Growing Up Kansas: Learning to Smoke and Chew

The Easy Chair

If the Marlboro Man were to be believed, smoking a cigarette would put hair on my twelve-year-old chest and help me ride a horse like a real cowboy. Or I could put a pinch of Skoal between my cheek and gum like Larry Mahan, the Rodeo Champ, and ride bulls with the best of them. These things are important to a little boy growing up in Kansas.

However, I lived with Puritans who put Smoking and Chewing on the list of Top Ten Deadly sins that were unacceptable in our little country church. They were just another way for a person to slather an extra layer of bear grease on that slippery slide into hell. Although Gossiping and Judging Others were on that list and practiced to perfection, they were far more acceptable than Smoking or Chewing.

In addition to memorizing Bible verses to make sure we walked the straight-and-narrow, we also memorized the sing-songy incantation: I don’t smoke and I don’t chew and I don’t run around with girls that do.

For all of Dad’s knowledge about the Holy Scripture, he never quite figured out that humans have a tendency not to follow rules someone else makes up. Instead, humans prefer to make up their own rules and then not follow them. He told us not to smoke or chew so, of course, we wanted to. If it was a sin, it must be fun.

The whole rule-making thing started off in the Garden of Eden and, well, we all know how that ended. There are three very important lessons that human beings learned in the conversation between God and Adam in the Garden:

  1. Deny
  2. Make counter-accusations
  3. Play the role of a victim

If it worked for Adam, then why wouldn’t it work for the rest of us, especially Congress? I imagine the conversation in the Garden went like this:

God: Why are you hiding?

Adam: We’re not; we’re looking for our clothes.

God: Who said you needed clothes?

Adam: Eve did. I got out of the shower and did a little woo-woo-woo and she told me to put some clothes on.

God: Did you eat the fruit?

Adam: No, Eve did. I just nibbled.

God; You had one rule. Just one; you only had one rule.

Adam: Eve made me do it.

Eve: The devil made me do it.

Adam: Would you please punish Eve for making fun of me?


Thus began the human race’s relationship with rules.

Naturally, we did what we were told not to do. We needed to experiment with Smoking and Chewing. However, our biggest problem was access to contraband. My nephew, Kendall, and I wanted to try both smoking AND chewing, but there wasn’t a Kwik Mart near so we could con a homeless person into buying us some tobacco. Therefore, we had no choice but to resort to crime; we stole it from my older brothers.

It should be noted that it wasn’t really that bad a crime since we didn’t steal what we wanted: cigarettes. Instead, we stole the only thing they had: a pipe and Borkum Riff tobacco.

It should also be noted that a pipe is not the handiest thing to start a smoking career because those darn things are nearly impossible to keep lit, especially when you’re hiding under the bed of a old pickup truck. I don’t know why we thought hiding under that old truck was a good idea. I suppose in our little idiot minds we thought if Mom or Dad looked out into the pasture and saw smoke coming out from under that dilapidated truck, they would assume the packrats were making s’mores over a campfire. No one ever accused of us being brain surgeons.

We hid the pipe and tobacco behind the seat of the truck inside the packrat nest and one day, while Kendall was gone, I decided to smoke solo. I sucked on that pipe trying to get the pipe lit and, in frustration, finally piled a bunch of tobacco on the ground and lit it on fire. I never actually smoked, but I smelled like I’d slid down a chimney when I walked into the house.

Dad: What were you doing out by that old truck?

Me: Um, looking for my clothes.

Dad: Were you smoking?


Where was Kendall when I needed him? After he substituted figurine for bastard, surely he could come up with some obfuscation now.

Me: I was burning something.

Dad: What were you burning?

Me: Bear grease.

As I said, no one ever thought I had a future as a brain surgeon.

I learned to put up with Mom and the Generals being mad at me, but I was mortified at the thought of Dad, the Commander-in-Chief, being mad at me. As Jeff often said, Mom and the Generals were like BB guns pelting you as you canoed down the river, but Dad was a Howitzer that blew everything to smithereens when it went off, which, thankfully was rare.

Surprisingly, Joe, the visiting evangelist, rescued me from the firing squad. If you read the story about the evangelist and his marimba-playing wife, you know visiting evangelists ranked somewhere in my least-favorite things between a bath each night and liver and onions.

