Two weeks before the start of school in California's Salinas Valley, my best friend, Arturo, rode his bicycle into the yard of the small farm where I lived. Arturo had a flat face that looked like it was painted on a shovel with happy eyes and he nearly always wore a thin grin as if thinking amusing thoughts. He lived on the dairy next door and his chores usually required big rubber boots, an oversized jacket, and a hat. The hat he wore was a thick baseball cap that looked like it was made from an old Army blanket with great big earflaps. On that day he'd changed out of his cow-herding outfit into a fresh pair of blue jeans and a long sleeved shirt with fake pearl buttons and a pair of longhorns stitched across the back. He had a long paper tube tied across the handlebars of his bike.
"What've you got there?" I asked as he levered the kickstand down and jumped off.
He untied the tube and held it up. "It's a kite I got over in Soledad yesterday," he yipped. "You want to go fly it off Dead Man Hill?"
That sounded like a great idea to me so we took the kite into the kitchen to put it together. It was made of yellow waxy paper. A green dragon snarled across the front. Its red eyes glared at the world. Fire and smoke poured from flared nostrils. Arturo made a cross out of the sticks that came with the kite then he stretched the thin paper into place. The end product was convex, so it looked like the dragon was lunging forward to attack anything in its path. We made a tail out of some red cloth we swiped from Mom's rag pile then we hauled the kite to the top of Dead Man Hill.
Dead Man Hill was a small mountain across River Road from our house. It was on the farm side of the fence so cows didn't go there. It was too steep to be cultivated so crops weren't planted there. In the spring, a carpet of young soft grass covered the hill and we discovered it was perfect for sliding down on pieces of cardboard or wood slats. It also was a good place for long distance viewing but it was so windy we seldom spent much time up there. Of course, it would be excellent for kite flying.
After we climbed to the top of the hill, Arturo pulled a ball of twine out of his pocket and attached it to the crosspieces. We backed apart about twenty feet. I held the kite up in the wind. Arturo gave me the thumbs up. I let go. We hooted and hollered as the kite zigzagged higher and higher into the wild blue yonder like a jet in a dogfight, its paper edges snapping like rapid-fire cannons. A gust of wind slammed the kite sideways. Then it went into a nosedive. Then it swerved around and went straight up. A cross piece snapped and the string broke. The dragon flapped southward like a wounded duck and vanished from sight in about four seconds.
"Holy cow," I said, "I bet that kite will make it to King City."
Arturo studied the frayed piece of twine hanging from his hand. "I guess we should've used some better string," he concluded.
Two weeks later on the first day of school I saw a box kite in the window of the General Store on Main Street. It was only a quick glimpse out the bus window, but that was all it took. We had a new bus driver that year and we convinced him the regular route went through downtown Soledad, and that's how we ended up cruising Main Street in a school bus and that's when I first saw the kite. It stood proudly in the window of the General Store, tall and sturdy. The instant I saw it, I knew it could handle the stiff valley wind and I knew I had to have it, or one just like it. I was rich from having worked all summer; I had twenty-seven dollars in a savings account and three dollars cash in my pocket that very day.
On the first day of class our eighth grade teacher, Mr. Jackson, announced he'd been a teacher for forty years. He might as well have said he was from Mars, since none of us could grasp the idea of anyone living that long. He was tall and thin to the point of looking fragile. He looked like a scarecrow cobbled together from crooked sticks and rummage sale clothes. We speculated he wore the same clothes on his first day of teaching and every day since. He wiped his nose every few minutes with a crumpled handkerchief he carried in his back pocket. On the first day, we thought he was recovering from a cold but he did that every day for the whole year.
Old Man Jackson rambled on about the math and science and other wonderful things we would learn in the coming year. I didn't hear a word he said, except for an occasional phrase: "That's a different kettle of fish. That's a horse of a different color. A stitch in time saves what, class?" All I could think about was the box kite that would soon be mine. I'd need to get some real strong string for it, that was for sure, and once I did, the sky would be the limit. I drew pictures of the kite from every angle. It flew so high it iced over and was visible from China. I envisioned newspaper articles and television interviews with Arturo and me talking about how we had used the kite to drop food to starving children trapped by floods, fires, earthquakes and mean parents. We would attach a mirror to it and use it to spy on prisoners and kids who wouldn't suspect a thing. We would enter it in contests and shows all over North America and win prizes and ribbons, and women would flock to our feet seeking favor. Yes, that was the kite I would soon have.
