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Trip of a Lifetime

Knotty Problem

By Tamia Nelson and Farwell Forrest

A Note to the Reader

It's late March, 2001. Ed's in Albany at a book fair, and Brenna's just gotten home from a day on Snyder's Pond. It was her first trip of the year and she had a great time, but when a bungee cord let go on the drive home, she nearly lost her kayak. Now Jack's promised to teach her how to tie things down so they stay put. The story continues.

December 19, 2000

Chapter Six

Ape Crapaud peered around the big display of decorative moldings. He was watching two people deep in conversation next to the large spools of rope and cordage over by the counter at the custom shop. They were a funny-looking couple, too. A tall, white-haired guy and a younger lady with short, brown hair. He leaned closer, trying to hear what they were saying. It was noisy in the store. Saturday morning was a busy time at Deane's Good-Deal Hardware. They opened early and added extra staff to serve the crowds of lawn rangers gearing up for spring chores. That's where Ape came in. He'd just retired after thirty years with the county highway department. Time hung heavy on his hands. He wasn't what you'd call a self-starter. Ape missed the regular schedule. He missed getting away from the wife for nine-ten-eleven hours a day. He missed being able to borrow stuff from the maintenance shed. That was a big one, all right. He had a garage full of borrowed stuff, some of it nearly thirty years old. Some of it pretty valuable. Ape missed his old job something awful.

He even missed being called Ape. The wife never called him anything but Chuck, and that hurt more than he could say. It was kinda funny, really. He'd hated the nickname at first, but now it'd gotten so it felt more like his real name than, well, his real name did. He'd had it for twenty years. Got it right after he'd been promoted to foreman, when an angry highway engineer had come out from the county garage to fix the screw-up he'd made of a culvert installation and had christened him on the spot.

It had been a memorable name-day. The whole crew had been standing around when that snotty-nosed college boy with a tie and a pocket-protector tore into him. "Jesus H. Christ!" the kid had screamed. He'd yelled so loud they probably heard him back at the county garage. "You half-wit SOB. You ain't got no more sense than an ape. And you look just like an ape, too. Now get outta my sight, you friggin' retarded ape. Jesus!" And the engineer had turned his back on Ape like he wasn't there and started shouting orders at the man on the digger.

That hadn't been an easy thing to live down, especially because he did look a lot like an ape—a pasty-faced ape with a straggly beard. He had a stooped, shambling walk, and his arms hung down a good six inches further than they should have. The guys on the crew picked up on the nickname right away, of course. They started calling him Ape, too, first behind his back and later to his face. Funny thing, though. He'd gone through hell for a couple of years, and then it had started to seem right, somehow. The old guys on the crew retired. The new guys didn't know nothing. And that was all right with Ape. He was the big gorilla now, and he liked to imagine the guys thought he had a whole harem of females, just like on the nature shows on TV. Ape Crapaud. When he was driving his county pick-up, Ape was King of the Road.

But now he was retired, and a kid no more than twenty-five years old had his brand-new Chevy pick-up with the county seal on the driver's door, and nobody called him Ape any more.

Not until he got this new job, that is. Clerk in the fasteners and fittings section. Only half-time now, but he'd move up. It was great. All sorts of stuff to borrow. Better yet, he'd told everybody to call him Ape. And they did. The King was back.

But first he had a little problem to solve. His borrowing was attracting attention. This was something new. Ape had borrowed stuff from the county for thirty years and no one had ever said anything about it. Everybody borrowed stuff. The janitors pinched toilet rolls. The county's executive officer took a new computer home one weekend and forgot to return it. Nobody noticed Ape's borrowing—or, at least, nobody cared.

Deane's Hardware was different, though. The monthly inventories had already picked up big stock shortfalls in fasteners and fittings. The owner was thinking about putting in closed-circuit video surveillance. Ape wasn't happy about this. But maybe, he thought, if he nabbed a shoplifter or two, he could talk his boss out of putting in the cameras. So he was keeping a careful eye on the oddly-matched couple over by the reels of rope. They looked different, for one thing. They weren't normal people. The tall guy dressed like he did all his shopping at the Salvation Army. The lady was wearing high rubber boots. Weirdos. No doubt about it. Wait for them to pocket something and then call in the boss. That ought to put a stop to all this talk about cameras. Maybe even get him a raise.

