Monday, October 29, 2012

Model ET

They say the advantage to being a grandparent is that the kids go home before you get tired of them. “They” are wrong about plenty in my experience, but not about this.

My daughter Valerie dropped the boys off this evening on her way to the town hall. She was going to one of those public meetings where everyone interferes in each other’s business. She has firm opinions on things like how tall her neighbors’ fences should be and how often they cut the grass. Those same neighbors in turn like to tell their neighbors how to live. MYOB isn’t a big sentiment these days the way it was when I was a youngster.

You know, I never once mowed a lawn as a boy and certainly never asked permission to put up a fence. My brother and I cut hay in the fields, if that counts as cutting grass. The goats and sheep kept everything down around the house. There are rules nowadays about owning goats and sheep, too.

Val always acts worried she is making a mistake when she leaves the boys with me for a couple hours, but she does it at least once a week anyway. Tonight she told me not to infuse the boys with any of my funny ideas. I’m not sure what she meant by that. Val never used to give her mom the same warning, so I presume her ideas weren’t funny. Well, I guess we both miss her mom.

It has been hard on Valerie going it alone like she’s done ever since Robert left her. Or maybe she kicked him out. I never got the story straight. It’s for the best either way. He drank too much.

Val named the boys Ayden and Brayden, which makes them sound like twins, but they’re not. They are eleven and twelve. I’m betting that if there’s a third he’ll be Cayden.

The boys are pretty typical of brothers born a year apart. They compete for everything. The younger tries harder because he’s usually at a disadvantage. They disagree almost as a matter of principle. When Ayden says yes, Brayden will say no. Even when they both like something, they find some way to like it differently. Both are fond of dinosaurs, for instance, but Ayden prefers Tyrannosaurus Rex while the other champions Allosaurus. I guess that makes a kind of sense.

They both like science fiction and UFOs, too, but Ayden believes in flying saucers while Brayden doesn’t. Somehow I thought it would be the other way around. Both watch Star Trek, but one likes Kirk and other the one with the pointed ears. Both are big on the space program. They stayed up to watch the moon landing last month, but one believes Armstrong said “a man” like he claims to have said, while the other insists he messed up and just said “man.”

Anyway, about an hour after Val left for her meeting, the boys started arguing about President Nixon. You might think it was about Vietnam or something, but it wasn’t. Ayden said Nixon shouldn’t have canceled Project Blue Book, while Brayden said it was about time. Ayden asked me what I thought about it. I could see from both their smiles that they were teasing grandpa a little. They didn’t think I would know what Project Blue Book was. I know.

“I figure it won’t hurt to cancel it,” I answered. “The Air Force never was serious about investigating UFOs.”

“Why not?” asked Brayden, surprised and worried that his grandfather might be a UFO conspiracy theorist.

“Some of the ‘explanations’ in Blue Book just don’t make sense. Either the Air Force knows flying saucers exist and is lying to cover up real sightings, or it doesn’t know any such thing and is lying to cover up something else – most likely sightings of its own planes. Regardless, we aren’t getting any useful information.”

“How do you know so much about it?” Ayden asked, genuinely astonished.

“Well, something happened a long time ago that aroused my curiosity about such things. I don’t talk about it much because I figure most people would say I was spinning a yarn or that I was just crazy.”

“I’ll believe you,” Ayden said.

“Me too.”

I hesitated.

“Maybe I’d better save this story for when you two are older. Your mom will say I’m filling you with funny ideas.”

“We won’t tell her!” Ayden insisted.

“Promise!” Brayden agreed.

“Well, OK then. I sometimes hear you two say nothing ever happens in Salina, Kansas, and I don’t suppose much does. Well, even less happened back in 1910 when I was eleven years old.”

“My age!”

“Yes, that’s right Brayden. And if Salina was sleepy, you can imagine what it was like on my pop’s old farm outside of town.

“The world was mechanizing in 1910, but it was happening more slowly around here than in the big cities. Not many folks owned automobiles. Some of the really big spreads in the county had tractors, but we didn’t have one on our farm. We relied on the kind of horsepower with four hooves and an appetite for hay. I‘d heard about airplanes but wasn’t sure I believed in them. Train locomotives were the most impressive machines I’d seen and touched personally. Sometimes my brother Zach and I would play hooky and wait by the tracks in hopes of seeing a train go by.

“Well, one day we were doing just that. We were walking along the tracks when we should have been in school. It was my older brother Zach’s idea. Lately, I had developed reasons not to go with him, but none I could admit to, so I went anyway.”

“What reasons?” Brayden asked.

