Robert, Jimmy, Tom, and Dickie were ten years old when they delivered the newspaper announcing the end of the war. That day, no one waited for the newsboy to climb the steps to their broad front porches with their delivery, carefully rolled and tucked. That day, the neighborhood spilled out onto the streets of East Cleveland. Men and women greeted the boys with cheers and slaps on the back. They hugged them, tussled their hair, and admired the headline: WAR IS OVER, Japan Surrenders. When the celebrating was done everyone went back into their neat square houses and the boys owned the streets once again.
It was September and they had to put on their clean clothes and spend the best hours of the day in school. But it was there where the world came to them in lessons, books, and films. They read great fantasies and mysteries and learned about places and people they could only imagine; native peoples in the far North, and divers in the deep blue sea. Walking home at the end of each school day, the friends made plans for adventures together in the great wide world.
During the war, the boys had served on the home front, collecting scrap metal and contributing their pennies. Parents worked in the factories by day and by night. Kids were on their own and told to stay quiet and stay busy.
After the war, there was still much work to do. That part of East Cleveland was a neighborhood of working families, and now it was time to build the country back up. The houses on those rectangular blocks looked alike, but some were split down the middle and shared by two families. Tom and Dickie lived in one of those houses – two families, two front doors, one roof. Jimmy’s family shared another divided house at the end of the street. They all knew Robert was the lucky one. He and his parents lived in a whole house by themselves. That’s why his yard was where everything happened.
In the summer of their twelfth year, the parents were still working hard all day, fathers in their factories and mothers keeping the homes and raising the new little babies. The boys worked all day, too.
The neighbors, the teachers, even their mothers sometimes just called them “the boys.” Tom was the one who got the most attention from the teachers, and even though he was usually last in a running race, he was always first in his class. Dickie couldn’t stay away from a good adventure. Sometimes he would listen to his radio serials and read a book at the same time. Robert was good at every sport and if he wasn’t playing he had his ear glued to the radio set following his beloved Browns and Indians. And Jimmy – Jimmy was up for anything, and his mother had long ago tired of telling him, “Jimmy, now you be careful!”
“What are you boys working on?” Robert’s Dad worked in the pill factory. The machines were still running day and night, and he worked long hours keeping them oiled and humming. So it was nearly dinner time when he walked into the yard.
“It’s a boat, Dad.” Robert answered for them all.
Sure enough, a pile of orange crates from the corner grocery had been deconstructed and the skeleton of a boat was beginning to appear in the yard.
“It’s a kayak Mr. A!” exclaimed Dickie, jumping up with excitement, “like the tribes up North. We’ll hunt for whales.”
Dad contemplated the construction site. “It’ll never float.” He was a practical man – an engineer and inventor – a man of few words but many tools. With the afternoon paper under his arm and his pipe in his teeth, he pulled open the screen door and was in for the evening.
Work continued, and in a few days they had formed the hull. Nearly as long as two boys laid end-to-end, it was wide in the middle with an opening for one paddler. In the muggy heat, the boys worked without shirts, spraying the garden hose to cool off. Out in the street they scraped fresh tar from between the red bricks to chew like gum.
“We gotta put the skin on,” said Tom, wiping his glasses on his pants. “Gotta figure something out ‘til we can spear some seal skins.”
“My Mom’ll be mad if we use our shirts,” Jimmy warned. “And I couldn’t get that blanket outta the house.”
“It’s gotta be waterproof,” said Tom.
“Maybe this’ll work,” said Robert leading them to the side yard and pointing to a discarded heap of green canvas. “It’s the old awnings from the house. We got some new ones and we don’t need these anymore.”
This was the perfect find. And the boys had no doubt they were waterproof since awnings were meant to block the rain. They cut the canvas and wrapped it around the kayak frame and secured it with lengths of rope from the basement workshop. Dickie fashioned a seat out of rope.
Talk was of great adventures on Lake Erie after the triumphant launch. One day they would each have their own kayak, just like the Eskimos in that black-and-white film. The dream that had started in the dark of their middle school classroom was becoming reality and they’d soon be exploring every cove and island of Lake Erie, and all the Great Lakes beyond.
