The Pond Builder's Son
It was a hot Saturday morning in July when Mr. Willie Thrift pulled into the driveway and parked his pickup truck in the shade of the big oak tree out front. I was working in the red storage building, double doors propped open to try and capture a breeze, when I saw our chocolate Labrador retriever, Maggie, racing around, jumping up for a look into the passenger side of the truck. A child wearing a cap peered out. Ah. That explained Maggie’s manic dance of joy.
The small boy under that red baseball cap opened the door, got down from the truck, and stood quietly by the cab, petting Maggie, patiently waiting while Willie talked on his radio phone. It was impossible to see the boy’s face at first, so adept was he at keeping the bill ducked.
I walked over to the truck and said good morning to them. Willie introduced the boy. “This is my son, Walt. Say hello to Miss Beth.”
The cap tilted upward for a quick moment as Walt said “Hello,” but it quickly tilted down again.
My husband, Buck, came out and the four of us walked to the recently cleared area of ground southwest of our home expansion site. Willie sent his son back to the truck for an auger. “Yes, sir,” said Walt, and headed back to the truck to fetch the tool. The long wooden handle with its metal scoop was longer than the boy. He half carried, half dragged the tool to his father.
Willie pushed the auger into the ground, pulling up a sample of soil to see if it was heavy enough to hold water. Then, in a serious, business-like gesture, he handed the auger to the young boy. Walt dropped to his hands and knees, turning the auger in the hole with some effort. He brought it up, shook his head, bumped the sandy soil out onto the ground, and went back for another bite, then another, until the auger handle was level with the ground. “Too sandy, Daddy,” he said. “We’ve got to look for another place.”
Buck and I exchanged glances, impressed and moved by the father-son relationship we were witnessing, and also with the poise and natural grace of this seven-year-old boy.
The four of us ambled along, following a downward slope toward the fire line and a wet area in the land contour we call a head.
As Willie and Buck walked and talked, Walt wandered off a few yards, exploring. Within minutes, he had discovered a large gopher tortoise den. As I came over to see what he was looking at, the red cap tilted way up and Walt began to speak, an enthusiasm and love for the woods and the creatures of the woods overcoming any residual shyness.
Walt and I spent the next hour walking a parallel course with Buck and Willie, talking about trees and the interesting ways in which they grow. “Look at that one,” he said. “It started out as two trees, then twisted all together, then separated again, and then later twisted together again. See?” We stood in companionable silence, admiring nature’s mystery and wonder.
As we walked, Walt always had one eye on the ground, sometimes reaching down and touching it with the flat of his hand, feeling for moisture, sometimes sticking his finger or a stick into the ground to see what was just beneath the surface.
He told me there are a lot of gopher tortoises on his family’s farm, along with many deer, wild turkeys and even some wild hogs. They keep a little orphan goat within their circle of care. He knows where wild things make their homes, how to read tracks and interpret the meaning of broken twigs. He can't identify all berries yet, and asked me about a tall bush with plump blue-black berries on it. “Are those blueberries?” he asked me. “They look like blueberries, but it’s a little bit late. . .” I ventured. “Well, only one way to find out.” I took one and popped it into my mouth. Bitter! I spat it out and, looking at Walt, said “S’cuse me! Oh, man, I don't think I poisoned myself, but I sure do want to go and brush my teeth!”
That red cap came up; Walt looked me full in the face, and bestowed upon me the most dazzling smile. In that moment, we became friends.
Rejoining Willie and Buck, we all agreed on the spot for our pond. It will take advantage of the natural contours, low places and water flows, and will meander in a wavy long shape more than a round or oval one.
“C’mon, buddy, it’s time to go,” Willie said as Walt and I were deep in discussion about beetles and their carapaces. I stopped off at the house to get him a root beer in a bottle with a cup of ice for the road. When I handed him an old fashioned opener to pop the top, that red cap came up again, and he reached for the opener with a quiet eagerness. I held the bottle while he figured out how the opener worked, and then applied it to the bottle, the cap prying up with a satisfying “whoosh.”
I spoke to Willie as he was about to get in the truck. “Walt is welcome to come back anytime,” I said.
“Oh, he'll be back.” Willie smiled a slow smile that looked a lot like Walt’s. “Where there’s pond building going on, that boy has got to be there. We'll see you again, soon.”
Elizabeth Westmark lives near Pensacola, Florida. Four of her stories were published in the book Digital Dish: Five Seasons of the Freshest Recipes and Writing From Food Blogs Around the World. She is currently working on a book of essays from The Sanctuary at Longleaf Preserve.