It was on a hot, muggy, August afternoon that we found it. My friend Spencer and I were exploring a stretch of the stream that ran behind my house, under an overpass, and down through a residential neighborhood. There was a half-mile or so of water shielded from the properties in front of it by trees, which over the years had carved out a rather expansive riverbank. This was our domain. I knew every nook and cranny the stream made as it wound its way through the dirt as though a map of it was etched onto the back of my hand.
We spent countless hours there. We would marvel at the tiny minnows that swam in the deeper waters, stare at the caterpillars that climbed up the tree branches before making tiny cocoons for themselves, and play with the wide range of toys and knickknacks we had collected during our travels.
Nothing entered our kingdom without our knowledge, so when we found a large hunk of metal lying in the water one day we were understandably curious. Sunlight glinted off the side through one of the few areas where the overhanging trees permitted it to gaze in upon our revelry. There were words on the large cube, spelling out “Lennox” in block letters on one side and “Quality Home Air Conditioning” on the other.
We were perplexed. Who had left this huge contraption underneath the overpass? Had they left it there for safekeeping? Were they going to come back for it? Was it a gift for us? At 9 years old, objects around me were divided into things that were “mine” and things that were “everything else.” I hoped that this treasure was going to fall into the first category.
Our first thought was to move it away from the river to avoid any further disruption to the water’s flow. But the unit proved much too heavy, despite our determined efforts, and we were forced to leave it where it was. After dinner, we spent hours trying to figure out who had left it there and what we were going to do with it. We concluded that until someone else told us otherwise, it was going to be the newest addition to our kingdom, our crown jewel.
Later that night, when my mother was tucking me in for bed, she asked what Spencer and I been talking about all afternoon. In her words we had been “thick as thieves” all evening and could only be up to no good. I assured her that we hadn’t broken anything or tracked mud onto any of the carpets, but I avoided telling her about our discovery. I couldn’t take the chance that she would also want in on this incredible opportunity, and that I would be pushed aside by her all too oppressive “because I said so.” So I smiled as innocently as I could and reassured her that we were simply talking about the coming school year. She seemed to believe me, leaving me alone in my room to envision magnificent plans for this treasure unexpectedly bestowed upon us.
Sometime during the night I decided that we somehow had to get the thing out of the river. Given my minimal understanding of physics, it was clearly time to consult an expert. The next morning I called my father and asked him, as vaguely as I could manage, how to move something that was too heavy for me to lift. Thrilled at my finally showing an interest in the finer points of his engineering degree, he explained at length all about pulleys and fulcrums, levers and winches. Trying to sort through both his explanation and the fact that at some point he had reverted to his college engineering jargon, I decided that this “lever” contraption offered our best chance for success.
After assuring him repeatedly that he had more than satisfied my curiosity, I hung up the phone and dashed over to Spencer’s house. The two of us rushed down the bank of the stream toward the overpass with baited breath, sure that someone had come by during the night and stolen our new toy just as silently as it had arrived. To our great relief it was still there, waiting for us with its promises of adventure and mystery. Who knew what excitement was contained inside? I didn’t, but I was eager to find out.
Armed with my new and admittedly tenuous grasp of mechanical engineering, we searched through the fallen tree limbs until we found one sturdy enough yet small enough to fit under the base of the box. After some effort we flipped our prize (we agreed to name it Lenny) onto its side and out of the water’s path. Imagine the joy we felt when we discovered that someone had aided us in our plans by removing one of the side panels already, and had even loosened many of the pieces inside so that we could just pull them out.
More than ever I was amazed that someone had just left this treasure here for us. We began to remove the pieces we found inside of Lenny, pulling them out one by one and placing them on the grass. Many came out easily, but some were tougher. Luckily, Spencer had thought ahead and brought a screwdriver and hammer. Armed as such we eventually extracted most of the major parts and placed them, glistening with a beautiful mixture of condensation and potential, along the bank.
Looking down at our haul, we started thinking about all the adventures we could have with the different pieces. As we sat there (and later throughout the day) we dreamt up new and exciting ideas for the hoses, pipes, fan blades and belts we had in front of us. Many of our plans we eventually decided were probably not feasible to build, although I maintain that my helicopter would have been the envy of the town.
Over the next few weeks we came up with dozens of plans for Lenny’s various parts. The fan made an excellent pinwheel dangling off the edge of our tree fort. The rubber tubing finally let us seal off the more stubborn cracks in our driftwood dams. Our greatest invention though was the slingshot that Spencer built out of a forked pipe and some of the rubber tubing. He claimed that he could break a glass bottle with it from almost 10 feet away, but was conveniently never able to accomplish this feat.
I will never know how long into the school year our revelry would have lasted before we inevitably tired of the toys that Lenny had given us. Before that day came they were taken from us. My mother stopped me from going out to play one day, reassuring me (and probably herself in retrospect) that we were going to be staying in the basement to keep safe from a rainstorm. I thought that this seemed rather silly, having played safely in the rain many times before, but once again the omnipotent “because I said so” prevailed. Hurricane Floyd drowned our neighborhood in almost a foot of water, flooding the basement we were hiding in and sending some of the worst flash floods in Philadelphia history surging through our waterways.
When I was finally allowed to emerge from our house several days later, my kingdom was almost unrecognizable. Gone were the subtle twists and turns that I had known so well, replaced instead by a large, straight, muddy river. When I finally screwed up my courage to walk down to the overpass, I discovered that Lenny too had been stolen by the storm.
Spencer and I shared a small moment of silence the next day for Lenny, but then it was time for school to start and we were forced to move on. We didn’t play in the stream much after that. It was as if the storm had washed away the magic that had so enchanted us.
Without that common bond to unite us we too began to drift apart, and eventually stopped seeing each other except in passing. Perhaps this was a cruel twist of fate to rob us of our youthful exuberance. Perhaps this was an important and inevitable part of growing up. Either way, as time goes on I will continue to grow older and those who know me will expect me to become increasingly “responsible.” What I do know is that no matter how many years pass by I will always have the summer of 1999, our air-conditioned summer.
This essay received honorable mention in this magazine’s 2013 Young Alumni Essay contest. To see the winners, visit magazine.nd.edu/news/45034/.