Well, I just returned from spending the evening in a crane blind. If you've never had that experience, I highly recommend it. There is nothing more invigorating than watching as thousands of cranes, on their yearly migration through our fair state, settle on the Platte River for the night. Just at sunset, the cranes begin to arrive and fly over the area in formations that would make the Blue Angels envious. As the sun sinks below the horizon, and darkness covers the landscape, they settle in a giant mass of birds on the river, where they will remain for the night. There will be 60,000 cranes that pass through the Platte River valley between February and April, and crane watching is as much a sign of impending spring for Nebraska as the first robin.
Now enough pastoral rhapsodizing. Today I have a short story for you about a young girl who gets an unwanted gift, and finds a way to turn it into something she likes much more.
Linda noticed there were only three more presents under the tree. One of them had her name on it, but the other two were for Pete. The tea set was buried deep underneath a pile of fluffy sweaters, ribbons, and skirts. Her mother set the biggest box on her lap with care, urging her not to break anything.
This one was heavy. It obviously was not another bow or skirt, and it was solid enough to be the chemistry set she had asked for. Mom had snorted when she saw that on Linda’s list. “Chemistry is for boys”, is all she said.
Linda waited as Pete carefully unwrapped his next present. Being too eager could lose a child their presents, as she had learned the year before when Mom snatched a gift right out of her hand because she began to open it before Pete had finished admiring his gift. It was alternate in this family – one, then the other, then back to the first. Now was Pete’s turn, and all attention was on him.
Pete’s grin turned to a sour frown as he pulled out the chemistry set, exactly like the one Linda had asked for. Pete hated science, and wanted a football helmet. Instead, he was holding what looked to him too much like school to be fun. Linda’s excitement grew when she realized that the box in her lap was exactly the same size and shape as the one Peter had just unwrapped. She forced herself to restrain herself until the moment her mother told her it was her turn.
As soon as Mom nodded at her, Linda ripped the shiny red wrapping paper without neatness or concern for where it landed. She pulled out the box, ready to jump up and down in excitement, but it wasn’t her chemistry set. It was…she wasn’t sure what it was. She turned the box over, staring at the words “punch bowl” written on the side. What was a punch bowl? There was a picture, showing some big glass bowl with a fancy glass ladle. What was it for? This wasn’t a toy, it wasn’t something a nine-year-old could use.
Mom was so excited she could hardly contain herself. “Isn’t it beautiful?” she shrieked. “It’s for your hope chest!”
“I…I don’t have a hope chest”, Linda whispered, trying not to show her disappointment.
“You do now.” Mom pointed to the doorway. Dad was holding a big wooden box he had just “fetched from the garage”, as he explained.
“I made it just for you.” Dad beamed, proud of his accomplishment. He wasn’t really very handy with tools.
Linda looked in the box; it was empty. The finish was barely dry. She measured the interior with her hands. Now here was something she could get excited about. “It’s perfect!” she shouted. This box was the right size to hold the bug collecting kit her science teacher had given her as a reward for having a 100 percent average. She ran to her bedroom to collect the bug stuff and put it in her new box.
Her bug kit wasn’t where she had left it under the bed. She began to pull things out of drawers and the closet, frantic to figure out where it had gone. Mother was calling from the living room, telling her she needed to return until all the gifts had been opened. She raced into the living room, her face flushed from exertion. “Mom, do you know what happened to my bug kit?”
Mom didn’t answer. She just motioned for Linda to sit on the sofa and wait her turn. “It’s Pete’s turn now”, was all she said.
Peter was removing the wrapping paper in his usual slow, deliberate way, determined to make everyone watch him as long as possible. He pulled out a large cardboard box, and opened it with excitement. He smile disappeared as he pulled out pieces of Linda’s bug collecting kit one at a time. He wasn’t anymore interested in bugs than he was in chemistry. He still wanted a football helmet.
“Mom! That’s mine!” Linda stood and shouted, a method of communication totally ineffectual in their household, unless it was Mom doing the shouting. She stomped her foot for emphasis, but Mom didn’t seem to care.
“Bugs are not for girls. You’ll use your hope chest for linens, towels, and dish ware. Where is that tea set I bought you? We’ll put it in there along with the punch bowl.”
