Sunday, January 2, 2011

Raiders of the Lost Septic Tank

My Nana was a remarkable woman. For those of you who don't know it my Nana was my mother's mother, or maternal grandmother, if you prefer. She had been a grandmother for a while before I was ever born, so by the time I came along she had all her grandma skills honed. She was famous wherever we went to Church as the “gum giver”. It didn't matter whose child you were or whether she knew you or not. If you were a child you got gum, that's just the way it was.

She was generous to a fault. (Some people say that and don't mean it. I do. My poor Papa was always a step or two from the poor house because of all the gifts she was constantly giving.) This generosity with wealth was coupled with a general generosity with freedom. Much like Dad, Nana would let us do pretty much whatever we wanted provided that it wasn't a sin and that no one was going to get hurt. To all this she married the heart of a willing servant. She wanted to be helpful to all those around her. In fact, that is where my story begins.

We had just gotten out of Church in Allendale and Nana and Papa decided that we should all go out to eat. Usually we went to some fast food restaurant for a quick burger and fries, but on this particular Sunday they decided they wanted to go somewhere a little nicer. I can't remember the name of the place we went to, but we were all lead to a table and handed a menu.

After a few minutes the waiter came back and took our orders. He had taken long enough that Dad was a little annoyed. Well, that is to say, he talked as if he were a little annoyed. Dad is one of those funny people who starts to complain before he is really upset and will criticize you if you dare to murmur yourself. Had I said anything about the speed of the service I would have been told “Look around! You see how busy they are? These people have lives too! Give them a break!”

Still, in truth, the service was a little slow. It took a bit of time to get our drinks and when Dad and Papa had run out of coffee there was no sign of anyone coming to refill their cups. Nana had watched in silence and, although she would never have complained about the slow service, she decided something needed to be done. She got up quietly and walked over to where the coffee machine was behind the counter. She picked up the pot and filled Dad and Papa's coffee cups. She then went from table to table asking everyone if they wanted a refill on coffee. When she got back to our table Dad told her to apply for a job since she had already shown the management how ready she was to work.

As a child I never noticed how Nana waited on us hand and foot. Whenever I stayed with them I was given whatever I wanted for breakfast cooked just the way I liked it. In fact, when I got older I would go down to Nana and Papa's for breakfast sometimes during the Summer. She was never too busy for us grandchildren. I remember laying in the foldout couch-bed with Josh, Tara and Chris and listening to Nana read us bedtime stories to put us to sleep.

It's funny that the woman who would give us matches whenever we asked wouldn't let us touch the fairy tale book by ourselves. In fact there were a number of little rules that we children were never allowed to break. One was that we couldn't handle certain books without supervision. Another was that we could never go into Papa's study. One that applies to this story is that we weren't allowed to talk while Nana was reading aloud.

One night Chris decided to break that rule and start making funny comments about the stories that Nana was reading. After a little while I began to join in the fun myself. At first Nana just told us to be quiet and stop interrupting, but as we continued to disobey the situation escalated. Nana warned us that if we didn't stop she was going to get Papa out of bed. Normally that would have put a stop to us, but for some reason that night Chris and I felt we had to go on. At last Nana put the book down, got up and headed for Papa. All we could think to do was pull the covers over our heads and hope that Papa thought we were asleep.

When they walked into the room Papa asked “What is the problem?”

“These two won't be quiet and listen to the story.” Nana replied.

“You mean this one?” He asked as he hit Chris through the blankets with his belt. “And this one?” He added as he popped me as well.

“Those are the ones.”

“Well, I better not hear anymore about it tonight.”

Needless to say he didn't. Those little warning blows were enough to keep Chris and I quiet for the rest of our childhoods. We never again talked while Nana was reading aloud.

Now, what will surprise some people, having seen that Nana and Papa would spank us for things like talking out of turn, is what they didn't spank us for. I believe they used a couple of simple guiding principles. Did the child know they were wrong? Had they been warned? You can see with the previous spanking that we knew we were wrong and we had been warned. Of course, it's amazing what children don't know is wrong and no one can possibly warn them about everything. It was because of these two facts that I rarely got a spanking.

I remember one morning when Chris, Tara, Josh and I were all over at Nana and Papa's house. I was around nine, meaning Chris was thirteen or so and Tara and Josh were seven. We had decided to do a bit of exploring and had wandered over to the deserted lot right beside Papa's land. No one had lived there for years and it was overgrown with briars and tress. As we were pushing through the underbrush we stumbled upon a block of concrete that was buried in the dirt. There was only a very small corner poking out where the rain had washed the dirt away, but it was enough to fire my imagination.

I kicked some of the dirt off and felt certain that a large concrete slab was buried right at my feet. There was only one thing to do: we needed to dig it up. We walked back over to the house and asked Nana for the keys to the shed. She asked why we wanted them and we very truthfully answered that we wanted to get a few tools. Without any more questions she handed us the keys. We grabbed a couple of shovels and a sledge hammer, just in case. Having gathered what we thought we would need we returned the keys and headed straight for our concrete corner. We immediately set to work and in just a few minutes we had uncovered the large slab that I was expecting to be there.

“We need to break it open.” I said as soon as we had finished brushing the last of the dirt away.

“Why?” Tara asked.

I didn't know whether to laugh or sigh, the answer was so obvious. I decided the best course of action would be to explain in small steps.

“Well, we just found a concrete slab buried out in the middle of nowhere, right?”

“Yes, but what does that mean.”

“You have to ask yourself why someone would put a concrete slab out here.”

“Well, why would they.”

“To hide something of course!”

“To hide what?”

“Oh anything really, but probably treasure.”

“You're sure?”

“Can you come up with a better explanation?” I asked with a knowing smile.

Slowly smiles dawned on each of the three faces looking at me. My logic was perfect. It had become equally obvious to them. Someone had at some point in time buried a treasure here. They had poured a concrete slab on top of it to help hide it and protect it. Now, years later, we had stumbled upon it. It was our duty to break the slab and recover the treasure. Our parents and grandparents were about to be rich. All that stood between us and the gold was a few inches on concrete. That wasn't going to stop us for long.

We set to work with a will. The hammer fell again and again as we took turns raining blows on our inanimate adversary. At last the moment came. The slab broke and a large piece of concrete fell into the depths below. It quickly became obvious that there wasn't any treasure to be found at all. What we had discovered, in truth, turned out to be the top of an old septic tank. We had spent all our time and energy getting to something we had no interest in once we reached it.

Papa had heard all our noise, but sadly he was a bit too late to stop what we were doing. He stood staring at us, the tools and the tank with a dazed expression on his face and then hurried us all back into his yard. It was a while before he even took the time to explain what we had found and why we shouldn't have done what we did. I think he was a little overwhelmed with the moment and the freshly opened septic tank.

We didn't get spanked for that. Why? We didn't know it was wrong to go breaking up some concrete slab we found out in the woods. In addition we certainly hadn't been warned that we would be spanked if we broke open an old septic tank. However, Papa did use it as a teaching opportunity. We learned that there was no such thing as “Out in the woods.”, all land belonged to somebody. We also learned that you have to make sure you know what is inside something before you open it. All things considered we did learn our lesson, we never did anything like that again.

Nana and Papa were both wonderful grandparents. They were generous, caring and merciful. I have tried to show those qualities to my children and I hope to continue to show them when I have grandchildren. My Nana, much like my Dad, knew that you had to guide children without controlling every little thing they do. Sometimes it's best to just give them a match and then help them put out whatever fire they start with it. That is a lesson that most of our society has forgotten, but I think it is one that's important to remember.

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