The bus route went south on Highway 101 a few miles to a migrant worker camp where a kid we called Lizard Lips and his stupid brother lived. Then the bus would backtrack into town and turn onto River Road to haul the rest of us home. That made it convenient to skip the bus at school and catch it on the rebound when it crossed the railroad tracks by the warehouses and packing sheds on the edge of town.
As soon as school let out, I raced across town to the General Store, a world of its own. The little bell chirped softly when I opened the door then it became quiet as a church. It smelled of new clothes, factory fresh cardboard and floor polish. Shiny objects beckoned from shelves higher than I could reach. I passed new toasters, overalls, work boots and clock radios that were all the rage in those days. I finally reached the toy section in the back of the store past an assortment of galvanized trashcans and wooden handled yard tools. The kites, wrapped in cylinders of clear plastic, occupied five feet of shelf space. I got dizzy just looking at them.
Each package had a small picture of the kite inside. Some were solid colors; red, blue, green and yellow. Others were decorated with triangles of various colors. Then I found a magnificent kite with three stripes of bright colors on the panels. The bottom was striped dark blue, light blue and forest green. The top was striped mustard yellow, dark orange and a rich red color like I had never seen. I bought it along with two hundred yards of extra thick twine.
I flagged down the bus at the railroad tracks and climbed aboard. It was impossible to hide my treasure from the other kids. They begged to see it. I held it up but wouldn't let it out of my hands for fear some dipstick might break it. Arturo was a year older than I so we ignored each other at school and on the bus most of the time. I could tell he was excited about the kite so when the crowd thinned down to him, my sisters, a kid named Bumpy who lived at the very end of the line, and me, I invited Arturo to come over and see the kite up close.
When I got home, I put the kite on the kitchen table and unwrapped it. It was difficult to assemble, but I managed to put it together so it looked just like the picture, only better. Mom came in from work about the time I finished. Mom was short with a thick waist and round shoulders. She had a gentle oval shaped face with pale blue eyes that sparkled when she was happy and were always damp, as if she were on the verge of tears. She adored the kite and listened to my descriptions of how I put it together and all the great things I would accomplish with it. I explained how this kite was vastly superior to ordinary kites due to its lifting abilities and stability; I'd read the description on the package, but I pretended it was my own. Mom pretended she believed every word.
Dad came in from the field in a cranky mood. He peeled off his overalls on the porch then slammed them to the floor. He washed up in the sink then stormed into the house. "How many times do I have to tell you not to put mustard on my sandwiches!" he yelled at Mom. Dad was tall and skinny and hard as burnt concrete from working the fields twelve hours a day six days a week. He had an angry face carved into a long thin head that sprouted from a skinny neck with an oversized Adam's apple so he looked like a snake that just swallowed a rabbit. When he raged it looked like the rabbit was trying to escape.
Shirley, my middle sister who was two years older than I, had made the lunches that morning. She'd made a big deal out of offering to help out, as Mom was running late after making Dad's breakfast a second time. However, Mom didn't point that out. She just cringed and said, "I'm sorry. I forgot."
Dad froze. He scowled at her with venom dripping from snarling lips. He was holding his lunch pail in his hand. "You're unbelievable," he shouted as he hurled the pail onto the table.
The heavy lunch pail crashed into my kite. It hit just above the lower panel. It snapped the vertical dowel in two and ripped the blue and green paper as it continued on to shatter the cross pieces and the other dowel. The kite skidded off the table and hit the wall then crumpled to the floor in a heap of broken sticks and torn paper. The black metal lunch pail landed on the yellow and red top panel then the lid flopped open and coffee dribbled onto the shattered kite.
Dad looked at the mess. "What the heck was that!" he barked. It was more an accusation than a question.
I looked at him without saying anything. Then I looked at Mom. She stood still as a painting, a look of shame and horror fixed on her face.
"That was a kite Gene bought today," she said softly. "He spent the afternoon putting it together."
Dad picked up the broken pieces and examined them. "I can fix that," he said. "It'll be better than new when I'm done."
I couldn't look at him. I walked out the door and went to the barn. About fifteen minutes later Arturo found me in the hideout we'd made by rearranging the hay bales at the back of the barn.
"Hey," he said. He was breathless from having raced through his afternoon chores so he could come over. "Where's the kite?"
"My dad broke it," I answered. "He threw his lunch pail at it."
