I scampered out in the backyard at 4 in the morning. I was carrying a stepladder. I was wearing only shoes and gym shorts. I was watering the yard.

This was my first attempt at a little night watering. I was there because nighttime was the only time it was legal to roll out the hose. During a heat wave, the city water czars told city dwellers and folks in the surrounding suburbs that tap into the city system that we couldn't use the hose during daylight hours. Doing so, they said, would stress out the water distribution system.

There was no shortage of water, the czars said. It was just that if everyone watered their lawns or washed their cars or filled their backyard swimming pools, the water system couldn't handle the pressure.

Put another way, when hot weather hit, taxpayers asked our water system to pump up, and it told us to dry out.

I grumbled, but being a good citizen, I waited until about 10 p.m. before I turned the hose on my parched little patch of ground.

As I turned on my sprinkler, I noticed that my neighbor's yard had also dried up in the heat. The neighbor was out of town. However, a hose and sprinkler were still sitting out in the yard, left over from the era when the neighbor could sprinkle in the sunshine.

But now the neighbor's garden was shriveling. So I decided to do a good deed -- to turn on my neighbor's tap.

Doing the deed wasn't easy. A chest-high fence stood between me and my duty. I stared at the fence, paying special attention to the sharp points sticking out of the top. I began to question the wisdom of scaling it. Then I had a revelation: This was why God had given me children.

Quickly I recruited my 6-year-old son, and lifted him over the pointy fence. Like most 6-year-olds he was more than willing to run into a yard and turn on a sprinkler.

It took a little negotiating to get my son to lower the waterspout coming out of the sprinkler to something less than Old-Faithful proportions. But eventually he hit a mutually agreeable water flow, and I hoisted my son back over the fence.

With the sprinklers in both yards going, things cooled down. The patio bricks must have been a mere 90 degrees or so. The vegetation began to look like it was part of nature, not part of a dried flower display in a department store window.

The scene bordered on the pastoral, at least when the buses weren't roaring down the street. So I left the sprinklers running and marched the 6-year-old and his big brother up to bed.

Later, after watching the late night news to see if the water czars had banned anything else -- taking a shower, brushing your teeth, making coffee -- I walked out into the backyard and shut off my sprinkler.

It was then that I realized I didn't have a way to stop my neighbor's sprinkler. My little fence-climber was asleep. And as a veteran parent, I knew that nothing short of the house catching fire was a justifiable reason to wake a sleeping kid.

So I decided to let my neighbor's sprinkler run, to give that backyard a really thorough soaking.

I slept on that decision. For about four hours. At about 4 in the morning I woke up.

At that hour of the morning life's remote problems -- the drip of a faucet, the bounce of a check, the possibility of flooding your neighbor's basement -- seem very big and very real.

I couldn't go back to sleep. So I put on some gym shorts and shoes and slipped out to the backyard. This time my mission was to scale that fence and snuff out my neighbor's


I turned on the backyard light. The fence loomed in front me. In the four hours since I had last seen it, the fence seemed to have grown taller. Moreover, its points seemed to have gotten sharper.

I gave myself a little pep talk, "You're going over that fence." Then my brain woke up and added a postscript: "But you are going to use a stepladder."

So I tiptoed back into the house, grabbed the stepladder and assaulted the fence. I positioned the stepladder so it straddled the fence.

I climbed up the steps of the ladder and got right on top of the fence. The points of the fence glistened beneath me. Then, violating every precept of correct stepladder behavior, I swung myself around to the other side of the ladder and started to clamber down the step ladder supports.

The ladder swayed. A thought flashed through my mind: "If I get hurt, this injury would be hard to explain, especially to a police officer."

I fought off the thought. The ladder steadied, and after getting soakedby the sprinkler, I shut the water off. I climbed back over the fence, folded up the ladder and gingerly carried it back to the basement.

While I was up, I checked on the small sprinkler at the front of the house. It was watering a parched tree that grew next to the street.

I was back inside the house when, at 4:30, I heard an unusual sound. It sounded like someone dribbling a basketball. I stood at my living room window and watched as two guys paraded down the middle of the street dribbling a basketball. I thought of asking them what in the Sam Hill they were doing. But then, considering that they might ask me the same thing, I decided not to.

I turned off the sprinkler by the tree and tiptoed back to the bedroom. My wife stirred as I slipped into bed, but thankfully she didn't wake up.

Had she asked me what I was doing, it would have been hard to explain.

The world of the nighttime waterer is a dark one, understood only by those who have seen its mysterious workings, scaled its slippery slopes and carried their own stepladders.

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