When I was seven, my parents and I took a vacation up to a ranch up in Canada. From Oregon to Vancouver it was eight-hours of driving through rain, but being Oregonians, the rain didn’t bother us. We arrived to the ranch in the afternoon and they sent me to explore while they stayed to unpack at the cabin and do their taxes. Mom and Dad always did their taxes on vacation.

I set off with my raincoat and galoshes and a small yellow plastic bucket, the kind you give a child at the beach to build a sand castle. The ranch was an animal farm that rented cabins to sheltered suburbanites, and there were endless things for me to do: wave at the animals, dig holes, throw sticks at the electric fence. Endless experiments for me to conduct.

Near the cabin was a cow pasture, and from it a little ditch where stinky water flowed into a pipe. The pipe wasn’t very big, maybe as big as my bucket. Wouldn’t that be neat, I thought, if the bucket fit perfectly into the pipe? So I went down to the mouth of the pipe and lowered my bucket into the stream.

The pull of the rushing water made the bucket feel heavy, so heavy that I lost my grip. The bucket spun around under the water until thwump, it was sucked into the pipe. I tried to reach in to grab it, but it was gone.

And then the water started to rise.

As a child, you don’t always understand why something is happening, but you can tell the difference between good and bad, and I could tell this was bad. Very bad.

My parents came out when they heard the panic in my calls for help. I tried to explain what had happened and pointed at the pipe.

First, my father got down in the soggy grass and tried to fish out the bucket but he couldn’t reach it. Then my mother jumped in. She was on her hands and knees, and the water kept rising around her. As she reached into the pipe, the water took her hand, her elbow, then her shoulder. She had to turn her head like a swimmer as the water lapped at her chin. Her face wore the tortured grimace of someone flailing to grasp at something just out of reach. Then it seemed to suck her in.

This was the moment I would remember for the rest of my life. The moment I realized it was all my fault. The moment just before she emerged from the pipe with a small yellow bucket and before the water began to recede.

I remember my father being scolded by the owner of the ranch. I remember hiding under a blanket as my parents re-packed our things so we could leave. We weren’t welcome anymore.

All of this from a plastic bucket and a single foolish thought.

Sometimes a disaster can be traced back to even the most innocent of bad ideas. That’s the lesson I learned from my little bucket.

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