“Well, I had gotten kind of sweet on a girl.”


“Yeah, I figured Zach would say something like that, too. Worse, actually.”

“Was the girl Grandma?” Ayden asked.

“No, she wasn’t. Her name was Becky Schmitt. School was practically the only place I got to see her, even on Sunday because she was a Methodist. So, I wasn’t as keen to stay away from school as I once had been.

“Anyway, I was there by the tracks with Zach. He pointed at a locomotive plume in the distance and we sat by the tracks to wait for it. It was a long one. We counted cars and waved at the workers and passengers. Some of them waved back. They sometimes mixed freight and passenger cars back then. You don’t see that anymore, and it was rare even in 1910, but this one was mixed.

“After the train passed, we turned to head back home, but a glint caught my eye. Kansas was just as flat then as it is now, but there are some rises and swales here and there that some folks call hills even though they aren’t. Well, one of those rises was next to the track near where we stood. The glint came from a big swale in back of it. Whatever was back there would have been completely hidden from the passengers on the train.

“‘Hey Zach, I see something. Let’s go look.’ I said.

“He was in no hurry to get home, so we walked toward the reflection. What we found surprised us both. Nestled in the swale was a dome that shouldn’t have been there. I’d never seen it before, as many times as I’d been this way. Zach whistled.

“‘Look at that!’ he said.

“‘What is it?’ I asked. ‘Some kind of fancy warehouse or barn? When did they build it? We were out here just last week.’

“‘Maybe we just didn’t see it. We almost missed it this time. This is railroad property, I think, so the company must have built it. But never mind the dome, Tommy. Look what is next to it.’

“Next to the dome was an oblong shape with oversize spherical wheels.

“‘Is it a tractor?’ I asked.

“‘That’s no tractor. That’s an automobile.’

“‘It doesn’t look like one.’

“‘They’re making new fancy models all the time, Tommy. This one must be spanking new. Get down! Someone is there. Don’t let them see us.’

“‘Why not?’

“‘Just don’t.’

“So we dropped to our bellies. The grass was tall enough to give us a little cover. I lifted my head a bit and spotted the movement of two shapes on the rise overlooking the tracks. They were hunkered down, too, as though they wanted to watch the train while staying out of sight. Zach pushed my head back down before I could get a better look at them.

“‘I said stay down!’ he ordered.

So, for the next few minutes I saw nothing but insects crawling around roots. Then Zach took a quick look up.

“‘OK, they’re gone.’

“‘Why don’t we go knock on their door and talk to them?” I suggested. “Maybe they’ll show us the car.’

“‘Or maybe they’ll chase us away with buckshot. More likely in my opinion. I’ve got a better idea. Let’s sneak out after dark and come back. We can look at the car up close then.’

“‘Maybe the car won’t be here tonight.’

“‘Where would it be?’ Zach asked.

“‘I don’t know. It’s a car. It can go places.’

“‘It’s not going anywhere. Or if it does, it will come back. It obviously belongs with the dome.’

“‘What if they put it inside the dome later?’

“‘Then tomorrow we can try your plan of knocking on the door in daylight. C’mon Tommy, don’t you want something to brag about to Becky?’

He caught me off guard with that question. “‘I don’t talk much to Becky,’ I protested.

“‘You talk plenty even with your mouth shut. It’s pathetic, really.’

“I had only a rough notion of the meaning of ‘pathetic,’ but I knew it wasn’t good.

“‘Think she knows?’ I asked

“‘About you mooning over her? Unless she’s blind, deaf, and stupid.’

“‘She’s not stupid. Or those other things.’

“‘Well, there you go, then. So, are you coming with me tonight or am I doing this alone?’

“‘I’ll come.’

“The chores at home seemed to take forever that afternoon and evening, but they really were just the usual. Finally, every last cow was in her stall and every last dinner plate was clean. The night deepened, my mom turned out the kerosene lamps, and Zach and I went to our room.

“We waited until we couldn’t stand it anymore, which is to say less than half an hour. We then tiptoed to the kitchen door. Each step made a plank squeak so loud I was sure we not only would wake my parents, but every cow in the barn and every chicken in the coop. Somehow we slipped out the door unnoticed by man, beast, or fowl, and we headed into the night. It was a long walk to the dome, and I tripped a few times in the moonlight.

“‘We’re almost there,’ Zach said.

“‘You’ve been saying that for the past two miles.’

“‘And I’ve been right. That is the rise right there.”

“We entered the swale and warily approached the dome. There was no movement and no light from any window. In fact, there wasn’t any window. The car was missing.