As construction continued, Jimmy practiced strokes with the paddle. It was made of two wooden slats attached to both ends of a laundry pole they’d found in the yard. He imagined the rolls he would execute once he could float free in the water.
“How’s that boat coming along?” Dad would always inspect upon returning from the pill factory.
“Isn’t it great, Dad? We got the skin on so it can float.”
“Looks nice, but it’ll never float.” Dad tugged on the ropes and lifted loose flaps of the canvas awning. “Don’t you kids get any crazy ideas.” He leaned over to inspect the inside cavity of the kayak then stepped back to assess it completely. With no words, he unfolded his newspaper and left the boys to their work.
Tom circled the kayak with his fingers on his chin. He tugged at the places where Robert’s Dad had tugged and lifted flaps of canvas. “He’s right, you know. It’s gotta be sealed better before we can take it to the lake.”
Dickie was sifting through orange crate scraps. “Reinforcements,” he said as he held up some short strips of wood. Just that one word and they were back to work, nailing wood over canvas, tightening and adding more rope. This work took two more days, but that was just more time to talk about the places they would explore and the things they would see on the Great Lakes.
Robert’s mother brought out cold pitchers of lemonade on the hot days. The Midwest heat made the tar in the street soft and the boys could renew their chew several times a day. One afternoon they crouched together scraping the tar gum from between the bricks when Robert jumped to his feet. “Wait here, guys!” And they watched him disappear down the sidewalk into his yard. Minutes later he reappeared with three coffee cans. “Guys! This is just what we need.”
Nothing more needed to be said. A singular mission had merged four minds into one and they began pulling fingers of goo from the street, depositing it into the cans. Sweat dripped onto the red bricks and dried quickly in the midday heat. Intent on their work, at the same time they glanced about nervously, scanning for disapproving adults or, worse, the authorities.
The cans were heavy when they were full. The boys groaned as they carried them to Robert’s yard where they put the sticky substance to use. They surrounded their precious boat and filled each gap, crack, and fold of canvas. Tom circled the workers, smoothing and flattening with a strip of wood.
Late that afternoon the boys sat in a row in the shade of Robert’s three story house, heads spinning with a mix of dehydration and exhilaration. With knees drawn up, they silently admired their creation. There, displayed on two wooden sawhorses, was a nearly exact replica of the Eskimo kayak they’d marveled over on that school film. The sleek orange-crate frame was now engulfed in green canvas, a hole in the center just large enough to fit one boy. The canvas was held in place with yards of rope and nailed down with scraps of wood. Blobs of weather-softened street tar oozed out in places and dripped onto the lawn. Laid out parallel to the boat was the laundry-pole paddle.
Jimmy leapt up and grabbed the paddle. Holding it high over his head he let out a warrior’s whoop. “It’s ready!” he hollered. “We done it!” Then he brought the paddle close to his chest and made smooth strokes in the air, dipping this upper body to the right and to the left as if preparing to execute a roll.
“You boys are not putting that in the lake.”
“Hey Mr. A!”
“Hey Dad!” Their voices greeted in unison as Robert’s dad entered the yard. “We got it done. It’s sure ta float.”
“I don’t want you boys taking that into the lake,” Dad grumbled as he crossed the yard.
“How’re we gonna get it to the lake?” Dickie wondered out loud. “It’s gotta be a couple miles and we’ll prob’ly be charged extra if we take it on the streetcar.”
Tom was holding one end of the boat and lifting it like a dumbbell. “It’s not so heavy,” he said, “I think with the four of us we can manage.” The other three took turns lifting the end of the kayak, proving to themselves what Tom had observed.
“Tomorrow, then?” said Robert.
“Tomorrow,” the boys agreed, and each grabbed his shirt from the grass, swept his hand along the length of the boat, and went home to dinner. Robert slipped into the back door of the house and washed his hands. He reminded himself not to bother his Dad, who was surely tired after a long day at the factory.
Early on Launch Day, after delivering their newspapers, they gathered in Robert’s yard. Breakfast was cleared from kitchen tables, wives had kissed their husbands, and the neighborhood was back at work. Jimmy secured the paddle in the hull of the boat and the boys appropriated a few more yards of rope to create a sling that could carry the kayak. With a “one – two – three!” they lifted and maneuvered it out of the yard.