On hearing the news, Arturo's face fell and he sighed. He, too, had entertained visions of all the things we would do with that marvel of aeronautical engineering, of that I'm sure. How could he not? He sat on the edge of our recliner made from hay bales and slats from an orange crate. He stared out the barn window. The wind whistled over the roof, a reminder of what we'd lost.
"You want to do something?" he asked.
"Nah," I said.
We sat in silence for a while. Finally Arturo stood up. "I'll see you tomorrow," he said. Then he went home.
Three days later Dad presented me with a box kite he'd made. It had knobby willow branches for struts and cross pieces. He'd used the comics section from an old newspaper for the covering. The kite was about as heavy as a car battery. I stashed it in the barn and forgot about it until the next Saturday when my only chores for the day were feeding the chickens and the hog, Bolivar, and getting rid of a cardboard box. I scattered food for seventeen chickens and gathered seven eggs. I filled Bolivar's dish and watched him eat as fast as he could. The cardboard box was the one our refrigerator came in. I was supposed to haul it down to the barn so we could save it along with about a million other cardboard boxes. I was dragging the box down the steps when Arturo coasted into the yard on his bike. He was excited about something
"Hey," I said.
"Hey," he answered while setting kickstand. "What are you doing?"
"Nothing," I explained in great detail. "What are you doing?"
"Nothing," he answered. He swung his daypack off his shoulders and pulled out something so small I couldn't quite see it in his hand. "Check this out," he said as he held up a clothespin.
"Wow," I said. "A clothespin. I think Mom has about five hundred and fifty-two just like it."
Arturo grinned. He tossed it to me as he said, "Oh no she doesn't. Take a look."
Sure enough, it was no ordinary clothespin. It'd been taken apart and put back together again with the spring on the outside and the flat ends taped together.
"What the heck is it?" I wondered out loud.
"It's a clothespin shooter," he said as if that explained everything.
"Why would you want to shoot clothespins?" I asked.
He rolled his eyes and pulled a strike anywhere match out of his jacket pocket. "You don't shoot clothespins with it," he said. "Give it here. I'll show you how it works."
He fished a piece of wood out of his shirt pocket, the piece of wood being half a clothespin. When he pushed it into the opening it caught on the end of the spring and slid it back until it clicked into a slot. Then he put the match headfirst into the open end of the contraption. He pointed it toward the side yard and pulled back on the mainspring with his thumb. The end of the spring that was inside the opening snapped sending the match sailing through the air. It left a trail of smoke like a tracer bullet then burst into flames when it landed.
"Holy guacamole!" I said. "Where'd you get that?"
"A kid at school showed me how to make one," he said. "You want me to show you?"
It was such a silly question I didn't bother to answer. Instead, I zoomed into the porch and grabbed a handful of clothespins. We went to the kitchen table where Arturo showed me how to make my very own shooter. We were heading out the porch door to test it when Arturo spotted the refrigerator box. He rubbed his chin then said, "Hey, where'd you get that?"
"It's the box our refrigerator came in," I told him.
"Let's make something out of it," he suggested.
"I'm supposed to haul it out to the barn," I said. "What do you think we could make out of it?"
"We could make it look like the school then we could burn it down," he said.
That sounded like a great idea to me, so we cut a couple of doors and a few windows in it then carried it down by the burn pile. We decided it looked like the gymnasium. We were admiring it when Arturo said, "Let's make some classrooms and stuff to put around it."
"I'll go get some more boxes," I said.
I ran to the barn and grabbed a big stack of boxes then hauled them out to the yard.
"This one could be a classroom," Arturo said. He was holding a small box that said "Whole Kernel Corn" on the side. We put it next to the gym and found three more identical boxes that we arranged in a line just like the classrooms at school. I found a box that once held pork and beans; we made it the cafeteria. One particularly large and sturdy box that came with the washer became the Catholic Church. That one we put down the street from the school about where the church was in real life. Three Quaker Oats containers became tanker cars on the railroad tracks. I put a small jar of gasoline in the middle one to make it more authentic. Other boxes became houses, the General Store, the tire shop and other establishments. One fancy box that came with a Stetson hat became the banker's house. After an hour or so, we had a miniature version of Soledad. We put in streets using a hoe as a grader and we put in some streetlights made from sticks and old Christmas lights. The little town looked good, especially after we spiffed it up with some poster paint and marker pens. It was about five times bigger than the burn pile, which ended up in the middle of town so and called it the park.
