The Curt Series

Chapter 1

 The Cistern

I grew up with a childhood friend, going back to third grade, called Curt. He had a younger sister, Laura, who was usually part of the grade school capers. There were lots of things I could talk about from those times, and I’ll pare them down in the following weeks, but here’s the first one.

Curt was a firebug of the less-than-first order. He happily took on the chore of burning the family’s trash (yes, American families burned trash back then), and he would set off all kinds of little fires in different places. He was fascinated by fire. He never got so careless that it spread and burned down a garage or anything. Not as far as I know.

Curt’s back yard had a cistern, or an outmoded underground chamber for storing water, with a manhole cover at yard level. A number of neighbors did as well, including our house. I never did know the real reason for them or how they’d been used. Didn’t think about it. It was just something that a bunch of people had in their back yards.

Now and then, as we played in his back yard, we would look down the narrow opening of the manhole cover. We never could see what was down there. We couldn’t even tell how deep it was. It could’ve been a Jules Verne entrance to the center of the earth for all we knew. But the lid was bolted down, with the cover set in concrete.

But Curt was a firebug, and that’s where his strategy started, so he got the idea of lighting a fire in the bottom of the cistern so we could see what was down there in the secret, dark, hidden depths.

So one fine weekend day, the morning sun gazed down on Curt, Laura, and I, gathered around the cistern cover, about 10 or 15 feet from the back door of their house. I can still remember Curt gurgling some gas down through the finger-hole in the cover, down into the unseen darkness below. And then in my mind’s eye, which I believe to be accurate, he holds up a lighted match. Then he paused.

“Do you think it’ll explode?” he asked.

I was older than Curt, and with the wisdom of my two years of extra life, but unfortunately not knowing a thing about vapor expansion and flame propagation, I shrugged and said, “If it does, there’s no one down there to know about it.”

We crowded around the little peephole, and he dropped the match in. I remember seeing a sudden flame.

Then whooooshh!!! wham-kabang!!! and the manhole cover blew into the air, then fell back down into place, more or less, with a rattling clang. Leaning over where the cover had until now nestled so firmly, I felt a rush of warm air over my hands and face. My first thought was, “My hands and face are burned black,” and I really believed it. I looked at the back of my hands, which were perfectly normal, then thought, “The blast went over your palms, you idiot,” and slowly turned my hands over, fearing the worst. They were normal too. I felt my face. Seemed fine, with no blackened flakes of skin falling off or anything.

I don’t remember what Curt or Laura did or said at the time, being somewhat distracted by my own crisped-up possibilities. But we recovered our senses and looked at the manhole cover and the shattered concrete that up till now had anchored the cover in place, and we were consumed with the fear of getting in serious trouble. We were always in trouble, so just simple trouble didn’t bother us. But getting in serious trouble with serious consequences had to be avoided at all costs.

But there didn’t seem to be a way out of this one. We reassembled the concrete pieces, placed the cover back on, and we all went to our respective homes, unhappy, fearing the worst when this felony came to light.

As it turned out, and to my eventual shame, we ducked the crime entirely. Curt and Laura’s mom had a habit of backing the car up over the yard close to the back door to make unloading groceries easier. Apparently, when their father finally noticed the assembled jigsaw puzzle of the broken concrete loosely holding the metal cover in place, he berated her for running the car over the cistern cover and breaking it up. She had no basis for denial, and she never found out the truth until after their dad had passed, in our adult years, when Laura finally ratted us out. Their mom still gives me righteous grief for living the lie for all those years, and she’s entirely right to do so.

Looking back at it, if you think of a combustion chamber in a car’s engine, that little spark with that little amount of gas working to move that little piston is powerful enough to propel a ton or more of metal, rubber, plastic, and the mortal coil with its luggage. Back at the cistern, in all-too-real terms, we’d just ignited a combustion chamber that was many times that automobile chamber’s displacement, with the manhole cover being the bottom of the piston, of sorts. It’s a wonder that we weren’t decapitated or scattered into a few different neighboring yards or something.

It should or could have been a memorable lesson to us that, indeed, you can kill yourself with things around the house.

But really, it wasn’t.

(Next: Jumps and Rungs.)

— Grandpa


  1. Julie Knutti says:

    Love the look back to childhood memories

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