They knew it was best to avoid the railroad track, even though its right-of-way was the most direct route. They didn’t want to risk having their boat crushed by one of the frequent freight trains if they couldn’t get it out of the way in time.
“You know they call this a ‘portage’,” explained Tom as they walked Woodworth Road toward Saint Clair Avenue. “’Port’ as in portable. Even Lewis and Clark had to carry their boats over land sometimes.”
“You don’t think they had someone doing it for them?” asked Dickie.
“Yeah, but they would have helped. They had all kinds of supplies ‘n stuff,” said Tom.
“Yeah, I guess so,” said Dickie. “We’ll need to have supplies ‘n stuff, too.”
The boat swayed side to side between the boys as they marched along Saint Clair Avenue then North on East 140th. Shopkeepers unlocking for the day paused to watch and wonder. Cars motored by, busily delivering people and packages to destinations on the East Side. A few mothers were out early with cloth shopping bags in search of the freshest loaves and the nicest cuts of meat. Some shook their heads in disapproval, but all walked on, intent on their chores.
East 140th seemed to go on forever and the boys had to set the boat down several times to relieve the discomfort caused by the ropes. They would crouch for a while on the sidewalk, rubbing their hands and flexing fingers to return the blood flow. But soon they were moving again.
As the railroad curved along Lake Erie it crossed over East 140th. They knew their journey was near an end when the street dipped under the tracks. They followed the familiar shortcut down Lake Shore Drive, finally reaching the entrance to White City Park.
The dock was empty. Men who fished the early mornings were done for the day, and the boys who fished with sticks and string were never in any rush to get there. The flat surface of the lake was only about a foot below the dock. The boys sat for a while with their feet dangling, pondering the dark, opaque water.
“How deep do ya think it is right here?” wondered Dickie.
“My Dad says it’s maybe seven feet,” said Robert.
“That’s way taller than me,” said Jimmy.
“Yeah!” Robert rolled his eyes, giving Jimmy a friendly punch on the arm.
There was no discussion about who would take the kayak on its maiden voyage. It was Jimmy who had practiced with the paddle. He seemed ready to execute those Eskimo rolls. But each boy would have his turn. It was going to be a glorious day of paddling on the lake.
They used the ropes to lower the boat until it rested high in the water. Jimmy tied a length of rope around his waist then eased his legs through the hatch. He would need to be secured to the boat in order to stay in during a roll. Jimmy tucked ends of canvas from around the center hole into the rope around his waist, securing it tight. Tom, Dickie, and Robert held steady on their ropes until Jimmy picked up the paddle and held it across his lap.
“D’ya think we oughta say something?” asked Tom.
“Ahoy!” yelled Jimmy.
“Ahoy!” cheered the other three, and they loosened their grip on the ropes.
For a beautiful moment Jimmy floated free, slowly inching away from the dock.
“Guys! Guys! This is so…”
Crack! Jimmy was jerked toward the depths. The boat folded in two and the ends jutted skyward. Water rushed into the empty cavity and for a brief moment every face on the dock shared Jimmy’s look of surprise and horror. Jimmy reached out in an attempt to connect with one of his comrades. Then he was gone. The last thing they saw were the pointed ends of their month’s work sinking like two Titanics toward the depths. And then just bubbles.
On hands and knees, tails in the air, Robert, Tom, and Dickie leaned over the side of the dock, frantically trying to distinguish a shape in the murky water. The place where the boat had disappeared, the hole that had swallowed up their friend, was still swirling and churning. But nothing remained on the surface. They dared not look at each other, because panic had a tight grip on their ability to form any kind of rescue plan.
Then, more bubbles. The bubbles seemed like hope and for a few more agonizing moments those bubbles were the only thing on earth that mattered. And just as swiftly as he had disappeared, Jimmy was back, gasping and spitting. He splashed the surface of the water, his hair plastered over his eyes, shirt glued to his chest. The relieved boys flattened themselves on the planks of the dock, their arms reaching over the edge. Tom and Dickie took hands full of Jimmy’s shirt; Robert grabbed a wrist and they pulled him in. Jimmy emerged from the lake with a tangle of kayak pieces dangling from his waist. They quickly disentangled him and tossed the detritus into the dark water.
