Disclaimer: My only excuse for the following story was that I was young at the time…and clearly very naïve.
If you ever find yourself traveling through Wheaton, IL, one of the nicest places to visit on a warm, sunny day is Cantigny Park. Formally the vast estate of Chicago Tribune mogul Colonel Robert R. McCormick, the park consists of, among other things, large flower gardens, the McCormick mansion, the First Division military museum (complete with a number of tanks parked out front), and an 18 hole golf course.
But this story is about a fountain.
In the midst of the sprawling gardens was a circular, tree-lined courtyard with a number of crushed gravel paths radiating off into different parts of the park. At the courtyard’s center stood a large water fountain, surrounded by a low stone basin filled to its brim with burbling, blue-tinted water. On cloudless days when the sun was overhead, the silver and copper-colored coins tossed into the water for good luck would glint and wink enticingly in the light. On a hot summer day, the fountain drew people like a magnet.
Like everyone else, I was entranced by the tempting liquid coolness.
Growing up in Wheaton, my family would regularly make the short trek to Cantigny on Sunday summer afternoons. As a pint-sized history nerd, the park’s main draw for me was the First Division Museum to see the military exhibits and to marvel at the exploits of Colonel McCormick during the First World War.
Still…there was always the fountain.
My parents had a firm rule for me whenever we visited Cantigny: touch…nothing. Actually, in my case, this rule was generally applied to all situations (in stores, people’s houses, petting zoos, etc.), but here at the park it was reinforced, especially when it came…to the fountain. I was to stand back and admire its aesthetic quality from a distance and nothing more. I’m not exactly sure why this rule was laid down upon me specifically. It might have been because I was the first born of my siblings and an ongoing experiment for my parents. Perhaps they were afraid that I would impulsively decide to take a swim in the fountain basin and accidentally swallow some coins or something.
Anyway, as it turned out, telling me not to splash around in the fountain was apparently not enough to ensure my obedience, safety, or my dryness. In a way that only parents can get away with, they solemnly assured me that the fountain was electrified. That’s right; if I so much as put a finger into the fountain basin, I would be electrocuted.
And I believed them.
Well, of course little children are expected to believe what their parents tell them; Santa Claus? Of course he’ll be there on Christmas Eve! That scary thunderstorm? It’s just angels bowling in Heaven. You want some donuts? Plant donut seeds (aka Cheerios) in the garden.
But believing my parent’s lie about the fountain of doom wasn’t what made me such a chump. It was the fact that I sat and watched other kids playing in the fountain water time and time again…and never once questioning why they weren’t electrocuted.
Thankfully, I’m a much shrewder man nowadays.
Now if you’ll excuse me, the king of Nigeria wants to give me all of his money.
Epilogue: Summer, 2020
Several friends and I paid a visit to Cantigny one warm weekend. While strolling the gardens, I shared the story of my parents and the fountain. At their urging, I decided that now was the time to dispel the myth of the electrocuting fountain once and for all. Though the original fountain was gone, I hypothesized that if one fountain was electrified here, they all were (makes sense, right?). Summoning up my courage, I made my approach to a small fountain that was burbling away, blissfully unaware of the momentous event about to take place.
Commending my soul to God and to the memory of my mother, I reached into the dancing water…