“‘I told you it would be gone,’ I said. ‘Maybe they put it inside.’

“‘Do you see a door?’

“‘There must be one.’

“‘Let’s see.’

“We approached the dome and circled around it. We didn’t find the door, but we found the car on the far side. The dome had blocked our sight of it.

“‘They moved it,’ I said.

“‘Cars move, Tommy. You said so yourself.’

“I let the sarcasm slide. Up close, the machine looked even less like an automobile. Admittedly I hadn’t seen many. It was silvery in the moonlight with big puffy wheels.

“‘The wheels are big and puffy,’ I said.

“‘You are just observant as all get-out tonight, Tommy. Maybe the wheels are puffy so they can drive over rough ground. What bothers me more is how you see out of it.’

“He was right. There was no windshield or window.

“‘Maybe a window slides open somehow. How you get in it, do you figure?’

“‘The same way you get in the warehouse,’ Zach said.

“‘Very funny.’

“‘These creases might be a door, but there is no handle.’

“Zach slid his finger along one vertical crease on the car. Suddenly two hatch-like doors popped open. One nearly caught me in the chin. Some sports cars have doors like that now. They’re called gull wings. Inside was a bench seat made out of something like vinyl, though I hadn’t yet heard the word. Zach sat on the left side of the seat.

“‘Do you think the owners are in the dome?’ I asked.

“‘Where else would they be?’

“‘Maybe we shouldn’t mess with the car too much. They’ll catch us.’

“‘So we’ll get caught. We aren’t hurting anything. Get in.’

“With some hesitation, I slid into the right side. The bench was soft but it was shaped all wrong.

“‘This would be a great seat if you had four-foot thighs and knees that bent sideways,” I said.

“Zach was feeling around the knobs and buttons in front of him. The hatches closed on us. Two metal columns with handles telescoped out from the dashboard, one column in front of each of us. The whole top of the car then changed from opaque silver to transparent. It was like the bubble-top canopies they put on some airplanes these days.

“‘Whoa. How does that work?’ I asked.

“‘You’ve got me. Maybe there is mercury between two sheets of glass and it drains down.’

“It was a clever guess, though it probably was wrong. The top didn’t feel like glass. But the fact Zach had come up so quickly with a way to make transparency work made me feel better. It seemed less like magic then.

“‘Are these handles on the column for steering?’

“‘They must be,’ Zach said.

“‘Why two sets? Other cars just have one wheel.’

“‘Well, this one has two.’

“‘How do you make it go?’ I asked.

“‘You’re going to have to stop asking me questions. I don’t know any more than you do.’

“Zach experimentally grabbed the handles and pushed on the column. The car lurched forward. Zach pulled back. The car skidded to a halt and started to go backwards. Zach stooped applying any pressure either way. The car stopped.

“‘OK, I think I’ve got it.’

“‘Why is there no engine sound?’

“‘Probably it’s electric. Some buggies are. I saw one in Salina and it was pretty quiet.’

“Zach pushed on the column again and we were off. The puffy wheels smoothed out most of the bumps. Zach picked up speed. There was a good size moon or we never would have seen where we were going. There were no headlights on the car. Or maybe there were, and we just didn’t know how to turn them on. The handles didn’t move on the column, but Zach figured out pretty quickly how to steer. He just squeezed either the right or left handle.

“After a while, I demanded ‘Let me try!’

Reluctantly, Zach stopped the car and let me take over. I drove cautiously until Zach grew impatient.

“‘Let go of the handles. I’ve got an idea,’ he said.

Zach resumed driving. He followed alongside the railroad to where a bend in the river brings it close to the tracks. Just beyond there is a road that crosses the tracks. Zach turned onto the road and accelerated.

“‘Where are you going?’

“‘Relax,’ he said.

“After about 15 minutes I realized where we were. He came to a stop.

“‘So, are you going to go get her or should I?’ he asked.

“‘Her parents will kill us,’ I objected.

“‘Not if they don’t know. I’m trying to do you a good turn, Tommy. Don’t fight it. If you don’t go get her, I’ll tell her tomorrow she missed out on seeing something really special because you were too scared to tap on her window.’

“It was a powerful threat.

“‘How do I get out of the car?’ I asked.

“‘What did I tell you about asking me questions?’

“While fumbling for some kind of handle, I pushed on the door, and it just popped open. I was almost hoping it wouldn’t.

“‘Well?’ Zach prodded.

“‘I don’t know which room is hers.’

“‘Neither do I, stupid, and you should be happy about that.’


