The other night the 8-year-old and I walked out of the house carrying a crowbar, a hoe, a screwdriver, a hammer and a flashlight. We were going lid-lifting.
The lid we were lifting sat on top of a storm sewer. The sewer was right across the street from the playground where the kid had been batting. He had caught hold of one of my previously unhittable knuckleballs and sent it soaring. The baseball was last seen scooting under a parked car and moving toward the mouth of the storm sewer.
Like a lot of other parents I have spent a fair amount of time searching for various lost balls.
I have beaten bushes with baseball bats. I have mowed down tall grass with scythes. I have shaken tree limbs with rakes. But it has been a few years since I've lifted sewer lids. As my son and I carried our tools through the sticky summer air, memories of previous lid-lifting experiences came back to me.
When I was a kid, I played baseball in the street on similar humid evenings. Often as not the ball ended up in a sewer. Early in the summer, when all the kids in the neighborhood had plenty of baseballs, we didn't care much. But as the summer wore on and the supply of balls dwindled, games would have to be postponed until somebody's big brother could be found to pop the sewer lid.
In my street-ball career I progressed from being the little kid who was sent down the sewer to fetch the ball to the older kid who lifted the little kid out of the sewer to the big brother who was called upon to pop the sewer lid.
The other night as I tried my hand at prying off the lid, I noticed that over the years styles in sewer lids had changed. The sewer lids of my youth seemed much lighter than the thick, round, manhole-like lid I was struggling with.
Moreover, this new-style lid had two holes in it. The holes were there to accommodate a nifty, lid-lifting tool. I had seen teams of workmen around town operate this tool. It fit into the holes and grabbed the lid, and the workmen lifted the lid off. I didn't have the lid-lifting tool. But I did have some experience in sewer work.
I knew that rather than hoisting the lid off the hole in one dramatic motion, the trick was to nudge it. My plan was to get an edge of the lid in the air, then wedge something underneath the upraised lid. Once the wedge was in place, I figured I could slide the lid sideways.
Getting the lid loose was an effort. It had been sitting there awhile, and was surrounded with grime. I tried working the tip of my crowbar into the grime that had filled the space between the lid and the metal rim surrounding it. But the tip of the crowbar was too thick to get into the grime-filled crack.
I had better luck with an old screwdriver. Tapping it with the hammer, I worked it around the edge of the lid. Every so often the lid would lift slightly, then come crashing back down. Each vibration shook loose more grime from the the edge of lid. Eventually, there was enough room to stick the shaft of the screwdriver under the lid. When I pried the lid up in the air, I told my kid to shove the hammer handle underneath it. The kid did as he was told, and the lid's seal was broken.
Slowly I slid the lid off the sewer and onto the sidewalk. I didn't want the lid to slip and somehow end up in the sewer.
The sound the lid made as it moved was stirring. It was the same scraping sound heard in movies when the Ark of the Covenant, or some other gleaming treasure, is about to be unearthed.
But when this lid came off, nothing gleamed. As our flashlight probed the darkness, my kid and I saw bricks, bugs and cobwebs. There was no need for the hoe which I had brought to snag the baseball.
There was no baseball in this sewer. The ball might have passed through. Unlike the flat-bottomed storm sewers I knew, this one had a steeply sloped bottom that fed into a large drain pipe.
Anything that landed in that sewer, whether it was rainwater or a baseball, was destined to travel down that pipe, into the Jones Falls, and eventually into the Chesapeake Bay.
I was disappointed, but the kid was upbeat. He had never seen the inside of a storm sewer before, and he obviously enjoyed this look at the underground.
He asked where the ball was. I told him it was on its way to the Chesapeake Bay.
"How far away is that?" he asked. At least 25 miles, I said, rounding off the mileage.
"Cool," the kid said. "That means I hit a ball 25 miles."