My parents moved to Vermont on a whim. My father considered himself to be a thwarted Thoreau, temporarily stuck in suburbia, and Mom dreamt nightly of vast vegetable gardens and pristine air. Not that we didn't already have vegetables and clean air in Columbus, not to mention plentiful small bodies of water for Dad to ponder, we did. And they might be quite wonderful, although I'll ever know for sure. Those important facts lost out to their ballooning fantasy of leaving Ohio, living off the land and becoming Vermonters. And so we moved when I was seven and what seemed like a very, very long visit to my cousins' house on Sunset Drive in a small hamlet called Morrisville turned out to be a new way of life. A colder way of life with a lot more church. It was hell.
My parents did not bother to purchase a house to move into, simply listing our home in Ohio and shipping my mother, brother and I off to live with my Aunt Marsha's family. Marsha graciously opened her basement to us while my father packed up our things in Ohio and my mother began looking for a place to buy in Morrisville. My little brother adapted to the transition easily, finding new playmates in our babysitting group within a few days and living in relative harmony with our cousins. I was not as adaptable. I had left behind best friends, left behind dozens of matchbox cars at my friend JD' s house, left behind a happy existence in Ohio and never said goodbye to anyone. I didn't even understand what goodbye really meant until my third week in Vermont and loneliness seeped into my bones with the first frost and the death of my Aunt's hydrangea. Like the wilted plant, I felt uncovered and abandoned to fend for myself. No, we were not so lucky, the hydrangea and I. I knew this instinctively and began wetting the bed nightly, just in time to start second grade.
Vermont does not lend itself easily to adaptation, certainly not if you happen to be a 1970's child from the mid-west. At school, I had to learn a strange rural vernacular to understand what the kids around me were saying, and I was frequently surprised by how rude they sounded. Suburban kids with fully heated homes and their own rooms are much nicer, I decided, as I tried to figure out a plan to move us back to Ohio. Everyone in Vermont seemed miserable and aloof to me and I was terribly lonely as I practiced double negatives and racial slurs to fit in. I turned to our new babysitter for comfort, whining about how mean the kids on the playground were, how I was ahead of the entire second grade class in reading because Ohio was better than Vermont. A stalwart New Englander, she was unimpressed.
"A prince does not behave like this. A prince would be too proud to cry over spilt milk." Our babysitter was Mrs. Dobbs, a strange old woman given to vague pronouncements spoken in a ringing voice. At least she took my depression seriously, addressing it with her regal advice. If I was to be happy, I must be like a prince, she said. I must rise above the paupers who populated the landscape of my new, unwanted life. She understood I did not belong here, teased me for my haughty attitude, but believed firmly in ignoring one's condition in favor of pride. Like me, she felt unwanted. A poverty-stricken mother-in-law who watched over neighborhood kids until their parents came home, she'd been banished to a converted garage behind her son's house.
"Do you ever hear me complainin' my daughter-in-law don't want me around? Do ya? No, I didn't think so. Do you hear me complainin' about my aching bones? No, you do not. That's because I rise above. There might be a new a queen in town, but the old queen is still very much alive, thank you."
We never met her daughter-in-law, but her son was Mr. Dobbs. He stayed in his own house all day, watching a large cabinet TV in a tee shirt and shorts while his wife worked. He showed up promptly at the elder Mrs. Dobbs' window every day at 5pm, knocking on it to send us home, a moment that never failed to reveal misery on his mother's face as her borrowed babies filed out of the garage.
"Remember, young prince, you must gather your court around you. Make them love you. Show them the way." Mrs. Dobbs tapped her finger on her temple and winked at me. Her eyes crinkled with a sad grin behind blue tinted glasses and she brushed a gray strand back behind her ear. "Tis better to be noble."
"Ma, you gotta stop tellin' these kids that crap. Mrs. Greenwood complained again that her kids were talkin' nonsense." Mr. Dobbs said this as he walked back to his house in an orange hunting parka over his shorts and slippers.
