Issue 9 :: Summer 2007 
Avatar Review

John Michael Cummings

The Cannon

Even Mom was surprised when Dad got a bulldozer. A genuine Caterpillar with a huge front blade, just like the kind used in “The Fighting Seabees.” This one might have been as old. One of the tracks was broken, and there were hydraulic leaks everywhere. It was just about the biggest exception possible to his no power tools rule.

We came to the mountain one afternoon to find Charley Newton blocking our lane with his flatbed truck; this massive, battered up bulldozer sitting on the back like a captured rhino. The bed of the truck tilted back, and this tired old machine rattled and creaked backward until resting on the ground. The deal was, if Dad could fix it, he could use it for whatever he needed, as long as he needed.

He started tinkering with it, and it took some time just to get it up and running. With a lot of electrician's tape and hose clamps, he patched together the hydraulics, but to fix the track, he had to order a part from Illinois. That took nearly three weeks to come. But soon after that, the bulldozer, creaking and clanking and blowing black smoke everywhere, was rolling over our roads like a war machine. Just the weight of it left deep belt tracks in the road, and just the weight of the blade scraped deep into the ground.

“William, are you sure about this?” Mom asked, looking worried.

Dad was sure. He looked ready to destroy the world with it. And we were sure, too. Dad lowered the blade here and there, skimming rough sections of the road flat. In seconds the blade pushed up more dirt than we could shovel in half a day. In other places, he rolled the bulldozer right through the woods, mashing down or pushing through every living thing. One hit by the blade shuddered smaller trees right out of the ground. We ran ahead of it just to watch dirt pile up against the blade. My brothers and I were devil-eared with joy. Destroy everything, yeah. Not that Dad had gone crazy. But he didn't have the time or the patience anymore for manual tools. He wanted the big, powerful stuff.

All the noise brought Rusty Clackford down the road, as deaf as he was. He teetered along faster than we had ever seen him go, his mouth dropped open. He had owned our land at one time. Then he sold it to us, but remained as curious as ever about whatever we doing to it.

Following along as best he could, he was all worked up with worry, but nobody was telling him what was going on. Nobody knew. Dad looked possessed.

Our other neighbors Hank and Dink Powell came over, too, just in time to see Dad take on the creeks. With the bulldozer, he gouged them out, pushing silt, water, minnows, all downstream. The big, dripping blade busted up roots as thick as rain pipes. My brother Jerry whined a little about this. Said Dad was killing the "ecology." He was old enough to know big words like that. But as muddy as Dad made the creeks, fresh water rushed back in, with more leaves and insects, and the creeks were themselves again, only cleaner and deeper and wider. Where Dad dozed away abandoned beaver dams, we put up rock dams in their place. Those were fun to build. We slammed flat rocks down into the water, showering each other and killing water skippers at same time. Meanwhile, below the footbridge, Dad began bulldozing a hole some distance from the creek.

For days, he went around and around on the bulldozer, making a perfect bowl in the earth. The hole grew and grew. It looked like a crater on the moon. We ran down into it, our feet sinking into the soft ground. At first, the big hole was so incredible that we didn't wonder what it was for. So much of what Dad did had no reason behind it anyway. I hoped it would swallow up every junk car on our land.

Rusty came every afternoon and watched from a stump.

“What's all this?” I heard him say to Dad, waving his arm at the big hole.

Dad sat up on the bulldozer, shirtless, his pistol in his back pocket. “My pond, Rusty,” he said.

“Pond?” Rusty looked at my father as if he had no brains left in his fool head. “We never went diggin' around, messin' things up,” he said.

Dad shifted his rhino into gear and rumbled away, and Rusty turned to me, as if I knew. I stood there, leaning against my digging iron. I saw sweat on his forehead. He had not sweated in thirty years. Eventually he went back to his stump and looked on. He sat there for hours.

Mom came by every few days, out of curiosity.

“How much deeper?” she asked.

“As deep as it takes,” was Dad's answer every time.

Rusty was watching, too, his red eyes stuck on the dozer plowing around and around.

“Has he been here every day?” Mom asked me.

Everybody was asking me questions. I nodded.

“Must be upsetting to him, poor old soul.”

Sometimes I sat and watched, too, from my own stump. It was spell-casting, the big caked-up machine going around and around the inside of the biggest soup bowl the world had ever seen. Already you could hide a house in it.

A couple of times Dad became so absorbed in pushing dirt that he nearly tipped the monstrosity over on himself. The front end pitched down to one side, and he yanked on a lever, titling the mother the other way, barely in time. Then he looked around at us with an excited face. It was the only time he ever looked at us other than with a stern expression.