Joe: I got off the city bus in Chicago the other day and the first thing my wife said to me was that I smelled like I was a smoker. This boy must have been around something like that.

It turns out the spirit of Kendall was alive and well. What Joe said made no sense to anyone since I had never even seen a city bus in my country-boy life. But I nodded in agreement with Joe.

It was Dad’s turn to walk away muttering something about that made no sense whatsoever and he can slather all the bear grease he wants on his slide and who in their right mind thought it was a good idea to leave that little idiot alone in the pasture. 

Later that year, during the winter, we had the good fortune of having a fellow derelict, Rod Busby, show up to play a bit of ice hockey on Hobson’s Pond. The first freeze of the pond coincided with a Norther raging out of the artic circle so the ice froze with ridges like a washboard. It was awful to skate on, but it was all we had. The cows apparently flew south each winter with the geese so they weren’t there to make snide remarks about our hockey skills. In addition, the cows would have volunteered to be cheerleaders and the Good Lord knows they look awful in skirts. I’m sure one of them would have wanted to officiate and the only thing worse that a bovine fan at a hockey game is a bovine referee.

Rod had older brothers, too, but they didn’t smoke; they chewed tobacco. Glory, hallelujah! We had us some Red Man big leaf chew.

It was in second grade in Mrs. Beulah Bohn’s class that I first witnessed the chain-reaction of little boys upchucking. Frank Stubblefield  lost his cookies on the painted gray concrete floor and Mrs. Bohn quickly shouted, “Don’t anyone look.”

Naturally, we did what we were told not to do. She had never learned that lesson either about someone else making up rules because we all looked and, sure enough, three-quarters of the class lost their school lunch that today including yours, truly.

Our first hint that trouble was brewing on Hobson’s Pond was when Rod opened that Red Man pouch and told us all to take a deep breath through our nostrils so as to savor the flavor. It was at that precise moment the volcano in our tummies started moving on the Richter Scale. We stuffed a wad in our cheeks and started playing hockey.

It was somewhere between the first and second period we discovered that laying down naked on the ice while dry heaving was the only thing that alleviated the misery.

Global warming hadn’t kicked in yet so our beloved Hobson’s Pond stayed frozen and was stained with little blotches for the rest of the winter. There were also indentations in the ice shaped like a human body curled up in a fetal positions. Some little rat told the cows when they returned in the spring so we had to listen to them all summer make fun of us while they chased us through the pasture.

I swore off any tobacco products until my later teen years when I, once again, thought it was cool to smoke. I started smoking when I was eighteen to prove I was a man and three years later tried to quit to prove the same thing.

These are just a few of the reasons I never grew up to be a brain surgeon.


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Growing Up Kansas: Getting Our Mouths Washed Out With Soap

Old Doc Thompsons
Old Doc Thompsons

Old Doc Thompsons












I prefer the taste of a bar of Dove soap compared to Zest or Dial. I ought to know, I had my mouth washed out with a variety of brands through the years. There were two reasons the soap bar got lathered up for a good scrubbing of my mouth: Sassing and Cussing. Apparently the soap was supposed to clean words after they came out of my mouth. My problem was that I had opinions that I thought should matter.

The surest way to have one’s head removed from one’s body was to sass my Mother. Had she lived during the Wild West, she would have been the fastest gunslinger north of the Pecos. If I sassed her and happened to be within arms reach, I never saw her gun clear the leather. She’d whip her hand out of the holster, cock the hammer, pull the trigger and unload all six shells in the chamber while I was still eating my peas.

Also known as talking back, sassing was the eighth Deadly Sin. There are supposed to only be seven Deadly Sins, but we were good Protestants and had close to a hundred. Along with greed, lust, and pride, sassing an adult slathered one’s slippery slide into hell with bear grease. Yes, Ma’am. No, sir. Yes, sir. These were the only correct answers to anything an adult said.

One incident that comes to my mind was also the same incident in which my Mom introduced me to the conundrum of global hunger. We were sitting at the dinner table in that drafty old two-story house along Highway 54 when she dropped a glob of spinach on my plate. It looked, and smelled, like someone upchucked.