"I'll do as I see fit. Nothing wrong with teaching them a thing or two about life," Mrs. Dobbs retorted through the thin walls of her garage kitchen where she was making herself tea. It was always the same argument. Someone's parents invariably complained about Mrs. Dobbs' babysitting methods and her choice of material. But there were few alternatives on windswept Sunset Drive, a minor dead end road bordered by the endless cornfields of outer Morrisville, and our babysitting group remained fairly stable: me and six little kids my brother's age.
It did not occur to me that as prince I would need minions. Not until the following week. I had been left alone in my aunt's house while my cousins played with their friends. I made myself busy looking for toys of theirs to bury in the driveway. Since I'd been restricted from going into their room or playing with any toys they had hoarded inside it, I sent my little brother Chris in to gather their extensive Hot Wheels collection into a grocery bag. Once buried, the cars would be my ticket to friendship. As soon as they were missed I'd lead a search for them and be a hero when I "discovered" their mass grave. Still anxious to win my approval as I was of my cousins', Chris and five of his friends from Mrs. Dobbs' babysitting group assisted eagerly, ferreting out dozens of cars and carrying the bag triumphantly to the driveway to help me execute my foolproof plan. I buried the cars while the babies stood around and watched, then swore them to secrecy. After I was done and covering the hole with rocks to make sure the driveway seemed undisturbed, I noticed Chris and his friends were still standing around, looking at me as if awaiting instruction.
"What are we doing next?" one of them asked. I realized quite suddenly that I had subjects. A prince would not waste this moment. A prince would have a plan. I had to improvise.
"We are going to be pirates!" I turned and pointed towards my uncle's bass fishing boat, a ten-foot open floor model with an unfinished avocado green fiberglass hull that made you itchy if you touched it. It was parked on its trailer in the grass near the drive. "There is our ship!" The little kids whooped in delight and ran to the boat, clambering onto it and assuming various pirate-like positions. Everyone knew almost instinctively how to be a pirate, all Argh and pretend spyglasses and Ahoy! I climbed on behind them and went to the bow.
"There is a terrible storm!" I cried from the front of the boat. I grabbed the side rails and began rocking the hull as violently as I could. My subjects screamed in imagined terror and started rocking the boat from their own positions. Fishing poles, oil cans and rags were thrown overboard in the frenzy, and the collected rainwater began sloshing over the sides as the rocking gathered momentum. "Harder!" I yelled.
The minuscule fishing boat had been designed to hold one or two fishermen, minimal amounts of tackle and perhaps a small, well-behaved dog. It was not designed for seven children simulating hurricane conditions on a trailer and it abruptly cracked down the spine of its hull, sending gallons of rainwater through the floor to the ground. Impressed, my subjects all bent over the side to watch it flow out. I joined them, grabbing the side and looking over the edge to the soaking ground, but this had the effect of tipping the boat off its trailer, and we were all thrown to the grass.
"Land Ho!" I shouted and scrambled to my feet before anyone could begin crying. The other kids looked a little dazed and possibly fearful that we had just committed a punishable offense, but I was not about to be thwarted. "Now we must destroy the Commie battalions! Follow me!" I tore off, screaming a war cry at the top of my voice, and headed into the woods towards the forbidden pond that lay beyond the cul-de-sac.
I lost two subjects en route to the pond, both refusing to breach the invisible line that our parents had constructed a hundred feet from the water, but the rest of us reached the shore in short order. It was a fortified beaver pond that acted as a water control facility for the area. In typical Vermont style, no one had wanted to change the natural landscape enough to protect the neighborhood from floods. The beavers had been allowed to go about their usual business of gnawing down trees and building a dam on the creek that used to run through the area, and the developers had simply taken advantage of the situation and put in minor protections. The overflow from the pond poured down a short stream bed into an artificial collection pond that drained its overflow not into the distant river, as the creek once had, but directly into the sewer system.
