Stuff That Happened Long Ago

My best friend growing up in Starkville, Mississippi was John Briscoe. John was missing one of his big toes which made him the wonder of the neighborhood. He claimed it got cut off in the spokes of his bicycle, and I believed him. Shoes were strictly for church and school, not bicycles. John had an easy, gap-toothed grin and was one of those kids I classified as “having tongues too big for their mouths.” You know the ones I’m talking about: no matter what they are doing, part of their tongue is poking out of their mouth because there just isn’t enough room for it inside.

This unusual combination of ridiculous incisor spacing and overdeveloped tongue allowed John to do the one thing I wanted to do more than anything else at the time: spit long streams of saliva through his front teeth with pinpoint accuracy. John seemed to be able to produce a whole mouthful of spit at will, and nail any target of opportunity within a 15-foot radius.

Although we fought like cats and dogs, John and I were inseparable. I don’t know if it’s still done these days, but in the 1960s mosquito control came every week to our Mississippi neighborhood in the form of a fog-spewing DDT truck. When you are six years old, there are few things in the world cooler than instant fog. Honestly, the DDT man drew a bigger crowd of kids than the ice cream man did because DDT didn’t cost you anything.

John and I would lie in wait for the fog truck and then fall in right behind it on our bicycles for the entire length of Maple Drive. The object was to get as close to the DDT outflow (breathing in as much insecticide as possible) without rear-ending the truck and leaving thirty percent of our skin glued to the road. At some point hypoxia would shut down our brains causing us to break off the pursuit, though we were usually able to follow the back-trail of our own mucous and saliva to my house.

Even when we didn’t chase the DDT truck, we would still run out into the street after it had passed and dance around like idiots in the noxious vapors. I have waited for years in gleeful anticipation of the super powers I was sure I would receive as a result of my overexposure to a chemical now banned in even the most malaria-ridden parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, but these have been slow to materialize. There were a couple of times as an adult when I thought I had changed the TV channel just by using my mind, but it actually turned out to be my wife sitting on the remote. Still, I’d think twice about pissing me off, if I were you, as my ability to levitate you into the next county could show up at any time.

John and I each had an older brother who were of an age and hung out together. Usually they spent their days either trying to ditch John and me or beating the absolute crap out of us when we insisted on following them around (or any time they had nothing better to do). Every once in awhile, though, Bill and Paul let us in on one of their projects, the best one being construction of The Tree Fort.

I think an explanation is in order here on the naming conventions of pre-adolescents in the Deep South. We tended to name things simply – as we found them. For example, there was a small pond just across the barbwire fence in our back yard known as “The Pond.” Surrounding The Pond was a small area of woods we called “The Woods.” Starting to see a pattern here? Just down the street was a limestone leech farm called “The Creek.” And at the edge of The Woods was a giant maple in which Bill and Paul caught a possum in a mail-order trap. Every kid in the neighborhood knew where The Possum Tree stood.

A quick note on possums: they are the meanest, nastiest, hissiest, bitiest, snot-bearing, God-forsaken creatures ever put on this world. They only have two settings: 1) fake coma, and 2) honey badger. Catching one in a trap is a one-way ticket to the emergency room for a tetanus shot and possibly a course of rabies vaccinations, because there is no way you will be able to resist the six-year-old impulse to stick your finger in his cage and poke him… repeatedly.

You would think that one bite from a vicious, snarling snot-monster would be enough to cure the average six-year-old of the desire to further annoy the crap out of an already furious marsupial. You would be wrong. The same paradigm applies to box turtles, snapping turtles, alligator snapping turtles, red-eared sliders, baby alligators, wasps, hornets, yellow jackets, dogs, copperheads, cotton mouths, older brothers, parents and neighborhood bullies. More on six-year-old impulse later.

I don’t remember who came up with the idea of building a tree fort, but, once a scheme of that magnitude presented itself to the group, we immediately set to work without any planning at all. Planning was for adults. Kids don’t plan, they do. It’s why they end up in emergency rooms with missing fingers and toes. As the most gullible of the foursome, John and I were dispatched to “The New Addition” (where they were building new houses) to scrounge wood from the construction sites.

We walked right up to the first unfinished house we found, picked up an 8-foot 2X4 from off a stack, and proceeded to carry it off, all under the stunned gaze of the construction crew working on the house at the time. I think the sight of two kids walking up in broad daylight and boldly pilfering their building materials was so far beyond their experience that they didn’t know how to react except to watch in astonishment.

Being at that point in our young lives unfamiliar with the concept of “quit while you’re ahead,” we dropped the 2X4 off with Bill and Paul and went back for more. However, as any magician will tell you, a good trick rarely works more than once with the same audience.