I couldn’t even get my dog to eat it and I had seen that cur eat the vilest of carrion. He routinely dragged rotting carcasses into the yard like they were gold medals he won at the Canine Olympics. He’d carry those things around grinning like Jimmy Carter on the campaign trail and offer me the spoils of his discovery. He took great offense if I did not share his enthusiasm for maggot-covered possum. But canned spinach? Nope, he covered his eyes with his paws and started dry heaving.

Mom put her hands on her hips and said, “Well, you know, there are starving children in Africa who would love to have that food.” Thusly, I learned the most common messaging of about global hunger that persists to this day: It’s a big problem. It’s somewhere Over There. You should feel bad about it. There’s not a darn thing you can do about it except hand out food.

While she was standing there glaring at me, I got out the bear grease and slathered up my own slide. What coiled her up most was me asking for the names and address of the children so I could mail the spinach to them.

Seeing her reaction, I quickly offered to eat the entire bar of soap as long as I didn’t have to touch the spinach. Apparently, the loathing of spinach is genetic because years later, my young son, Caleb, insisted he eat spinach so he could be like Popeye. After his first bite he began wailing, “Ewww, gross, it’s sliding down my throat.”

The other reason we got our mouth washed out was for cussing, a perennial pick in the Top-Ten List of Deadly Sins.

One incident occurred during Fix It Yourself (F.I.Y.) night. Mom was a great cook, but she went on strike each Sunday afternoon and turned Sunday evenings into F.I.Y. night. Dad and us kids were left to our own defenses to scavenge for food. The dog always offered to help, but we politely refused. To make matters worse, since Dad was a minister he invited someone to lunch on Sunday after church so there were seldom any leftovers. All of us kids agreed it was a crying shame.

My nephew, Kendall, and my niece, Annie, spent a great portion of their life in our house so each Sunday night we surrendered our tummies to the culinary gods like Chef Boyardee and the Jolly Green Giant. Our favorite delicacy was the Chef’s pizza that came in a little box. We’d mix the dough, spread it out on a cookie sheet, smother it with the Chef’s special sauce, and fifteen minutes later have a delectable, savory delight followed two hours later by stomach cramps.

The three of us were busy cooking away one Sunday evening when Kendall- who was two years younger than me- started mocking me. I hate being mocked. So I dug out the bear grease, slathered up my slide so I could go to hell a bit faster, and called him a little bastard.

Mom rounded the corner to the kitchen when that dirty little word shot out of my mouth; her timing was impeccable. She always managed to show up at that optimal time to catch me with the maximum amount of guilt. Always. She showed up when I was returning the punch that Kendall threw first; she showed up when I was redressing the Barbie doll that Annie just handed me; she showed up while I was shaving a stripe down the middle of my head at the dog’s suggestion; she always showed up when it looked like I was as guilty as, well, sin. Always.

“Vot did you call him?” She barked.

I wasn’t good at thinking quickly on my feet, so I just stood there like a mute bank robber holding bags of cash in each hand with a cop pointing a gun at me.

“Figurine,” Kendall replied, “he called me a figurine.”

There are moments in time when reason will just get up, leave the room and slam the door behind itself and leave everyone with their mouths agape in befuddlement. Watch C-Span if you don’t believe me.

On one hand, I appreciated Kendall’s valor and intent. Our typical modus operandi was to shove each other in front of oncoming trains with reckless abandon and little remorse. However, in this instance Kendall was to be commended for attempting to rescue a fallen comrade. Trying is sometimes as important as triumph.

On the other hand, the synapses in the frontal lobe of my brain were exploding like someone just threw a firecracker in a shed full of dynamite. My powers of reason were trying to make sense out of the situation and to answer the pressing question: Why did he think figurine sounded like bastard?

The conversation in the Command Center for Logic in the frontal lobe of my brain went like this:

Commander: “Soldier, give me your report. Do the words start with the same letter?”

Soldier: “No, sir. One start with F, the other starts with B.”

Commander: “Do they have the same number of syllables?”

 Soldier: “No, sir. One has two syllables, the other has three.”

 Commander: “How many letters do they share?”

 Soldier: “Just one, sir, the letter ‘r’.”

Commander: “Do they rhyme?”