“The house was dark. It was one of those one story types, so I crept from window to window and tried to see inside by holding my hands around my eyes against the panes.

“Becky saw me before I saw her. She opened her window and waved me over. This shows the difference between 1910 and 1969 if nothing else does. No girl today would just open a window to someone sneaking around outside her house, but we had a lot more trust then.

“‘What are you doing here, Tommy?’ she asked in a quiet voice.

“‘Come out. I’ve got something to show you.’

“‘What?’ she asked with a squint. Even in 1910 girls harbored a few suspicions.

“‘An automobile.’

“‘I’ve seen cars. What are you doing with one?’

“‘You’ve never seen one like this.’

“‘Can’t you bring it around tomorrow in the daytime?’

“‘No, not really.’

“She considered this.

“‘Wait a minute,’ she said at last.

“While I stood by the window, Becky pulled a robe off the bedpost and put it over her bedclothes. I figured I shouldn’t be watching this, so I turned away. She came back to the window.

“‘Give me a hand.’

“She let me help her out the window, which felt uncomfortably pleasant.

“‘Becky was literally agape as she looked over the car.

“‘Your father bought this?’ she asked

“‘No, not exactly.’

“‘Tommy! Did you steal this?’

“‘Of course not. We’ll return it.’

“‘So you did steal it.’

“‘Borrowed it.’

“‘Come on. Get inside.’ Zach urged.

“‘There is only room for two,’ she objected.

“‘Aw, you can fit in the middle,’ Zach said.

“‘My parents will hear us.’

“‘No, they won’t’ I said. ‘It’s quiet as anything. You didn’t hear us drive up, did you?’

“She paused a moment longer, but then climbed inside. I slid in after her and the door closed by itself. She didn’t seem to mind being squeezed between us two boys.

“Zach pressed the column forward. We accelerated on the road toward the railroad tracks. Becky laughed excitedly.

“‘How does it work?’ she asked.

“‘Electric, we think,’ I said.

“‘No, that’s not what I mean. How do you drive it?’

“Zach stopped and let me show the controls to Becky.

“‘I want to try,’ she said.

“She climbed over the top of me so she could take hold of the column. I slid to the middle. She smelled fresh and lovely, which is a bit surprising considering most of us bathed only once a week.

“She pushed forward on the column and drove even faster than Zach had done. She was doing fine until she weaved a little off the road at the railroad crossing. She hit the rails hard at a funny angle and the car bounced completely off the ground. Becky overcorrected on the handles and when the wheels reconnected with dirt we veered sharply.

“‘Look out for the river!’ I shouted.

“Becky overcorrected twice more. The car fishtailed and slid into the river. It wasn’t that deep, but it was deep enough for the car to float. We drifted downstream until the wheels hit bottom. Becky pushed forward gently and the car drove along the shallow edge of the river. The wheels failed to get enough traction to pull us up onto the crumbly bank.

“Zach said, “‘Let me try.’

“Becky released the controls. Zach worked up some speed along the shallows and then turned into the bank. We bounced up over the top and hit the ground hard. Zach pushed forward and we raced alongside the railroad track.

“‘Go faster!’ Becky demanded.

“I’d never guessed she had such a wild side. She always seemed so reserved in school.

“We were going maybe 60 mph. Maybe more. We were getting close to the rise and the dome.

“‘Let’s get Becky home before we go too near the dome,’ I said. ‘They’ll want the car back.’

“‘Let them try to take it. Besides, Becky can walk home if they do,’ Zach said.

“He was kidding, but Becky wasn’t taking any chances. She grabbed the handles to turn the car around. The two fought for control. They both lost. We hit the rails again and this time the results were bad. The machine vaulted into the air and then nosed down into the earth. The car tumbled rear over front, skidded, and then spun on its top. The ceiling, doors, and dash puffed out to hold us. Good thing, too, or we might have been badly hurt. Once we stopped spinning, all those surfaces pulled away from us and went back into place. The car was upside down, but the seat gripped us so we didn’t fall.

“The tumble alone had been enough to daze us. Zach was the worst. He was drooling. Becky was the least affected.

“‘Get me out of this! You boys got me into this! Get me out!’ she shouted.

“‘If I could I would,’ I said.

“I tried opening the doors but they wouldn’t budge.

“We hung there for a very long time with Becky getting angrier and ruder by the moment. A beam of light outside fell on the car and nearly blinded us, but I couldn’t make out who was holding it. The windows went opaque.

“Becky shouted, “‘Help!’

“‘I’m sure they know we’re in here,’ I said.

“‘My folks will kill me. No,’ she corrected herself, ‘they’ll kill you.’

