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Attractive Nuisance

by Richard Muller

The concrete truck rumbled down the road next to our house, leaving a large plume of dust in it’s wake. My father cursed, shook his fist, and muttered to himself – “Damned nuisances – this ****** dust is going to be the death of us all!

We lived on South 20th Street in Fort Dodge, Iowa – next to the railroad tracks – Some years earlier, Fort Dodge Concrete had leased the property next to the tracks and built a plant. The plant manufactured concrete block, sold and delivered concrete for building and highway construction. This plant was a thorn in Dad’s side and he rallied the neighbors to fight its existence. They even hired a lawyer to fight the project at City Hall – to no avail as it turned out – pretty much all they got for their trouble was a “Good Neighbor Pledge” from Fort Dodge Concrete.

They promised to “clean up” their dumping and truck-washing sights on the property, and to not let their trucks use the dirt road next to our house (because of safety and dust concerns).

It was not a perfect existence, and in fact, imperfect – as most “truces” are. Each time we witnessed a violation – dad would complain to the lawyer or the City Commission.

On the other hand – us kids thought it was a “pretty cool” place to play – It pretty much had everything young kids love – piles of sand. piles of gravel – leftover concrete in the wash out areas (Dad called it sludge), and best of all (some said) stacks and stacks of concrete blocks. While our parents hated the company, most of us kids in the neighborhood just loved the place.

The mountains of sand and gravel were a kids dream – We’d climb up the sand piles – roll down – play “King of the Hill” – climb up the stacks of blocks and jump into the sand – rescue discarded lumber from the rubbish pile and use it to build ramps from the sand to the blocks and build bridges between the stacks. We loved it! It was a great place to play, even though the folks were feuding with the company.

This was pretty much the situation one Labor Day weekend when a fierce thunderstorm did a lot of damage in the neighborhood – knocking down numerous tree branches, both large and small.

We lived on a large double lot with many trees, and as a consequence, the storm littered our area with piles of limbs. Dad spent most of Saturday cutting the limbs and hauling them to the backyard for eventual burning – the popular approved method at the time. I helped – of course. It was a hard days work – or at least Dad was vocal in saying it was. I agreed – but I was a kid at the time – what did I know.

When we finished, there was an impressive pile of branches stacked back by the alley. My “master builder’s eye” told me that this would make an excellent “fort”. I was after all, a veteran “fort” and “hide-out” builder. My friends and I had built “log forts, “dug outs”, and “lean-to’s” along the railroad “Right of Way” from our house, all the way to the “overhead” bridge – the nearest railroad crossing to the house.

On Sunday, after church, most of the boys came, to survey the stack. One by one they all came by – Terry, Denny, Frankie, Roger, the twins (whose names I can’t remember), and several of the girls came too – I can’t remember their names either – It was cool for boys our age (8-10) to like or notice girls in those days. We pretty much put up with them because our parents insisted, and because we pretty much needed some of them to fill up sides when we had “pick-up” games of kickball or softball.

Everybody saw my vision – What a magnificent fort “hide-out” this would make. We attacked the pile like a legion of beavers – moving here – pulling there – cutting big pieces – even putting the leafier branches over the top, forming a roof.

Mom rewarded our efforts with lunch-meat sandwiches, chips, Kool-Aid, carrot and celery sticks -- a pretty good feast after such a hard afternoon’s work. We lay back in the grass, and sat on branches discussing the affairs of our world -- the storm, the fort, what our parents were mad about – and, of course, the big, dark storm cloud on our horizon – school starting on Tuesday (These were still the days when school didn’t start until after Labor day. Seems that there is a direct relationship between the “early start” of school, and low school achievements – the earlier school starts, the lower the educational rating of the school system. To this day, the “opening of school” depresses me – signifies the end of freedom – or something like it.

Eventually the topic came around to our parents’ “hatred” of the concrete company. We all wanted to do something about it – but what? We thought about it, discussed it – considered solutions – as only kids can – burning it down was a popular idea – but we thought we’d get into too much trouble – plus one of our houses might catch fire too – as an unintended result –Finally, someone – I don’t remember who – suggested that the cement trucks were the weak link – without them they couldn’t deliver concrete – no concrete – no sales – no sales – no company – there we had it! What a brilliant answer – just like the “Our Gang” movies – brilliant – but accomplishing the task – that’s a harder job – like “belling the car” – no one wants to do it.

Finally one of us “in the know” – just who – I also can’t recall – mentioned that the trucks were not locked, and the keys were inside – this was too easy – in our “simple minds” – no keys meant no trucks, which meant no orders, which equaled no business – Presto – no cement company – which meant that our parents would be very, very happy – Simple – brilliant – genius – we thought – Remember – we were 10 years old – What did we know? -- But that’s how a 10-year old’s mind works.

