In 1947 behind a lilac in our back yard, my father built a compost pile, a sturdy affair of heavy planks framing a foot deep pit we dug together. Throughout the summer, into this hole went grass clippings, tansy leaves, garden refuse, wilted tulips, iris fronds, egg shells, tea leaves, coffee grounds and table scraps, all seasoned occasionally with a scoop of lime from a 25-pound sack in the garage. By July and August, so succulent was the mix it actually steamed and hissed when we turned it with a fork exposing fat night crawlers and pulsing, white grubs as big as silver dollars. In fishing holes father knew, with exotic names like Reads Landing, Camp LaCupolas, and Lake Elysian, we skewered these delicacies on hooks and snared glistening black crappies and fat, orange sunfish father called, "pumpkin seeds." When I was old enough, he taught me the fly rod and how to tie feathered popping lures, and we caught silver bass along riprap levees where Northern Pacific freight trains rumbled above the Mississippi, or black bass from the tree debris along the channel islands. He showed me how to drop the popper close in among the stumps and give it a single hollow POP with the rod tip, then let it sit, sit...sit and drift... till WHAMBO! the dark pool would explode with a strike as heart-stopping as any thrill I knew...a glimpse, I thought, of what life might be, if lived correctly.
And when I was younger, in a black leather chair in his bedroom, we sat together while he read out Treasure Island to me, lingering with affectionate animation over the horrors of Blind Pugh and his sinister, black spot, and giving Long John Silver's jaunty character just enough evil inflection to freeze Jim Hawkins' blood, along with my own. Later he shared with me his literary hero, opening the first edition, Sam Johnson dictionaries he owned. Johnson, he said, had single-handedly saved the English language of Shakespeare and the Elizabethans by codifying its glories first and forever. I was too young to appreciate the London genius then, I think, but I surely didn't miss the joy with which father caressed the huge tomes and read out, with careful explanations for a ten-year old, the famous definitions: oats, network, lexicographer, goat, patron, and pastern. Johnson had mistakenly defined pastern as, "the knee of a horse," instead of the ankle, and when asked by a lady how he could possibly have made such an error, replied simply, "Ignorance, Madam, pure ignorance."
When I was twelve, father helped me build a "sling psychrometer" for a scouting badge, a strange apparatus of thermometers and water bulbs we tacked together on a varnished piece of wood, the varnishing an added bit of craftsmanship he insisted on. A swiveling handle was secured at one end, with which the odd assembly, when spun vigorously, would yield, with a little math, the relative moisture content of the air...for anyone who wished to have it. Mother was right, I believe. Father should have been a teacher, not a businessman.
And though in 1955, when I was seventeen, I wrecked his Buick Roadmaster then drove its replacement into the Zumbro River, he still bought me my first automobile, a gray, two-door,'48 Chevy coupe that smelled wonderfully of cigars right off the used car lot. And so my childhood ended.
But strangely, what remains most vivid, after more than fifty years, returns again from the 1940's, when, following an afternoon of gardening, with evening falling as we dried the dinner dishes, he would give a sly signal if mother's back was turned. Then furtively we would scamper across the yard together, and, like two musketeers in a secret brotherhood, stand side by side in the growing dusk, "sweetening" the compost pile.