Friday, 3 January 2014

The Gravel Pit and The River - Part 1


The gravel pit is overgrown with alder bushes. Big chunks of sandstone poke out of the earthen walls, others lie in heaps at their base. Some are the size of coffee tables, some no bigger than dinner plates, most are two to three inches thick but they’re all mixed with sand that hasn’t stirred for years. The giant hole is abandoned now, only frequented by lovers and miscreants. Fourteen feet deep, it is wide enough to hide the fifteen to twenty trucks that have carried the gravel away over the years. The entrance is almost a quarter mile from the main road. Beans and Chops are halfway down the dusty lane. Chops, as usual, is pulling the wagon even though it belongs to Beans.

It’s the end of April, last Sunday of the month, the sun is just west of its zenith. They left just after dinner.  In the country there is still snow in dark forest crevices and deep ditches. The fields are lifeless, the dull brown of dead grass, dry as old paper. Bushes and trees stand naked awaiting their robes of green. Seeds and roots will awaken soon to fill the air with the scent of wildflowers and growth, now it smells like the dust the boys’ sneakers kick up. There had been little rain in the last two weeks and the side road is finally dry.

The boys decided to begin their weekly bottle run officially today. Their chatter accompanies the creaking of the small wheels, the cawing of the crows, the shrieks and whistles of other birds. Their conversation has gotten serious when they began to discuss their names. The taller of the two is saying,

“I don’t think I wanna be called Beans anymore. From now on I’m John Jr.”

Chops is about three inches shorter than his best friend. He’s a little pudgier.  A serious frown rearranges his freckled cheeks.  His reddish mop bobs up and down as he ponders this serious remark.

“Well I sure as heck don’t want to be called Chadwell, or Horatio, or Orville or Phil. Phil the least. I’ll stick with Chops. But you’ve been Beans since we were in grade two. Why do you wanna change it now?”

John Williams Jr. turned eleven last month. His hormones are changing gears. Chops will be eleven next month, his hormones have had a head start.

“My brother was telling his friend Christopher how I got my nickname when we saw him yesterday afternoon at the movie theater.”

Chops is tugging the wooden wagon, the red sideboards and front wheels wobbling from the uneven ground along the gravel road. He has both hands behind his back griping the handle. He hurries to catch up to Beans who is in front of him.

“So what? Everybody knows that story.” “

“Christopher’s sister Nancy was with him and she started laughing.”

Chops has stopped walking to stand straight staring at his friend’s back. Bean’s hears the noise stop and looks back. Chops is on the opposite side of the road with a wide smile on his boyish face. It’s only the downcast look on his buddy’s face that contains his laughter. He says,

“Well sure she would. You thought having gas would be good for your Dad’s car and someone told you you could get gas if you ate beans. You ate nothing but beans for three or four days. I still remember you farting in class. It’s your brother Dave’s fault, he’s the one that started calling you that.”

Almost ready to let go with the titters, Chops has a revelation.

“Oh wait! I get it. You have a crush on Nancy Smith. Ha! And you teased me all winter about Mary Jane.”

This is too much for Chops. Beans has always claimed girls were not as smart as boys and hard to understand and he never, never, ever wanted to be kissy kissy with them. Yuk! Chops lets go off the wagon handles to hang on to his belly. He laughs so hard he can hardly breathe. His heehaws are high pitched and he dances around as he fills the air with glee. Beans, whose face is a reddish beacon just gapes at the laughing boy.

“It’s not that funny”

“Yes” More laughter “Yes it…”

 He’s tittering too hard trying to talk. “Yes it is!”

Just then the wagon surrenders to gravity, it begins to roll backward down the shallow incline behind them. The road has a crown in the center, the wagon decides to go right. The wooden handle that fell to the ground is swinging back and forth Iike a wooden windshield wiper, the small wheels can’t decide which way to go.  It picks up speed until one of the front wheels hits a small rock. The obstruction causes it to head directly for a three foot deep ditch filled with dead grass and small bushes. Losing its balance when the back wheel goes over the lip, the cart tilts to its side and flips onto its top. The clunking sound it makes doesn’t suggest soft earth. The four wheels they had shined up only a half hour ago are spinning in the air, dirt all over the rubber. They stop rotating in a small cloud of dust.

It belongs to John Jr. His parents financed his scheme to use a wagon instead of hauling burlap bags over their shoulders when he and Chops collected empties along the road every Sunday. He had paid them back at the end of autumn last year. The gravel pit had become more popular as a drinking spot or a place to take a girl on a hillbilly date. It proved to be a goldmine for the boys.  John Jr runs up to the edge of the road.

“Look what you did Chops! It landed on some rocks, it’s gonna be scratched.”

“I didn’t do anything.”

“Well that’s it isn’t it. You let go of the handle.”

Chops is not laughing now. When he stands beside John Jr both looking at the wagon, he thinks right away of how much he loves the wagon even though it is not his. He always asks to pull it. He always works hardest at shining it up. He’s disappointed just as much as John Jr. Looking up at his friend who is frowning at him, he says,

“I’m sorry.”

John Jr looks directly into the shy green watery eyes and knows that statement comes from the heart. He knows the Sangster’s can’t afford one for Chops who flutters about the wagon with obvious joy.

“It’s okay Chops, nothing is broke I don’t think. Help me get it out.”

They jump down into the ditch, the road up to their bellies. The edge beside the road is more vertical, the opposite side slopes away towards the field, rising gradually for six or seven feet. One on each end they lift and turn the wagon onto its wheels. The metal part you put your hand through on the end of the handle is bent.  John Jr. lifts it up and shakes his head. Chops only studies his friend and remains quiet.