As amazed as the workers were at our first daring theft, I think they were absolutely dumfounded that John and I had the balls to actually return for more. This time we were met by what was probably the foreman just as we were approaching the stack of 2X4s. Back then, any time an adult ever took the time to notice us, it was usually because we were in serious trouble. But you never ran away from adults in those days unless you had a damn good lead because they were allowed to beat you if they caught you. I saw several of the other workers grinning and nudging each other as the giant man hunkered down in front of us with a serious look on his face.

“Now, you boys shouldn’t be playin’ around these work sites,” he said softly. “You could get hurt around here.”

He looked down at our dirty bare feet.

“Why, you might step on a nail and run it clean through your foot. Do you know how bad that would hurt?”

I don’t think he was prepared for the vigorous, affirmative nods John and I returned in response to his question. Of COURSE we knew how badly it would hurt. We never wore shoes and routinely stepped on nails, thorns, shards of glass, pieces of barbwire, and metal propellers from die-cast toy airplanes. I once walked a good hundred yards and over two barb-wire fences to my house, not only with a nail stuck all the way through my foot, but also dragging the board I had just nailed it through before stepping on it. We also knew how badly it hurt when wasps and hornets stung us, but that didn’t stop us from throwing dirt clods or hedge apples at any nest we found.

So, yeah, we knew how badly it would hurt, but that was an acceptable risk and a fair trade in exchange for not having to take the time to think things through carefully before we did them. It was about that time I think that the foreman noticed John’s missing big toe and decided he might be barking up the wrong tree.

“Well, if one of these stacks of lumber fell over on you boys, it could kill you.”

Again he failed to make an impression on us. The average six-year-old in the 1960s had only the vaguest concept of death as an actual possibility except as it applied to very old people and German soldiers in episodes of “Combat” or “Rat Patrol.” This must have been apparent in our blank stares.

“And you can’t just walk up and take things off other people’s property, boys; that’s stealing.”

Oh, that did it. We knew all about stealing from our Sunday School lessons and episodes of “Jot” and “Davy and Goliath.” It’s not that we felt bad about stealing – hell, we stole from each other and other people all the time. Our neighbor down the street, Mr. Berry, was lucky to have a single duck decoy left in his garden shed. No, we felt bad because an ADULT was talking to us about stealing – that we had been CAUGHT stealing – and THAT, my friends, opened up the real possibility of getting a whuppin’ with the belt or serving hard time in one of the numerous chain gangs you could still see from time to time cutting grass along the highways in Mississippi.

I had only one defensive reaction: I started to cry. It was the only weapon in my arsenal and still works to this day on my wife when she catches me trying to sneak a new table saw into the garage that I picked up at Lowes while I was supposed to be getting some milk and bread at the grocery. It was an effective tactic because adults always assume tears to be a sign that a kid has learned his or her lesson and is sorry. Plus, adults (and wives) hate crying kids (and husbands) and want to get rid of them as quickly as possible.

“Okay, son, dry it up, now. You’re not in any trouble… this time. You can keep the board you took. What did you want it for anyway?”

Since I was still hitching and sobbing and smearing snot all over my face with the back of my arm, John explained that we were building a tree fort.

“A tree fort huh?” The man smiled as if remembering one or two tree forts he had built in his day. “I’ll tell you what: if you boys promise to stay off this lot, we’ll pile some scrap wood near the sidewalk, and you can take what you want from there for your tree fort… but nothing else. There’s going to be other scrap piles of stuff that you shouldn’t mess with, so only take from the one by the sidewalk. And don’t let me catch you around any of these other houses neither.”

We promised we’d stay off the lot. Of course we would have promised to climb Mount Vesuvius during an eruption if we thought it would keep us from getting in trouble. As we left I heard some of the other workers hooting and laughing and saying something about “makin’ that poor boy cry like that,” but I didn’t care. When we came back empty-handed, Paul and Bill wanted to know what happened.

John immediately piped up, “Some guys workin’ on the house caught us, but Dave cried like a little girl so they let us go.”

I pushed John into some nearby scrub where he lay cackling with his legs straight up in the air. Normally this would have been the cue for Bill and Paul to tease me mercilessly for being a crybaby, but they realized the important thing was that no parents had been called. Being the older brothers, they would have ultimately been to blame because John and I would have ratted them out faster than Sammy “The Bull” had turned on the Gambinos. “Bill told me to,” was my go-to defense back then (whether he had actually told me to or not). They eyed me for a second with what just might have been respect; possibly trying to think how they could work this apparent skill of mine to their benefit. I wasn’t a “made man” yet, but the potential was there.

“Okay,” Bill said. “We’ll go back and get the rest of the wood after they quit work for the day.”

