Penny saved . . .


At 5-feet, 5-inches tall, Richard Leeds, an indigent Philadelphia street urchin, did not exactly present an imposing figure. The truth be told, his appearance, which was further mitigated by a left leg that was a full inch shorter than the right, was charitably speaking, awkward. But what the 17 year old, 92 pound lad lacked in style and grace, he more than compensated for with his gift for deductive logic and a level of enthusiasm that, quite frankly, transcended description. As Richard succinctly concluded, in the year 1774 he was witnessing the dawn of a new and exciting age. He was thrilled to be alive and part of what his employer termed a revolution, a struggle for independence (a veritable gold mine for a Scribner and printer such as himself). Having thought of his employer, young Mr. Leeds suddenly realized if he didn’t shake a leg (no pun intended) he was going to be late for work. And so he immediately abandoned the barrel hoop, which he had been balancing assiduously with his walking stick since leaving home, and quickened his pace. Clop drag, clop drag, clop drag. The drag wasn’t so much due to his unfortunate deformity as it was to the remedy his employer, the Right Honorable Mr. Franklin, had designed to correct it. The cure, as it turned out, was a 12 ½ pound, one inch thick (or there about), plate of iron that was strapped to the unfortunate boy’s leg – the attachment process required him to rise at 4 AM in order to complete it by 6 AM. While poor Richard recognized the device was cumbersome and, to put it respectfully, a study in negative utility, he would never deign to insult his Lordship by complaining. And so he cheerfully hobbled the length of Market Street toward the venerable office of the Most Noble, Lord Benjamin Franklin, Printer, Publisher, Scribner, Inventor, Quipster, World Traveler, Esteemed Ambassador, Declaration Editor, Wine Connoisseur, Bon Vivante and Kite Maker.

The date was November 28. The sky was laden with monstrous, dark clouds. As our young hero approached the final leg (no pun intended) of his journey, his pace quickened. Cloppity scrape, cloppity scrape, cloppity scrape. — An unfortunate design flaw, resulting from moving too quickly with his master’s invention, was a barrage of sparks streaming from his left foot as the iron scraped the cobblestones. — But the embarrassing display was nothing compared to the ruthless barbs slung at the poor fellow by the offspring of local gentry, who gathered daily, a block from Franklin Square, praying for him to be late.

“Good gosh, the light is blinding.” This from Beauregard Hancock, who was so inept he couldn’t even write his own name.

“Pray thee, we should call him ‘Sparky’” quipped Audry Jefferson, a totally obnoxious little tart with questionable morals.

Mercifully, he finally arrived at his destination — a full 12 seconds to spare.

“Ah, there you are young squire. Come over here quickly. We’ve plenty to do and not a minute to spare, for time is waning.”

“You might thay ‘Time ith money,’ your Lordthip.” (The embarrassing lisp was a result of the ill fitting wooden teeth the boy was testing for his Mentor.)

“Why you’re absolutely right Leeds. That’s exactly what I would say,” replied Franklin, as he scribbled in the journal that was never far from his reach. “And remember, we must test the new kite design before this accursed storm arrives. But first, I’d like to finish the plans for the heating device.”

“Well your Worthip, it occurred to me, if we uthed iron, rather than the wood you’ve thuggethded, we wouldn’t need to keep replathing the thuper thtructure. Indeed, itth entirely pothible the iron may retain the heat for a longer period and may even therve to radiate it. And (COUGH COUGH) one thing further sir, if we extended some sort of metal tube from the device to an opening in the ceiling, it may serve to exhaust the smoke to the out side, thereby improving vision and eliminating soot residue.”

“Why Richard, it’s uncanny how an ignorant urchin such as yourself is able to predict precisely what I’m about to say before I even say it. Yes Iron. That’s exactly what I’ve decided.” Franklin was beaming and scribbling frantically in his ever present journal. Looking over the square spectacles that the boy had designed to improve his vision, the inventor admonished, “And please replace those teeth and keep them in until Spring. That cough didn’t fool me one bit. You should consider it a privilege to assist in these experiments. You know if we don’t continue with our efforts, we will achieve naught.”

“Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” the embarrassed boy mumbled before jamming the wooden prosthesis back into his mouth.

Franklin nearly fell from his self designed, rickety stool as he reached for his journal and wrote hastily. “Now, quickly young squire. Assemble the kite material and let’s away to Fairmount Park, before the wretched storm begins. So do you think it will snow or rain, lad?”

