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The midnight gardeners

When I was younger and full of rascality, I fell in step with two other boys like me sho shared this adolescent fever. Yet we were an enlightened trio; not interested in mindless mischief, we always had an eye peeled for the unique, the novel, the once-in-a-lifetime trick that would leave our consciences unburdened and stymie people around us.

Trouble is easy to cause and difficult to live with. Anyone could create a scene. Throwing the small hardball oranges that grew wild in my neighborhood was only for past generations of malcontents. We were after bigger glories, exciting but clean, as imaginative as they were hamrless.

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Because we lived in an old neighborhood, many of the houses and yards were cluttered with foliage, trees and brush untrimmed for years, leaves and branches gathering in piles where they fell, gradually settling so their appearance seemed natural.

Our three houses happened to be relatively neat, kids providing forced labor. One blue-skied July day, as we lay in my front yard throwing clumps of grass at one another, tormented by our free time, Danny suggested we clean up the neighborhood yards. Eric, always the laziest and most ironic of the three, objected, saying, "If people wanted their yards clean, they'd get out there and do it themselves. How are we gonna get permission? And besides, I don't need the money."

Danny was excited. "Hey, Eric, that's the point. We're not going to ask or get paid. We're just going to start cleaning up." Eric harrumphed as much as any young boy can and threw his forearm across his face in distaste. Thus were born the Midnight Gardeners.

The name is explanation enough. During the night, three young boys dressed in dark green army-surplus fatigues shuffled down silent streets dragging garden tools, green plastic garbage bags billowing behind them. We would work on pre-selected houses, giving due consideration to any dogs that might blow our cover.

We slithered out our windows and raked and clipped and bundled and weeded and jammed those garbage bags full of foliage. It was exhilerating work: rake a lawn here, trim ivy there. The late hour, the stealth, the downright goodness of it, the zaniness were all nearly intoxicating. We'd finish our forays, sweating and flushed, and climb back through our windows and into our beds, unable to sleep for the excitement of it all.

We would leave a note taped to the stuffed bags at every job, composed of cutout letters like ransom notes, reading simply, "Compliments of the Midnight Gardeners." After several of our visitations, our neighborhood sprang alive with gossip. Why would anyone do such a thing? Were they trying to embarass people who had scraggly yards? Who were the Midnight Gardeners? Whose yard would they strike next?

It was heady indeed for three young boys, and we went around with feigned nonchalance while secretly delighted at the uproar, But doing such noisy work -- and the noise seemed tremendous sometimes, reverberating through the night, darkness magnifying the clomp of clippers on ivy until it sounded like a deafening crunch, crunch crunch -- was risky. Time was slowly running out.

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One night we began trimming a lawn that was growing past its boundaries and into the street. As Danny pushed the lawn edger across the huge tufts of grass hanging over the cement curb, he slipped and ran the metal disc over the curb and into the street, where he fought to keep the monster from running along the pavement. Sparks flew amid a hideous screeching noise before he finally brought the machine to a stop. The three of us froze.

Nothing happened for several minutes. So Danny resumed. It wasn't long before it slipped off the curb wildly and drove the the edger again over the asphalt. I walked over and told him to quit with the edging or someone would hear us.

GEtting nervous, we hurriedly began to get our tools together when we saw a car coming up the street with a siren and lights on top. I whispered, "Run!" and we three figures bounded to a nearby wall and lay down next to it, hoping the darkness would swallow us up forever.

The car stopped in front of the gardening tools we had left in the street and the men got out. One flicked on his flashlight. The jig was up.

Soon all three of us were on our feet, unable to speak. At the request of our captors for our identity, Danny reached into his pocket to get out one of our customized notes. When the police heard what we were doing, they almost burst out laughing, but remained formal enough to keep Danny sniffling and make Eric begin chewing his wrist.

After enduring a stiff speech from the officers and promising that we'd never do it again, we gathered up our tools and trudged to Danny's house, where we crept through a window into his room and lay awake talking about our near arrest and certain long-term incarceration. Eric, now fortified with courage, kept telling us we should have made a break for it. Danny was sure the police would call his parents and I was wondering how to explain to my father the broken edger, source of the Midnight Gardeners' demise.

From many years' distance, I prefer to look at it as a fanciful, not ignoble, deed, conceived in the listless heat of summer when a youth's imagination is fresh, his days free, his energy boundless.

There is no one now to clean my yard, which I'm afraid is slowly shrinking due to the steady four-sided advance of shrubbery. But sometimes when I lie awake at night, I can almost hear the giggling young boys and the faint swish of a rake gathering leaves.

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