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A truckload of goodness in difficult times 

May 27, 2020

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, Wednesday, May 27, 2020

For three months, COVID-19 has dominated our daily lives. Social distancing, stay-at-home orders and other precautions have fundamentally altered the way we shop, worship, learn, work and relate to each other.

Persistent fear about the virus, anxiety fueled by so many uncertainties and the cumulative impact of our collective worry is simply overwhelming — a condition that is likely to continue for the indefinite future.

While, so far, our family has remained virus free and adapted fairly well to the new normal, our physically active and socially engaged son, Adam, has grown especially restless. The absence of daily bike rides to and from school, fifth grade shenanigans with his classmates, and a season of lacrosse, coupled with long mornings completing school assignments at the computer in our living room, have resulted in considerable angst — for him and his parents.

With return to school unlikely until fall and a summer without the usual day camp experiences — my wife, Lori, and I decided we needed to find a creative solution that would make life a bit more bearable for Adam, and by extension our entire family.

So, we ordered a dump truck load of dirt. Technically, it was loam — a soil with roughly equal proportions of sand, silt and clay — with rocks and sticks conveniently removed. And, actually, it was Adam’s idea. Months ago, before COVID, he informed us what he wanted for his birthday.

“And what do you plan to do with a big truckload of dirt,” we had asked him. (Actually, he was simply trying to solve a vexing problem, of his own making, and recognized, to his credit, that he needed some help).

“I want to build more mountain bike jumps in the backyard but I need more dirt and I can’t dig any more holes in the yard to get the dirt because then there won’t be enough room to ride around and go over the jumps,” he exclaimed.

He had it all figured out, and by sharing his grand vision six months ahead of his birthday, he was clearly hoping we might spring for an early birthday gift, as we have occasionally done in the past.

So, on a warm, sunny Thursday, after Adam and big sister Zoe had finished their school assignments and lunch, I lured them out to the front porch, before I needed to return to our basement office for an afternoon of conference calls. “Come sit with me in the sunshine while I finish eating,” I said.

Zoe, eager for conversation, joined me, and I let her in on the surprise, before Adam reluctantly joined us. Zoe and I sat on the concrete step, the bright pink blossoms on our peach tree, drawing our attention. Adam, seated on his bike, his left foot planted in the grass, feigned interest. I heard the truck, not yet in sight, down shift as the driver prepared to turn onto our street, and I said to Adam, “what’s that sound?”

He looked at me inquisitively, then we all heard the engine rev as the loaded truck accelerated in our direction. Adam turned to his right just as the truck rolled into full view, the mound of loam visible above the edge of the truck’s bed. His bike hit the ground as he jumped off and began dancing with excitement.

In minutes, with the truck backed into the drive, the whir of hydraulics lifted the bed, and 8 cubic yards of loam slid to the pavement. An online calculator found with a Google search, confirmed that roughly 20,000 pounds of earth needed to be moved to our backyard before we could pull the car into the garage once again. By the end of Sunday, Adam and his neighborhood friend — and backyard-mountain-bike-course-designing-and-riding-partner — Auggie, had used a wheel barrel and two shovels to move a third of the pile.

A week later, after I too contributed significant sweat equity, we marked the celebratory moment when the two of them loaded the wheel barrel the final time, before sweeping the drive clean.

So far, the boys have filled all of the holes in the backyard, made their existing jumps and berms bigger, added additional jumps, and put a reserve pile along the back fence (for future improvements), just as Adam had envisioned. Additionally, we backfilled the entire stretch of house and garage wall in the backyard, creating additional pitch for drainage and raised ground for plantings.

Zoe, Lori and I painted the exposed cinderblock wall a lovely shade of green and soon we plan to replace the decaying wooden fence panels that enclose the yard.

The project has been a big win for all of us. Adam’s spirits have lifted, knowing that after finishing his school work each morning, a backyard wonder awaits. He is grateful too, as evidenced when he shared with Lori and I, “Since the dirt probably cost a lot it should count for both my graduation (from elementary school) and birthday present.”

Collectively, we also enhanced our modest outdoor living space, creating an oasis where we can shelter as a family from the COVID storm. And we have demonstrated that a combination of creativity and purpose can serve as a (truck) load of goodness in difficult times.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website


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