We were admiring our work when Arturo said, "It looks great. Let's burn it down."
"I'll get some ammo," I said.
We had a lot of strike anywhere matches. We used them to light the stove and the oil heater. Dad often used them to light his cigarettes. We bought them in lots of five or six boxes at a time. Each box held 200 matches according to the label. I ran into the house and grabbed a fresh box. Arturo was ready to fire when I remembered the kite.
"Hey, wait a second," I said. "We need a billboard by the highway."
I ran down to the barn and grabbed the box kite Dad had made. It wasn't much as a kite but, as a billboard, the comics looked like advertisements. When we set it by the railroad tracks, it gave the little town a finished look. We admired the town a while more, marveling at the detail and how realistic it looked. Then we loaded our weapons, counted backwards from ten and launched the first salvo at the school cafeteria. On the second round, I aimed for the billboard while Arturo went for the Catholic Church. We reloaded and fired as fast as we could. Nothing much happened for about five rounds then smoke began drifting out of the cafeteria. We kept firing and soon smoke was pouring out of several buildings. The first target to show flames was the billboard. Flames flared from the bottom panel then raced up the sticks to the top. The comics crinkled and shriveled, then rained fire onto the rest of town. The high school gym belched dark smoke from the doors and windows then whooshed into flames. The billboard tumbled over and landed on the tanker cars. Apparently the impact knocked the jar of gasoline over because the middle oatmeal box blew apart with a bang, sending burning cardboard about ten feet into the air. That put an end to the town and set some weeds on fire.
The wind had picked up without our noticing and fanned the weed fire into a wall of flame marching steadily toward the house. It grew from six inches to a foot in about three seconds. Chunks of burning cardboard raining from the sky didn't help. I raced for the garden hose while Arturo grabbed the hoe and attacked the flames. By the time I got the hose going, the fire was three feet high and lapping the side of the house. Burning cardboard rained onto the roof. I squirted water on the flames while Arturo hacked away at the edges of the ground fire. We managed to put the flames out but not before a large area of the yard had been blackened and some of the house had been scorched. The little town was smoking rubble; it looked like the pictures of War Torn Europe all over television. Some pieces of the Stetson hatbox were recognizable, but not much else.
"What time are your parents coming home?" Arturo asked. He was covered with soot.
I'd been so worried about the house burning down I hadn't thought about the other future until now. "I don't know," I answered.
Arturo glanced at the road. "We better get going," he said. "Grab a couple of shovels so we can turn the ground over and bury the ashes." He glanced at the scorched sideboards and said, "Got any of that white paint left from when we painted the car? We can touch up the house so they won't suspect a thing. Especially if they get home after dark."
"How about if you touch up the house while I take care of the yard?" I said.
Arturo rubbed his chin and surveyed the scorched area. It was about as big as a house. He studied the scorched parts of the wall for a second or so then said, "Okay."
While Arturo got the paint I got the John Deere. I hooked the disc to the back of the tractor then turned the rubble under while Arturo painted over the scorch marks on the side of the house. We worked double time because we were worried Mom and Dad might show up any second. When we finished, I put the tractor back in the barn while Arturo put the paint away and cleaned the brush. We covered up the tractor tire tracks and camouflaged the disc marks using shovels. Then it was time to admire our work.
The place looked better than ever before. The yard was a smooth stretch of dark soil, ready to be furrowed and planted in spring. One end of the house sparkled with a new coat of paint ready to last another fifty years.
"Maybe I shouldn't have put so much gasoline in the tanker car," I said.
Arturo rubbed his chin while staring at the new garden. "Maybe we should have made a fire station," he said.
Arturo stared at Mom and Dad rounding the bend by the dairy.
"I'll see you tomorrow," he said. Then he left.
While I was helping Dad unload groceries from the car, he noticed the newly turned side yard. I told him I was going to put a vegetable garden in there in spring. "You did a lot of shoveling for nothing," he said. "We don't need a garden. Not with a hundred acres of vegetables right here."
"I suppose you're right," I said.
Then I thought I caught a whiff of smoke that had some asphalt shingle smell mixed in with burning wood. I was trying to think up an excuse to go up on the roof with the garden hose when Mom noticed the newly painted wall. "That looks nice," she said, "and I see you spaded the flower beds, too."
"Yeah," I said. "I was bored and looking for something to do."