One thing to do in the summer

What to do on a summer’s day is not really a problem for me. Just my list of outdoor projects around the house could keep me busy for weeks. I need to get my trailer hitched up and haul the cut-and-split firewood stacked on lumber trails around the property, so I can get it under a shed roof before snowfall.
My small outdoor boiling arch needs concrete and brick repair work, which will be a whole lot easier if I can get to it in August (rather than in January or February in a moment of desperation just before sugaring season). There are still a couple more boards on the walkway to our front door that need repairing or replacing. The outdoor floodlight blew out in a recent electrical storm. And mowing, brush clearing and weeding are endless.
Since most of our vacations are at a shared extended-family cabin in Maine, even on vacations my list of jobs is long. The cottage roof shingles need repair. The railing on the front steps is rotting, along with the outermost board on the deck. The walls on the south and east need paint. And the shoreline requires constant attention because of erosion.
That’s only a partial list. It’s almost enough to keep a person from doing the important things in life, like fishing and swimming and reading in a hammock.
Or like building a diving helmet from a kitty-litter bucket, some duct tape, a garden hose, a bike pump, and a transparent plastic cover of a dinner tray.
That task is what occupied my son Peter and his friend Chris for most of a day last week. When I walk out on the cabin deck I see not only a lake beckoning me for a swim or morning fishing, but also rotted boards and peeling paint in need of attention. Peter and Chris not only saw an old bucket and some clear plastic waiting to be recycled, they saw a diving helmet waiting to be built. And their creative engineering minds went to work.
First came the task of cutting a hole in the bucket and duct-taping on the clear plastic dinner tray to make a see-through visor. After all, what’s the point of walking under the water if you can’t see anything? Then came the problem of oxygen. The small amount in the bucket itself wouldn’t last long enough to do anything interesting. But a 50-foot garden hose and a bike pump — along with more duct tape, of course — was just the solution.
A couple hours later and I was watching my son slowly wading into Christopher Lake with a bucket over his head, tethered by hose to the dock where Chris worked away furiously on the bike pump.
Of course, no engineering solution ever comes without a glitch. It turns out that an upside-down three-gallon bucket has tremendous buoyancy. Much too great for a 14- or 15-year-old boy to pull under water. Plus, holding the bucket with both hands to keep it on was disadvantageous for somebody who also wanted to take underwater photos.
But creative engineering minds are not stalled for long. Some old rags and rope were sufficient to create an under-the-armpit harness to hold the diving-bell helmet atop the head. And a shoreline lined with large boulders carefully placed by parents, uncles, and grandfather to prevent erosion provided a boulder heavy enough to pull a boy and a three-gallon bucket of air under water. (Although, as it turned out, the rock also required two hands to hold.)
My family has been going to this lake for close to 50 years. I thought I came up with some pretty cool inventions as a teenager when I was there with my brothers and friends 30 to 40 years ago.
But when I saw the helmet work, and Peter and Chris managed to walk underwater along the lake-bottom 50 feet out to the raft and back, I had to confess that their working invention was as cool or cooler than anything any previous generation had created. So cool that I even tried it myself. And it worked. I stayed underwater breathing for a couple minutes.
Of course Peter’s older scientist brother Thomas, when he saw the photos posted online, did issue the appropriate warning: Diving with such an apparatus — and in particular breathing pressurized air underwater — can actually be very dangerous and cause permanent nerve damage. (In other words, please don’t read this article and then try diving to the bottom of Lake Dunmore or something.)
But as I pointed out to Thomas, the helmet actually couldn’t function more than a few feet below the surface. The water pressure even four feet down seemed to collapse the duct-taped plastic visor, or forced too much water in from the bottom. In other words, the boys were not going to be taking the 50 feet of garden hose out in a canoe to the deepest part of the lake and diving for buried treasure. It was strictly a short-distance, shallow-water, not-self-contained underwater breathing apparatus.
Still, it was pretty cool, and for its limited task it worked well. So well that I spent a good bit of the afternoon photographing the adventure, helping to pump air for the boys, and even testing the device myself. By the time I was done “helping.” in fact, it was too late to do any of the scraping, painting, or carpentry work that was beckoning me out of the water. Thank the Lord for old kitty litter buckets and creative sons. And for family vacations!

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