Soldier: “No, sir. Not even close.”

Commander: “Very well. Abort mission. Send all reports to Area 51.”

There’s nothing like obfuscation to interrupt the normal flow of reason. Politicians do this all the time; why would it not work for dumb little country kids like us?

I expected a trip to the sink and having my Chef Boyardee replaced with a good scrubbing of Dove. Instead, Mom backed away slowly, kind of like a person sneaking away from a mess they’ve made and don’t want to hang around and clean it up. I heard her mutter something about that made no sense whatsoever and they can slather all the bear grease they want on their slides and who in their right mind thought it was a good idea to leave those little idiots alone in the kitchen.. 

Kendall, Annie, and I resumed our fine dining experience. We compared notes and debriefed each other on the recent encounter with Mom. Few conclusions were drawn that were substantive in nature, but since Kendall spared me the gallows, we toasted the hero with enthusiastic huzzahs and sang several rounds of for he’s a jolly good fellow. Even the dog joined in.

Years later, after the statute of limitations expired, we regaled Dad with the figurine story around a dinner table. Dad recalled a very similar situation when he was a young boy and called his brother, Bill, a bastard. However, Bill came to the rescue when Dad was put in front of the firing squad and cried, “He called me Baxter, not bastard.” Now that is logic I can get behind.

The three of us kids learned a very valuable lesson that seems to serve Congress very well: If you can’t dazzle them with logic, bewilder them with absurdity.



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One of My Huggable Heroes: Bettie Leonard and the Beautiful Bougainvillea

Bettie and Jack Leonard
Bettie and Jack Leonard

Bettie and Jack Leonard

I doubt there will ever be a statue erected of Bettie Leonard in the rotunda of the Capitol of Texas, but there should be. Bettie, and her husband, Jack, are of Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation that endured the Great Depression, World War II, and watched the world go from Victrolas to iPads. She was the kind of hero I prefer; the huggable kind. Only she was so tiny you’d have to stoop over to hug her.

Bettie Leonard was a pint-size helping of feisty that gently, but firmly, ruled over her family like the Countess Dowager of Downton Abbey. Bettie was all that a family matriarch should be: witty, intelligent, austere, demanding, loving and gracious. When you left a conversation with her, you felt like the most important person in the world and could do anything you set your mind to. She naturally made people better at being themselves. She and Jack are the threads that hold the tapestry of the Leonard family together.

Several years ago, Bettie’s grandniece, Cary, was going marry to David in Cozumel and asked me to photograph her wedding. That’s like asking a chubby kid if the wants a Snickers bar. I quickly said yes and Christine – who I was dating at that time – insisted that she go along as a photographer’s assistant.

David and Cary’s wedding was postcard beautiful on the sandy beach of Cozumel. They planned it early in the stay so the family could enjoy the rest of the time just being family. I took my Ovation guitar and sang at their wedding, From This Moment.

Bettie asked me later to have a little church service on the beach for just our family. She wanted to know if I could sing her favorite song, I Can Only Imagine.

I wanted to ask Christine to marry me while we were on the island, but I didn’t want to do anything to detract from the wonderful experience of Cary and David. Therefore, I waited a couple of days after their wedding was over and approached Bettie to ask her what she thought of the idea. I wanted her blessing.

Her eyes immediately sparkled like a little kid chasing an ice cream truck. If a person could capture the sparkle in her eyes and bottle it up, millions of dollars could be made with that magic elixir. It would be one-part-wisdom, one-part-mischief, one-part-intuition, one-part-humor and all parts soaked in hard work and love.

“Oh, I think that’s a marvelous idea!” she squealed, “We love Christine! You guys would make a perfect couple! So when do you want to do it? What can I do to help?”

I suddenly discovered another part about Bettie: she’s pretty darn sneaky when she wants to be. And since Christine can spot a surprise in the making from a mile a way, we had to be extra careful.

The basic plan was that after dark I would go to the clubhouse for a bottle of wine and a couple of glasses then take Christine on a moonlight stroll along the beach. After I proposed, then the family was going to be waiting for us in the clubhouse to help us celebrate. Bettie was confident that Christine would say, “Yes.”