“I’ll hold the handle and this end, you lift that end Chops and we’ll get it back onto the road. And don’t let go until I get out.”

“Okay.”

The boys lift their ends pushing it onto the side of the gravelled path. Chops holds the back end while John Jr, climbs out. Soon they’re on the road facing the pit. Chops pulls a rag from the back pocket of his coveralls to start wiping the side boards. The paint is nicked and scratched on one side and on the end of the uprights in each corner. John Jr tries to pry apart the hand hold with no success. Their knees are dusty, as are their black and white sneakers.
The forearms of their plaid shirts are smudged with dirt. Chops shirt is brown and beige and the dust is not as noticeable as on John Jr’s red and black one.

“We’ll have to bend that back with pliers when we get home. For now we can wrap our hand around the wood part behind it.”

Chops stops wiping to watch, still sad over the incident and casts down his eyes. John Jr, glad that Nancy Smith has been forgotten about, says,

“Forget it Chops. It’s just a few scratches. We can paint it up again. C’mon, let’s go.”
John Jr is still puling the wagon when they start down the incline cut into the ground. The road descends to ten feet and swings to the right where powerful shovels have dug dirt from the foot of a small rise at the end of the field. Fifty feet back, a forest stands at the edge. The wall of dirt on the right is hidden from the road. It is here that the bottles are more plentiful. The sun throws tiny beams from the scattered glass where one has broken, the shards are sharp, to be avoided.  More than a dozen bottles are scattered about. Quart beer bottles,
clear and green soda bottles, mickeys, an empty quart of Captain Morgan dark rum; all waiting to be picked up. They’re all grins at their find.

“Wow, we can almost fill the wagon with what’s here. We might have to make two trips Beans.”

“I said no more Beans okay? Call me John Jr. No... Just John, yeah just John.”

“Like going to the john?”

John has an armful of bottles and he stops to look at his friend who is tittering by the wagon.

“Watch your mouth. Whoever decides to crack a joke will get the rough side of my fist in their face.”

“Even Nancy Smith?”

He has to stop to think about that. His lips are tight shut and they move make and forth as he concentrates. After fifteen seconds he says,                     

“Well okay, John Jr then.”

Chops starts to laugh and John Jr can’t help it, he cracks up too.  They chuckle for a minute before snatching the last of the bottles. They have fifteen all together. The racks are almost full.   They are rubbing their hands on the dusty rag Chops has, trying to get the sticky soda off that spilt from one of the bottles.

“Yeah, this is great. We might even make a dollar today, fifty cents each.”

In 1960, a dollar is something to be excited about. With four more cents you can buy a gallon of milk or twenty five stamps or five loaves of bread or four gallons of gas. If you had 2600 of them you could buy a car. While the boys are rearranging the bottles to fit better, they talk about what they might do with the money they save up. Chops says, “I’m saving for a wagon, like yours.”
“Oh, yeah, now that mine’s all scratched up, you want your own.”

“No, no, I was going to do that anyway.”
Chops sees that his friend is joking and says, "What about you?”

“I’d like to get my dad a new electric drill for his birthday. He was looking at them pretty close at the Canadian Tire last week when he got the winter tires off. I know he’d like to have one.”

“Gee that’s nice.”

They kick at the dirt and chuck a few rock as they fantasize about things as if they had a full time job for a few more minutes until Chops says,

“Maybe we should head back.”

John Jr is looking at his friend seriously for a few seconds before saying,

“I’ve got some tobacco.”

“Tobacco? Where did ya get it?”

John Jr pulls a blue hanky with white polka dots and plain edges from the front pocket of his faded denims. It’s shaped like a ball at one end and the edges are scrunched together with an elastic band. While he removes the rubber and opens the bag to reveal enough loose tobacco to roll about three large cigarettes, he says,

“It belongs to Dave. He started smoking but Mum and Dad don’t know.”

“What are ya gonna do with it?”

John Jr looks at his buddy as if he has three eyes.

“I’m gonna make fairy dust out of it and turn you into a frog, dummy. What do ya think, we’re going to smoke it.”

Chops holds up his hands and backs up. “No way, I’m not smoking it. My mother hates smoking and if I get caught, she’ll have Pa take me the wood shed.”

The Sangster’s woodshed is where punishment is doled out in private. Mr. Sangster hates the chore but to keep peace with his Mrs., he doles out the strokes she deems suitable to the crime committed. Thank goodness it isn’t often, usually the threat of their father’s switch is sufficient to cool tempers. All three of the boys and both girls have felt the sting of the tiny whip even through the cloth of their trousers or skirts.

Pointing to a small group of alders near the side wall twenty feet away, John Jr says,

“They’re not going to find out, I brought gum too. Hide the wagon over behind those bushes and let’s go down to the river.”

Leaving his chum no choice, he scrambles up the side wall and starts towards the forest. Reluctantly Chops stows the wagon behind the dense growth of small trees to follow his friend. The boys enter the woods at a tall and aged spruce that was planted sixty years ago marking the division of property between the Warren brothers. Every fifty feet there is another one the same age for the three hundred feet it takes to get to the river. A narrow path weaves through the giant trees, made by the many feet that follow an easy route to the river. Boys, a few girls, sweethearts, men and women that came to fish, they all followed the same route. John Jr is ahead by about four strides in a boyish gait, not yet a full run. Beans’ shorter legs make keeping up a tough job.

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