“You mean the tea set wasn’t a toy?” Linda pouted. She hadn’t wanted the tea set as a toy, and she wanted it even less now that it wasn’t a toy. What could she do with a tea set? None of her friends even drank tea.
“Of course not. Why would you think such a nice china tea set would be a toy? Where did you put it?”
Mom searched the pile of stupid frilly clothes that made up the bulk of Linda’s gifts. She found the tea set, holding up the box in triumph. She placed the punch bowl and the tea set in the hope chest, and Dad carried the whole thing to Linda’s bedroom and set it at the end of her bed.
“There. It’ll be there at night when you go to sleep, so you can dream about the boy you’re going to marry.”
Linda pouted. She didn’t see any reason to dream about any boy, because she wasn’t getting married. She was only nine. She wanted to be a scientist, like Mrs. Arnold. She wanted to collect bugs and mix chemicals and get dirt under her fingernails. She turned her back on her mother, and refused to help clean up the living room. When Mom threatened to punish her, she exiled herself to her room, not feeling like she wanted to be part of the family any more.
Pete stomped past her room on the way to his own, carrying the hated chemistry set and bug collecting kit. He dumped them on the floor of his room and was about to stomp on them when Linda rushed in, eager to stop him from ruining the priceless items.
“Why don’t you just give them to me?” Linda thought it was the sensible approach.
“What’ll you give me?” Pete glared at her. “I don’t want your stupid Christmas presents. You ain’t got nuthin’ I want.”
Linda had to admit he was right. She didn’t even have anything she wanted. If Mom had given her a football helmet for Christmas, she could have made a trade, but Pete was no more interested in the punch bowl and tea set than she was, and he would be laughed out of school if he wore the frilly bows and skirts she had dumped on her bed. She persuaded him to stash the science items in his closet until she could figure out a way to claim them for herself.
School started as soon as the New Year arrived, and Linda still had not come up with an answer. She clustered in the hall with her best friends, Debby and Susan, and told them what her mother had done. Debby was a ferocious little girl, calling herself a “feminist”. When Linda asked her what that meant, she had explained that she didn’t want to be a woman when she grew up, because women weren’t allowed to do anything fun. Susan was more cautious, but still not interested in the girly stuff Linda’s mother pushed. Their interest in science and math had brought them together, and now they formed a solid line of resistance against all the teachers and fellow students who tried to tell them they had to act “like girls”.
Debby had a plan. She whispered to the other two girls as they coordinated activities, and planned a commando raid on the school gym. “We’ll get a football helmet, and you can trade that to Pete for the chemistry set and bug kit.” Susan and Linda agreed, though Susan made them promise they wouldn’t do anything too dangerous.
When the bell rang to signal the end of the day, the three girls hid under the benches in the auditorium. They waited until everyone had gone, their watches synchronized to make sure they all had the same time, even though they were all hiding underneath the same bench. They giggled and whispered as they waited, and loudly shushed each other every time a footstep signaled that someone was coming.
After what seemed like hours, but was only really 45 minutes according to their watches, the school was empty. The three girls crept from their hiding places and stood in the aisle of the empty auditorium. It was spooky being in the school when no one else was there. They spoke in whispers, even though there was no one to hear.
Slipping out of the auditorium, they crept along the hallway, their backs pressed against the wall, until they reached the gymnasium. Debby slipped the door open, and motioned the others to follow. “I know where Coach keeps the key”, she announced, and found the prize possession easily even in the darkened room. Seconds later, they had the prized helmet in their possession, and were racing down the hall, forgetting the caution that had moved them so slowly toward the gym.
Susan skidded to a halt as she crashed into a teacher locking the classroom door, ready to leave for the day. The other two girls slid in behind her, narrowly missing the teacher, so shrouded in the darkness of the windowless hallway that they weren’t sure she – he? – was really there.
“Whoa, there, girls, what is all the rush?” Mrs. Arnold reached for Susan, who had fallen on impact, and helped her to her feet.
Debby stuck the forbidden helmet behind her back. “Nothing, Mrs. Arnold”, she said. “We just…we were just…reading…and didn’t realize school was over. We wanted to get out before we missed the bus.”