"Attack!" I shrieked and began pulling sticks out of the beaver dam. My minions complied and soon we had removed nearly three cubic feet of mud and small logs. Water was pouring through the hole in the dam and we spotted the nervous beavers swimming back and forth, already waiting for us to leave so they could begin repairs.
"Attack!" I screamed again and threw a stick at the beavers. They responded with a dive and a warning splash with their tails. My subjects yelled in delight and began throwing all manner of sticks and stones at the lapping beavers, who rewarded us several more times with giant warning splashes. I had not had this much fun since the day at King's Island amusement park with my best friend Greg and his family in Ohio. I had not realized at the time that it was our goodbye outing. I had never said goodbye to Greg and I missed him, missed playing Superman with him at the town pool, missed going to his house where his mother served us white bread and baked cookies with real chocolate instead of carob chips. I missed the warm Columbus autumn and my real school. I had not had any fun since coming to Vermont and was filled with the thrill of destruction of imagined communists. I poured my heartache into the task at hand and began to tear at the dam again, whooping another demented war cry as I pulled as many logs as I could away from the gaping maw we had opened. Within minutes I had created a gushing surge of fetid pond water. The beavers disappeared, perhaps sensing nothing could be done for the moment, or perhaps to dispatch some larger trees to fill the damaged levee. Water poured over the sides of the ditch that led to the holding pond and my subjects' battle cries were stifled, as we observed the rapids eating away at the mud walls. It occurred to me that this was probably not a very good thing to be caught doing.
"Okay, let's all head home, pirates!" I said as cheerfully and older-kid-like as I could imitate. A prince would lead his subjects away from danger. A prince would know when he had triumphed. Right? I trudged them through the brush to the road, wet and thrilled with our afternoon of mayhem. As we passed the holding pond, we could hear water pouring violently into the culvert that would take it to the sewer system. It sounded angry.
Over dinner that night the phone rang several times and my uncle finally chose to break his no-phone-during-dinner rule and answered it. "Must be something urgent," he grumbled. Our families watched as he nodded and murmured OK's to the caller. "Honey, take a look outside and see if you see anything unusual." My aunt wiped spaghetti sauce from her mouth and went to the window.
"Oh no!" she exclaimed. "Bill, the street is flooded!" the entire table jumped up at this announcement and ran to the doors and windows to view the disaster that was taking shape in the little neighborhood. I looked out the window, secretly satisfied at the chaos we princes and pirates had caused. I caught my smug grin in the reflection of the living room window but erased it when I spotted old Mrs. Dobbs running ahead of the deluge to her son's backdoor in slippers, a bundle of clothes in her arms and a teapot dangling from her finger. The flood had reached her garage.
The flood went on to destroy the holding pond and sewer overflow system, eat a large hole in the street and inundate a number of basements but most of my aunt and uncle's neighborhood survived unscathed and unaware while dinner was served that evening. Instead of a disaster, it seems the flood finally gave the neighborhood a reason to rethink the poorly-wrought water control plan and back up beavers. Damages were soon washed away with insurance cash and a long-sought intervention from the zoning commission. Mrs. Dobbs and the beavers were both relocated, she to a retirement home and the beavers to an unpopulated area. My family, by then already long past our welcome in the basement, seemed similarly inspired by the incident and moved to our own home in town -- a safe two miles from the fields, the beavers and perils of Sunset Drive.
A prince never tells his secrets, I thought as I chased my new neighbor's cat with the glow-in-the-dark plastic light saber I had freed from my cousins' possession. I missed Mrs. Dobbs. But a prince suffers in silence, I quoted her to myself as I attacked the hydrangea behind our new house, easily besting it with superior swordsmanship and cutting it to the knees. A prince never reveals his true feelings, I thought as I buried the light saber in the backyard for safekeeping. Tis better to be noble.