This is the plain truth, varnished, perhaps, in my memory by the passing of nearly fifty years.
“HOLY MACKERAL,” whispered my cousin Irvin, “look what they’re using for tickets.” We were standing in line, each of us with three sweaty nickels in his hand, to buy tickets to exchange for ice cream and cake at the Mid-Summer Ice-Cream Supper of the Tilton Methodist Church.
In disbelief and dawning joy, I looked carefully at the tickets. They were, in fact, blank, light-blue pieces of cardboard, half-cut and half-torn at the ends, that had evidently been dividers for some kind of boxed candy. The important, remarkable thing about them was that we had hundreds of identical “tickets.” We had found them in the trash at the general store and had saved them as we saved nearly everything we found, including a case of 24 cans of solidified rubber cement.
With one accord, my cousin and I left the line and started home at a fast trot. I don’t recall that there was, for us, any question of right and wrong involved. I don’t think it ever crossed our minds. If such a thought had occurred to us, I’m sure it would have been resolved by the same action; it would have been downright sinful for two ten year old boys (Well, actually, my cousin was ten – he was five months and fourteen days older than I – I was nine and a half.) to waste such an opportunity.
Within fifteen minutes we were back in the churchyard with our pockets bulging with tickets. For once Irvin and I had our fill of home-made ice cream and cake.
The ice-cream supper was a notable event in a summer abounding with many delightful things for us. We had, that summer, nearly everything that small boys desire and need, all of them by-products of the overall situation and beyond any possible intention of adults (or small boys for that matter). No summer camping program, no organized recreation program, nothing could have been planned that would have equaled the adventures that we routinely had during that long, beautiful summer.
A highway, some fifteen miles long, from Flemingsburg to Sherburne, Kentucky was under construction. Tilton, a town of 300 some people, one store, one garage, and three churches, was about midway between between Flemingsburg and Sherburne and therefore the nucleus of the construction effort.
My step-father worked on the highway as sometimes a truck driver and sometimes a powder man, and my mother ran a boarding house in Tilton for the highway workers. Normally there were 21 boarders in the house in addition to my mother and step-father and the hired help. The huge, old rented house was overflowing with people and there was no room in the house for us, so Irvin and I had the incredible pleasure of sleeping in a “bunkhouse” which was actually a smokehouse situated well apart from the main house. The long-disused smokehouse was of log construction, and the heat of the morning sun shining on our faces through the chinks between the logs was our alarm clock that signaled a new day for adventures.
Children feel rather heavily their oppression by adults but rarely get a glimpse of freedom from it. I recall when I was an adult in my own apartment the simple pleasure of realizing that I could, if I wished, slam the door and have no one automatically say, “Don’t slam that door.” That summer, however, there were so many people and so much confusion that Irvin and I lived unsupervised, unrestricted, and unhampered in the midst of all kinds of fascinating circumstances. Sleeping apart this way meant that no one controlled the time we went to bed or the length or the noise level of conversation after we went to bed. It was a unique experience for us.
And often we needed a little time to discuss what we had just heard. After dinner the boarders would invariably sprawl around in chairs and on the steps and on the floor of the big front porch and smoke and talk. There was then, of course, no TV anywhere, and we did not have a radio although there were a few in Tilton. So the only entertainment available to the boarders was to listen to each other’s stories, or now and then someone would play a guitar or a fiddle and a few of them would sing. This probably sounds like a better atmosphere for children than the current TV watching that passes for entertainment, but I’m not so sure. The construction workers were a semi-literate bunch who believed in ghosts, premonitions, water witching, and other superstitious nonsense, and most of their stories revolved around some such base. They were much given to generalizing from one or two specific examples so that a man who had once in his childhood visited in North Carolina for three days would declare with assurance: “Them North Carolina women are the best cooks in the world.” I was reminded of this recently when a friend attended a two-day conference in Denmark and came back saying, “The Danish people think…”
Didn’t I learn from a man who had actually been present that in the World War the dead German soldiers fell face down while the Allied soldiers fell face up? Even their tales about things they should have known thoroughly were mostly wrong. Many of them had seen a hoop snake grab its tail in its mouth and go rolling down a hill. All of them would have agreed that a decapitated turtle’s head would not die until sundown and that blacksnakes often milked cows. “I know a man who seen it. hisself” was the irrefutable argument.
Some of the things they knew “for a fact” were ridiculous even to a small boy, but some of them required years and years to straighten out in my mind.