“The bus left more than 30 minutes ago. Now tell me the truth.”
Linda stepped forward. “It’s my fault, Mrs. Arnold. They were only trying to help me.” Breaking down in tears, she explained what they had done, and why they were stealing a football helmet from the school gym. She held out her wrists. “Arrest me, but…they’re innocent.”
Debby stepped forward, her wrists extended for handcuffs. “I’m not. It was my idea. I showed them where the key was. Take me, too.”
Susan looked from one of her friends to the other, not sure what she should do or say, but friendship overcame her normal caution. “Put me in the cell, too. I didn’t have to help.”
Mrs. Arnold looked at the three young faces turned up to hers, earnest in their fear and repentance, and terrified at the idea of going to jail. “I don’t think we need to make an arrest”, she said. “Just…give me the helmet.”
Debby handed the helmet over, and Linda watched her dreams disappear back into the school gym. The three girls trailed behind Mrs. Arnold as she strode back to the classroom. The girls lined up in desks in front of her, ready to be denounced as thieves and liars, and expelled from school…or at least from science class…forever.
“Girls, I can’t condone what you did, but I can understand what made you do it. When I was your age, I assumed by 1969, we would have all the rights as women to do what we wanted, and no girl would ever have to go through the humiliation I did. Yes, Linda, a similar thing happened to me. Oh, it wasn’t a punch bowl, or a hope chest. It was high heels and make up, and my mother ordering me to stop climbing trees. I was lucky, because my Dad supported me, and I was able to follow my dreams. It sounds like you don’t have anyone but your friends to support you.”
Linda shook her head. “Pete would give me the stuff, but…he won’t give it for nothing.”
“That seems fair enough. After all, the chemistry set was his Christmas present. But…why did your mother take away something I had given you? That hardly seems fair to give your reward to your brother.”
Linda nodded. Finally, someone understood. “But I don’t have anything to give him, Mrs. Arnold. He doesn’t want anything I have.”
Mrs. Arnold motioned to the girls to follow her. She locked the door and led them out of the school to where her car was waiting. “You need someone to drive you home” was all she said. The girls piled into her car, still scared that she would tell their parents what they had done. “I just have one stop to make on the way home, if you don’t mind waiting.”
The girls indicated that they were okay with waiting, and Mrs. Arnold stopped at a small cottage a couple of miles from the school. “Wait here”, she told them and disappeared into the house.
When the teacher returned, she was carrying a football helmet. Linda wanted to jump out of the car and grab it, but she was still working on trying to control her eagerness. A real scientist doesn’t rush at things, she reminded herself. A real scientist makes a plan and works to make it happen. She waited in the back seat of the car.
Mrs. Arnold dropped off Debby first, then Susan. She invited Linda to join her in the front seat of the car. When they were about a block from the house, she handed Linda the football helmet. “Give this to Pete” was all she said.
“I…thank you, but…I can’t…take your football helmet”, Linda stammered, not sure why this amazing woman had a football helmet in the first place.
“I want you to have it. My son left it behind when he went off to college, and he isn’t using it anymore. I’d love knowing that your brother has it, and that Mark’s helmet helped you get your science things back.”
Linda leaped out of the car when it pulled in the driveway, the helmet dangling from her fingers. She stopped long enough to thank Mrs. Arnold for driving her home, for giving her the helmet, and for not telling her parents what she’d done. Then she raced into the house, where Pete was more than happy to make the trade. They locked fingers, and made a pinky swear to never tell their parents. Linda shoved the punch bowl and tea set into the back of her closet, and installed her science things into her hope chest. “Now it’s a proper hope chest”, she thought. “I can go to sleep at night and dream of the science I’ll do some day.” Pete helped her hide the detested hope chest items, and swore he keep her secret if he had to die.
Linda stood by the grave of her beloved brother. For thirty years, he had faithfully kept their secret. For the first time, she had shared with someone what happened all those years ago, in a eulogy that left her and the audience in tears. She placed the battered football helmet beside the equally battered chemistry set in the grave, and watched as they laid the first shovel full of dirt. When her father finally pulled her away, she returned to her lab, and fulfilled her last promise to him. With the hammer Peter left her as a legacy, she smashed the hated punch bowl into a thousand pieces.