The four sprawled out on the dock, staring silently into the Ohio sky. Jimmy wrung out the corners of his clothes and trickles of water found their way back to the lake through the cracks between the planks. Robert spoke first:
“So…” echoed Tom.
“It floated…for a second,” observed Dickie.
“For a second,” agreed Robert.
“It was…” Jimmy looked to the passing clouds for words.
“…a test,” said Tom. “A good test.”
“Yeah,” agreed Jimmy.
The city paid little attention to the boatless boys retracing their steps to the neighborhood. Jimmy’s clothes and hair dried in the summer heat and soon he didn’t stand out from any other boy on the block. Back on familiar streets they went their separate ways, returning home for the midday meal. The adults never asked why the boat was no longer in the yard and Mother wondered how she had misplaced her laundry pole.
For the next week the boys kicked around the streets and considered starting a baseball team, or a football team. Upon realizing there wasn’t an opposing team to challenge, they considered tennis, but they had neither the proper rackets nor the white tennis togs. On Friday they each produced a dime and walked three blocks to the cinema. They slouched in the front row talking over the newsreel, laughing through the shorts, and applauding at the hero’s deeds in the main feature. By Monday they were back in Robert’s yard, sheltered in the shade of the house, pulling up tender blades of grass and throwing them into the summer wind.
“I been thinking…” began Robert.
“Yeah, me, too,” said Dickie.
“Oh, really?” said Tom, pushing at the bridge of his glasses.
“Yeah, really,” said Dickie.
“Yeah, me, too,” said Jimmy. “We can’t just leave it there.”
“That’s what I was thinking,” said Robert. “We can’t just leave it there.”
Tom turned to the group, “We need to launch a Salvage Operation.”
“That’s it!” Dickie jumped to his feet. “That’s what we need to do!”
“Remember the sponge divers?” suggested Robert. “The diving helmet? In the film.”
They sighed and nodded as the image formed in their collective consciousness.
“Anyone can do it,” Robert continued. “An air pocket stays in when the diver’s under water. We just need some kind of bucket or something.”
The boys were silent again, searching their minds for the perfect object. Then Dickie’s face lit up.
“Be back!” and Dickie dashed out the back, following his usual shortcut through another neighbor’s yard to his own home on the next block. The boys waited in silence for him to return. Re-entering the yard, he had a dinged-up metal garbage can in his arms. It seemed about the right size and it had handles midway down each side.
It was passed around to each boy in turn, and each boy lowered the inverted can over his head, making “Hoo-hoo-ing” sounds to test the echo.
“We need something that’s gonna weigh it down,” observed Tom. “Otherwise the air bubble will make it float.”
“How ‘bout concrete?” suggested Robert.
“Who’s got concrete?” challenged Dickie.
“Yeah, wouldn’t that be great,” moaned Jimmy. “Got any other ideas?
“Concrete,” insisted Robert.
“I’m tellin’ ya…” said Dickie.
“And I’m tellin’ you.” Robert persisted. “Remember the stepping stones my Dad made for the garden? There’s stuff left over.”
“No kiddin’.” Robert pointed the way to the side yard where the remains of a bag of cement mix leaned against the siding.
“Alright, let’s get started,” Tom said.
They mixed the cement powder with gravel and water right inside the garbage can, using the proportions listed on the bag, and smoothed it with sticks. As it began to set, Jimmy suggested putting a dent in the middle where a head could rest. They spent all that afternoon watching and testing the concrete. Tom lifted the can by the handles and felt the satisfying heft. Nothing much more could be done until the weight was fully set so the boys threw a football around until they were called to dinner.
Next morning, the boys rushed through their paper routes, quickly consumed breakfast, and met back in Robert’s yard. Though none of them wore a watch, their timing was so precise as to arrive within minutes of each other. They huddled around the garbage can and poked at the concrete. It was set and solid.
Robert and Dickie turned it over and lifted. They eased it over Tom’s head. The inverted can covered his adolescent shoulders and chest, nearly reaching his elbows.
“Lemme try!” Jimmy begged. They lifted the can off Tom and onto Jimmy’s head. It was tight on his broad shoulders and they heard a muffled “ugh” as the concrete pressed on his skull. Jimmy pushed up with his hands the best he could and helped the others pull the helmet off.