Which is exactly what we did. Eventually we had enough lumber to start work, and there is little to tell of the actual building of The Fort save for a several mashed fingers, couple of bent saws, and a hammer left out in the rain to rust beyond all possible utilitarian redemption. The design was your basic three-tree-delta-shape fort consisting of an upper and lower platform. We had safety rails around each platform, and planned to put up real walls with gun ports and a roof to keep the weather out, but we never completed the project. At that age, you’re lucky if you can concentrate long enough to finish even part of whatever you initially set out to do. Our bedroom room was usually scattered with half-built plastic models and unfinished games of “Monopoly,” “Gnip-Gnop,” or “Mouse Trap.” All in all, though, it was a pretty sweet fort and an excellent spot from which to snipe each other with our bb guns.

//PAP!//
“Owww, you shithead!”
“Gotcha!”

Some weeks later John was up in The Tree Fort while Bill, Paul, and I stood underneath it, lighting rolled-up pieces of notebook paper, trying to smoke them, and generally looking very cool. All of a sudden I felt a runner of liquid skip right across the top of my head. As Bill and Paul seemed to be missing out on this spontaneous burst of precipitation, I figured John was using my head for target practice. I looked up and the words, “Stop spitting on my head, Butthole!” died on my lips. John was not spitting on me. John was peeing on me. There he stood, tackle-out, grinning like an idiot as he criss-crossed his stream of urine over top of me in order to ensure even coverage.

I do not know why John decided to pee on me. What I do know is that once gripped by six-year-old impulse, it would have been easier for him to cut off his own head with a spoon than to resist that impulse. I, myself, had yielded to six-year-old impulse on numerous occasions.

Earlier that summer, my brother, Bill, and I were throwing darts outside. Bill had just finished his throw and had gone up to retrieve his darts, when suddenly I wondered if I could wing a dart right by his head and have it stick in the dartboard next to his face. How cool would that be? I even imagined the “thock” sound it would make and the surprised look on Bill’s face. My brain had barely registered this wonderful idea when it noticed my hand and arm had already acted upon it. I watched in horror as the dart flew straight and true… right into the back of Bill’s neck.

Surprisingly, my first feeling after the dart struck home was not fear, but rather disappointment that dart didn’t stick straight out of his neck like an arrow in an old western movie; It flopped down and just hung there. Instead of running for my life, I stood rooted to my spot in mute wonderment. Bill didn’t even bother to pull the dart out, he simply rounded on me and punched me right in the face. And even as the blows began to fall, I still couldn’t concentrate on my well-deserved shellacking because I couldn’t take my eyes off that stupid dart, bobbing up and down in hypnotic fashion off the side of Bill’s neck.

So, while I do not know why John decided to pee on me, I do not hold it against him… now. At the time, however, I was furious. I didn’t realize I was frozen with rage until I heard Bill and Paul consoling me by bursting into outright laughter. By the time I looked up again, John’s survival instinct had kicked in, and he was shimmying down the back side of one of the trees like a squirrel. John hit the ground running, but righteous, white-hot fury had given me the speed and dexterity normally lacking in my ungainly youth. Within five steps I had caught John, thrown him to the ground, and the fight was on.

Normally, Paul would have stuck up for his little brother, but given the circumstances, he was content to merely cheer him on. I knew I had to work fast, though, because retribution has a statute of limitations. Playground Law dictated that I only had a few minutes to hurt John. Eventually Bill and Paul would break us up, so my punches had to count. To this day I can still hear Paul’s battle cry to his brother:

“C’monJohneesonlyagradeharnyoooooo!!!”

To those who do not speak Mississippian, this translates to:

“Tally ho, John, old sport, he is only one grade higher than you.”

While it’s true I was a grade ahead of John in school, we were the same size and same age. It wasn’t my fault he got held back.

John and I were normally an even match, but I bloodied him up pretty good, and, in keeping with southern dueling custom at the time, rolled him once (just once) through the nearest fire ant bed. Bill and Paul finally broke us up, and I jumped into The Pond to wash off because for some reason cow piss was less offensive to me than human piss.

Even though John went home looking like he had walked face-first into a wasp nest and I went home soaking wet and smelling like a cow pond, neither of us got in trouble over the incident that later became known throughout the neighborhood as “that time John peed on yor haid.” Both families seemed to feel that honor had been satisfied. They considered this sound parental management and were content to let us settle most of our differences without the aid of attorneys or law enforcement.

The next day I was in the back yard plinking away at a duck decoy with my bb gun. John walked around the side of the house and sat down next to me, apparently unconcerned that I would take the opportunity to shoot his eye out or widen the gap in his front teeth with the butt of my Red Ryder.

“Sorry I pissed on your head, crybaby.” John said and started scratching at his ant bites.
“Sorry I bloodied your nose, butthole.” I returned, and grinned.

Of course neither one of us was a bit sorry. We knew we were a law unto ourselves as long as we flew below the parental radar. Generally, we managed to work things out just fine. I would like to say that I no longer succumb to the sweet siren song of six-year-old impulse. But, as anyone who has ever played darts with me could tell you, that would be a complete lie.

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