This is the second chapter of an eight-chapter serial story about the Erie Canal that will be published in NeXt over the next several weeks. Last week: When Nathaniel and Rodney got in trouble at school for playing with paper footballs, they were issued the "Erie Canal Challenge" by their teacher, Mrs. Zimmerman.
Nathaniel and Rodney walked home, griping the whole way about Mrs. Zimmerman and her so-called "challenge."
"I can't believe she's making us find 121 facts. What a waste of time." Nat kicked a rock into the gutter.
"Yeah. I doubt there're even 121 facts about the Erie Canal," Rod added. "It's just a dug-out ditch with nasty water in it."
The boys approached Nat's house.
"So, have you ever met this guy -- your great-uncle?" Rod asked Nat.
"Nope. He was always working too hard to visit, at least until he retired. I guess he's going to stay here with us for a few months. I'll probably be stuck on the hide-a-bed."
"Man, that stinks."
The boys walked up to the porch. Through the open screen door, they could hear laughter and a big, booming voice.
"And then," the voice said, "he fell straight into the canal, screaming the whole time, 'I'm drowning! I'm drowning!' -- until his feet touched the bottom and he stood up, his head clearing the top of the water by a good 12 inches." Laughter rang out. "You see, the canal at that time was only four feet deep."
Nat and Rod looked at each other. "Gimme a pen!" Rod said. Nat dug a pen and a football out of his backpack, and Rod wrote "four feet deep" on it.
"One down, 120 to go," Nat said, opening the door. They walked toward the kitchen. "Hey, we're home!"
The man with the great booming voice rose out of his seat as they walked in. He was as tall as his voice was big, with a silver mass of curly hair that sprouted from all over his head and across his cheeks and chin. He smiled broadly and strode over to the boys, shaking Nat's hand so hard his arm flopped up and down. "My, my, is this your boy?" he said to Nat's mom and dad. "You're the spittin' image of your granddad, my brother. I'm your Uncle Patrick." The big man turned to Rodney. "And who, may I ask, are you?"
Rod swallowed hard. "I'm, uh, Rod, sir, Nathaniel's friend."
"Well, any friend of an O'Reilly is a friend of mine." Uncle Patrick clapped Rod on the shoulder and almost knocked him over. Nat tried not to laugh.
"Nat, Rod -- you two want a snack? I made some cookies." Nat's mom held out a plate of chocolate chip cookies. The boys each grabbed a handful and headed out of the kitchen.
Nat's 10-year-old sister, Rachel, was sitting at the table. "Why do they get to go, and I have to sit here and be polite?"
"Oh, they're not going anywhere, are you, boys?" Nat's dad said. "Especially not after the phone call I received from Mrs. Zimmerman a few minutes ago."
The two boys stopped in their tracks. "Uh, oh."
"Oooooooooooo!" Rachel said. "You're in trouble!"
"I understand you two have an assignment," Uncle Patrick said.
"Uh, yeah." Nat turned toward his uncle. "My teacher is like this Erie Canal nut. For some reason, she wants us to find out 121 facts about the canal -- from you. She says you're a real expert."
Uncle Patrick had a twinkle in his eye. "121 facts? For 'some reason'?"
"Uh...yeah, well. We were sorta playing football when we were supposed to be listening. So, yeah..."
Uncle Patrick nodded his head sympathetically. "Let me guess. You were playing football because the Erie Canal's so boring, right? And you already know everything there is to know about it, right?"
Nat and Rod looked at each other and smiled. Finally, someone who understood! "Yeah, that's it!" Rod said.
Uncle Patrick rubbed his whiskers and began to laugh. It was a deep laugh, starting far down in his belly and vibrating its way through the entire room.
"So, you'll talk to Mrs. Zimmerman for us?" Nat asked.
Uncle Patrick laughed even louder. "Absolutely, provided you two can answer just one question."
The boys looked at each other and nodded. They'd been able to answer all Mrs. Zimmerman's questions. No problem.
"Here's your question: Which famous person called the Erie Canal an 'interminable mud puddle'?"
Nat took a guess. "Thomas Jefferson?" After all, he was president sometime around when the Erie Canal was built, wasn't he?
"Close, but no. It's true that Thomas Jefferson was no great Erie Canal supporter. In fact, he called the project 'madness,' and refused to give a penny to it. But the person who called the canal a mud puddle was Nathaniel Hawthorne. Do you know who he is?"
The boys shook their heads.
"He was one of the most famous authors of the nineteenth century. Looks like we have a bit of work to do, boys, doesn't it?" The boys groaned. "I'll make you a deal. I promise to make learning about the Erie Canal fun for you if you promise to stop groaning -- and making those paper footballs!"
Nathaniel and Rodney looked at each other and shrugged. "OK," they agreed. But they couldn't help sighing as they bit into their chocolate chip cookies.
Next week: Uncle Patrick takes Nat, Rod, and Rachel on a "Grand Canal Adventure."