While the secret shenanigans were being planned, Betty was inviting partners-in-crime into the mix, Cary’s mother and father, Connie and Jerry. They were standing on a sidewalk by a lamppost whispering to each other when Christine walked up on them.

“What are you guys doing? Christine asked.

“Oh, we’re admiring this beautiful bougainvillea! Isn’t it lovely?” Bettie quickly covered.

“Yeah, uh, we think this bougainvillea is about the prettiest bougainvillea we’ve ever seen.” Jerry added his two cents.

“Yep, the most beautiful bougainvillea God ever made.” Connie chimed in.

Although Christine has a keen nose for a ruse, she also loves flowers and plants so she joined in on the admiration of nature.

Later in the evening after sunset, I suggested to Christine that we take a stroll along the beach. Before I could offer to get the wine, she quickly jumped up and headed to the clubhouse to get it. Bettie had already spread the word so the family was in the clubhouse waiting for us.

 “What are you doing here, honey?” Bettie quizzed Christine, wondering why I wasn’t with her.

“Rick asked me to go for a stroll along the beach and I suggested we take a bottle of wine so here I am.”

Christine found me by the pool near the beach a few minutes later so we could begin our stroll.

“That was kind of odd.” She said. “I thought the family said they were going to bed, but they were all in the clubhouse. I tried to visit with them but Bettie acted like she was in a big hurry to get me the bottle of wine and glasses and shush me out the door. Oh, well, lets go for a stroll.”

With moonlight dancing on the waves, she said yes to my proposal.

Some time went by after I proposed and I finally said to her, “You know, we ought to be getting back up to the clubhouse. Our family is waiting there for us.”

“So THAT’S why Bettie was shushing me out the door! She knew all about this, didn’t she?”

 “Actually, she is the first person who knew I was going to ask you to marry me.”

We held the wedding in our backyard several months later with Jack and Bettie there, along with others in the family who had been at Cozumel. It was a quaint little wedding surrounded by people who loved us and loved each other.

To close the evening, we all gathered around and sang the song that Jack and Bettie sang to all of their family.

You are my sunshine, my only sunshine,

you make me happy when skies are gray

You’ll never know dear, how much I love you,

so please don’t take my sunshine away.

Bettie went to heaven recently. Her ray of sunshine brought a lot of warmth to this lonely world and her light continues to shine through all those hearts she infused her love and grace. Even my little grandchildren feel her warmth because I frequently sing to them:

You are my sunshine, my only sunshine,

you make me happy when skies are gray

The chorus to the song she loved, I Can Only Imagine, has these words:

Surrounded by your glory

What will my heart feel

Will I dance for your Jesus

Or in awe of you be still

Will I stand in your presence

Or to my knees will I fall

Will I sing hallelujah

Will I be able to speak at all

I can only imagine

Bettie no longer has to imagine.

But I do. And I can’t help but imagine that when she saw Jesus for the first time, she heard him sing:

You are my sunshine, my only sunshine…


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Growing Up Kansas: Why Little Boys Should Never Practice Medicine

Dam Bait Shop

Little kids should never be left alone to practice medicine on themselves, their friends, or their pets. They tend to ignore the do no harm part of the Hippocratic Oath; most of the treatments they prescribe are based on witchcraft and voodoo rather than science.

A case in point:

I grew up in the country so I always wanted to be a cowboy and everybody knows that cowboys don’t run around barefoot. Cowboys, after all, die with their boots on. The only people I knew that ran around barefoot were long-haired-hippie-freaks and my nephew from New York, Jeff Miller. Although Jeff was not a hippie, he lived close enough to Woodstock to be influenced by osmosis.

Hillbillies are known to run around barefoot, but country kids from Kansas are not. The reasons we didn’t were largely because of two things: animal dung and sand burrs. One does not want to step barefoot in a freshly minted cowpie while racing from The Cows of Hobson’s Pond. Stephen King has yet to write a horror novel that will make you convulse quite like stepping barefoot in a fresh cowpie.

The other enemy of barefootin’ are sand burrs, little Torture Devices From Hell. About the size of a pea, they spread out on the ground so you don’t just step on one at a time, you step on forty-six at a time. They are as mean as middle school cheerleaders.