Even their songs tended to be bawdy parodies of familiar folk songs. In accordance with the usual generalization of Gresham’s Law, these versions immediately and permanently replaced the real verses in my memory bank.
About nine o’clock they would start drifting off to bed. By then it was pitch black (this was long before daylight savings time) and the stories would become racy, often to point of incomprehensibility to us. We would keep quiet and be forgotten and unobserved in the darkness. Afterward, in our bunks, we would discuss and try to understand what we had heard. Road workers are not known for delicacy of ideas or of language, and we were eager students.
We were eager students also of road-construction techniques and spent much of our time observing them. The fifteen miles of road represented all stages of construction from early cutting and filling to finished concrete surface and all of it was available to us. All of the workers knew us, so it was easy to get rides on the trucks to any portion of the highway. For that matter, we rode bulldozers, graders, rollers, and everything that moved on the roadway. Today it would be unlikely that boys would be allowed such privileges, but no one thought anything of it in those days.
We would watch a powder man, often my step-father, placing sticks of dynamite in holes drilled in the rock, and he would explain where he meant the debris to land. “That there house,” he’d say, “not a rock’ll touch it.” Usually he would be quite right, but it was always thrilling to see, feel, and hear the explosions. Even the headache producing, acrid, post-explosion smell was exciting. I would have given anything to have been allowed to yell, “Fire in the hole!” and push the firing handle down, but I knew that none but a powder man was permitted that honor. Some of the men called my red-headed step-father “Dynamite Red” and that was perhaps his only attribute in which I took any pride.
Children are such avid accumulators and storehouses of details that I’m sure Irvin and I knew more about the status of the highway construction than any adult, including the overall supervisor. We knew exactly what was going on at every location from one end to the other, and we knew, down to the tire pressures, the characteristics of every piece of equipment on the job. Many of the trucks had no tire pressure – they were the old snub-nosed, chain-driven, solid-tire Mack trucks.
Part of our familiarity with the equipment was obtained clandestinely. The workers drove their trucks, and sometimes their graders and bulldozers, to the boarding house for the night. The parking area was a field behind the barn and thus was unobservable from the house. Irvin and I would rush through our dinner, and while it was still light, we would inspect and play with the equipment in the parking lot. In the days before the starter switch was part of the ignition switch you could generally operate the starter motor of a vehicle without having a key. The trucks were nearly all dump trucks, and our chief activity was running the beds up and down by stepping on the starter button and manipulating the proper levers. We would also move the trucks a few feet back and forth on the batteries. No one ever discovered this, and if it caused any low batteries, as it must have done, they were taken in stride by the drivers without any suspicion of the cause.
Irvin and I were, of course, supposed to help with the chores around the house, but for the ones that had a predictable schedule we were generally very hard to find. Getting groceries into the house must have been a matter of a truck load per day, but we were often sent to the store, by the cook, for things that had been forgotten. We liked this chore for by experiment we had found that we could add almost anything we liked to the list and the grocer simply charged it to the boarding house account. This quickly became our prime source for soft drinks, candy, chewing gum, and all sorts of good things. We were cautious enough to keep these unauthorized purchases to such a moderate level that they were lost in what must have been the enormous grocery bills for the boarding house.
It cannot be denied that much of our activity, especially the more thrilling parts, was criminally inclined. The only crime that got us into any trouble was due to our misconception of the magnitude of numbers. We often wandered through the boarders’ rooms when they were at work. I had stolen a pipe from one boarder and we had bought tobacco on the grocery bill, but smoking a pipe was not nearly as pleasant as it smelled when someone else smoked it. We were afraid to try to buy cigarettes which we believed to be much better than a pipe. In those days grocers were uniformly suspicious of boys buying cigarettes, and one almost always had to have a note from one’s parent in order to buy them. (It is uncommonly hard for a child to write like an adult.) When we spotted an opened carton of cigarettes in one of the boarders’ rooms, it seemed impossible to us that a man with so many cigarettes could miss a pack so we stole one and smoked the cigarettes over a period of a couple of days. If we hadn’t repeated this action a few days later, we would have gotten away with it, but our victim could count, and suspicion with the weight of certainty fell upon us, and though we never would have confessed, the evidence was found in our bunkhouse.