“‘I hope your parents get the chance,’ I said.

“‘What do you mean?”

“I wasn’t sure what I meant, but I sensed we were in deep trouble.

“There were voices outside the car but the pitch was all wrong somehow and I couldn’t make out any words.

“The car righted itself. It felt as though the tires on one side deflated and the others inflated, which is probably exactly what they did. The seat loosened its grip on us. The door on Zach’s side opened.

“I felt a jolt as though punched in the chest. I figured I had been shot. ‘Goodbye, Becky,’ I tried to say, but my mouth wouldn’t work. I passed out.

Zach woke me up. I was on my back on the grass. The eastern sky was brightening. None of us was injured.

“‘Where’s the car?’ I asked.

“‘More importantly, where’s the dome?” Zach countered.

“It must be there.’

“‘It isn’t.’

“He was right. We were on the rise overlooking the swale and nothing was there.

“‘Was the dome packed away on a train?’ I asked.

Zach shrugged.

“I shook Becky’s shoulder. As soon as she woke she started slapping at me.’

“‘Where is the car?’ she demanded.

“‘We think the owners took it back.’

“She started slapping me again.

“‘It will be daylight by the time we walk back!’ she whined.

“The very long walk was made longer by Becky’s nonstop rebukes. The sun was well up as we approached her house. Becky’s mom was sitting in a rocker on the porch.

“‘Becky, Get in the house!’ she ordered.

“Becky walked past her into the house without meeting her gaze.

“Mr. Schmitt, carrying a shotgun, emerged from the same door. He walked up to Zach and me.

“‘I’ll be keeping this shotgun handy,’ he said. ‘If I need to, I’ll be coming for you. Whichever one of you she says. If she doesn’t say, I’ll pick one myself. Until that day, stay off my land.’

“‘Yes, sir.’ Zach and I both said simultaneously.

“You’d think that, growing up on a farm, I would have understood right then and there what old man Schmitt was saying to us, but I didn’t quite get it until a year or two later.

“The reception Zach and I got at home was only slightly better. Both of us got waled with a switch and had our chores doubled.

“Mrs. Schmitt told Becky not to talk to either of us again. One of the other girls told me this, and seemed to enjoy the telling.

“It was days before I had a chance to revisit the scene of the crime. The spot where the warehouse had been was a brown circle of grass. I found the marks where the car had tumbled. Something reflective winked at me from the grass.”

I picked a small silvery shard off the mantle and handed it to Ayden, who handed it to Brayden, who fingered it and handed it back to me.

“You once asked me what it was,” I told the boys. “I said it was a good luck piece. So it is. It’s a piece of the car that must have broken off when we flipped. I had a chemist look at it a few years ago without telling him how I got it. He wasn’t too impressed. He said it was titanium. But, you know, titanium wasn’t used in cars in 1910. It isn’t used in cars in 1969.

“Well, there isn’t much more to the story. Zach and I were called up for military service in 1917. I failed my physical because of a heart murmur. The doctor must have had a bug in his ear, because no one else ever has heard a murmur in my chest before or since. I didn’t object though. Zach passed his physical. He was happy about it. He said he wanted to see France and this was the only way he ever would.

“Before Zach left for the war he gave me a copy of a book by Mr. Wells called The War of the Worlds. He said I might find it ‘illuminating.’ It was.

“Zach died on the front in November 1918, four days before the war ended.

“Becky never did talk to me again. She married some oaf with a bad temper, and one day she just left him. She left the whole county. I never saw her again.

“I’m sure both of you have some thoughts about the dome. I can’t say for sure what it was, but I do know I’ve never seen that model car again anywhere.”

Just about then, Valerie came in the front door. She was back from the town meeting.

“Grandpa’s been telling us about flying saucers,” Ayden told her, his earlier promise totally forgotten.

“Oh, dad. I asked you not to fill the boys’ heads with nonsense,” she said.

“One man’s nonsense is another man’s wisdom.”

“That’s nonsense, too, dad.”

“Perhaps you’re right. Before you go, I have something for the boys.”

“What is it?” she asked warily.

I went to the bookshelf and withdrew my 1917 copy of The War of the Worlds.

“Let me see that,” Valerie insisted.

I handed it to her.

“Surely you don’t object to them reading a novel. H.G. Wells is a fine author,” I said.

She leafed through the book as though something inappropriate might be hidden inside. She didn’t find it.

“Well, OK,” she said resignedly. She closed the book and held it out to the boys. Brayden snatched it first.

“I think you’ll find it illuminating,” I told them.

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