My latest book, HALLEY, awarded 2015 Jefferson Cup Honor for Historical Fiction, awarded the Moonbeam Silver Medal for Young Adult Fiction, and awarded the 2016 Frank Yerby Award for Fiction. Available at: NewSouth Books: www.newsouthbooks.com/halley and Amazon.
Mama and the first four of us young’uns in 1949–about the time of the firecracker escapade.
My mother and father were not the kind of parents who stayed awake at night fretting about ways to keep their children safe. Perhaps because they were so young (Mama fourteen and Daddy just short of twenty when they married) it didn’t occur to them that anything bad could happen to us five young’uns. Or maybe it was because they had been raised the same way and had lived to tell the tale. Whatever their thinking—or lack thereof—the result was the same: Jean, John, Jerry, Mike, and I were never denied the use of knives, scissors, razor blades, ice picks, you name it. My sister once passed out using cleaning fluid to remove a spot from her coat. When she regained consciousness and we cleaned up the blood from the cut the doorframe had inflicted on her scalp, Mama said, “Next time go outside and sit down when you use cleaning fluid, then you won’t fall so far.”
One of my earliest memories is when I was three or four and trying to chop wood with a real ax while my parents watched from the back steps. I didn’t succeed in chopping any wood, but I managed to slice my calf. My parents laughed while my leg gushed blood and I went into hysterics. Daddy said, “Reckon that’ll learn you to be more careful.” I guess it did, because I only have one scar—an inch and a half long—on my left shin.
My brothers built tree houses that were two or three stories high in the tallest trees they could find. As far as I know, they only had one fall as a result. Jerry made a misstep on the “porch” of a house fifty or sixty feet up, and off he plunged. The only thing that saved his life was that it was a tree with a lot of limbs to break his fall. Whump-whump-whump! He was black and blue and bleeding in several places when he landed, but he knew better than to report the accident to Mama. Instead, he concocted a story of a dog chasing him through a briar patch, but I’m not sure he actually needed a cover story. It required blood, and a lot of it, to fully capture Mama’s attention.
I once succeeded in getting Mama’s attention big time. I dropped a sharp paring knife, which bounced up and stabbed the nest of varicose veins on the front of Mama’s calf. Dark red blood spurted out and puddled on the floor. “I’m going to whup you when I’m able,” Mama yelled, running to get a washcloth to staunch the blood. However, she changed her tune when the blood stopped and she discovered the varicose veins were totally drained. They never returned. Mama said if she’d known I had that talent she’d have let me fix her other leg too.
My brother John began building the morning fire in our heater when he was nine or ten. He was allowed to use kerosene to help it get started—and just about any paper item around the house except the Bible was fair tinder. Once when other kindling was scarce he grabbed my dictionary—a gift from my favorite uncle—and ripped out pages through the G section. Mama didn’t have any problem with that, but I did. I was furious for years.
John and Jerry liked to swim in Mill Creek, especially when it flooded. One time when the flood water was particularly high, Jerry almost didn’t make it across. The current was so swift and filled with debris that he was thoroughly pummeled and exhausted by the time he managed to heave himself onto the other bank. It was time to pull out the briar patch cover story!
When I was eleven, Daddy brought a bunch of firecrackers home one Fourth of July. He gave me the bag and told me to divide them with my younger sister and the oldest of my brothers. John was six at that time. I guess Daddy thought that at two, Jerry was a bit too young. So we divided the crackers and the matches three ways and went about the yard finding things to blow up. Nobody told me to, but I did supervise John for the first four or five crackers he lit. Miraculously, we survived with all our hands and fingers.
Mama was careful about a few things. I was maybe seven when we first rented a house with electricity. “Don’t ever stick anything into a plug-in or a socket,” she warned me over and over. I don’t think I would ever have thought of doing such a thing if Mama hadn’t kept bringing it up. But she did, and, like Eve in the Garden I finally could stand temptation no longer: One day I climbed up on a chair and stuck a hair pin into an outlet where the iron had recently been plugged. Wham! I was thrown halfway across the room. Mama never knew why a fuse was blown and all the lights went out, and I sure wasn’t going to tell her.
They say that children in primitive cultures rarely burn or cut themselves, or drown, because nothing is denied as being too dangerous, and therefore they learn important skills at an early age. Sure, they may lose or damage body parts sometimes, but the ones who survive are ready for real life. Though I believe this is probably true, I was unwilling to risk my children learning competence in such a dangerous way. But my sons are grown now. I think I’ll give them pocket knives for Christmas—and maybe scissors.
But there will be no fireworks until they are older!
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