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Funny Kids


Walt Kitchener scrambled down from the right-hand seat of the NOAA T-38 and shook hands with Shirley Lewis, pilot in command for the trip from Trinidad to Pax River. A limo was waiting to take the exhausted scientist to his Lexington Park home, an expanded cream, split-level ranch with all the trimmings: yards, pool, multi-sport court, all set comfortably well back from Great Mills Road. Walt saw the press in front of the house, had the driver circle back around and let him out at the Dembitzer’s house, immediately behind the Kitchener’s. He’d be damned if he couldn’t, after almost three years in the field, say hello to his family. He came in through the kitchen door and was immediately love-bombed by a wife, two kids, and Slurpy, a big, black Decker Rat Terrier. Even the rabbit wanted in on the action; Slurpy knew he could cage all the treats he wanted if he didn’t pounce on Lettuce, and Lettuce knew it too.

“Regina, look at you. Quite the young lady at 14. Great marks every report card. I’m sure you could have hacked the school database, but I also know you wouldn’t.” That got an “Oh, Dad” from his daughter and a wink from Jessica, his wife.

“I heard about the erector set incident. Very clever.” “Very clever”, when Walt said it, meant “Too clever.”

“Oh, c’mon Dad. I like building stuff. Other girls like Barbie or Tammy or whoever. For some reason parents started getting chemistry sets, science project kits, stuff like that, for their girls. So I traded dolls for whatever erector set pieces were still around, not yet tossed. Laisez faire, no?”

“Ginny, you built a drawbridge from your window to Tom’s. Twelve feet across. Someone could have gotten hurt.”

“The only thing that’s getting hurt are my feelings, Dad. You don’t think I could manage a cantilever bridge of only 12 feet, max load 125 pounds? Really?”

“And you, young man. Very impressive for fifth grade social studies. Comparison of Classical Greek games’ roll in diplomacy to a similar arrangement for the Tiwi Aborigines in Tasmania. What made you think of that, Henry?”

“Oh. An Aussie family moved in down the block. They really lay it on pretty thick. ‘G’day, mate, cut lunch, Sheila.’ But if it worked for Neolithic people and Athenian League Greece, and we have plenty of sports teams, why can’t it work with us?”

“Sounds like a stepping off point for your next term paper.”

Chastity finally cornered her beloved. “Walter, we’re not going to have a front yard left if you don’t go out there and talk to them. We already had an incident. Somebody from WCNV had an unintended meeting with someone using a CNN port-a-pee. Can’t you put them out of their misery?”

“Not until I get my ‘Hail the conquering hero kiss from my wife.” Wish granted, Walt ventured outside and got, not quite the shock of his life, but a pretty good one, anyway. Apparently, the kids had arranged a passable Mercator Projection map on the lawn, with flags sticking up over the places Walt had assessed.

“Welcome to my lawn. If you’re looking for the Dembitzer’s, they’re right next door. They do some pretty cool stuff as well. So. As you know, I’ve been touring the world with NOAA.” As if on cue, Shirley came around the back way with a Honda full of other researchers from the tour. Walt introduced them as they appeared at the front door: botanist, engineer, vulcanologist, climatologist.

“It’s bad news out there. You’ll be able to see the full report in about three weeks. In a nutshell, and especially talking about Brazil nuts and the Amazon, trees and land are being cleared by fire at an alarming rate. But you already know that. Climate change is drying out fauna, fires are dumping more carbon into the atmosphere. Oddly enough, we find that world economic improvement, particularly third world homes getting air conditioners is heating the atmosphere more than it’s cooling homes. Jill Easterbrook, our volcano and earthquake expert, and this has not been tested or peer reviewed yet, but she thinks the level of existing global warming may be enough to expand the earth, which may cause more earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. In another development, For any of you who like pizza or Caesar salad, there has been a catastrophic decline in anchovy harvests.

“As for mitigation, the solar tower project in the northern Sahara has provided power for nearby villages, and already cooled the local desert by two degrees. Donated topsoil is now yielding crops.” Walt was ready to throw the briefing to the reporters for questions, but he got beat to the punch. All anyone wanted to know was what was the Tabasco Canal.

“It’s more of a pipe than a canal. Since the earth spins to the east, the Atlantic Ocean bunches up when it meets the Americas. Sea level on the Atlantic side is two meters higher than the pacific side. Since we are working on mitigation in addition to surveying trouble spots, Pat Fletcher, one of our engineers, tossed this out at a meeting. If we barrage some Atlantic water at high tide and then release it into a pipe, scheduled to show up at the Pacific side at low tide, with the water powering turbines, completely renewable, no-pollution energy is generated. The barrage is in the Mexican state of Tabasco, and the turbines are in Oaxaca. It’s a proof of concept only, but it worked. Now, if you’ll excuse me, folks, I’m going to spend some time with my family. Speaking of which, Chastity has put out some bagels for you.”

