My best friend while I was growing up in Oxnard was Ernest. His family was from Germany and they had a real long last name that is hard to spell. My family lived on C St., Ernest and his family lived on Magnolia Street where the two streets intersected. His house was around the corner and a few houses away.
Ernest was one year older than me. He was eleven. His brother was named Hugo, and he was nine years old.
Way back then everybody was poor and it took a lot of money to buy toys. Even if we had a few pennies to rub together, there were not that many toys to buy. That left us with only two other alternatives. We could play with air toys, that is to say, imaginary ones. The other thing we could do was make our own toys, which we often did.
After school we would go downtown to listen to the grown-ups talk about the news, especially about the war in Europe. They would gather in front of the newspaper office and out by the telegraph office at the train depot and listen for the latest news. There was no radio, no television, there were hardly any roads. It was still the age of horse and buggies.
Ernest was always coming up with ideas. Among the three of us he was the idea man. He heard the grown-ups talking about submarines and talked us into making one. At the time it sounded like a good idea. The three of us went to the public library and we did some research. We made a drawing and then we made a list of supplies that we would need.
One of our neighbors had an empty lot next to his house and he said that if we clean up his backyard we can use any of his scrap wood and the extra space to make our project. We found some old barrel hoops. We found some long boards, some pieces of canvas. Ernest “found” some tar, the kind they use on the roofs.
Our boat turned out to be twenty feet long. We nailed the boards to the barrel rings so that the shell would be in the shape of a cylinder. Both the front and back ends came to a point. In the center of it we built a command tower. It even had a window to look out. We made a waterproof hatch to seal ourselves in. The observation window looked out towards the prow. At the bottom of our submarine we had a hole that was plugged tight with a piece of wood. Finally we covered that ship with the hot tar.
At last it was ready and we were ready. It took our entire summer vacation to put this thing together. It was heavy but with the help of Stanley, a classmate of ours, we carried it to our destination.
The city had a reservoir not too far away for drinking water. It was about twenty feet deep, just the right size for us. It got slippery near the water and we took our time to get it in without tipping it over. Ernest gave an official sounding speech to dedicate this boat. Then he hit the prow with a bottle of soda. Afterwards we all took drinks from the bottle.
The submarine floated perfectly, so we got on board. Hugo got in first and he settled down towards the front. I got in next and settled in towards the back. Ernest was the captain and he stayed in the middle in the command tower. Hugo and I were on our knees so that we could fit inside.
I heard Ernest close the hatch and we started to drift away.
“What do you see?” The two of us asked.
“I see water and the edge of the reservoir.” He said. I remember being very excited, everything worked the way we wanted. All that planning and hard work was like a dream come true.
Now came the moment of truth. Ernest gave the order to dive. I pulled out the stopper and the water came rushing in. It was soon up to our waist and still coming in. We felt the submarine hit the bottom. It stayed there. We stayed there in the darkness.
“We forgot to bring a light.” I remember telling Ernest.
We knew a little bit about submarines from our reading. We suddenly realized we did not know enough. We knew how to go down. It seemed easy enough.
“Let’s go back to the surface.” Ernest ordered. Hugo started throwing water around. He threw water at me. I threw water at him. We did have the good sense to bring two buckets along. I started to notice that nothing was happening.
“Hey Ernest this isn’t working.” I shouted up to him. Ernest leaned down and he told us to try it again. We needed some kind of pump, a way of pushing the water outside. All three of us knew we didn’t have one.
“Abandon ship!” Ernest shouted when he realized that we were in trouble. He pushed open the hatch and three of us rushed out. It was our good fortune that we knew how to swim and we paddled like crazy until we got to the shore.
We sat on the bank of the reservoir. I remember sitting there and looking at all the water with no submarine. Our underwater adventure only lasted about five minutes but the memory of it is still in my head. The three of us started shivering.
“Let’s go dry off in our tree house.” Ernest said, and we all got up.
We had our treehouse to hide out in. It was about thirty feet up this old eucalyptus tree. We finished making it earlier that summer. We even nailed boards up the trunk of that tree to use as a ladder. And once we were in our house we took our clothes off to dry them. Just like making a submarine seemed like a good idea at the time, building a treehouse up a eucalyptus tree seemed like a good idea.
There was one slight detail that we forgot to consider. The wind. The wind would rush in from the ocean and blow across the valley in a strong steady blast. In the summertime the land heats up more than the ocean. Hot air rises and the cool air from the ocean rushes in. We had just finished hanging up our clothes and stretching out to dry when the afternoon wind started blowing.
The gusts of wind were so strong that the trunk of the tree and us started to sway. The tree moved us back and forth, it seemed like ten feet in each direction. The wind swayed and shook the tree. It felt like we were inside a baby rattle. The three of us had the look of fear on us and we got ourselves down to the ground in no time.
Back on the ground we realized we had forgotten another detail. The three of us were naked. The wind blew our clothes away. I had no idea where they were. We covered up our privates and ran like we had the crazies all the way home.
When my mama saw me come in naked as a jaybird, she didn’t say a word. She shook her head and pointed to my closet. I got myself dressed. I didn’t get yelled at. I didn’t have to explain myself. She didn’t ask what happened. I guess she kind of knew.