Meanwhile, Jack and Brenna stood among the towering displays of bulk rope and cord. They talked quietly, stepping aside from time to time to allow other customers to squeeze by. A speaker mounted high on the wall broadcast one country hit after another, punctuated by the running commentary of the WBAM disk-jockey. Jack reached out and grabbed the end of some three-strand polypro line in one gnarled fist, held it out toward Brenna, and said, "See this stuff, here? Plastic rope, I call it. Slicker 'n…." He remembered where he was, just in time. "Slicker 'n snot. Won't hold a knot worth a damn." And he tied a figure-eight in the end by way of demonstration, drawing it up tight and then letting go. The knot started to open up right away.

"Don't get me wrong," Jack continued. "There's nothin' better than good, sound line for lashing things down. Those rubber bands you used on your little boat don't come close to doin' the job." He shook his head. "Now this stuff here"—he pulled a length of three-strand nylon off a big spool—"this stuff's what you want. It'll hold a knot real good, and you can splice it easy, not like that braided stuff." He pointed over to another spool labeled "yacht braid," and then continued, "Course nylon's not manila, but…." His voice trailed off, and he looked around for some manila rope. Finding it, he pulled a length off the reel, twisted the end to unlay the strands, looked closely at the fibers, frowned, and rolled it back on the reel. "Junk, that's what that is. Jes' can't get good manila nowadays," he said sadly. Then he added, his face brightening, "But nylon'll do ya for most things. Stretchy stuff, sure. Don't want it for riggin', but for most other things it's not so bad. Soaks up the shock, like."

The two friends continued to examine the rope, neither one aware of Ape's constant scrutiny. At one point, Jack picked up a plastic fid from an adjoining shelf, looked at it briefly and than stuck it absent-mindedly in his pocket. Ape smiled. He had his man!

Under Jack's watchful gaze, Brenna was now tying a bowline in a length of 3/8" nylon three-strand she'd pulled off a spool. It wasn't going well. As she often did when she was in a hurry, she made the first loop the wrong way round. Then, when she tried to snug it down, it collapsed into an overhand knot. Jack's patience was at an end. Before Brenna could try again, he'd grabbed the rope out of her hands. "You jes' watch me, girl!" he said.

The demonstration didn't last long. Jack formed a bight in the line, holding the free end in his right hand, pointing away from him. He brought that end down across the other part—"That's the standing part," muttered Brenna to herself—and twisted it down and around, forming a loop through which the end protruded, again pointing away from him. Now he wove the free end under the main part of the line and tucked it back through the already-formed loop. He pulled the knot tight, held it up for Brenna to see, and then undid his handiwork.

"OK, girl," he said. "Your turn now." He handed the end of the rope to Brenna.

In her mind's eye, Brenna ran through Jack's deft movements. "No reason why I can't do that," she thought. And she did. Grinning from ear to ear, she showed her bowline to Jack. "Do I pass?" she asked.

A loud crash sounded behind them. Spinning round, they saw Ape sprawled over a toppled rack of wood moldings. The display stand had caught the edge of a bin of #4 flathead screws on its way down. Hundreds of screws were now rolling across the floor. Ape scrambled to his feet. From the other side of the counter at the custom shop, Craig Deane looked up. Ape was down on all fours now, chasing wood screws around the aisle. Craig worked hard not to laugh. He raised the flap on the counter and walked over to the fasteners and fittings aisle.

"Hey, Brenna! Haven't seen you for a while. How's things?" he called out in passing, on his way to speak to Ape. That done, he turned back to where Jack and Brenna stood. "Ape's kinda klutzy," he said. "Sorry 'bout the excitement. So, how's Ed?"

"No problem, Craig," replied Brenna. "Ed and me are both fine. Getting ready for a big canoe trip, in fact. You know Jack?" she asked. Then, without waiting for an answer, she made the introductions. "Jack Van Dorn. Craig Deane." The two men shook hands. "Jack's teaching me the ropes," Brenna joked, giggling at her own wit

Craig smiled. He always smiled at customers' jokes, however many times he'd heard them. It cost nothing to be nice, after all. "Rope, eh? Sell a lot of twine. Buy a lot of it myself. My wife's always making macrame stuff. Goes through millions of feet a year, seems like. Don't sell too much of this bulk rope, though."

While Craig was talking, Jack pulled the plastic fid out of his pocket. "This the only one you got?" he asked.

"'Fraid so," said Craig. "Don't have much call for them, either. Course we can special order one for you."

Jack shook his head and replaced the fid on the shelf. "No need," he said. "I'll just get myself a billet of hickory and whittle one out."

They talked for a while longer. Then Brenna checked her watch. Nearly ten. Time to open the shop. With Jack's nodded OK, she picked up a half reel of quarter-inch, three-stand nylon rope, a spool of waxed nylon twine, and a tube of heavy needles, along with a couple of yards of 10-oz. treated canvas. When they left to go over to the check-out, Ape was still chasing screws under the shelving units. He didn't look up as they passed.