“It’s too tight,” said Jimmy. “Can’t move my arms.”
Robert and Dickie each had the can lifted onto their heads and they all agreed modifications would have to be made.
The basement workshop where Robert’s Dad tinkered and invented was already familiar territory for the boys. They scanned the neat pegboard with its assortment of hanging tools and discussed the work that needed to be done.
“It’s gotta have cut-outs for arms,” said Dickie as he reached for some tin snips.
“Yeah, but you don’t wanna slice anyone’s arms off,” said Tom. He had found two short scraps of one-by-two and was balancing them on his shoulders.
Robert selected clamps, a hammer, a saw, a handful of screwdrivers, and more rope. Jimmy was rummaging through boxes that contained interesting and assorted scraps of materials, including thin sheets of metal and stiff rectangles of Lucite.
“C’mon, let’s go,” Robert started up the stairs and the others followed.
Back in the yard Dickie got to work with the tin snips cutting arched openings on either side of the can, below the handles. Tom was sawing slots into the one-by-twos to pad the shoulders.
Robert disappeared into his house and emerged a few minutes later carrying his leather football helmet. Reaching into the helmet, he produced a large chocolate bar in a brown wrapper and held it up for the guys to admire. Then he unwrapped it and tossed equal pieces to each of them.
He handed the helmet over to Jimmy. “See if this fits. It’ll protect your head.”
By early afternoon Dickie’s garbage can had been transformed into a diving bell. The weight of the concrete made it significantly heavier than the kayak had been and even though one boy could heft it from one side of the yard to the other, they needed some wheels to get it all the way to the beach. Robert pulled his old wagon out of the tool shed and soon they were on their way, one boy pulling, two pushing, and one on the side holding it steady.
Out along St. Claire again and North on East 140th. Past the bustling shops and busy offices, sometimes weaving around mothers with babies in buggies and toddlers in tow. Sometimes going right through a group of businessmen in summer straw fedoras and rolled shirtsleeves. They stopped at intervals to switch positions so each boy had a chance to walk proudly along side, one hand laid firmly on the edge the diving bell.
Under the tracks, along Lake Shore Drive, and they were back in White City Park. A few boys their age were near the shore, throwing rocks into the lake and hanging fishing lines off the dock. These boys watched as the wagon was maneuvered to the water’s edge at the base of the dock.
Jimmy took off his shoes, shirt, and pants and stood on the beach in his white boxers. Robert pulled the football helmet out of the wagon and handed it to Jimmy while Tom and Dickie lifted the inverted garbage can. With Jimmy’s head protected by the leather helmet, the boys carefully lowered the diving bell, fitting the curved cut-outs on each side and resting the wood blocks on his shoulders. Jimmy held onto the can handles while Robert and Tom tied ropes under his arms to hold the whole thing in place.
Dickie gave two quick raps on the metal side with his knuckles.
“Hey!” came the muffled protest from inside.
“Yeah, let’s do this!” said the tin man.
Robert crouched down to look in and up at Jimmy. “Hold ‘er steady. You have to keep it upright so the water doesn’t go in.”
“Let – us – know – what – you – can – see!” hollered Dickie, as if Jimmy was hard of hearing.
Robert, Tom, and Dickie surrounded Jimmy as he tottered toward the lakeshore. Each held onto the diving bell, Jimmy held the handles. Jimmy took slow, deliberate steps, balancing the heavy hat and trying to avoid toppling like a bowling pin. As he walked into the lake, he shuffled his feet through ankle deep, knee deep, waist deep, then chest deep water. The three followed in up to their knees then stepped back, letting Jimmy balance on his own. By the time the water was chest-high, those on the beach saw only the diving bell and two arms holding tight to the side handles.
Jimmy continued his sloping descent into Lake Erie with many eyes upon him. When less than a third of the garbage can was showing above water level, Jimmy stopped. He stood for a moment, then tilted his head forward slightly. Immediately he bobbled backward, catching himself before the weight of the concrete was able to knock him off his feet. After a few more moments, Jimmy began to move again. He walked in a wide arch, eventually steering himself back to the beach. The boys rushed out to meet him and grabbed the sides of the diving bell once again. Back on dry land, they untied the ropes and lifted the can so Jimmy could crawl out.