“You’re eleven now, Henry. I was so proud of you when I gave Ginny my father’s Celestron telescope with the clockwork attachment for photos. I was even more proud when you took apart the clockwork and fine-tuned it for our latitude. Now it’s your turn for a family heirloom. I’ll be right back.”

Walt crossed his fingers on the way up the attic ladder, which he realized was not a best practice when climbing anything. He found the precious package, intact and where he had sequestered it, nothing torn or waterlogged. With all ten phalanges doing their appropriate jobs, he climbed back down and presented the box to Henry. Ginny was pretending not to be curious.

“Well, boy, open it!”

The recipient carefully de-taped the wrapping and folded it neatly, then figured out which flap to pull out first so nothing would tear. He extracted the odd object which looked more or less like an industrial comb, but one that couldn’t be actually used. He depressed one of the comb tines and heard a musical note.

“A musical comb, dad? I’ve heard of musical saws and musical water glasses, even a pocket comb and tissue paper kazoo. What is it?”

“It’s a thumb piano. Your great-grandfather picked it up in Africa during the second Boer War. A gift for your grandad.  Go ahead, give it a plunk or three. There’s lots of science in the house but not so much culture.   Hold the handles, pluck with your thumbs. Left to right it’s C, D, E, F, G, C. Lift up that flap, there’s some sheet music. Try Little Town of Bethlehem.”

Henry was figuring out what kind of gag was going on, but he went along with it. And he heard himself do a perfect rendition, since he actually had a few piano lessons. 

Grandad made a few improvements before passing it down to me. He put in two buttons on the left side, one sharpens a note, the other flattens it. Try the Fate Motif. Henry let rip with the most famous four notes in the world, the opening to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. He smiled at his dad.

“There’re more improvements. Pull out that little drawer.”

“It’s an Awari board! And it’s got little tiny seeds and a seed house! How did know?”

“Know what?”

“My term paper for computer lab was awari, nine men’s morris, and Dr. Nim. Never played them on a board before. Thanks, Dad!” Without her father looking, Ginny stuck a finger down her throat.; Henry gave his beloved sister a tongue-wag.

“There’s more, kiddo. Unfold the bottom.” 

The bottom unfolded into a compass and rangefinder, there was also a miniature sextant.

“This is great, dad. When can you take me to Africa? I wanna see if I can find my way through the bush. Maybe meet some champion awari players.” While waiting for an answer, Henry got out a just quite recognizable Greensleeves on the thumb piano. Naturally, he sang the lyrics as “Cream, cheese, and bagels and lox.”

“Now I’ve got something to show you, dad.” Henry went through the garage doorway and came back with his Rolls Rolls yellow, carbon-fiber, ultra-low-deck skateboard. The only known model of skateboard to have gone coast to coast. Walt always approved of Henry’s choice in purchasing the high-tech ride with birthday, holiday, bonus chore, and, if Walt remembered correctly, Tooth Fairy money. If you can get the very best of something for only $200, why not get it? The father checked out the customization of the son and was pleased but waited until Henry gave him the grand tour.

“The instrument panel in the nose shows speed, RPM, current angle for both sets of trucks, and artificial horizon. Front and rear fenders automatically signal turns and stops. Cop mode flashes orange and purple strobes, and turns on the public address speaker. A little AI unit decides what song to play; Move Aside and Let the Man Go Through, Fat Bottom Girls You Make The Rockin’ World Go Round, or any of a dozen context-based selections. The rear trucks are geared to flywheel kinetic energy storage, twice as efficient as electric regenerative braking.” Walt was smiling at Chastity, and even Ginny stopped her sarcasm. Henry turned the board over and opened an under-deck compartment. It held a compass, rangefinder, and, in case he was ever lost at sea with no GPS, a sextant.”

“I wonder what your kid is going to make out of it, son.”

“Apple,” Ginny said, pointing at the boy.

“Tree,” Walt responded.

September 29, 2020 00:40

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1 comment

David G.
21:14 Oct 07, 2020

Thanks for the story, Andrew! Are you an engineer? Why did the father decide to give his son the gift upon returning from his trip? Did the trip inspire the father to do so, or was it something he’d been planning to do anyway?


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