learned the word “unbeknownst” at age 10. It meant to climb to the roof at midnight but tell no one. My father gave it away when he pointed at the roof and told a visitor, “Unbeknownst to me, at night, squirrels.” I decided the squirrels were irrelevant and focused instead on the unbeknownst roof. Secrets are power.
Night frightened me. I worried that the bookcase might move (as bookcases do) and yield netherworld emissaries. I hid beneath three zoo-animal covers and prayed for the courage and resolve of Tintin (long before Steven Spielberg put him on screen). His adventure stories lay by the bed, stumbling blocks to evil spirits should they decide to abduct me while asleep.
Only children are mummies with soundtracks. Animated to outsiders, they mostly stew around in their own bandages, imagining the world according to a codebook only they can decipher. I knew this but told no one, making the code mine to manage. The only-child alphabet is a Holy Grail available to few.
I worked on my “unbeknownst” plan unbeknownst to my father. He’d hired a contractor to put up scaffolding on one side of the house to root out what he called the “nest” of squirrels. Our pine tree had a branch that brushed against the roof, giving the furry insects a passageway from tree to house. Back and forth they went, boringly confabulating over my father’s bedroom and keeping him up at night. Washington lacked for French intellectual squirrels, the kind my father would have tolerated.
At first, I’d planned the “unbeknownst” project for the night of Christmas Day, but that plan was postponed by a present I liked. In the days before distraction, one present could last a full day and into the night. This was a wonderful electric car, which I broke before bedtime. I was too weepy for an adventure.
I did spend time refining my plan: After bedtime (my father’s, 10:30), I would sneak out the window, climb along the infamous “Crowpid Ledge” (named and spelled by me, for crows and “pidgeons”), and claw my way along the slats to the pointed roof. I would spin the rusty weathervane and boast about accomplishing the “unbeknownst” despite the obvious odds against me, including being terrified. I would salute Tintin, my favorite adventurer, from the roof of the world.
With my favorite toy broken and no video distractions aside from my own small face in the mirror, I decided on New Year’s Eve. I knew my father would be out late that night and that I’d in the hands of Becky the babysitter. She usually petted me like a dog before telling my about her boyfriend’s car. Neither of these subjects interested me and I didn’t make a good dog. Eventually she’d instruct me to “run off” to bed. I never ran.
Becky was generous on New Year’s Eve. The night started late. My father left at 8. I wasn’t made to run off until 10, instead of the usual 8:30. “Tomorrow will be a brand new year!” said Becky. “Now, off you go!” I gave a comely nod and made a “special pretend yawn” (the jaw’s aperture is widened to fool babysitters).
Once inside, I put my winter coat over my pajamas and carefully opened the window that opened to step one, the Crowpid Ledge. It was already 11 p.m. The “unbeknownst” plan called for ascending to the summit in 30 minutes (in only child time) and returning triumphant just as the midnight firecrackers went off.
Once on the Crowpid Ledge I made my way past broken branches and around power lines to the Gutter Cave, a place where all the gutters came together, around which was a smaller roof where the squirrel branch led. I stopped on the smaller roof, sending a dozen sleepy squirrels scurrying. Above me was a big, glowing moon and below a long way down. That long way down began weighing on me as I scuttled from the small roof, along the gutter drain, toward the weathervane. The few waking squirrels seemed to nod “no” in unison. I wondered what Tintin would do in this predicament, with up the only way to got, but disapproved of by strange animals. I decided to continue.
Ten minutes and a few torn pajama parts later I’d completed “unbeknownst.” The firecrackers had begun. I saluted my accomplishment, sneered at the poorly educated squirrels, and waved at the moon, which waved back. The New Year had begun. “Look at me,” I shouted.
“I am,” came a voice.
This was my father, who had returned home. Soon, Becky was with him, gasping. Both asked me to please come down. I looked into the codebook but saw only blank pages. Secrets are at their worst when they’re discovered. “I’m scared,” I sobbed.
The fire department arrived 20 minutes later, with a ladder erected along the side of the house and a big man clambering up and giving me instructions. “What on earth are you doing here, son?” he asked me, scooping me up and putting me into the arms of a second man.
“Unbeknownst,” I replied. “Like Tintin.”
I was punished, of course. But at the very least my legendary exploited had supplanted talk of squirrels. A few months later, my father, speaking to another guest, pointed at the roof and said, “Unbeknownst to me, at night, my son.”