August in my Flatbush section of Brooklyn is as hot and steamy as it is in the Hamptons. In 1946, getting a cool ocean breeze and a dip at the beach was a rare and distant treat if you lived on East 3rd Street. But we had another option; the gushing cool water from the fire hydrant across the street from our apartment house transformed our street into a perfectly fine beachfront. It sprayed and flooded the streets, washing away dust and dirt so that the little kids could jump in the stream and get knocked over by the gush into a shallow lake in the street.
The hydrant season usually started on the fourth of July, weather permitting. Mr. Provula, a former city worker whose house fronted the hydrant, managed to snag the hefty hydrant wrench as a retirement souvenir. On that opening day of the season, he would sit on his front steps flaunting the wrench, followed by a slow teasing march back and forth around the hydrant. This man had the power of the Pied Piper of Hamelin and like those rats, we scurried for bathing suits (or not) and got ready for the water party. There was a prologue; a lengthy speech, at least for the attention span of an eight-year old, explaining of his civic duty to purge the rust from the pipes. We never saw any rust.
One day, in August of that year, it was so hot and sticky that you could feel your eyelids hesitantly opening, peeling away from your cheek when you blinked. We needed the hydrant man badly. When we learned Mr. Provula was on vacation and would not be back for weeks. My friend David and I swung around the hydrant reminiscing January when we warned that it was too cold to touch it with your tongue. Now the cool water lurked inside, less than an inch away. Not particularly wanting to lead anyone into trouble, but feeling the restlessness of defeat, I suggested that we didn’t need Provula; we needed his wrench locked inside his garage.
Although there was a ponderous padlock on the garage door, people were not so obsessed with security in those days, often leaving a window unlocked. Pretending to be on a nature walk, David and I slipped down Provula’s driveway and behind his garage. David propped a crate up to a window and I slipped in. The tools were orderly and it was easy to spot the big wrench. I tossed it to David and we were on our way to be the hydrant deputies.
David placed the wrench over the top of the hydrant and I tugged at the end, a good two feet away. I yanked and heaved with no movement whatsoever. David moved from his post at the hub and pushed the end while I jerked. Like bursting of the Hoover Dam, water flowed over the street, actually more than Mr. Provula ever let loose. Kids from everywhere on the block poured toward the fountain and danced in the cool water. We were the heroes of East 3rd Street. Water snaked down the street towards the sewer on the corner attracting more and more kids. We played for hours. Suddenly, breaking into the cacophony of fun, we heard an abrasive screeching voice coming from a third-floor window, “Daaaaavid.” David obediently followed his mother’s voice and went inside.
It was getting close to dinnertime and the kids, one by one, vanished. It was time to shut down the surging flow and return the wrench. I tugged at the wrench without it budging. I pleaded with the few kids remaining to help, but suddenly aware that we might be in trouble, they fled leaving me alone on the street with Niagara Falls as an accusing companion. I tugged, swung my body round holding onto the wrench, but the water stubbornly gushed.
Eventually, my Father marched out of the apartment house entrance and across the street to see why I wasn’t home for dinner. Without a word, he grabbed the bar and turned the hydrant off. He handed me the wrench and said in a slow, even voice, “Return it.” I ran down Mr. Provula‘s driveway, tossed the wrench into the open garage window and ran back to my father. I sheepishly muttered, “Are you going tell Mom?” He said nothing, but kept walking back into the building. When we climbed up to our apartment, Mom asked, “What were you doing?” and Dad intervened, “He was playing.” Mom responded with that knowing twang, “That bad?” and we sat down to dinner in our tiny kitchen with the stove blasting to add to the August heat.
There always seemed to be ample opportunities for TROUBLE IN FLATBUSH.