I wrote this story my third year in college when I wanted to be novelist and had not yet discovered theatre. It is one of a series of about 10 stories using the same characters titled, “Pollywogging: Tales from a Suburban Childhood.” Several years ago, I posted it on Facebook and it was very popular, yet I was never able to sell it. I decided to stop sending it out and publish it on my blog instead. At the end, I have an editorial/structural question.
by Cynthia Franks
I dreamed about winning an award like it since I was young. Many times practicing my acceptance speech in the basement before my stuffed animals. The award is the Detroit Arts Fest Award in Drama for my play, “Bestseller.” It was a good ceremony with all the pomp and circumstance I could want. So why did I feel so let down? It wasn’t the money. My real check would arrive in a few weeks, but that wasn’t it. I stopped at the bank to get gas money on my way home.
Tom Gilet was the last person I expected to see; I turned the corner and there he was getting out of a black Cadillac to mail a letter. Our eyes met briefly as I went by. I turned into the ATM drive way. He was heavier, but still had his black hair and puppy-dog brown eyes. I imagined this meeting differently. We would embrace, exchange pleasantries and I would tell him I wrote a play. He would be surprised. I would tell him the big snake tree was thirty feet tall and did he remember his dog Princess? The one Mr. Thompson helped us find? I wondered if he was thinking the same things? Did he remember pollywogging?
It was late spring and the air was cool when I was still, but turned warm when I tried to keep up with my older sister. The sky was deep blue with a foreground of white billowing clouds; warranting staring into even at the risk of being labeled a slow poke. It was a wondrous sky. The likes of it I haven’t seen since I was ten.
We were adventurers on an expedition as we trekked behind Huntington Elementary School, headed through the field, over the hill, through the valley, through the broken fence to the creek. It was that time of year. We were going pollywogging.
I was clad in my blue plaid fishing shirt and bell bottom blue jeans with a hole in one knee. My sister, Debby, was wearing her maroon sweat shirt, turned inside out so the paint stains wouldn’t show; and bell bottom blue jeans with holes in both knees. She was the tomboy. We had a nylon fishing net, which Debby was carrying, that we pooled our money for and bought at K-mart. I carried several large plastic garbage bags to bring the day’s catch home. I hated carrying the plastic bags because they made my hands and forearms sweat, but I didn’t complain. I didn’t want to be called a sissy.
Tom Gilet was the third member of our party. He was my fifth grade classmate who lived around the block on Mulberry street. He always met us behind the school for fear one of our other classmates would see him going somewhere with me, a girl. It was taboo for a boy to be seen going anywhere with a girl. Being seen together would have been social destruction for Tom; cootie contamination.
We had a secret chant to signal Tom and he replied with the secret whistle. The chant went: “Gilet, Skillet, Thomas, dunce; we even yelled Detroit once.” He protested to it at first and refused to reply to it; but, after a while, no one paid attention to the words. The chant started because Tom always wore a red baseball cap with a white “D” on it. We called it his dunce cap. He wouldn’t tell us what the “D” stood for; I think it stood for Dodgers because he got mad when we said it stood for Detroit.
Debby and I were by the little park at the front of the school where the kindergartners played when we gave the chant. We could tell, by his whistle, Tom was in the valley. We tramped through the ditch heedless of the water and muck because we were wearing our snow boots which doubled as creek walking boots. They were designed to keep out snow not three feet of water, so, I got my first soaker of the day.
As we headed through the field and over the hill, my boot made the sound Kool-Aid made when I swished it in my mouth to get all the flavor out. I was certain that if I stopped and dumped it out half the ditch would come poring forth, but I learned my lesson about stopping to dump my boot. When I did stop I was always disappointed. I’d turn the boot over slowly in anticipation of the great gush I had bragged on. Nothing. Not one drop. Then I would try to convince my partners that it really seemed like I had a river in my boot. They would scoff at me, call me a sissy and walk off leaving me to try to catch up while putting my boot back on. It was not until years later, when it no longer mattered, that I realized I should have wrung out my socks. It would have produced the great gush and given me the prestige I desired among my fellow creek walkers.
Did Tom ever make this discovery about the socks? When did he realize it? How did he realize it? I wondered, as I put my card into the ATM machine.
