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Illustration from What is the Full Moon Full of

Shulamith Levey Oppenheim

Cricket Stories

Cricket Magazine has graciously allowed me to post this story. Click here to go back to the list of stories.

.......

"Kingbird"

It is noon on the fifth of May, 1775. Benny sits on the stoop of his house on Main Street in Philadelphia, watching ants swarm over a stone.

"Benny," his mother calls from the kitchen window. "I'm bringing Sarah and William. Please keep an eye on them. I'm afraid we'll never be ready by the time your grandfather arrives."

Benny's mother appears, holding one-year-old Sarah who is blond and red-cheeked like herself. William, who is two, runs past her. He trips and falls on the stone.

"Oh, Will." Benny props his brother against the stoop. "You've fallen on my ants and they're running away. I've been watching them all morning."

Benny has an eye for watching, and he has patience, just like his grandfather. For Benny is Benjamin Franklin Bache, and his grandfather is the famous Dr. Franklin, master printer, author of Poor Richard's Almanac, inventor of the Franklin stove, diplomat, writer.

Dr. Franklin had gone to England in 1764, and without intending to, he had stayed away for over ten years. Yet, six weeks ago he'd left London on the Pennsylvania Packet. And tomorrow Benny would see his celebrated grandfather for the very first time!

Benny knows his mother is rushed. Just a week ago, a messenger had posted into town, stopping in front of the City Tavern to announce, "On April nineteenth, in the towns of Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts, the English troops and the American militia fired on each other."

"The revolution's begun, Sal," Benny's father says quietly to his mother as he takes his pipe from his vest pocket. "It's a good thing your father is on his way home. The country needs him."

Everyone has been waiting eagerly for Dr. Franklin's return. Benny has been waiting also. He's been sitting in the corner of the drawing room staring at his grandfather's portrait that hangs over the polished wood rocking chair. And he's been wondering about the world-famous man everyone calls the first citizen of the land. His grandfather!

Will the great man kiss him and pat his hand the way his wife, Grandmother Deborah, used to do? Will he be stern? Benny had heard that his grandfather could be very stern. Will he listen to Benny when he tells him how much Grandmother Deborah missed him and wanted to see him again before she died?

I'll sit on his lap and listen to everything he tells me, Benny says to himself as he watches Will trying to round up the ants. Then I'll tell him all about Grandmother Deborah.

* * * * *

Benny has been awake for hours, worrying. Should he bow when he meets his grandfather? Or should he shake hands first? Or would it be best to bow and shake hands at the same time?

There is another worry. Suppose the great man looks down at him and says, "And what have you invented? Six years old and not invented anything? My, my." Benny isn't sure how old his grandfather was when he'd put together his first invention, but Benny knew he'd been very young. Grandmother Deborah had told him all the things his grandfather had done.

Grandmother Deborah!

She told Benny again and again she'd never get used to Pappy's absence. Pappy was what she called the great man. And now she was dead without ever seeing Pappy again! Benny jumps into bed and cries quietly into the pillow.

* * * * *

Benny sits bolt upright in bed. What a dream he has had! He'd invented a printing press that did everything itself­just by being whispered to! Set itself, inked itself, printed out in any language you wanted. It was red and gold, not black like the other presses.

The moon is shining a full light into Benny's window. "I can't invent anything, not by tomorrow evening. But Mother says I have a fine hand for my age. I'll print a letter for Grandfather. And when I see him, I'll tell him about my dream. That's a kind of invention!"

Benny goes over to the writing table. He takes up his quill pen and dips it carefully into the glass inkpot. With much care he prints, "Deer Grandfather. We hav myssd yu vry much. Weer vry happy yur back. I hav dremt an inventin. Luv, B. Bache & D. Franklin"

Benny feels much better now. He climbs into bed and falls asleep.

It is late in the afternoon, and the whole family has been waiting throughout the day. The kitchen sideboard is a mass of cakes and pies and cold meat and fowl. Benny's shoes are tight. His throat is also tight, and he's sure not a word will come out. The note for his grandfather is tucked into the pocket of his jacket.

Finally, a carriage comes slowly down Market Street. People are running alongside shouting greetings. Benny feels as if he will jump out of himself. His ears burn, and he hides behind his mother's flowing skirt. As the carriage stops in front of the house, and his father steps forward and opens the door, Benny almost stops breathing. The next moment, America's most distinguished citizen is standing by the house he left more than ten years past.

He is stouter than Benny imagined. And taller. But his face is kindly, and so are his eyes that peer over the very spectacles he had invented!

Dr. Franklin waves to the crowd. He shakes the hand of his son-in-law and he kisses his daughter Sally on the cheek. He pats William and Sarah.

Then he looks around and asks, "And Ben? Deborah's kingbird? Where is he?"

What is Benny hearing? Grandmother Deborah's kingbird?

Then his grandfather knows. His grandmother must have written about him and how they were special friends, and how much they missed him....

"He's right here, Father." Sally pulls Benny's hand from her skirt and pushes him toward his grandfather. "He's been the most impatient of all of us."

Suddenly there is Benny, not a foot from his grandfather. The two Benjamins look at each other. "Your grandmother's letters were full of you, young man." Dr. Franklin sweeps Benny into his arms. His face is a mass of smiling wrinkles. "After all, you carry my name. Well, what have you got to say for yourself?"

Benny holds out the note. He cannot say anything for himself.

His mother moves to take him from her father. He motions her away. "I know, I know." He squeezes Benny's arm. "You wish Grandmother Deborah were here. Am I right?" Benny nods and buries his face deep into his grandfather's neck.

"Then let's go inside and see what's on this bit of paper. Whatever it is, I hope it's correctly spelled! Deborah wrote you are my grandson all over. You were her special friend, you know. Now you must be my special friend, my kingbird. How pleased she'd be!"

* * * * *

My friend Claude Lopez, who for forty years was editor of the French Division of the Franklin Papers, shared Benny's diary with me. This story came to me after reading it. What must it have been like meeting his grandfather, the Great and Revered Dr. Franklin, for the first time!

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