PVC is amazing stuff. Its versatility rivals that of Duct Tape. And growing up, we always had plenty of both around the house. The PVC was mostly for Dad’s plumbing work on our house, which seemed constant. I guess eight kids put a lot of mileage on the pipes.
As for the Duct Tape, as far as I could tell, it was intended solely to delight us kids. In my memory (though I’m sure Dad recollects otherwise), its presence in our little homestead was exclusively for construction of cardboard creations of all types: houses, cars, planes, boats, you name it. With eight kids you get a lot of mileage out of corrugated paper products and a roll of strong tape capable of holding them together in imaginative shapes and designs.
Not that the PVC didn’t find its way into the realm of us children also. Whatever its original purposes when first brought into our home, any PVC that didn’t get installed right away had a way of ending up as something other than plumbing. Whether it was a plastic xylophone or pretend bazooka, us kids were constantly raiding Dad’s PVC stores for some alternate use of the coveted piping.
Probably the most notable application was devised by my sister Ruth, who made a boat out of PVC, canvas, and plywood. And I’m not talking a little model or a toy. I mean a real, bona-fide, ocean going water craft.
Well, maybe not “ocean going,” but at least as close our little land-locked corner of the Mid-West had to offer: a lake at our local state park. It was a memorable summer. We all watched the gestation of the project from initial inspiration to final splash. It began with a flash of plumbing-inspired imagination, elaborated and worked out with pen and paper at the dining room table. Hours of backyard construction followed, with Ruth measuring, sawing, gluing—and occasionally standing with her hands on her hips staring meditatively at something that didn’t quite go together the way it was supposed to. There were trips to the hardware store for fittings and joints. There were even trips to a boat supply store for lines and tackle and other gear of a faintly piratical nature.
As Ruth worked, the pile of PVC and assorted accoutrements slowly began to take shape as something recognizably nautical. And then one day, there it was: Ruth’s idea sat as a reality gloriously instantiated in plastic and plywood in our backyard, awaiting but a final finishing touch: the painting of a name on the gallant vessel: “Fiver,” taken from the novel Watership Down.
When the paint dried, there was only one thing left to do: see if it would actually float.
Not that any of us harbored any doubts—but Ruth did wear a swimsuit for the maiden voyage. Fiver was designed to be disassembled so that it could be transported in pieces in the back of a pick-up, then reassembled at the water’s edge. So Ruth broke it down, loaded it in the back of a truck, and off we went to see what would happen upon contact with actual water. Emotions ran high. Much sweat and epoxy had been expended. Hopefully not in vain.
At the state park, Ruth used a wrench to put Fiver back together again, and then it was time to hold our breath. Ruth pushed off from shore and hopped on board. Fiver bobbed in the water, for a tense second it wobbled this way and that, but then righted itself and she was off! We let out our breath and gave a cheer. Fiver was sea worthy! Ruth navigated her plastic PVC pontoon around the lake several times, and it maneuvered through the water with grace and charm—and maintained Ruth’s position above the water line the whole time. Her swimsuit never got wet. Mighty PVC, along with Ruth’s design and craftsmanship, had proved itself equal to the challenge of the deep. It’s no surprise that Ruth went on in later life to become an inventor, with a passel of patents to her credit. And she still has nautical inclinations, only now she takes her own kids on kayaking adventures in the Great Lakes.
If only all PVC experiences were so salubrious and inspiring. But alas, another, and decidedly less constructive (and actually downright destructive), use of PVC was found by my brothers John and Michael: they made blowguns.
But not just any blowguns. We’re talking weapons grade creations fit for big game hunting. Just by way of illustration, John and Michael used the wood siding of our garage for target practice. The darts fired from their PVC blowguns stuck right into the wood siding with a reverberating thwack! Same thing with trees. That’s the kind of power they had.
The darts were made from bamboo sheesh-kabob skewers scavenged from the kitchen. The boys taped cones of paper around one end of the skewers to catch the air blown through the pipe. Experimentation with different diameters and lengths of PVC tubing discovered the magic mathematical proportions for producing maximum velocity. And once armed with these weapons worthy of the Amazon, John and Michael stalked trees and garages throughout the neighborhood.
Things would have been fine if they would have stuck with sycamores. But temptation reared its ugly head— in the form of a long, narrow hallway ending in a landing where hung thick, heavy drapes presenting a plumb target. It was our upstairs hallway, and it ran the entire length of our house. With your back to the wall at the bathroom window, you looked all the way down the hall—long and straight and narrow—to the landing with its curtain covered windows at the far end, all the way on the other side of the house. And the curtains were hefty, like a medieval wall tapestry—perfect for lodging airborne missiles into.
It was a ready made shooting range, and proved too powerful an allurement for young, blowgun wielding boys to resist. One night, after we had been tucked into bed and Mom and Dad had gone back downstairs, John and Michael crept stealthily from under their blankets and retrieved their blowguns from under their beds.