The deeper he went, the darker the earth became. Rich, moist soil turned under our feet as we ran around the sides. And when we ran down to the bottom, the rounded black walls rose and wound around us until we lost sight of the land and saw only the tops of trees over the sky. At the bottom, we were well below the trash-line of a Hard Hollow. No milk jugs and baby food jars down here. We were in another geologic time. Pre-Hard Hollow.

Then one afternoon, a clattering started under the front end. From just a cotter pin breaking, the great metal rhino sat with her head down in the mud, deep in the crater, for two days, while we squirmed under her with hydraulic jacks and heavy crowbars and pipe wrenches, rigging her up.

No sooner than we got her up and running--clank! Dad started shouting from high in his seat. Upturned ahead of the blade was what appeared to be a pipe.

“Sewage line?” Jerry said, as we all heaved on the end of it, to try to pry it out of the ground.

Dad was quick to hop off the dozer and join us.

“Shit, no, Jerry,” he said, rapping on the side of it, “there's no sewage line back.” He stood up straight. “Wait a minute here now.” He rapped once or twice more and looked at us as if the bottom had fallen out of the earth.

Jerry rapped on the heavy tube-shaped thing himself, pretending to be an expert.

“A drainpipe?”

“No, feel that,” Dad said. “That's cast iron. If it's what I think it is?”

He tried to scrape away the encrusted mud with his fingernail, but it was too hard. He would need a wire brush.

My other brother Robbie shot up the slope of the crater and disappeared over the rim. Dad was already running his hands around the end of it, trying to clear away the mud, but it was rock-hard, too. He would need a hammer, too, and something to cover it up with.

When Jerry started yelling up to Robbie to bring back a hammer and a tarp, Dad let out a “Shh!” and Jerry shrank back.

“If this is what I think it is,” Dad said, “be damn quiet, Mister.”

So Jerry scrambled up the slope himself to get what else we needed. My father looked at me. If he wasn't mistaken, this was some type of muzzle-loading cannon. A Civil War cannon, maybe a 100-pounder. American Revolution type.

“Get up there and see if Rusty's still there,” he told me. “Don't let him see.”

I climbed out. Rusty had left. But I saw Jerry dragging the bright blue tarp we kept for special things. Against the brown ground, it looked as if Jerry had torn a piece of the sky down like a curtain.

“Shit, not this,” Dad cussed when he saw it. “What'd you trying to do, let the whole world see?” He sent Jerry back up for burlap sacks. “I'll have the whole damn National Park Service on my land if anybody finds out,” he said. Every damn authority on cannons from Richmond to Albany, he said, would be traipsing around.

Jerry came back a second time before Robbie had even found a wire brush, and we wrapped the dirt-caked cannon in burlap. Then, from the rim of the unfilled pond, we threw logs and brush down on top of it, then tied the whole mess together with a length of cable. We worked like a salvage team, hitching up the cable and making sure the load was secure. With the bulldozer, we dragged the strange bundle up the hillside to the safety of the junkyard. The whole ride up, Dad, from his perch on the machine, kept looking around at the trees, worried that someone was spying. He gestured for us to run ahead and start clearing a spot where he told us.

My brothers and I threw the roofing tin aside, making one hell of a racket that fortunately Dad couldn't hear over the rumbling of the bulldozer.

“Don't you all whisper a word of this,” he said, as we untied the cable and the mess flattened out on the ground. “It'll be the end of your father's land if you do, that's for damn sure.” The Park Service would dig up the whole area, he said, looking for more Civil War artifacts, turn the whole place into one big archaeological dig. Not one word. He made each us promise.

He looked around again. He'd have to be careful now who he let back here. Maybe he should put up a gate after all, as Dink said. He worried about the pond, too. What else was down there? What might float up over time? Also, had Rusty seen anything?

Maybe he should put the damn cannon back. He could bury it again where he found it. What bad luck, finding a Civil War artifact on his land. He'd have to tell our mother, too. How would she ever keep her mouth shut?

That evening, we stacked and heaped so much junk on top of the old cannon, from a base of mule manure to a topping of file cabinets, that only the creature from the center of the earth could come out of there. Dad even had us push an old wrecked car in front of the conspicuous heap to hide it.

The next evening, Rusty intercepted Dad on the road.

“Still diggin?” he asked my father. He was a crazed old man, his feelings for the land unearthed by all the bulldozing.

“Nothing but earth down there, Rusty,” Dad said, I thought, suspiciously.

He got rid of Rusty by looking at the sky and saying it would rain, and by standing there until Rusty looked puzzled and left.

By brush fire, Dad worked late into the night, dozing a channel out to the creek. Meanwhile, my brothers and I dug a hole in the bank on the far side of the pond, for an overflow pipe. Some time before midnight the water started flowing in. The pond would fill now. Whatever other secrets were down there would be filled over forever.

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