We saw Tom in the valley, already searching for the perfect stick to serve as a hunting stave. He was wearing blue denim pants and a matching jacket. They were not Levi’s, but those type of pants that were sold at K-mart and Sears that moms always insisted were the same thing as Levi’s. Tom hated them and wore them fishing to ruin them and make them unfit for school wear. Tom was also the possessor of the three-foot-by-four-foot wooden framed pollywog screen. The screen was constructed by Mr. Gilet to sift gravel. I am sure he had no idea it was a pollywog screen.
Tom had the screen to trap the wogs by the zillions; my sister and I had the net to herd them, the bags to carry them home in, and a plastic wadding pool that would hold a couple zillion wogs. What a team we were. We called ourselves The Hunter’s Club. We had rules, rituals and seasons just like adventurers everywhere. Spring was for pollywoging. There were also the year round adventures like looking for Jimmy Hoffa’s body and searching out evil teenager’s forts where we knew they held voodoo rituals, and had plotted the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa and probably a few other people whose bodies we were sure to find someday.
The land that played host to our expeditions was actually about two square miles of city and county property commonly referred to as “behind the school.” It was surrounded by an eight foot chain link fence put up to keep kids out of the swamp and woods. The gateway to our own private frontier was a path beaten bare from use. It mapped the basic course for our journey. Not too far past the end of the small front ditch to the right of the path, the land sloped down into a valley where water always stood and the woods, like the swamp, resisted the confinement of the chain link fence. This was the valley where Tom was waiting.
In reality, our private frontier was not much, but to the ten-year-old imagination it was Disneyland. The swamp was the Florida Everglades, the woods was an African jungle, the valley was the foothills of the Colorado Rockies, the creek was the Mississippi River and the ravine and the hills that sloped down toward the broken fence were the rolling blue grass hills of Kentucky. We traveled the world in our little two square miles of Neverland. It was ours. We discovered it just as Christopher Columbus discovered America. We paid no heed to the evidence that people were there before us. Cement storm drains, a man made storm collection pond, the fence, the broken fence; we did not give a thought to how these things got there, only that they were there and we discovered them and they too were ours. We really got riled when we found people who weren’t part of the club on our land or when we found evidence that the evil teenagers were riding their mini-bikes in our field or were building forts in our jungle.
Debby and I caught up to Tom in the valley. We looked around for branches to use as hunting staves, but did not find anything that met our standards. To become a stave, the branch had to be about chest high, waist high would do, and strong enough to support the weight of the possessor. Shape was important; thick at the top for gripping and slender at the bottom for poking and jabbing. Since we didn’t find anything like that in the valley, we had to go into the woods.
The hunting stave was the most important piece of equipment. We each had to have one. I couldn’t stress enough the importance of having a good sturdy stick at my side when I was on an adventure. All kids and all great explorers understand this, but my grandmother didn’t.
On each expedition Debby and I would find good staves. We would store them in the garage with the rest of the important outdoor tools and my grandma would throw them in the garbage. We pleaded with her not to, but she said they were dirty old sticks and she wished we would quit bringing them home. We never made her understand the difference between a stave and a ‘dirty old stick.’
We had a good argument I thought, “We need our staves for testing thin ice, testing the mud, defending ourselves against evil teenagers, and if we do find Jimmy Hoffa’s body we have to have a stave to poke it. You wouldn’t want us to touch it, would you?” Not even this convinced her.
We walked through the valley, across the ravine, which was another drainage ditch for storm run off, and stopped at the big snake tree at the entrance of the woods. The big snake tree was an oak tree sapling that was a little taller than Debby, growing next to an old stump. It couldn’t be mowed close and the grass grew up tall around it. It was called the big snake tree because Debby caught the biggest garter snake of her snake hunting career under it. It was too early in the year to find really big snakes, but we gave it a good going over anyway.
We went into the woods following the path, turning left toward the swamp at the fork. We discussed the signal to use if one of us stumbled across Jimmy Hoffa. Of course, Debby and Tom chose a whistle knowing full well I couldn’t whistle. We split up and started searching for staves. I took a few steps, looked down and there was it, the perfect stave. I can still remember it vividly. I snatched it up. My hand barely fit around it at its thickest. It tapered down to a point with nice clean lines and at the top was a thin part that hooked back making a handle just perfect for my hand. I tested its strength by knocking some layers off a rotting log. It was so strong that it made dents in the part of the wood that wasn’t rotted yet. I dreamed of taking it home and varnishing it to preserve it for all time. I knew it was never part of a tree. It was never anything but a stave. It was used by Merlin, and Lewis and Clark. Debby and Tom would want it, so I waited till they found theirs before I gloated. They tried to trade me, but I wouldn’t hear of it. Debby used birthright against me, saying that she was the oldest and should have it, but I didn’t give in. They both walked out of the woods quickly hoping I would beg them to slow down, giving them leverage to bargain; but I trailed behind happily, beaming at my treasure. It was a fleeting treasure, however.
