Nineteen twenty-nine was a good year for tadpoles. For a change, the winter rains had been plentiful in Glendale, Calif. In the spring there was a gentle flow of clear water in the usually dry Verdugo Wash near our home.
The side pools were full of riparian creatures. Minuscule minnows flickered through sun-dappled water, shy crayfish hid among pebbles, and fat black tadpoles gathered in groups, looking like tiny, tailed licorice drops.
It was the year of the Great Scientific Tadpole Experiment dreamed up by my little brother, Eddie, and me. We were seven and nine years old at the time, and heavily into "nature studies." We had a burning desire to witness the transformation from polliwogs to frogs. So, we decided to bring some tadpoles home in jars of water, and put them into one of Mama's washtubs on the back porch. This we did, just at the stage when their tiny back legs were visible through their transparent skins.
"Their tails fall off when their legs come out," I said. "We'll get to watch it."
"Do both things happen at once?"
"Wait and see." I didn't really know the answer to this.
"And do all of them lose their tails and get legs at the same time?"
"I don't know everything, Eddie. That's what scientific experiments are all about. Finding out things."
We prepared their new environment carefully, floating flat leaves of nasturtiums in the water as resting places for the new frogs.
"These leaves look just like lily pads," I bragged to my brother. "They'll never know the difference."
As soon as we had them settled in their new watery nursery, we watched eagerly for the shucking off of tails and the appearance of legs. We took turns, day and night, hanging over the tub, elbows on the hard edge of the sink, shoulders hunched, eyes peering eagerly into the water. The protests of Mama, and our drooping eyelids, would eventually drive us upstairs to our beds.
Finally, one morning, while the family was sitting at the breakfast table, Mama rushed into the room, all excited, carrying a pitcher of cream from the icebox.
"Those baby frogs are out and all over the back porch!" She was quite breathless. "You kids better round them up and get them out of the house."
"We missed it!" I shrieked in despair. "We missed the change!" I jumped up and raced for the porch.
"I knew we should have stayed up all night," moaned Eddie, following me.
We opened the door to the porch and slid in cautiously, looking carefully where we put our feet. I closed the door. Little green bodies were flinging themselves in reckless abandon around the room. Sure enough, our frogs had escaped their swimming pool and were exercising their new legs for a fare-thee-well.
Mama poked her head in. "Be sure the cat doesn't see them. He'd love some baby frogs for breakfast."
"Oh Mama!" I wailed, fearful for our new pets.
"After you catch them, take them out to the far corner of the garden and turn them loose under the honeysuckle bush. They'll soon hop away to safety."
We found the jars in which we had carried the tadpoles home. It took us a while to catch all the little hoppers.
"How many do you have, Bets?"
"I only have four."
"Have we got them all?"
"I don't know. Maybe there's one more." We searched again, taking the leaves out of the tub and stirring up the murky water.
"None in there," said Eddie. He pulled the plug. The water swirled out with a strong sucking sound. One last small leaf disappeared down the drain.
"Bets, where does water go when you pull the plug?" asked Eddie.
"Daddy says it goes through pipes to the ocean," I answered. "Come on. Help me look in the corners."
We looked carefully in the corners, under the sink, and around the icebox. No more frogs.
"Here you go, little ones," I said as I shook the jar gently, "out into the big wide world."
THE next day, we looked in the garden, peering under the honeysuckle. No frogs were to be found. We soon forgot about them, and went out to play.
Saturday came, and with it a visit from Mr. Turner, the iceman. He came twice a week to replenish our icebox. We watched as he lifted a block of ice with his big tongs and carried it up our driveway and into our back porch. We trotted behind him, slurping on the slivers he had given us. He rapped once on the back door and called out "Iceman!" Entering, he opened the icebox and deposited the block on the corrugated metal rack.
"Just a minute, Mr. Turner," I said. "I'll get your money." Our mother was at the breadboard in the kitchen, cutting out biscuits. She wiped her hands, reached for her coin purse in the cupboard, and shook out a dime.
"I'll pay him, Betsy. I have to go out there anyway." She followed me onto the back porch.
"Here you are, Mr. Turner." She handed him the coin. "See you again on Wednesday." Mr. Turner left. Mama bent over to pull up the wooden flap at the base of the icebox. She slid out the blue enameled pan and carried it over to the tub to empty the drippings.
"Mama, don't!" I shrieked. Down the drain swirled the drip-water, and with it the lost, but now too-late-found - baby frog. "And that," I said sadly, "is the last of our frogs."
Eddie looked ready to cry. "And the end of our scientific tadpole experiment."
Suddenly his face brightened. "But, Bets, maybe he'll like it in the ocean!"