Grandpa's Harmonica

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Chapter 18

Jamie and Homer squirmed up the tunnel into the cave, which was lit by a candle Sam held in his hand. The flame was small, but it made the white walls sparkle.

Jamie and Homer looked around in amazement. “How did you know how to do this? Where did you get the candle? Why is it so warm in here?”

Sam waved their questions away. “Later. We still have work to do.”

Sam made a shelf for the candle and then shaped the inside of the shelter while Homer and Jamie cleared the snow by pushing it down the tunnel and out. Finally, he arranged the boards to make a place where they could sit.

“There. Everybody brush the snow off each other’s clothes so it won’t melt and make them wet.” When they were clean, Sam said, “Okay, we’re done. Be sure to sit on the boards.”

There wasn’t much room, but they managed to arrange themselves in a row with Sam in the middle.

Jamie asked, “How did you know how to do this and where did you get the candle?”

“The candle was in my survival kit.”

“What’s that?”

“A survival kit is a bundle of things I carry in case of an emergency. Dad helped me make my first one about four years ago.”

From a pocket, he pulled out a small canvas bundle, untied the strings and unrolled it. “I have a candle, matches dipped in wax so they’re waterproof, fishhooks and line, safety pins, needles and thread, some small bandages and disinfectant, string, a compass and a small knife with a can opener.”

Homer leaned over to look. “You carry this everywhere? Even to church?”

“Always. I don’t go to church, but if I did, I’d have it there too.”

Homer grinned when Sam said he didn’t go to church.

Jamie said, “But where did you learn how to dig this cave?”

“At the Explorer’s Club in New York City.”

“Never heard of it.”

“It’s quite famous in New York City. It was started about thirty years ago and members go on exploring trips around the world. Dad was an active member and took a trip every year.”

“You mean he’d go to places to see what it was like? Africa and Egypt and China…?” He’d run out of strange places.

“That’s right, but they didn’t just look. They collected scientific information about the people and places they visited and then published it for scientists to study.”

The candle flame reflected off Homer’s wide-open eyes. “That’s amazin’. I ain’t never been outta Iowa. You get to go?”

“Yes. I was six years old on my first trip. Mother didn’t want me to, but Dad took me anyway. He and I became very close because of the time we spent together on our trips.”

Jamie pointed at the candle. “But what about your survival kit?”

“Dad made a deal with Mother. She’d let me go only if I took the same training as everyone else. Mother thought I wouldn’t be able to do it, but she was wrong. I thought learning map reading, fire making, cooking outdoors, camping, how to swim and paddle a boat was fun. One of the first things Dad and I did was to make this survival kit.”

Sam tied his kit up and put it away. “Some Explorers went to Canada where they dug snow caves for shelter instead of setting up tents. I went to a lecture with Dad at the Explorer’s Club where they showed pictures and explained how to make one. When I saw the snow bank and the boards, I remembered and tried it.”

“You probably saved our lives. Your dad must have been an interesting man.”

Sam stared at the candle. “He was and I miss him. Every time I do something like this, I feel like I’m with him again.” Sam waved his hand at the cave and smiled. “He would’ve loved to see this so he could brag about me to his friends at the Club.”

Homer asked, “Where’s your dad now?”

Jamie poked Homer in the ribs and shook his head.

“Ow! What was that for?”

Sam said, “That’s okay, Jamie. I don’t mind telling you and Homer. Dad planned a trip to Alaska, but the stock market crashed last year a week before we were going to leave. He said it wouldn’t last, but then he stayed at his office all the time and cancelled the trip. The night after Thanksgiving, I was in my room reading when I heard a strange noise and then my mother screaming. I got up and tried to go downstairs, but a maid wouldn’t let me out of my room because…” Sam took a deep breath and said, “Dad had shot himself.”

Jamie cleared his throat a few times and said, “I’m sorry, Sam.” As he said it, he knew that wasn’t enough, but he didn’t know what else to say.

Sam nodded his thanks. “The next day, I read his suicide note. It said he’d lost all his money and didn’t have anything to live for anymore.”

Sam stared straight ahead, clenching his fists. In a shaky whisper, he said, “He still had Mother and me, but I guess we weren’t as important as his money.”

“I’m so sorry, Sam.” Jamie didn’t think that was any better than what he’d said before, but it was all he had to help Sam. “How did you and your mom get along afterward?”