“Oh I’m quite thertain it will be rain thir. For if it were going to thnow, I believe it would have to be colder.”

“Yes, quite,” replied the master, lost momentarily in deep thought.

“Besides my liege, should it be thnow, we can thtart a fire. Then, even though there is thnow on the roof, there will be a fire in the hearth.”

“Quite, quite. That’s what I always say.” He could hardly contain his pleasure as he once again returned to the journal. “Now don’t forget, my trusty vassal, to bring along the new, stronger metal twine – and oh, also the key to the front door. Notice I’ve concealed it in the lid of the jar on the table. A perfect hiding place, don’t you agree?”

“Oh indeed your honor. I’d have never gethed.”

And so, the unlikely pair – the 250 pound Franklin in his tailored waistcoat, young Leeds in his tattered jacket and shabby trousers (with the singed left cuff) – proceeded in the direction of Fairmount Park. Viewing the pair from behind, one could not help but be amused. His Lordship waddled sanctimoniously, tapping every other step with the walking stick his apprentice had recently embellished by adding a collapsible cloth covering that, when inverted and deployed, would protect him from the impending rain/snow. Franklin greeted everyone he passed (at least those worthy of his acknowledgement) with a kind word or one of Richard’s sayings (curiously failing to credit the author). The young boy, racing to keep up (sparks flying), dragged behind him an ingenious wooden wheeled cart filled with all manner of mysterious scientific equipment and of course the ubiquitous journal. Franklin stopped once to point out a pair of starlings, foraging amongst the branches of a Mulberry bush. “Sakes alive,” exclaimed the master, “anyone fast enough could easily reach in and grab both. What think you boy?”

“Begging your pardon, m’lord,” the boy cautiously interjected as he finally caught up, “But, with all due rethpect, I’d much prefer to be holding one tightly than attempting to capture two from afar. Yeth, I’m quite thertain exthellanthy, that one bird in the hand ith worth two in the buth.”

“Indeed, indeed,” muttered the Colonial Potentate. "My thoughts precisely. Now pray, pass me the journal and rest for a moment whilst I make an important entry. And then we must away, in order to beat this accursed rain.

“As you thay, Noble thir. If we thtand here too long, we are thertain to grow moth. Like the rolling thtone, we thud continue on, for ath you know, a rolling thtone gatherth no moth.”

Franklin gazed skyward, mumbled a brief thank you to a heavenly deity and resumed writing with a vengeance . . .and a smile.

Arriving at their destination, a lush meadow in Fairmount Park, both student and teacher noticed the last of the tall summer grass was bending in response to the increasing north east wind. The stiff breeze and the encroaching darkness served as harbingers of the now-certain storm. They moved quickly, emptying the contents of Richard’s cart. Gently, the youth removed and began assembling the kite. His latest design resembled a small triangle on top and one almost twice as long at the bottom. The resulting four opposing corners were stretched and reinforced with wooden supports (struts) shaped from young Spruce saplings (selected for their flexibility and strength), which enabled them to withstand the force of the wind against the kite. Ever cautious, the Leeds boy noticed the tiny beginnings of a tear where the two triangular shapes joined. Although Mr. Franklin was becoming increasingly anxious and would have been perfectly happy to proceed poste haste, the conscientious boy retrieved his sewing kit from the pile of junque on the ground by the cart and quickly executed a locking stitch where the fabric had parted, admonishing no one in particular as he worked, “If I thow jutht one thtitch early enough, it may likely prevent me from having to do 7 or 8 in the future, or perhapth even 9 for that matter.” Looking up for approval he announced in a more confident voice, “I’m quite thure Mathter, it would be thafe to athume a thtitch in time, thavth nine.” As he waited patiently for the printer’s response, he realized Mr. Franklin was back at the cart, scratching furiously in the journal and, it appeared, chuckling to himself.

