stood out more than the rusty old ones, highlighting its age and hand-me-down nature. No matter. It became Will’s pride and joy, the thing that he most looked forward to coming home to. Even after full summer daycare days in the park, with the big swing sets, Will wanted to come home to “his playground.” On Saturdays, Will would take his lunch outside and eat it while sitting on his favorite swing (the one next to the trapeze.) It became a focal point for Will’s friends on the block, and became a trusty companion when they weren’t around. It was also a refuge on those days when the world got a little gloomy, and many were the nights it barely got to rest while dinner was consumed.
Came our first snow, and I hadn’t removed the swings yet. It didn’t much matter. Our parka-clad boy brushed off the seats and got in a few minutes of action before dinner, and another ten or so after, till it just got too dark. The cool air accentuated every creak of the metal, chains and “S” hooks that made it all work. Spring eventually returned and become summer again and Will continued swinging away until we moved, leaving the swing set out on the curb for someone else to claim as their own – which they did within a day.
Once we moved, Will had his big, wooden playset and his gift-crane…
“Here come the Worthylakes.”
Will’s carpool had swung into view from around the corner, and in a few quick seconds he, seemingly in one, fluid motion and without getting tangled in multiple lanyards, effortlessly threw on both backpacks (lunch bag clipped to the big one with a carabiner) adjusted his cap, stuffed his PSP into his pocket, threw his arm (with hand still clutching cellphone) around my neck, gave me a hug and said “Love you dad” before bounding down to the steps and out to the S.U.V. at the curb.
“Love you, bud. See you this afternoon.”
“Bye.” He threw the farewell over his shoulder, hopped into the backseat, gave me a quick wave as they drove off.
I took another sip of coffee and went inside, lacking any old Tonka Trucks ® and figuring I had had my dirt pile enjoyment for the day anyway.