My step-father, so far as I can remember, had never inflicted corporal punishment on me, but this time he grimly announced, “You boys have got to be taught a lesson,” and he told us he was going to whip both of us “in a day or two.” Irvin and I lived day after day in dreadful anticipation. The longer the punishment was delayed and the more we discussed it, the more horrible the prospect became. I could easily imagine us tied side-by-side to stakes and a cat-o’nine-tails raking our bare, bleeding backs. (I had seen many a western movie.) Finally the day came. My step-father cut a mean-looking switch, took us behind the barn, had us turn our backs to him, and told us to grab our ankles to present the proper targets. He tapped me twice, barely perceptibly, with the switch, and as I remember, did not touch Irvin. Both of us felt like idiots after this “punishment,” and we did not steal anymore cigarettes from the boarders.
One of the boarders, Joe Barrow, was reputed to be half Indian, and he had the eyes and jawline that made it seem likely. Each Sunday Joe Barrow would bring a half-gallon jar of moonshine back with him and hide it in the barn. Each evening he would disappear into the barn for a little refreshment unremarked by anyone but Irvin and me. I’m not sure why he hid his moonshine – possibly to keep from having to share it. But we went him one better. Nearly every day Irvin and I would find his jar of moonshine and would hide it somewhere else in the barn. His after-dinner drink got to require quite a while as he had to search the whole barn for his jar. He never complained, how could he without revealing what he wanted to hide, but he would be muttering to himself in exasperation when he returned from the barn. We wondered, as we snickered, if he suspected what was happening, or if he thought the moonshine was dissolving his brain.
We, too, I guess, were the victims of a mild hoax. One of the neighbors had a flock of a dozen guineas that had gotten out of confinement, and he offered us a quarter for each guinea that we caught and returned to him. We knew nothing about guineas, but lured by the quarters we tried hard to catch them. They had the irritating habit of running on the ground until they were almost within grasp, at which time they would fly a hundred yards or so to repeat the act. The quarters loomed so large and the guineas so near that it took us several days to realize that we might as well be chasing jack rabbits.
A more nefarious, but even more poorly executed, project was discussed by us at great length with many plans that even we recognized as preposterous.
Mrs. Gardner, the cook and general helper, had a daughter, Opal, who was about our age. Irvin and I had decided that seeing Opal naked would solve some mysterious problems that had been worrying us for some time. In order to carry out this project, I made a suitable hole in the blind in the bathroom window, and we waited impatiently for advance information that Opal was about to take a bath. It finally came, and we excitedly approached the bathroom window only to find that from the outside the hole in the blind was well above head level. To compensate for our inexplicably poor reconnaissance, we found a block of wood that was high enough to bring the hole to eye level, but, unfortunately, the block would accommodate only one of us at a time. In the ensuing scuffle over who would have the first look, we turned over the block, and it and we fell against the house making such a racket that someone shouted, “Hey, what’s going on out there?” We were thus put to rout and decided we would have to solve our problem in comparative anatomy at some other time in some other way.
Mrs. Gardner (We called her “Mizz Gardner” in the southern way that long preceded the use of Ms.) often told us stories about her son who was “across the water.” We were very curious about exactly where he was, but Mrs. Gardner’s notions of geography were even more vague than ours. We finally learned, I don’t recall how, that actually he was in the federal penitentiary in Atlanta. We never found out what “water” Mrs. Gardner thought he was “across.”
Whether our experiences in that summer stretched over weeks or months is now unknown to me, but in my memory, they seem to have gone on forever. Irvin almost certainly was not there more than two or three weeks, but the passage of time in childhood, and in memories of childhood, is quite a different matter than the rush of years in later life.
I don’t suppose our depredations made a noticeable dent in the profits of the ice-cream supper, but I’ve often wondered if the Methodists ever knew that they had taken in quite a few more tickets than they had sold. I have done. in my time, many things I am ashamed of, but this is not one of them. On the contrary, I feel nothing but pleasure in recalling this crime and, given the proper circumstances, might be sorely tempted to commit it all over again.
Hand set in Deepdene with Egmont initials. Cover is in Perpetua and Perpetua Italic. Ink is Van Son 40904. Cover stock is Leatherfinish; text is an unknown, 80-lb., dull, coated paper. Inexplicably and inextricably, some lighter sheets were found intermingled during the press run. So your copy may be on heavy or light paper or more likely, by the laws of Murphy, mixed. Edited and published by Jake Warner who printed 530 copies on a 10×15 C&P.
The Boxwood Press
Greenbelt, Maryland 20770