“I just need an hour of your time,” Dad muttered as my foot hovered over the basement stairs. Inwardly, my gut tightened with a sickening amalgam of anxiety and dread. It was almost 9 am and already I felt drained.
My father’s sense of time is generally exaggerated to the point that I had already given up my Saturday as a loss. After a week of teaching gas laws and grading fifty ten-page labs on molarity (I loathe repetitious activity. It is the water torture of the soul.), a Saturday morning without immediate plans provides an opportunity for refueling my mental, physical and emotional energies. For Dad, it’s a chance to simultaneously plan and execute a Honey-do list while enlisting the aid of his inactive children.
Today, he recruited us to help my brother Patrick in the construction of his new garage. Alright, anyway I say this it’s going to sound weak but manual labor, the kind used in construction at least bores me as well as aggravates those with whom I’m working. Mostly, I try to find a creative solution to simple tasks like . . . let’s say building a wall.
“Hey guys, let’s paint cryptic messages into the walls. People hundreds of years from now will think treasure is buried in the floorboards! We can even leave a jar full of loose change here behind the beams! Who’s in?”
See what I mean? No one seemed eager to recreate National Treasure with me, and so, centuries from now, alien archeologists will wonder why someone nailed two pennies and a quarter in the shape of Mickey Mouse near fireplace.
Dad has the professional philosophy of “get it done quickly without any foolin’ around.” An attitude that is efficient and effective but far from fun. Decades of Disney movies and 80s action flick have taught me that music montages and spontaneous choeography can help reduce the tedium of a difficult task. Dad sees the excess energy as an indication that we can multitask.
“Look Dad,” I sighed, “I need another hour or two to rest up, watch anime, play games, read, write. Worthless stuff, maybe in your eyes, but I need time to recuperate from teaching one day each week.”
Sunday was my grading day. An entire morning and afternoon of reading labs and assigning points to (un-)deserving students. I, thus, preserved my Saturday as a sanctum, a day devoid of responsibility and lesson plans, and as such, I was very protective of it.
“All you have to do is operate this machine your brother rented,” Dad explained, donning his salesman voice. “It’s got a remote control and everything. Like a video game. As soon as I saw it, I thought of you. You play all that gaming shit, right? What’s the difference?”
“In games I kill demons,” I argue, thinking over my last victory that morning involving a fiery lake and a Centipede Demon. “With swords and if my mana pool is high enough, magic. I’m not sure this is the same thing.”
“Demons? What the hell . . .? Look, you use a remote control to operate machinery. The gadget supposed to sorta. . . bounce up and down on soil, sending all these vibrations deep into the ground like sonar, which settles any loose soil. What about that doesn’t sound interesting to you?”
In truth, it did, sorta. Operating heavy machinery with a remote control lives in one of those secret pockets of my prepubescent mind alongside jetpacks, flaming swords, and Sarah Michelle Geller. Still, I felt that I was being tricked somehow into . . . working.
“I’ll see about heading up in a little bit,” I sighed.
Describing my new 3D video game vehicle proves quite easy. Imagine it as a cross between an AT-AT from Empire and the Sandcrawler from New Hope. Of course, I could simply show you a picture of it, if you happen to be born without an imagination or, like my Dad, have little to know idea what I’m talking about:
You see all that mud? Yeah, we’ll get to that later.
The controls for my little mini-tank did resemble an Xbox controller. Two joysticks and various buttons and switches scattered throughout. One side edged the machine forward or backward, while the other steered. Each of the sticks were surrounded by thick circular walls of rubber and plastic, clearly meant to protect the control from the wear-and-tear of the jobsite, but instead gave the whole apparatus the appearance of a Tonka truck-colored drone.
I did not get to break-in the controls, however. For the past several days, rain and overcast clouds haunted the skies above Maryland like a bad mood. Rain pelted the earth into clay-flavored sludge, which accounts for some of my surprise at Pat and Dad’s enthusiasm that morning. I’m not exactly a bastion of order and cleanliness but spending a cool spring morning slipping through mud did not sound pleasant. Moreover, any machinery Pat intended to use that day would have difficulty . . . well, moving, right?
Bringing my concerns to Pat, my brother seemed unperturbed.
“Well, we’ll see,” he said taking the controller from me. “Let me get this going for you.”
God bless him. Pat is the eternal optimist. Frankly, I think like a boy receiving a soccer ball on his birthday was eager to play with his new toy, shine or torrential downpour. Pat’s wife, Tiff, was less optimistic.
“Ten bucks he gets it stuck in the mud,” she yelled over the machine’s motor.
“Ten bucks he tips it over,” I counter back.
Five minutes later we found ourselves breaking even. Pat steers the machine off the grass and into the mud, where it found itself stuck like a mammoth in a tar pit. Cursing ensues. Pat hands the remote control to me to wade into the mud and assess the situation.
“Back it up,” he shouts.
“Down the hill?” I question.
“Yeah, lets see if we can get a running start back into the grass.”
Some problems, much like quicksand, grow more severe the more one struggles. Such was the case this morning. The more we reversed the machine down the hill, the deeper the vehicle became entrenched in the mud and away from the patch of earth Pat had designated for flattening. Eventually, after several more directions, we reach this point:
Tiff and I exchange fivers and Pat accused the machine of incestuous relations with its mother. What follows then is two hours of heaving, hauling and, yes, more cursing. The machine seemed intent on napping in the mud like a pig and proved too heavy to budge. At least with human muscle.
Luckily, my brother, Kevin, arrived with a pallet lifter to help pull our stranded toy from the muck. That is until my father arrived . . .
“Murph! What did you do to this machine?” Dad yelled.
Sure. Blame the one with the remote.