Finally, the two began the launch process – that is to say, Mr. Franklin stood in one place holding the kite gingerly so as not to soil his formal clothing, while he encouraged the lad to run as fast as possible, considering the need to drag his weighted left foot through the soft, grass carpeted meadow. Were it not for the ever increasing wind velocity, the kite may never have ascended. In fact, at this point the wind had become so fierce, there was very likely no reason to have run at all – other than the fact that this was the way the older gentleman insisted on doing it. And, as fate would have it, at the exact instant the sturdy kite was grabbed by the sky, that very same sky unleashed the beginnings of a spectacular storm, heralded by a brilliant display of lightning, followed seconds later by an unnerving roar of thunder. As Franklin scurried (uncommonly fast for a gentleman of his age and generous girth) toward the cart and the shelter of his “bumbershoot” (the boy’s name for the modified walking stick), young Leeds was left in the driving rain to contemplate his most recent misery. Scared out of his wits by Nature’s orchestration of sight and sound, he momentarily, and quite understandably, let loose of the metallic cord, which had left a respectable gash in his hand before exiting his grip. Fully aware that his Lord and Mentor would understand his fear and doubtless encourage him to seek shelter rather than retrieve the kite, poor Richard would not retreat. In the meantime, his Worship stood huddled beneath the protective covering demonstrating his growing concern for his charge.

“That’s it lad. Quickly now. You can do it. Just leap and grasp the string. If you hop on one leg, your other foot won’t get mired in the mud. Bravo boy. You’ve done it!”

And indeed, at the very last instant, in a desperate leap, the youngster captured his prize.

The boy, beaming, staggered toward the cart with the metal cord (now wrapped securely around his wrist and finished with a knot) seeking shelter himself. Alas there was only the already occupied bumbershoot. But frankly, he was so excited at saving the day, he no longer seemed to notice the cold, pelting rain, the thunder or the lightning. Nor did he seem the least bit concerned about the increasing numbness in the hand which secured the kite.

“By the way,” the Master queried, “Do you happen to recall where you put the key, Leeds?”
" Oh yeth Thire. Itth right here…"

The youngster stooped, retrieving the jar. At that very instant, from out of the Eastern sky, slicing through the still laden clouds, a multi fingered bolt of lightning appeared. The boy watched in utter fascination as time seemed to stop. The bright menace, which suddenly took on the shape of a huge, disproportionate pitch fork, hurled itself directly at the defenseless kite. Both stared in horrified anticipation of the certain carnage. The youth’s mouth gaped so wide, the walnut dentures dislodged, resting on his lower lip. Grateful, he jettisoned the dark brown teeth and continued to be mesmerized. The following events, which no doubt occurred within a fraction of a second, seemed to take place in a much more protracted time period:

To their amazement, at the very last instant, four of the five illuminated prongs merged into one and contacted the hapless kite, creating a huge burst of sparks (reminiscent of those produced by a certain left shoe skimming across cobblestones). As time appeared to stand still, what remained of the kite, the skeletal Spruce frame, hung momentarily suspended in the illuminated sky. At the intersection of the two cross members, a bright ball loomed. Then suddenly, time resumed with a vengeance. In about one tenth the time it took the terrified youngster to gasp, the glow descended the 350 yards to earth. Specifically, to the hand (numbed by the tightly wrapped cord) that was grasping the lid of the “key keeper.” And then a miracle occurred. But not before young Richard Leeds took temporary leave of the conscious world.

(Later that day):

Richard awoke coughing, a result of the smelling salts being administered by none other than his teacher, counselor, mentor and protector (?), Mr. Benjamin Franklin himself. Realizing he was back at Mr. Franklin’s shop, lying in his master’s bed, the boy muttered, “Wath wrong thir? What happened?”

The boy was instantly aware that the teeth, now quite water soaked, had been replaced.

“Well my brave little soldier, while you were suffering your fainting spell, I was busy discovering electricity. As I of course suspected all along, the metal cord acted as a conductor and verily illuminated the key in the jar, proving of course that metal is an appropriate material across which electricity may be conveyed – unlike human flesh, since your hand only glowed for a very short period. And I believe I may also have discovered something about iron being a suitable material for grounding the electric charge to the earth. Although, I’m sorry to inform you your leg extender is totally unserviceable at the moment so you’ll have to revert to your former limp until I can build another.

And, I have more good news, son. Since you’ve had such an unfortunate day, I plan to give you the afternoon off. And here, take this brand new penny, which you can exchange for sweets, as soon as you’re done resting that is.

“Oh no my Lordthip. I’d rather keep the penny ‘til a future time. You thee, a penny which ith thaved ith thimilar, if not the thame, ath one that you have earned. Make that, ’A penny thaved, ith a penny earned.’ Don’t you agree Mithter Franklin Thir? . . . Thir? . . . Thir, did you hear me? Thir?”

The boy turned just in time to see Mr. Franklin smiling giddily, lost in some amusing thought and, as usual, writing in his journal.

Penny saved . . .


Joined March 2008

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