That stave should have served me a lifetime, not just one expedition. I put my treasure in the basement out of sight of my grandmother. The next day, when I went out to the garden, there she was with my perfect stave broken in two and holding up her tomato plants. She said, “You think you can find me more stinks like that one?”
“More like it!” I shouted. “There is no more like it. It’s one of a kind. It was my hunting stave. My perfect hunting stave that led Lewis and Clark across the country and you used it to stake up your tomato plants. How could you, Grandma! How could you?” I ran in the house crying. It deserved a nobler end. She never understood.
Debby and Tom forgot about my stave when we reached the little swamp, which was part of our Everglades. They were too excited to be mad at me. The little swamp was teeming with pollywogs.
Tom said, “The wogs must be running.”
“Running?” I asked, “What does that mean?”
“I don’t know. But when I go fishing with my dad and there are a lot of Walleye he says the walleye are running. I guess it means there’s a whole bunch.”
“Yeah, that’s what it is.” said Debby. “When there’re a lot the fishermen say they’re running.”
“Oh, fish language.” I said.
It was exciting because this was the first time we would use the pollywog screen. The water we were standing in was mid-calf deep. Tom held the screen out in front of him and lowered it into the water by bending at the knees. Debby was across from him looking down at the water and directing him. I leaned over to see what they were doing and they yelled at me,
“Cindy, get out of the way!”
I stepped back and watched as Tom lowered the screen into the water, then slid it forward. I couldn’t see under the water’s surface from my vantage point, but I could see that as Tom bent down, concentrating on the wogs, his rear end was brushing the surface of the water.
“Tom your—” I started to say but was cut off by a very authoritative “SHH!” from my sister. I lost interest in the screen’s performance as I watched Tom rock back and forth positioning the screen, his pants getting darker blue with each pass. I suppressed my giggle. Tom didn’t realize his pants were getting soaked and I knew there was nothing more uncomfortable on your skin than wet underwear covered by wet denim. The weight of our soaked bell bottoms against our legs was something we were used to, but the heavy sagging feeling and the prickles when the denim dried was unbearable on the tender skin of the rear end. It pushed the limits of ten-year-old stamina.
Suddenly, I was commanded to open a bag. I was caught off guard and dropped the bags. I picked one up and could not find the open end. Debby grabbed it from me and opened it. I watched as Tom lined the screen up with the bag. It was full of wogs, just full of them. The screen was three-feet-by-four-feet and the opening of the garbage bag was two feet. Needless to say, three fourths of the wogs were lost in the transfer and fell back into the water like a thick black rain. I looked down into the bag and saw the massive black pile turning itself over and over as the wogs tried to swim amongst each other. They needed water.
“Don’t they need some water?” I asked.
“Well, this was just a test.” explained Debby not willing to admit that she did not think of it. “We could do all our pollywoging in here, but it would be too easy. There really is no where for them to run. We have to leave some to grow into frogs. So we’re letting these go.”
“We are?” asked Tom.
“Yeah, it will be more of a challenge catching them in the creek.”
Tom’s face scrunched as he realized his pants were wet. He reached back and pulled the seat out to a point and let it go. It snapped back sounding like a sopping towel hitting a tile floor. “My pants are soaked.”
“To the underwear?” Debby asked.
“Yeah,” Tom answered pulling it out again.
“I hate that.”
“So do I.” Tom walked stiff legged to shore. I smiled. Debby held the opening of the garbage bag down into the water. The wogs swam free.
As we headed for the creek, it became my fault that only a small amount of the wogs went into the bag. Debby and Tom said something about them jumping out because I couldn’t get the bag opened. She said I had to improve or I wouldn’t be allowed on the next expedition. I accepted the blame, but couldn’t figure out how things were so much different from what I saw.
I smiled as the ATM machine beeped at me. I was so easily led.