“I couldn’t see nothin’ except straight down.” Jimmy reported as he rubbed his shoulders.
“Did the air stay in?” asked Tom.
“Water was up to here and kept comin’ up,” Jimmy held his hand at chin level. “But I couldn’t see nothin’. Tried to look down but I couldn’t see nothin’.”
They secured their diving bell onto the wagon as Jimmy put clothes on over his wet boxers. They left the park and wheeled back home. There wasn’t much discussion as each boy pondered what to do next. They pulled back into the yard and reclined on the grass. Mother brought a pitcher of lemonade and a bag of ballpark peanuts.
“What have you got there?” inquired Robert’s Dad as he examined the can on the wagon surrounded by peanut shells.
“It’s a diving bell.” Robert answered. “Like the treasure hunters use when they’re go’in to a shipwreck.”
“And the sponge divers!” added Dickie.
“They also use ‘em for salvage operations,” explained Tom and the boys all nodded.
Dad bent to examine the object, pulling his shirt sleeves up as if to help in the construction. On his muscular left arm the boys could see the bottom half of the tattoo he’d acquired as a young soldier in the First War. Robert knew the image well, though his Dad usually kept it covered. It was the head of an Indian Chief wearing a feather war bonnet. Whenever Robert would catch a glimpse of it, his thoughts went to the jungles of Panama or trenches in the French countryside where his father had served.
“You can’t take that into the lake,” Dad said at last. “I don’t want you boys taking that into the lake.” Then he picked his newspaper up off the grass and opened the screen door to greet his wife.
The boys sat around the wagon, leaning on all sides and staring out in all directions.
“D’ya think we can put a window in it?” Dickie wondered out loud.
“Maybe.” said Tom. He was holding his glasses out and turning them to see if he could focus the sun enough to singe grass. “What was that clear stuff your Dad had in his shop?” kicking Robert in the leg to get his attention.
“Lucite. They use it at the factory.”
The boys quietly descended the back stairs to the basement workshop, not wanting to bother Robert’s parents. Dickie pulled the clear rectangular piece from the box of scraps while Robert located glue bottles and cellophane. They put everything in a wooden orange crate and covered it with a leftover scrap of green awning.
“My Dad’s probably home now, too,” said Jimmy.
“Yeah, Mom’s making spuds and herring tonight,” said Tom.
“See you guys tomorrow,” Robert said.
“Tomorrow,” they all agreed.
Back in the yard the next morning, Robert had already arranged their supplies on the grass. The early sun glinted off the edges of the Lucite piece, and Dickie found he could produce a satisfying prism effect by holding it at just the right angle. Then he held it up to the side of the diving bell so Tom could mark its size with a carpenter’s pencil. Robert poked a hole and began cutting out the space with tin snips.
Working with glue and cellophane, the boys were able to hold the Lucite in place and create a window at eye level. Throughout the process they paused to lift the can over Jimmy’s head in order to check sizing. When Mother brought lemonade they gulped it down then filled the pitcher with water from the hose and poured it over the little window, checking for leaks. Finding none, they added a layer of glue for good measure then went out to the street to throw Robert’s football. Not a lot was said, but they all knew tomorrow they’d be ready for the Salvage Operation.
By ten o’clock the following morning they were steering the wagon out of the yard again. Dickie had a length of garden hose wrapped across his chest like a desperado’s bandoleer. Robert carried a bicycle pump over his shoulder.
“Good thing you thought of a way to pump in air,” said Dickie to Robert as they walked side by side up the street.
“Yeah, good thing,” said Tom, looking back from the handle of the wagon. “I don’t know why I didn’t think of it. It’s what they showed on the film.”
“The hose should be long enough,” Robert said, hoping to prolong the conversation about his clever and timely idea.
“Yeah,” they all agreed, then silence again as they trudged along.
Perhaps the shopkeepers along East 140th Street were getting used to the sight of the industrious young builders. They paused only momentarily to watch the new and improved contraption roll by. A few younger boys followed the wagon for several blocks, making a parade of it until they reached their own parent-defined neighborhood boundaries.