“We didn’t. The way rich people lived in New York City before the Crash is nothing like the way you live here. Your moms work on your farms and do all kinds of useful things at home. Mother never worked because Dad hired servants to do everything. She never handled money and when she wanted something, she’d go to a store, charge it and then Dad paid the store later.”

Homer asked, “But didn’t you live that way too?”

“Mother thought I did, but I’d sneak into the kitchen and ask the servants to teach me how to cook, buy food and repair things. After Dad died, we couldn’t pay them and when they left, Mother had no idea what to do. No one could help her because most of her friends were in the same situation. Men from the bank kept talking to her and each time she got more upset. A few days before Christmas, she acted strange and didn’t make any sense when she talked, so I called the doctor. They took her to a hospital and I had to move in with some of my Dad’s friends.”

“So how did you end up out here?”

“Aunt Lily is Mother’s sister-in-law and last summer when the doctors said Mother would be in the hospital a long time, maybe forever, Aunt Lily asked if I wanted to live with her. She believes family should stick together so I came here.”

“Do you send letters or call your mom at the hospital?”

Sam clenched his jaw and Jamie saw the muscles working on the side of his face. “I visited her before I came out here.” Sam swallowed several times to keep from crying. “She didn’t know who I was.”

Homer shifted his weight uncomfortably. “Know what, Sam? You can haul off and slug me again if you wanna.”

Sam gave Homer a weak smile. “I’m sorry, Homer I shouldn’t have hit you. Dad told me I was hotheaded and it would get me into trouble. Looks like he was right. Anyway, there isn’t enough room in here to get a good swing.”

Jamie laughed, but Homer didn’t.

“I think you might wanna anyway. You know them letters you been gettin’? They come from me.” He looked down at his mittens, as ashamed as he’d probably ever been.

Sam smiled and waved it away. “Oh, that. I knew it was you from the beginning.”

“What!” Homer and Jamie said together.

“You’d better stick to telling stories, Homer. That secret admirer prank may be new here, but back east, it’s old.”

“How’d you know it was me? Jamie wrote the letters and my sister told me what to say.”

Sam grinned. “Easy. I got the first ones right after our fight and no one else would’ve had a reason to play a prank on me. I’ve seen the way you write so I knew you weren’t writing the notes and guessed Jamie was. I’m surprised that he’d write them.”

“Well, he didn’t wanna, but I told him that if he didn’t, we wasn’t gonna be friends anymore.”

Jamie felt his face get hot and he looked away. Sam said, “I’m not mad at you, Jamie, but I’m disappointed you didn’t give me more time to get to know you. Coming here has been a lot harder than I expected, especially after…” He paused and took a breath before he continued. “You and the other kids were so different. I didn’t know how to make friends with you.”

“Why didn’t you say somethin’?”

“I’d never been to a public school before and I acted the way I did at my private school in New York, which isn’t how anybody acts here. By the time I realized what I was doing wrong, nobody liked me. When you started that secret admirer prank, I knew you’d expect me to change, so that’s what I did. Anyway, I thought your notes were funny. Mushy, but funny.”

Jamie said, “I’m sorry, Sam. We should have helped you more. Can we be friends now?”

“Sure. Dad always said things get better if you give them time.”

Jamie laughed. “My grandpa says the same thing. You can slug me too, Sam. I shouldn’t have helped because I knew it wasn’t right.”

“I won’t now, but I’ll save them up in case I need them later.” Sam poked Homer in the ribs. “And I probably will.”

Homer and Jamie laughed and Homer slapped Sam on the back. When Sam thumped him with his fists, Homer made funny faces pretending that Sam was hurting him. They carried on until they were out of breath.

Homer unbuttoned his coat. “Is it me, or is it gettin’ hot in here?”

Sam nodded. “It’s warming up. The snow traps our body heat in the cave. We should take our coats off so we don’t sweat. If we get wet, we’ll get cold. Let’s do it now, so I can put the candle out in case we need it later.”

One at a time, so they had room, they took off their coats and made sure they were sitting on the wood. Then Sam blew out the candle and put it back into his kit.

In the dark, Sam’s told stories about places he’d visited, making Homer and Jamie jealous. Driving fifty miles to the county fair was the biggest adventure they’d ever had and the idea of visiting other countries excited and scared them at the same time.

Homer told stories about tricks he’d played on people and Jamie explained how his grandpa taught him how to play harmonica.

When they got sleepy, Sam relit his candle and checked to be sure they had a vent hole through the snow. They fell asleep leaning on each other and sharing their coats as blankets.

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