Ionce watched a boot camp documentary in which the troops were given a nearly impossible task. They had to drag a large piece of artillery through a forest even though it was missing a wheel.
As the recruits bumbled around, trying to figure out how to move the thing without resorting to sheer muscle power, a drill sergeant watched with amused contempt.
“They’re waiting for a visit from the Good Idea Fairy,” he said.
This magical creature, the embodiment of hurried, half-baked schemes, doesn’t just live on military bases. She sometimes visits quiet streets in the suburbs, too.
Consider what happened on my block a few months ago. My wife and a friend were at a neighbor’s house, trying to catch a litter of feral kittens so they could be fixed and adopted, when a ghostly meow floated through the air.
For a moment, they thought their minds were playing tricks on them. But when they heard the sound again, they poked around until they found where it was coming from — a deep, dark hole beneath the neighbor’s deck.
A tiny kitten had fallen into a partially covered backyard catch basin. Now it was about 6 feet underground, cowering in an open pipe that jutted out from the side of the chamber, just above the surface of a fetid pool of water.
The catch basin was too narrow to allow an adult inside. And given where the kitten was huddled, it was out of reach of anyone with arms shorter than Giannis Antetokounmpo’s.
Thus began the most nerve-wracking rescue attempt since Baby Jessica plunged down an abandoned Texas well. A host of neighbors, onlookers and even first responders fell under the spell of the Good Idea Fairy as they tried to solve this baffling puzzle.
The professionals went first. An animal control officer and eight burly firefighters tried to reach the kitten, but none of their tools suited the job, not even a pincers-like grabber used to collar feral cats.
So they improvised, lowering various objects into the basin in the hope the kitten would leave its bunker, hop inside and get hauled up (the most novel idea was an upside-down traffic cone). But nothing worked.
This is when I entered the picture, eager to contribute my own makeshift creations. I taped some string to a plastic storage container, baited it with chicken and lowered it down, but the container sat on the surface of the water, its sides too high for the kitten to surmount.
Then, on the suggestion of the firefighters and my wife, I fetched a long piece of molding and stapled on a towel to give the kitten a climbing surface. I bent the molding under the deck and down into the basin, suspending the chicken on a string about halfway up. The kitten didn’t take that bait, either.
Finally, the firefighters, who had spent more than two hours in the backyard, had to move along. One told us not to worry: Cats always find a way, he said.
“That’s why we don’t get cats out of trees anymore,” he said. “You ever see a cat skeleton in a tree?”
We were not reassured. The meows had grown fainter, and we thought the kitten might not have enough strength to climb. So we came up with another plan.
I borrowed a 5-gallon bucket and filled it halfway with rocks, topped with a piece of chicken. The idea was that the bucket would sink just enough so its lip would be level with the pipe, enticing the kitten to climb aboard.
First, though, we had to get the molding out of the way. But as I started to haul it up, my wife gasped: The kitten had its front claws stuck in the towel, and when I pulled, the board yanked the kitten out of the pipe and straight into the water.
My wife immediately went headfirst into the basin. As I held one leg and a neighbor we had just met held the other, she tried to grab the foundering kitten, but when she couldn’t, she used a small piece of garden trellis to scoop it back into the pipe.
Our casual operation had suddenly become a red-light emergency. The kitten was exhausted from its near-drowning, and for all we knew, wouldn’t last much longer.
I lowered the rock-loaded bucket into the water, but my grip on the rope slipped and the whole thing dropped beneath the surface. I had run out of ideas, and the poor kitten was running out of time.
That was when a hero brushed aside the Good Idea Fairy.
My 11-year-old daughter, tall and skinny, volunteered to go into the catch basin, even after I tried to talk her out of it. So her mother and I held her beneath the arms and lowered her down.
Wearing my wife’s rain boots, she stood on the lip of the bucket that had settled below the water. She bent her knees and got just low enough to reach inside the pipe.
“I feel her!” she cried.
A moment later, she handed me a limp and mucky handful of fur that weighed barely more than a pound. We hoisted up my daughter, put the kitten in an animal carrier and whisked Baby Jessica — what other name could we choose? — back home for about a dozen baths.
The kitten turned out to be fine: exhausted and scared, but with no water in its lungs and no injuries. The only complication came later, when the vet told us Jessica was actually a boy (we now call him Jessie).
Jessie ate like a Viking, grew like a dandelion and is now a beloved member of the family. He’s also a walking, purring reminder of some important lessons.
Believe your senses when they tell you there’s an emergency. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. And if you’re ever tempted by the Good Idea Fairy, heed the wisdom of drill sergeants and 11-year-old girls: The direct route is usually best.