The boys pulled up to the water’s edge near the dock. While Jimmy peeled off his outer clothes and strapped on the leather helmet, Robert unrolled the hose and walked one end of it to the dock, carrying the bicycle pump in his other hand. Tom and Dickie held the diving bell up so Jimmy could get into it, then they lowered it gently onto his shoulders. They tied the ropes under his arms, securing them tighter this time in order to prevent swaying. Tom then took the end of the hose Robert had left on the beach and tied it inside the diving bell near Jimmy’s shoulder. When he got the signal from Tom, Robert began pumping.
Dickie shouted at the Lucite window that framed Jimmy’s face: “Can ya feel the air?”
“Yeah!” was the muffled answer.
Tom put his face up to the clear window, “Can ya see okay?”
“Ya ready?” asked Dickie.
“Don’t move your head too much,” advised Tom. “Look to see if you can see the boat.”
Jimmy shuffled back into Lake Erie, holding the can handles to keep it steady. The garden hose followed him in. As soon as the water level was above his shoulders, Tom and Dickie ran to join Robert on the dock. Robert was pulling up and pressing down on the pump handle, pushing air down the long hose. As the three on the dock watched, the top of the diving bell sunk lower and lower below the surface. A stream of bubbles made a path behind, proving the effectiveness of the air hose. As Jimmy moved parallel to the dock, Tom relieved Robert on the pump handle to keep the air flowing. Dickie held the hose. Soon the only thing they could see was the trail of bubbles which showed the path of their friend as he continued toward the site of their wrecked kayak.
“Hey, Dickie, take the pump!” Tom panted. They switched places and Robert held the hose while Tom watched the steady progress of the bubbles.
“He’s gotta be almost there,” said Robert, staring into the murky water. It wasn’t long before the bubbles stopped making a path and began to rise up from one spot.
“Keep pumping!” Robert shouted as he grabbed the pump handle from Dickie and gave it some swift strokes.
“I wonder what he’s seein’,” said Dickie, now down on his hands and knees at the dock’s edge.
Tom joined him. “There might be fish,” he speculated, “or other shipwrecks. More ‘n a hundred years ago there was this schooner named Henry Roop got lost in a storm. I read about it in…whoa!”
His dissertation was cut short by a sudden eruption in the water. A huge bubble burst to the surface, causing waves to spread in concentric circles. The boys watched the aftershocks with quiet realization of what this had to mean. Robert dropped the handle and nearly tripped over his pump as he hurried to join Tom and Dickie.
The stillness was complete. There was not a breeze and not a breath.
“Jimmy…” Dickie whispered. Nothing more could be said.
They waited. And waited. As they stared into the depths, each boy considered what he would tell Jimmy’s parents. And his little sister. And his Aunt Esther.
Another eruption broke the lake’s surface and this time it belched out the drenched form of their lost comrade, freed from his concrete trap. Tom, Dickie, and Robert ran the length of the dock as Jimmy kicked toward the shallows. As he waded toward shore, pulling the soaked football helmet from his head, the words spilled out.
“I could see stuff!” he panted. “It was dark but I could see stuff.”
“What happened?” all attention was on their dripping friend.
“When I got out there, I could kinda look around,” Jimmy moved his head side to side to demonstrate. “Then I wanted to see if the boat was down there,” Jimmy bent forward slowly, “but it pulled me over! I flipped upside down.”
“That was the big blurp,” said Tom to the others. Then turning to Jimmy, “How’d you get out?”
“I was all the way upside down,” Jimmy repeated. “My legs were up like this,” he wiggled two fingers in the air. “But I got out! I got out and came back up.”
They laughed aloud and clapped each other on the back. Dickie picked up Jimmy’s shirt and tossed it to him. Jimmy used it to wipe off his face then pulled it over his head. He sat down to put on his pants and shoes. For a few minutes the boys stood at the water’s edge looking at the empty bit of lake just off the end of the dock. Then they set out toward home.
“You guys wanna see what’s playin’ at the cinema?” Jimmy said.
“I got some money left over from my paper route,” said Robert. “I could probably get us some Milk Duds.”
“Yeah, that sounds good,” said Tom.
That evening, dinner table conversation in those East Cleveland homes was all about Cowboys and Indians and the dramatic battles on the big screen. Not a word was said about the inverted diving bell at the bottom of Lake Erie or the kayak which was going to have to wait forever for its rescue from the watery depths.
Copyright Liz Behlke 2015