Rants & Essays

Magic in an Empty Lot

By Bill Vossler

In the muted light of the pigweed jungle, I scan the damp earth for my enemy's footprint. A canopy of leaves as large as dinner plates shades me from the blazing sun.

There!

The faint impression of his heel. My senses humming, I stoop, my eyes darting from side to side. No birds chirp. Even the insects pause from their usual murmuring. Too quiet. My heart hammers. Slow as an hour hand, I turn my head. A flash of color. A scream. Too late.

I am knocked down. The weight of my enemy squashes my shoulder into the mud. The edge of his blade bites into the soft underside of my neck. He flings back his shaggy head and laughs. "You almost had me, Willy!"

Now he is Tom, my best friend. He takes the pigweed knife off my neck. "But you made one mistake." He slides off.

I rub my neck. "What's that?"

"The arrowheads you keep in your pocket. I heard them clink together."

This skirmish was but one of hundreds of battles that raged in the empty lot across from my childhood home in Wishek, N.D. Battles between guerrillas and good guys, the Lone Ranger and the rustlers.

Just about everyone, it seemed, had an empty lot across from his home. Those who didn't scoured the neighborhood in search of one to test their mettle. Mine was blessed with a vast forest of pigweed, a murky pond and a deep ravine. What I only read about in school, I tested in that lot.

The laws of aerodynamics: flying bugs taught us about speed, lift, trajectory. To swat them down, we stripped off the lower leaves of the pigweed plant. Each stalking was a physics lesson: mass and air resistance of the weapon affected the energy needed to sweep our prey to the ground.

The lot awoke in me a love for paleontology. We chased a flickertail gopher to its hole, knelt to peer inside and spotted bones. On a large piece of plastic, we arranged them in a sinuous curve. A snake!

But some bones were missing, so we excavated, digging in the sandy soil, grinding half the hillside under our fingernails and into our jeans (much to the dismay of our mothers). We found more bones, enough so I could exhibit the snake at show-and-tell. We also found agates, husks of beetles, roots, flakes of worked flint.

Of everything we loved about the lot, we most loved the ravine. During spring thaw or summer thunderstorm, it seemed as though all the water in the world came coursing through it. The torrent of each storm gouged the ravine, deepened it, widened it, until it was six feet deep and ten feet wide. Geography lesson: how a river is formed.

Mud oozed between our toes while we pored over the newly exposed strata. Levels of sediment were marked by distinct bands of soil. Real-life geology.

One day in the ravine I found a white rock about the width of a silver dollar, with tiny knobs. SHARK'S TEETH! I thought. I shipped it to the Smithsonian Institution, and a month later a box came in the mail. Inside on onionskin paper were these magic word: "Distal end of metapodial from an ancient camel."

More education: use of a dictionary. It was part of a foot bone in the camel.

Thus began a long and illustrious correspondence with the Smithsonian. With my paperboy profits, I would regularly send packages of all shapes and sizes to Washington D.C. Some turned out to be pieces of bone from EQUUS COMPLICATUS, an ancient species of horse. Some were as mundane as bones of Geomyidae, gopher. (That was my "snake." I never did tell my classmates.)

The curator must have quailed at the onslaught. "Not another box from that Vossler boy!"

During winter, I took a new direction in my education. I learned to research. In musty library books, I read about Heinrich Shliemann's discovery of ancient Troy and about the nearly mile-high ice-age glaciers right where I was sitting. All because of that "empty" lot.

During winter, I took a new direction in my education. I learned to research. In musty library books, I read about Heinrich Shliemann's discovery of ancient Troy and about the nearly mile-high ice-age glaciers right where I was sitting. All because of that "empty" lot.

Most of all, I learned to respect my own abilities. The empty lot was a microcosm of life, a practice ground. I knew it immediately. I love it desperately.

My mother doesn't live in Wishek anymore. So sometimes when I am hundreds of miles away and the ache is upon me, I will pass through a small town to search for an empty lot.

I needn't drive up and down the streets; I just need a minute to spot the dreamy eyes of the kids. Then I know that the lot, like Shangri-La, exists. And I can find it and walk through the knee-high swishing grass once more.