Dad's Dramatic Defense Of the Disappearing Dam

IT was not to be a lifelong specialty of mine, but for a time hydrodynamics engaged my attention and adjusted my understanding to the sterile fact that people come in two sizes. There's the majority that Thoreau dismissed as quietly desperate, and much fewer, there's the rest of us.

I built a dam, which was intended either to control flooding or to cause it, and some said one and others didn't, and I never knew. Our home, sitting a couple of rods back from the unpaved small-town road, was on a slope, and as we are all well aware, water flows downhill. Whenever we had a shower this would happen, and the small gutter at our roadside would become a mighty torrent if I scraped some mud away with a garden hoe. So it was my pleasure in times of spate to go with a hoe and tame this waterway to my purposes.

Sometimes I would bring a spring drive of long-log spruce down the West Branch from Abol Landing, and again I might butt a salt-encrusted British tramp down the Channel. I also would reenact the Battle of Lake Erie, and come up the Mississippi with Farragut. Odysseus had even caught 40 winks while I brought his fleet o'er the dark sea past the Aegean Isles. And then I built my water-power dam.

We had an elderly uncle who lived with us, and he liked to do glorious adventures with me, and he helped with my dam. He had his long joiner's bench and would tell me what the tools were for and how to use them, but first I had to explain to him just what I planned to do. I was then 6, maybe going-on 7, and my uncle never knew quiet desperation and had not heard of Thoreau.

The gigantic water-power privilege that my uncle and I contrived was a suitable board shaped to the contour of our gutter and fitted with penstock and spillway. An undershot wheel communicated force to a pitman rod that caused a small flag to wave in furious patriotism, and my uncle and I would whistle ''The Stars and Stripes Forever.'' I believe I lacked a tooth that summer, which muted my whistle, and my uncle had a moustache to do the same for him. Once we got the water running, the flag would wave until the rain stopped, and a good, soaking two-day rain would keep the thing going several days. At a suggestion of wet weather, I'd fit my utility in place, and for safe keeping put it back in the barn when the little flag quieted.

Then I left the flag waving one evening, and when I went out the next morning to inspect things, I found my dam and attachments up on the green grass of our lawn, and the little pool that I'd so carefully shaped with the hoe was shoveled to restore the basic gutter. And we had a mystery.

Ours was a small town, and we lived on a side street, so not too many passed to see my hydro-plant. Why would anybody remove my dam and equipment, place it safely on the lawn, and scoop out my dirt? My uncle answered that. He learned a ''busybody'' down the street had complained to the town's board of selectmen that vandals unnamed were clogging the drainage system of the roadway, and that down below, water had run into some cellars, and Captain Fuller's asparagus bed was under two inches of water. The selectmen spoke to Mr. Ward, the road agent, and he had lifted the contraption, whatever it was, from the clogged gutter and put it on the grassground. Yes, he had shoveled away the dirt. And he didn't want to have to do it again.

My father hadn't paid much attention to the engineering accomplishment of my uncle and me, but now informed of Mr. Ward's unkind interference, he came to look at our dam. When my uncle twirled the little waterwheel with his finger and the flag waved, my father saluted and sang a bit of ''Yankee Doodle,'' and he didn't know anything about Henry David Thoreau, either. He told us to go ahead and have fun; it was no crime to wave the flag.

So the next week, I guess it was, it came on cloudy and felt like thunder-clappers, and I set out my dam. During the night it showered, and after breakfast I went out to make the official inspection. I found my dam was gone again - penstock, flag, and all - and there it was, once again laid unharmed up on the lawn. My pool in the gutter had again been shoveled clean. Mr. Ward had struck again.

My father was an amiable man and easy to get along with. Now and then something would boil him over and he could, if stimulated, speak his piece. He listened as my uncle informed him of the situation, nodding, and when Uncle concluded my father said, ''The town office will open at 9 o'clock.''

I stood outside and waited, but I could hear. My father addressed the honorable Board of Selectmen formally and told them the territory around six and seven years of age is a joyous vicinity in which to spend as much time as you can spare. He said the vast architectural complex in our gutter was a precious asset to the community and deserved the support of every thinking citizen. He said there wasn't an asparagus bed in Maine that wouldn't like two inches of water, and if the dam in our gutter could provide it more often, Captain Fuller should be glad.

He told them that dam is like Xanadu - measureless to too many punkin-headed people. He also told them my dam would continue to wave its little flag, and if it got disturbed again he would bring the contraption to the town office and wrap it around the selectmen's necks. The Board of Selectmen then replied that they heard him, and if he had further occasion to approach the board it would not be necessary for him to shout quite so loud.

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