We went through the broken fence and crossed the two-by-four that served as a bridge over the creek. This was the branch of the creek that fed the swamp. There was a regular manhole cover in the ground above the huge drain pipe that emptied into the creek. It was tradition to yell down the pipe. We each laid on our stomach over the manhole cover, hung our head down in front of the drain pipe and yelled. I pictured someone getting ready to sit down on the toilet and this huge voice bubbling out of the bowl like in the cartoons. I laughed at the expression on the person’s face. We all thought the same thing even though we never discussed it. Debby and Tom yelled things like ‘Hello up there,’ ‘I’m going to get you,’ and ‘Don’t flush that toilet.’ I was more literary. After I did the traditional scream-at-the-top-of-your-lungs, I recited, “He he heee, step into my parlor said the spider to the fly.” It was a perfect echo. When I said ‘Step into my parlor.’ the echo wasn’t ‘lor…lor…lor’, but ‘step into my parlor…step into my parlor…into my parlor…into my parlor.’ And when I did the scream, the echo lasted so long I was sure it picked up strength and when it reached the toilet it was so thunderous it splashed the water right over the rim. I was disappointed when I learned the drain wasn’t attached to any toilets.
The creek wasn’t very deep, although the water level varied greatly through the year, it never got deeper than upper thigh level on Debby and this was rare. On this expedition it was just above knee level on Debby; mid-thigh on me and Tom. What the creek lacked in water depth it made up for in bank height, especially at the point I was standing where the three branches of it converged. It was four feet above the water’s surface, on a steep angle, all lose clay. I was waiting for my turn to yell down the pipe when I tripped on my hunting stave. There was the whoosh of my body sliding on the loose clay followed by the kersplash of me hitting the water. Debby and Tom rushed to grab the garbage bags before they blew away. I landed in a standing position. I got my bearings and tried to take a step. The mucky black bottom made a sucking sound as I freed my boot. My stave was of no help to me because it sank farther into the muck than I did. I threw it to shore. I had a technique for walking in muck. I stepped softly and carefully distributed my weight on both feet at all times so that one foot did not get deeper than the other. It was the same technique I used for walking on deep snow drifts. I was in definite danger of loosing a boot, but I didn’t mind because creek walking was one of my favorite things.
As I sat in my car at the bank starring out at the cars rushing past on Fort Street, I wanted to creek walk again. I wanted to rush home and put my boots on and go creek walking. For a brief moment it felt like I was back there.
The creek smelled like the underside of a long planted rock lifted in the search for night crawlers. The water was clear, but took on the brownish color of the bottom when I disturbed it. The mud made milky brown billowing clouds of smoke like little explosions going off with every step I took. I could have walked and watched for hours, but Tom and Debby stopped me.
“Cindy, you’re scaring the wogs away.” said Tom.
“Yeah, get out. You’re stirring it up.” said Debby. “If you don’t get out I’m keeping your stave.”
I came out immediately and reclaimed my stave.
“Ha, ha, you’re wetter than I am.” said Tom.
“It was fun. I didn’t see any wogs in there, Debby.”
“ ‘Cause you scared them away.”
“No, before I fell I didn’t see any.”
“ ‘Cause you looked at them and scared them away.”
Tom laughed and then added, “I didn’t see any either.”
Debby took control of the situation, “Let’s go check the pond, but first let’s decide our positions.”
“I get the screen,” said Tom, “cause it’s mine.”
“And I can chase the wogs into the screen with my net. Cindy, you stay on shore with a bag of water….”
“Wait, you both get to creek walk and I just get to stand on shore and hold the bag. That’s not fair. The net is half mine, too. If I don’t get to use it, I’ll take my half home.”
“Because your half has to stay with my half and I want my half to stay here. Besides, if you want to use the net you have to earn the privilege. Club rules.”
“I did and I’m the president because I’m the oldest.”
I could not argue with that, she was the oldest. I turned to begging. “Could I just try it?”
“You’ll just lose wogs for us like you did back there.” said Tom.
“I just want to try it. Just once, please? I’m already wet.”
“That’s another reason, you would probably scare the wogs away and then we wouldn’t catch any.” said Debby.
“You’ll need both hands to hold the bag, so I’ll hold your stave for you.”
“I’ll give it back.”
Tom saw a dead fish lying on the path just ahead of us.
“Come on, I’ll give it back. You can’t hold on to it and the bag at the same time. If you drop the bag you’ll never get to use the net.”
“You’re being a baby.”
“No, I’m not!”
“You are, too. If you give it to me I’ll let you use the net next time.”
“No, you’re just saying that to get my stave. It’s mine, I found it and nobody is using it but me.”
“She said she’d give it back.” said Tom
“Give it to me,” demanded Debby, “or I’ll go home right now and I will tell Mom that you fell in the creek!”
