Between the Lines: "The brook"
Dad didn't always like it, especially when it flooded, but we were thrilled to have a brook running through our back yard on Old Town Road. We just called it "the brook" back then, but its proper name is Island Brook. It meandered through various streets and neighborhoods, and I think it eventually emptied into Lake Forest. We used to follow it along under little foot bridges and through culverts until we finally got chased out of someone's yard. You could always count on suburban homeowners for a certain measure of suspicion and grouchiness toward stray children.
The world was greener back then and the brook ran mostly unrestricted. Raul, our old French neighbor, spent almost every summer night building a stone wall to contain it as it cut through his property. Our stretch of brook was wild with fern and wildflowers growing along its muddy banks. In the spring the brook would swell with rain and snowmelt and could rage like a small torrent. In the summer it shrank back into a torpid little stream. High or low it was always fascinating to us. In some ways the brook seemed to bring out the character of my family members.
Our older brother, Kevin, spent his time devising bridges to span the brook and connect the two halves of our lot. His first one was nothing more than a long plank. Many of us ended up in the water after losing our balance on that wobbly board. Kevin thought like an engineer and believed nature could be conquered for our plans and schemes. His final bridge turned out to be a two-lane wooden walkway with sturdy railings. He was a born carpenter and built things to last. We were proud of him and were as amazed as the pedestrians walking across the Brooklyn Bridge for the first time. Kevin was soon bored with bridge building, so he cut a tree limb and fashioned it into a vaulting pole. He was so fast and agile that he could run and jump across the brook using his springy pole without falling in -- an awesome feat.
My twin brother Brian saw the Promised Land on the other side of the water. He got the idea to clear out the brush and crabgrass for a vegetable patch. We worked away with rakes and shovels and spent the day restoring the Garden of Eden. We even felled a young maple tree, which upset Mother. The memory of that ever after made me sad when a tree was cut down. Our intentions were good, but the problem was it was the wrong time to plant and we didn't have any seeds. So our heroic efforts at farming went for nothing, and the yard sprouted a lush growth of weeds that summer. We took to calling it The Jungle. Brian's agrarian dreams were always frustrated in our modest working-class yard. We couldn't even get a lawn to grow very much in the deep shade.
Our brother Tim, the inventor, said he could harness the brook for hydro-electric power. He gave up after trying to build a dam out of plywood. When the plywood floated away, he recycled it for a raft and charged customers for a ride. He did make a few cents that day until one of the neighbor kids fell in and his mother ran over and gave him a terrific walloping in front of all of us. Mothers were bad for business, as we all knew. Tim also dragged home enormous amounts of scrap metal, pipes, generators and electrical equipment left over from construction sites. Some of it eventually found its way into the water for one experiment or another. It was through Tim that I first learned to appreciate the beauty of rust.
Dad had a friend deliver an old well house to Old Town Road one day. It had come from a large estate and was quite the thing with lattice sides and a metal roof. Dad thought we would enjoy playing with it and he was so right. It was too heavy for us to carry to the backyard, so Kevin rigged up some kind of rolling device to move it. Somehow we managed to get it over to the far side of the brook. We played cowboys and Indians around it and shot at make-believe German soldiers through the lattice. When we were done with our pretending, our sister Mary Ellen and her friends took over the well house to put on lavish tea parties for their dolls. I thought it was the most awful fate in the world to be a girl and only get to play dumb girl games.
I marveled at Kevin's bridge-building ability, Brian's gardening dreams and Tim's wild inventions, since I lacked anything of this order to give. The brook was an imaginative place for me, although I wouldn't have used that phrase as a boy. There was a big maple by the brook and I believed a family of elves lived inside it. When I looked through a knothole I was sure I could see them seated at their small table eating lunch with their mother. It made me happy to think about this little family living inside a tree. My brother Kevin looked into the knothole once and said I was crazy. My brother Tim wanted to set up a camera to catch the elves on film. I insisted they really were there and I haven't changed my belief any since then. The world is inhabited by spirits for those who have the ability to see them.
When I sat on Kevin's bridge and looked down into the brook, I was hypnotized by the reflection of the blue sky and the shimmering splotches of sunlight on the water. The water striders left tiny circles as they skittered along the surface and the minnows darted across its sandy bottom. I didn't know then that I was profoundly touched by the beauty of nature. Where did this gift come from and why did it take me so long to realize it and value it? I guess we all have to sit by the river for a while in order to find our true selves. I dreamed of making something of myself in those youthful days, only to learn later that it was my dreams that made me. I've never really had to travel very far from my own backyard to find out what I truly loved.
My mother was a country girl at heart and she did love the brook. She came to regret her youthful romanticism and began to refer to it with exasperation after we came along. "If you fall in that darn brook again, you'll stay in the house for the rest of the day!" Her directions were very clear to us. With seven children she had more than enough laundry to do every week and didn't want any extra courtesy of the brook. If you did fall in, you were in deep trouble -- especially if you were wearing your school pants and shoes. I remember her pulling me into the house once by the ear after I had tried to dry out my leather shoes by running around in my stocking feet.
Dad generally enjoyed the brook -- except when he played catch with his sons and we kept throwing the baseball in the water. The water was a good twenty feet away from where he stood, but we often managed to miss him by a wide margin. He'd stand with his Rawlings mitt making himself a target while calling out, "I'm here, I'm here!" The baseballs floated and bobbed downstream until we fished them out with a branch. After that, when we threw or caught the water-logged balls, they gave off a slight spray and smelled a little fishy. Dad especially dreaded the rainy season when the brook would overflow, flood the yard and then fill his basement. Sometimes he made us small wooden sailboats out of a crate, and we floated them from a cellar step where the water reached.
All the seasons of our childhood were bounded by the brook. Now it seems to me not a boundary at all, but rather the gateway to wonder that so often opened in the day to day happenings of our growing up years on Old Town Road.
Barry Wallace writes a weekly column for the Fairfield Citizen.