Walking home with their purchases, Jack and Brenna stopped at Shirley's for four of her World Famous cinnamon buns. Back at the shop, Jack carried the new rope and the other stuff through to the work room while Brenna opened the till and sat down behind the long counter. Soon she smelled brewing coffee. Jack must have decided that a fresh pot would go well with Shirley's buns, she thought. Looking out the shop window, Brenna noticed that a gentle rain was starting to fall. Before long, it was bucketing down. Not a good day for walk-in trade, Brenna concluded, and she was right.

Still, the time passed quickly. Jack tested Brenna on the bowline, figure-eight, reef knot, and clove hitch. Then, when he was satisfied with her progress, he showed her a couple of new ways to tie the bowline, including a tricky one she realized she'd seen a logger use in some movie, long ago. It starred Paul Newman, she remembered, but try as she might she couldn't think of the name of the flick.

Jack interrupted her reverie. "Gonna show ya the trucker's hitch," he said. "That taut-line hitch of yours is all right for tent guys, but you need somethin' better when you hafta secure a load."

Jack uncoiled one of the 25-foot lengths of Goldline that Brenna had used to tie down the kayak on her trip to Snyder's Pond. With an easy flick of his wrist, he threw the rope over a heating pipe that hung suspended from a ceiling bracket above the counter. Next, he gave one end to Brenna to hold, and passed the other under the heavy, cast-iron foot of the old-fashioned radiator. Holding the free end of the rope in his right hand, with his left he formed two parallel bights in the part of the line running from ceiling to floor. One bight pointed down. The other pointed up. He twisted the upward-pointing bight over and around the standing part of the line and poked it back through the newly-formed loop, just like he was tying a bowline. Then he threaded the free end through the resulting noose, pulled it tight, and secured it with a couple of half-hitches.

"See that?" he asked. "Now give me that end you got there and you try it. Careful you don't pull too hard, though," he said, rolling his eyes up toward the ceiling. "You're multiplyin' your force, see? You tighten down too much, and you'll most likely yank that pipe right off its bracket. Don't want ta have ta do any more emergency repairs like the one I did in the back room, do I?" And he chuckled.

Brenna copied Jack's moves and made the hitch work on her first try. The rest of the day slipped away pleasantly, with Jack showing her the sheet bend and gasket coil after lunch—to complete her schooling, he said. Then he went to his apartment to read, while Brenna minded the store till closing time at five.

The rain continued all through the next day. Brenna practiced her new repertoire of knots and hitches, and Jack gave her what he wryly called the "college course," showing her how to whip and splice lines. By the time Ed turned into the drive late Sunday evening, Brenna was almost convinced she could pass for able seaman. It was a good feeling.

She met Ed at the back door, hugging him to her. She was bursting to tell him about the snapper on Snyder's Pond and show him all the knots she'd learned. For his part, Ed was tired and hungry, but he was mighty pleased with the sales he'd made. He got Jack and Brenna to give him a hand taking the book crates out of the rented van and bringing them into the shop. Ed noted with satisfaction that they were a lot lighter than they'd been when he'd left on Friday. The last load he carried in wasn't a book crate, though. It was big cardboard box with "Old Sarge's Super Surplus" stenciled on the side.

Up in their second-floor apartment, his mouth watering as he smelled the pungent steam wafting from the pot of chili simmering on the stove, Ed opened the box and showed Brenna his newly-purchased treasures. Two pairs of NATO wool pants, two pairs of khaki shorts formerly worn by French Legionnaires, two broad-brimmed bush hats, and two head nets. A rubber-handled diver's knife with a saw-tooth back edge and a profile that looked a lot like an old rigging knife. There was even a pair of leather combat boots in size 13 for Jack.

"Won't he be pleased!" Brenna exclaimed when she saw the boots, thinking about Jack's old and much-repaired work shoes. Then she saw what looked like a big coil of heavy wire in the bottom of the box. "What's that?" she asked.

"A real bargain, Brenn!" Ed replied proudly. "And I'll bet it's something you hadn't even thought of. One hundred and fifty feet of genuine GI climbing rope. We're going to need a lot of rope, you know…." His voice trailed off, all but drowned out by Brenna's howls of laughter. It was a good minute before she stopped. She stumbled over to the bed and sat down, still shaking with barely-suppressed glee. Then, while she was wiping her streaming eyes on her sleeve, Ed asked, "What the hell's matter? I got a great price on that rope, you know."

"I'm sure you did," said Brenna. "And never mind what's the matter. I'll tell you later. Now come over here and kiss me."

To be continued…

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Copyright 2000 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.
















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