“No!” The dead fish came flying through the air and hit me in the face. I turned toward Tom, “Hey, wha’d you do that for?”
“You’re acting like a baby. What’s it gonna hurt to let her use your stave. She’ll give it back.”
“Okay, here.” I handed over my most prized possession.
We headed to the pond and our findings were disappointing. There were very few wogs. Tom wanted to go back out to the little swamp, but Debby insisted we check the swampy area on the back side of the pound. There were reeds and other plants growing in there. She was sure the plants were why there were few wogs in the creek and pound. On our way there, we encountered a large mud puddle. There was no easy way around it, not that we tried to find one, so we had to go through it. As we started across, Debby said, “Tom, Cindy likes babies.”
“I hate babies.” said Tom
“I don’t like babies.” I defended myself.
“She does so. When we were at my Aunt’s, she kept wanting to hold her baby.”
“I did not.” I stomped my foot out of anger and my leg sunk in the mud to my knee causing me to fall over backwards. Tom and Debby laughed uproariously because it sounded like a giant clay ball hitting a wall. I laughed, too. Debby pulled me up. I pulled my foot out of my boot trying to free it. Debby and Tom pointed and laughed even harder as I dug my boot out. Tom was rolling on the ground he was laughing so hard. I turned around to see what they were laughing at. There, in the middle of the mud puddle, was a perfect replica of my entire backside. You could see the wrinkles in my shirt and the individual strands of my hair. I laughed uncontrollably.
“Archaeologists will find me in a million years and wonder what kind of creature I was.” This started another fit of laughter.
“Look,” said Debby between bursts. “You can see her crack!”
This intensified the laughter once more. When it started to subside, Tom added, “They will probably think that’s her brain.”
We were pounding the ground and our sides ached from laughing. It took a half hour for the spell to end. All the bad feelings were extinguished and we decided to put our pollywogging aside for awhile. Tom hid the pollywog screen in some bushes and we went recklessly tramping through the swamp. It was fun getting dirty. We saw a large snapping turtle, a red tail hawk and what we thought was a vulture.
We talked about how scientists got to tramp around swamps for a living. What a perfect career it was, we all agreed. Debby pointed out that they had to deal with alligators and crocodiles, but that made it a more intriguing occupation. As we approached the back swamp, I could see the black clouds of wogs. Debby was right, although the back swamp was not very big, it was loaded with wogs and they were thicker in the shallow parts where there was more foliage. I stuck my hand in the middle of a school. I could feel their little tails fluttering against my skin and their soft round bodies swimming between my fingers. I scooped up a handful. They looked like perfectly round holes with kite tails fluttering behind them. I filled the bag downstream and stood quietly as Debby and Tom filled the screen and dumped the wogs into the bag. We lost half the wogs in the first transfer, but learned not to fill the screen up and didn’t lose any after that. It took about two hours to fill the bag to just under the impossible-to-carry point. It was time to go home.
Debby took the bag and handed me my stave. We walked at a quick clip; over the two-by-four, through the broken fence and up the path. I didn’t have any trouble keeping up. Debby was in the lead, Tom on her left and I on her right. Our pride in our accomplishment rose to great heights when we released the wogs, undetected by any adults, into the plastic wading pool at my and Debby’s house. We stood there, our imaginations running rampant, and watched the black mass undulate through the pool. It would be a frog circus and we would be busy most of the summer training the frogs and catching flies for them to eat. No doubt about it, it was the best pollywogging ever.
The sound of the car horn brought me out of my dream. I quickly grabbed my card from the beeping machine and hurried around the corner to see if I could catch Tom. He was gone. I pulled into the parking place by the mail box. “Where did it all go?” I asked myself. “If only I had realized then that it was the last time we would all be together like that. What would I have done? What could I have done? How could I have known? Where is that little boy with the big brown eyes and the tomboy, bully who was my sister? Where is that little girl with the impossibly thin hair who once possessed the most perfect hunting stave ever?” I put my car into drive and headed home. I drove by the school on my way home, but didn’t go back; I could never go back. It was gone, most of it was a golf course now. Tom drove a Cadillac now. Debby was married and lived on a farm now. Cindy won an award for a play she wrote, but she don’t care about that now–she is writing about Pollywogging.
© 1999 by Cynthia Franks
Does this story need the modern frame or can it stand on its own? I have considered rewriting it as an “episode” of a series with the other stories. As soon as I think of it that way, the structure changes. Thoughts?