As best I recall it was a Friday near noon in midsummer, a work day (important point), when the wooden hand-cranked telephone jangled in my grandparents’ hall. Grandmother handed me the earpiece with a sour look and stalked back to the kitchen. It was Bobby calling to say, You gotta come down here. He wouldn’t tell me what the deal was, but it had to be something. I could hear it in his voice. You won’t believe it, he said, and momma and daddy aren’t home.
He had phoned three or four of us. We set out on bikes down the street, rounding up strays on the way. Nearly everybody we knew lived on a half mile of ramshackle houses along the railroad that constituted the right side of the tracks in Riceville, Tennessee, Pop. 401. Across the railroad ditch were low dark houses presided over by a kid who ran up and down the tracks all day shaking his hands and foaming at the mouth. I was a city boy, in Riceville on visits to my grandparents.
Bobby was thirteen and a friend of my older brother’s since Bobby beaned my brother on the head with a sledge hammer. It was a famous incident. Mostly Bobby hung out with younger kids, so he could lord it a little. He was stringy with a big adam’s apple and a crew cut. We all had crew cuts, except for the boys with the flat fuzz called a burr, and in summer we wore t-shirts and rolled-up bluejeans. Bobby’s father was my grandfather’s best friend. My Grandmother considered Bobby’s family ignorant and uppity and had ranted about them for as long as I could remember.
We dropped our bikes in Bobby’s front yard and ran around back of the house. Sure enough, you could hardly believe the sight. It was a pile of new lumber, gleaming gold and smelling sweet in the sun. Next to the lumber sat a bucket of nails. Bobby was posing in the yard with a proud grin, brandishing a hammer.
The wood was intended for repairs to the barn, I guess. We never found out. It had been delivered by a truck that morning, to Bobby’s amazement and jubilation. To us it was a summons to glory. What are we going to do all with this stuff? Bobby asked. We gazed at the lumber, cloudy endeavors forming in our minds.
Oh man, let’s build us a tank, Jimmy said. The conception dazzled us. A tank! It was a natural. A damn tank as big as, as—as a tank!
Hot-O-Molly, said JR, that’s what we’re gonna do. This was way better than shooting snakes down to the creek, possibly even more fun than blowing up dead cats with cherry bombs in the railroad ditch. And here was the brilliant part: We’d paint our tank to look like iron or whatever they make tanks out of, and we’d mount it on bicycles! On six bicycles! With awe, each in our secret hearts, we imagined the great weapon floating down the street, transcending the crumbling houses, all of us invisible inside, some of us pedaling, others aiming the turret with the big gun. It would be the wonder of Riceville.
Bobby disappeared into the screened back porch and after some crashing around started pitching tools into the yard. We swarmed onto the stack of lumber, grabbing whatever we conceived to be part of the plan–ten-foot pine planks, slats, two-by-fours, fat sheets of plywood–and threw everything down onto the grass.
A fury of hammering and sawing broke out in the noonday sun. From the barn door a cow watched us, eyes big with bovine alarm. Frantically we nailed boards to boards, slats to plywood, expecting everything would coalesce into the great design. Now and then a scream would arise, somebody’d go jumping and cussing around the yard clutching his thumb. Whaling at a plank next to me, his tongue protruding in concentration, was a big kid–stumbly, thick eyeglasses, drooled some, always last to be picked for a team. We called him Useless. He didn’t mind, as long as he was in the game. Just now Useless appeared baffled by the problem of finding a nail with a hammer, but he gave it everything he had.
In the middle of pounding stuff into a frame for the bicycles, or something, I looked up to see Bobby toting an eight-foot four-by-four across the yard. This’ll be the gun, he said. He kneeled and began sawing at it viciously. For a moment I wondered about the verisimilitude of a square gunbarrel.
After a while Bobby stood up and declared, We’ve got to get organized. Nobody paid him any attention. We kept hammering and sawing. The wood pile was getting smaller, flowing across the lawn in wildcat configurations. Bobby said again, We’ve got to get organized. Stopping to wipe the sweat from our brows we agreed, in principle, but we were too busy to think about it. After that Bobby kept quiet, and we minded our work.
Maybe an hour passed industriously. Another quarter hour, less so. It was a boiling midsummer day in the South and weapons building is hot work. The cow had disappeared into the barn for a while but now she was back at the door, watching. Finally the bam-bam-plink of missed nails and the hoarse rasping of saws petered out and we stood up, sweaty and speckled with sawdust. Around the yard half the lumber had been manhandled into crazy angles, hammer-pocked wood banged together with bent nails.
We were tired, and dimly into our heads had entered the conception that maybe it wouldn’t be so good to be around when Bobby’s daddy got home. We decided to call it a day. We agreed that we’d made a fine start on our tank, and would convene again soon to finish it up. All right, Bobby said. It’s gonna be a really great tank, said Useless. Bobby didn’t say anything else. He was looking kind of sick all of a sudden.
We edged around to the front of the house and picked up our bikes and departed, hastily. From the distance the cow gave a long lonely moo. We waited all next week for Bobby to call us to come down and finish the tank. He didn’t call, and nobody saw him for a while. We never found out what his parents did when they got home. Somebody said they thought they heard Bobby in the back yard, pulling nails out of boards and crying.
Then, 45 years. We went our ways. Names and faces have drifted apart, but I seem to recall Bobby is a lawyer, the next town over. Useless runs a feed store and for a while was mayor of Riceville. Jimmy and JR went to Vietnam. Jimmy came back. And I sit all day at pianos and computers, my mind full of forests and mountains, peregrine falcons, Vienna, the Rhine. I think about that day a long time ago, and the nature of creative ambition. I might ask of a given endeavor, Is this a wooden tank on bicycles?
My generation grew up with a mythology that ran, You wish hard enough for anything to happen, and, Lo, it will happen. In the course of years you learn that, for most of us, most of the time, Lo, it will not. So you have to work to remember what children understand by nature, as a matter of divine inspiration: no matter what, to sustain our bit of briefly mobile earth, dreams are worth dreaming.