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The Big Plan: Preamble

February 24, 2010

One early fall morning a long time ago, a father prepared his young pioneer son for a journey.  The little pioneer boy was to lead his younger brother and sister down and across the valley to the home of a new family preparing for their first winter. The father laid out the items for the eldest boy to carry.  First, a map showed the beginning and ending points of his trip and generally marked the surrounding features such as woodlands, hills, creaks, streams, ridges, and fields.  Next, a medium-sized canvas bag held several books, an assemblage of hand tools, and a sizeable provision of vegetable seeds.  Then, the father placed a loop of rawhide string attached to a rectangular tin box around his son’s neck. The box looked new and the boy had never seen it before. The father eased his son’s curiosity telling him that although the box looked new and he did not know it, the things inside were very old and the boy would surely recognize them if he saw them.  For now the box remained latched with no further instruction.

The little pioneer boy and his younger brother and sister set off.  Early on the path was clear and easy to navigate. At other times, uncertain and difficult.  They traversed gullies, washed out sections, steep inclines, and the eldest was constantly minding his siblings ensuring that they did not lag too far behind or scram too far ahead.  He frequently checked that his cargo was secured:  the map was properly stowed in his jacket; the tools were tightly wrapped; the books remained bundled; and the seeds remained in place. They hiked most of the day and, in the afternoon, the trio heard the far-off sound of rushing water. The more they walked, the louder the sound became, until the path they were on butted up squarely to the swollen stream in front of them. The little pioneer boy had traveled this exact route with his father a couple times each year but never had this lazy section of stream risen above his shins.  He reasoned that the heavy summer rains had caught up with the old stream and now the normally playful, but wide, stream had turned much wider, deeper, and the current was noticeably swifter.

There was no other way across and sunlight was fading. The little pioneer boy again checked the things he carried and held his younger brother and sister, each in one of his hands, and stepped into the stream. Step by step he resisted the unpredictable forces that constantly contoured themselves to his legs and thighs while his brother and sister hung on the upper part of his arms and were spared the full power of the water. As the little pioneer boy’s muscles contracted and he inched his way into the middle of the stream, his brother and sister looked headlong downstream. They seemed excited at the prospect of being freed to tumble aimlessly into the swiftwater that he was fighting so hard against. The little pioneer boy tightened his grip on them and made his way to a large flat rock a few yards away towards the center of the river. He pulled them all onto the rock and they rested.

The little pioneer boy knelt in the center of the rock, exhausted from just a few minutes carving a path through the water. The current was much stronger than it appeared from shore. His younger brother and sister inched their way on their bottoms to the downstream side of the rock and teased the water with their feet. The little pioneer boy looked back towards the near side of the river, from where they had just crossed, and first noticed the bulging water climbing up the trunks of trees. Looking to the far side, he saw that the distance was four times that which they had just come. Whole trees that had been uprooted upstream were now piled up on the edges of the water.  Everything within his field of view had either already succumbed or could be seen bending to the will of the river. Trees and shrubs bent and bowed in the direction of the flow. Branch tips stretched down to touch it. The air itself could not resist and charged at his back.

He reached for his map from his jacket pocket. Just then an extraordinary swell of water exploded against the upstream face of the rock, shattering into a million liquid pellets over their heads. He instinctively reached out to his brother and sister, but it happened quickly. As the water landed he could hear his brother and sister’s muffled laughter through the water’s roar. They remained safe on the rock watching what water had not toppled over their heads converge around the backside of their rock. The little pioneer boy unrolled the map between his hands and hunched over it. He scanned the map to identify their location and immediately followed the course of the river from where they were. He started to doubt himself. Should he have tried to cross the stream earlier? Should he have waited further downstream? He worried that they could not turn back. Nor was it an easy feat to progress as he had planned. Maybe floating down the river was indeed the best way to safety.  If they held together tight and kept their feet pointed downstream, they might keep from being wrecked on the rocks. And if they prepared their gear with forethought they might preserve them, too, as they are tossed about in the river.

He opened the canvas bag and inspected the contents in a vain attempt to convince himself they could sustain such a radical change in course.  He had kept the bag from being submerged up to this point and everything inside remained dry and intact. The seed varieties were packaged in separate paper slips and were all tucked inside a large cotton square that was folded twice on itself. They were not weatherproofed but the cloth surrounding them would absorb the first instances of moisture. He reasoned that they if they became saturated it would probably be too time-consuming a task to dry them again and be assured they remained viable. He was encouraged to think that his metal and wooden tools would endure any hostility in the river that he could. There would be a need to thoroughly dry them well afterward so that the metal would not rust and the tool handles would not deteriorate. The books sat flat in the bottom of the bag, bundled with a single leather strap. The books would certainly not fare well after a soaking. The pages would never lay flat again and some words, pages, maybe even entire stories would be washed clean by the water. The little pioneer boy did not easily accept the potential, likely, and certain losses of the things he carried in exchange for the hopeful ease and safety of himself and his younger brother and sister.

Still on his knees, he looked over his brother and sister’s heads towards where the stream continued. He placed his hands out in front of him on the rock and straightened his legs to stand. As he raised himself the thing around his neck swung out from his body and into his field of vision.  He caught it in his hand as he stood and it swung back towards his belly. He clutched the tiny tin box; he had forgotten it since they first left home.  The little pioneer boy was too young to always immediately understand his father’s riddles, as they called them; but he was old enough to know there was a reason for, or an answer to, them. He thought back on what his father told him when he placed the tin box necklace around his neck.

Everything quieted and slowed around him.  The thunderous sound of water smashing against rock and atmosphere moved far into the background. In his periphery, the current rolled by at half-speed. The wind died and fell onto the water. He crouched down on the rock and stayed there a moment. He prayed a small prayer … He felt small … It was in his smallness he began to realize larger truths. He looked over to his little brother and sister.  When his mother and father handed him the youngest children’s hands this morning they did not instruct him to just keep them safe today;  they could have walked circles around the house and been free of danger. It was no small sacrifice to send three of their children away from home this time of year as even small children were very helpful in rural living.  And the tools; he didn’t lug them through the woods only because they were his to call his own.  He was to put them to good use at the new family’s home for a few days to repair, improve, and make new as circumstances required. And the seeds would not be planted for a few more weeks, before the last frost, to ensure an early harvest of certain varieties.  And the books were not for their enjoyment on the trail; they were gifts for the new family, containing useful information on farming and rural living, children’s stories, and a history of the people and events that have made them who they now are.

He stood straight up.  He took the map out of his pocket and unrolled it.  He folded it into an irregular shape and he stuffed into the top of his hat. He cinched the necklace a little tighter so that the tin box fell squarely against his breastplate. He picked up the bag with one hand and with the other motioned for his younger brother and sister as he called them over. By birth, by gift, by providence, he thought. The load of goodwill, help, and opportunity he shepherded were indeed not liabilities to his present situation;  they were the reason. He tethered these thoughts to the dry ground on the far side of the river.

  1. Tim permalink
    February 24, 2010 4:11 pm

    OK, the moral is either a life of service is the only meaningful one; or, helping others is more trouble than it’s worth. What’s in the box?

  2. Biggest Fan permalink
    February 26, 2010 9:38 pm

    Do they make it? What is in the box? You can’t leave me hanging.

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