This is the first chapter of an eight-chapter serial story about the Erie Canal that will be published in NeXt over the next eight weeks. Turn to Page 12 for an interview with author Jim Murphy about his new Erie Canal novel, "Desperate Journey."
Nathaniel O'Reilly made the last careful fold in his notebook paper football and, with a flick of his finger, sent it sailing across the back of the classroom. It flew between his friend, Rodney's goalpost fingers. Nat threw his hands into the air.
"Nathaniel and Rodney, please see me after class." Mrs. Zimmerman didn't even turn around from the board.
"But ... how --" Nat sputtered.
"I have eyes in the back of my head, Mr. O'Reilly. Now, please cease your commentary, unless you'd like to enlighten the class as to the exact date construction began on the Erie Canal."
"No." Nat knew the answer -- he'd known it since fourth grade -- and he was sure Rodney remembered, too. Their teacher that year -- Miss Tidwell -- had been an Erie Canal fanatic, just like Mrs. Zimmerman. Nat could almost hear Miss Tidwell's voice: "Now, class, it's essential that you, as young citizens of New York, understand the importance of the Erie Canal. Not only will you be tested on it on your state exam, but it is part of your heritage." Heritage shmeritage. Nat was sick of the Erie Canal. And now they were studying it again, three years later.
The bell rang. Nat and Rodney made their way toward Mrs. Zimmerman's desk. She was giving them the evil eye -- from the front of her head.
"Now, gentlemen, how many times do you think I've caught you two playing with paper footballs this year?"
The boys looked at each other and shrugged. "I dunno. A lot, I guess," Rod admitted.
"Yes." Mrs. Zimmerman pursed her lips. "Well, it's about time we put those footballs to good use." She opened her desk drawer and pulled out a large bag stuffed with paper triangles.
Nat's jaw fell open. "We didn't make all those!"
"No, you most certainly did not. But, I am fairly confident in saying that you two have contributed a greater share of footballs to this collection than any other student this year."
Nat swallowed hard. "Oh."
"'Oh' is right. Count these footballs, please." Mrs. Zimmerman emptied the bag onto the top of her desk.
The boys looked at the clock. "But, we'll be late -- " Nat protested.
"Never mind that. I'll write you a pass. Count."
Rodney counted the footballs. "There're 121 of them."
"That's quite correct. Now, multiply that number by 3."
Nat did the mental math. "363."
"Is there anything significant about that number?" Mrs. Zimmerman paused while the boys searched their brains. The number did seem vaguely familiar.... "Think Erie Canal."
Her words jogged Nat's memory. "363 miles -- the length of the original Erie Canal."
"Quite correct. Now, answer a few more questions for me. The beginning and ending dates of its construction?"
Nat sighed. "July 4, 1817 to October 26, 1825."
"Rodney, the person most directly responsible for making the canal a reality?"
"DeWitt Clinton, governor of New York."
"The number of locks on the original canal?"
The boys answered together. "83."
"Beginning and ending points of the canal?"
Rodney answered again. "The headwaters of the Hudson River at Albany and Buffalo, on Lake Erie."
"And finally, Nathaniel ... the importance of the canal?"
Nat could feel his eyes begin to droop. "It was the gateway to the West," he droned.
Mrs. Zimmerman nodded. "Just as I suspected. So-called canal 'experts.' Well, I have the solution to that and our little football problem. Nathaniel, it just so happens that I received a phone call from your father this morning."
Nat's eyes flew open. "Huh? What?"
"Yes. Your father. I understand you'll be having a rather interesting house guest for a while --his uncle, your great-uncle."
"Oh, yeah -- he told me. But why did my dad call you?"
"Apparently, your uncle is a true Erie Canal expert, and he's coming here to Rome as a guest presenter at the Erie Canal Village. Since I'm a volunteer there, your father thought I might be interested in meeting him."
Nat was confused. "And ... this has to do with us making footballs because ...?"
Mrs. Zimmerman had a scary gleam in her eye. "Mr. O'Reilly, you and Rodney are walking encyclopedias of Erie Canal test trivia, and I have no doubt you will fare just fine on your state Social Studies exam, provided you're able to stay awake. But, you both have a much more concerning issue going on. Apparently, you've decided that constructing paper replicas of footballs is more interesting than learning anything further about the Erie Canal, and your miniature playoff games in the back of the classroom have begun to distract other students as well."
"OK, we'll stop..." Rodney offered.
"No, you need an additional challenge. The two of you will spend time -- lots of it -- with Nathaniel's uncle. Listen to him, ask him questions; learn from him. Then, find one, new, interesting fact about the Erie Canal to write on each of these footballs."
"But, that's 121 facts -- " Nat protested.
"No buts." Mrs. Zimmerman handed the bag of footballs and a signed hall pass to Nat and Rodney. "They will be due in exactly one month ... on May 20th. Oh ... and gentlemen? Have fun!"
Next week: Nathaniel and Rodney meet Uncle Patrick, an introduction they won't soon forget!