The rest of us boys watched with wide eyes. Were they really so foolish as to try shooting their blowguns in the house? Apparently so. We watched the two intrepid marksmen tiptoe out into the hallway with blowguns and darts in hand.
Then we perched on the ends of our beds, listening—waiting to see what would happen. Was it really possible to fire blowguns down the hall at night without getting caught?
We heard the soft whoosh of a dart propelled from a blowgun, followed a few seconds later by a dull thump as the bamboo skewer drove into the curtain. Then soft padding of bare feet scampering down the hall to fetch the dart, followed by another whoosh and thump.
For a time we timid ones waiting things out in the safety of our beds listened to more whooshing and thumping as John and Michael fired volley after volley of darts down the hall into the curtains.
Still no sounds of stirring emanated from downstairs where the grown-ups lurked.
So at last us fence sitters, finally satisfied that nocturnal marksmanship could be indulged in without detection, clambered down from our bunk beds and joined John and Michael in the hall.
A bamboo rain ensued. Flight after flight of barbeque skewers were launched down the hall to lodge, dangling, into Mom’s curtains. It was a glorious hail of splinters, a joyous piercing that lasted long into the night.
Eventually we began to hear the rustlings and rumblings from downstairs that we knew were the sounds of “shutting down for the night.” That marked the end of our midnight game of punctuation, so we collected the last batch of darts still protruding from Mom’s curtains like needles from a pin cushion, packed up the blowguns, and headed off to sleep with visions of flying bamboo dancing in our heads.
All was well until the next morning. I stepped from my room, groggy, rubbing sleep from my eyes, and turned toward the landing at the end of the hall to head downstairs to start a new day— and froze in my tracks. My eyes beheld a horrible sight: hundreds of little shafts of light streamed down into the dim gloom of the hallway, each slender beam emanating from a small hole in the curtains.
I couldn’t believe it. Hundreds of those tiny holes glowed with a terrible light, littered in a bright array of radiant perforations scattered across the curtains in shining testament to our flying skewers of bamboo destruction.
How could we have been so foolish?
Last night we had thought there was no trace of our illicit target practice, because it had been dark outside. On the other side of the curtain was a window, and last night on the other side of that window had been the sunless night.
But it would not always be so.
The sun would rise.
And when it did, on the other side of the window would be a gazillion kilowatts of power from a giant ball of hydrogen gas blazing in nuclear conflagration across the sky.
Which, as it turns out, is rather bright.
Now the evidence of each and every projectile we’d sent flying down the hall the night before was plain as a day for all the world to see.
It was actually beautiful, in its own unique way, what with the hundreds of little beams of sunshine, dust motes dancing as they flitted in and out of the shafts of light, and all those myriad little holes glowing in the curtains, fired with the luminous radiance of the morning sun. As I gazed with a mixture of horror and delight at what we had wrought the night before, I had a sudden epiphany. What I learned in that moment was this: build boats, not blowguns.
Just kidding. Although I did come to see the value in that lesson later, after it turned out that The Powers That Be did not find the aesthetic charms of our acupuncture decorating (whatever they may have been) to outweigh the wanton destruction of property.
But really, what has stuck with me from that experience (so to speak) is a realization that the Bible is a lot more literal that we sometimes think. Jesus said: “For nothing is hid that shall not be made manifest, nor anything secret that shall not be known and come to light.” Lk 8, 17. I encountered Jesus words staring me full in the face. Not abstractly, but actually. Concretely. In the full light of day. Literally.
Sometimes the words mean just what they say. Don’t get me wrong. Words can also mean a whole lot more than what immediately appears on the typographic surface. But just because there may be more layers of meaning down below doesn’t mean that that first level, right there on the surface, doesn’t still have its meaning.
There is something about our age that tends to automatically assume everything in the Bible is metaphorical and allegorical and meant to be taken figuratively. But there’s a risk of over abstraction in that tendency, which can take the teeth right out of the hard parts of Scripture—often when we most need but least want the hard edges of Scripture’s difficult passages. The Catechism of the Catholic Church gives guidelines for interpreting Scripture (see CCC 101 to 141), including a discussion of the importance of reading the Bible in context, as a whole, within the entire tradition of the faith, in light of history, culture, modes of expression, and literary genres, as well as typology and a lot of other important interpretative principles. But among all those considerations and tools of analysis and understanding, the Catechism also reminds us—with a quote from none less than Saint Thomas Aquinas— that our starting point in approaching the Bible is always a literal reading: “All other senses of Sacred Scripture are based on the literal.” (CCC 116).
It’s just something to keep in mind. All the interpretive insights the Catechism gives us are lights shining into the gloom to help guide us along the path to understanding, and one of those points of light is the literal meaning of Scripture, which shines along with all the others to help bring us to greater knowledge and love for God through the revelation of His Word.