We would be stars – hero’s – wow – off to work we went – turns out that our informant was right – the trucks were unlocked – the keys were there – we collected them all – as I recall, Fort Dodge concrete had 10-15 trucks at the time.

We gathered back at the new “tree branch“ fort to celebrated the success and decide what to do with our “stash”. Eventually it was decided to hide our “prize” in our “secret hide-out”, in the cement blocks.

Now the existence and location of the “secret hide-out” was closely guarded – only Terry, Denny, Frankie, and me know where it was. The others demanded to know where their prize was to be “kept safe” -- Reluctantly – after a heated discussion –we swore the rest of them to a “blood oath” of secrecy.

The “secret hide-out” was in the concrete-block area ----an area which was “off limits” to us kids – but, of course, that was because parents thought that concrete blocks might fall on us and injure us – of course being “master fort builders”, we know better.

We went to the top of an “out of the way” stack and hollowed out our hiding place from the top, down, making a floor and ceiling out of discarded plywood found on the junk pile at the corner of the grounds. The top was disguised by placing a row of blocks from the next stack over, on top of our plywood roof. The entrance was made at one end where an opening was filled with unconnected blocks, making it appear solid to the unknowing eye. Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, and Hop-A-Long Cassidy would be proud of us – being avid students; we learned the art of camouflage well.

The “prize” was stashed in the “secret hide-out” – and we all went home that Sunday evening, secure in the knowledge that we’d done good and come Tuesday, all the world would be right – Fort Dodge Concrete would be on its way out of business, and our parents would be proud –

Not Quite!! One of our new “blood-oath” members – ratted on us – First it was the existence and location of the “secret hide-out”. Several of the “girls’” parents were “outspokenly” unhappy at the possibility of their little darlings being smushed by a falling block – no amount of reasoning could shake or lessen their outrage – We were doomed by the fact of its very existence – like Adam picking the apple – we were condemned and doomed because we had dared to cross the forbidden line – no matter that none of their precious little “Eves” had ever or would ever (remember this was still pretty much a boys club) have been allowed in.

A group of irate parents showed up to talk to my dad – he became agitated – demanded the truth – right now!! – and then marched me over to the “hide-out”.We arrived at the block stack, and everyone looked perplexed – “So where is it kid?” – Hah! – So we had done a good job!

I showed them how to get in – had to take off the roof, as there was not enough height on the inside for adults to stand up – I mean we were kids – how tall did it have to be!!

At this point, someone remembered that we had a “treasure box” holding “stolen” valuables. A slight exaggeration, but with dad threatening my very existence – I gave in – opened our “hiding place” – brought out our “strong box” – remember it was a well-known fact that all “stagecoaches” had a “strong box” – Dad opened the box and saw all of the keys. He looked up saying, “No money here, just a bunch of keys! What are they for?” He asked.

I stammered a bit – but finally managed to get out the details. A look of parental resignation came across his face – in later years – it would be celebrated as the “I’m gonna kill that boy” look.

Dad and some of the other fathers contacted Ray, the cement company’s manager, and told him of the problem. They all got together, and put the keys back in the trucks.

Dad couldn’t apologize enough. Ray allowed, “boys will be boys” (I’m not sure how he knew that though – since he had 5 or 7 daughters – can’t remember which).

Dad asked Ray, “Why the trucks?” – Ray gave the answer for all times – “This small town in Iowa – nothing bad ever happens here. We never lock our doors – car or house”. – What a comment on our times! – After that, though, Dad always locked the cars and the house – obsessively.

“What were you thinking?” Dad demanded.

I explained our goal – as best I could – Dad never asked one question when three would do – Mom always said that he would have been a good “Philadelphia Lawyer” – but he sure could surround a question – an effective method, but sure irritating when you were on the hot seat.

I was sent to bed early – but not without supper – and more importantly – not without desert!!

Some how I just instinctively knew that the cement company “ playground” was permanently OFF LIMITS to us guys. We moved our “junior beaver” fort building efforts to the “jungle” an area of scrub trees near to the “overhead bridge.

The sun went down – the sun came up – it was Tuesday – school started – and for the first time in memory, I was glad.

Somehow this little altercation cooled the animosity between Dad and Fort Dodge Concrete. (at least publicly). Ray even bought a house on our block and moved into the neighborhood. (probably in self – defense) He turned out to be a pretty good guy and even helped me complete a couple of deals when I was in high school.