I tried once to run around barefoot, but never could get the hang of it. To this day, if I walk barefoot across a graveled road I dance like a hillbilly at a hootenanny and squeal like a greased pig being chased by a bunch of little kids.

Jeff, on the other hand, could walk barefoot across molten lava. When Jeff popped out of his Momma’s womb, the first thing the doctor noticed was that the bottoms of his feet were made of leather:

            “Mrs. Miller,” the doctor said, “The soles of your new baby’s feet are made out of leather.”

            “I’m not surprised.” my sister, Carmen, said, “The way he’s been kicking the last four months I swear he was wearing cowboy boots and spurs.”

            “At least you won’t waste a lot of money buying shoes for him.”

            “Just as long as he doesn’t grow up to be a hippie, I’ll be okay. But I was kind of hoping for cowboy. I kind of like cowboys.”

One summer Jeff convinced me that I needed to go barefoot. He was a year older than me and I held him in the highest esteem, even to the point of hero worship. I worked hard to hear him say, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.”

However, my Mom saw my lemming-like inclination with Jeff and often questioned my logic;

“Would you jump of a cliff if he told you to?”

“Yes, Mother, I would.” I dutifully responded.

One hot summer day we were racing through yard and I cut the underside of my big toe on a piece of glass. I looked down to see a gusher of blood erupting from my foot. I howled like a coyote caught in a steel trap. As I writhed in pain, Jeff grabbed his EMS gear and began performing triage.

“We need to get inside, quick, before you die.” He said as he put his stethoscope away.

“But I don’t want to die,” I wailed, “I’m only nine-years-old.”

Jeff reaffirmed my growing concerns about my imminent demise when he asked if he could have my Hot Wheels collection. I hopped inside with one hand on his shoulder and the other hand tightly squeezing the gaping wound. Copious amounts of blood spilled on the linoleum as I sat down on the kitchen chair. Jeff quickly handed me a wet dishrag to stop the bleeding.

“I think that might need stitches.” His opined.

I had three great fears in my childhood. Missing the rapture; my niece, Colleen Miller; and the hospital. I saw the inside of a hospital once when my Dad was recuperating from surgery. He opened his robe to reveal several copper staples holding together an incision from his neck to his waist. After that experience, I assumed the doctors opened you up like that every time you went to the hospital even if it was for a tonsillectomy.

In retrospect, I have a few questions about that day I was wounded. One, why was Jeff performing triage? Usually, when we were injured we immediately ran to our mothers and let them nurse us back to health. Therefore, I can only conclude that The Generals, our mothers, were off somewhere else and left us at home alone.

That leads to my second question: Who, in their right minds, ever thought it was a good idea to leave us home alone?

“Let me look at it again.” Jeff said. “I might be able to help.”

I pulled back the dishrag and started bleeding like a stuck hog again. I wailed louder.

“I know just what you need. This works every time.” Jeff jumped up and ran to the kitchen cabinets.

Since Jeff was all that stood between life and death for me, my spirit soared with confidence in his ability to keep me alive just a little bit longer. Reaching into the kitchen cabinet, he pulled out the blue, round carton marked, “Morton Salt.”

“Are you sure about this?” I whimpered.

“Yes,” Jeff confidently said, “I use it all the time to seal up deep cuts. Works like a charm.”

“But won’t it hurt?” I trembled somewhere in that chasm between absolute terror and wilting hope.

“Nope, not one bit.”

“Should we pray first?”

“Probably wouldn’t hurt.”

“Dear Lord, thank you for this day and the food we’re about, oh, wait, wrong prayer, I mean thank you for the miracle of modern medicine and for Jeff. Please be with the missionaries in Africa and forgive the people who decided it was a good idea to leave the two of us at home alone today. Amen.”

Jeff  launched into a scientific explanation about how large amounts of salt poured in an open wound provide instant coagulation of blood, numb the surrounding nerves, and heal the wound almost immediately so we could run back outside and torment the cows again.

Jeff was much more scientific than I was. One often found him peering through a microscope at the things he grew in petri dishes in his bedroom and found under the basement stairs. He could wax long and eloquent on the nature  of scientific rationale and I sat mesmerized as he talked, thus elevating his hero status in my heart. Salt was obviously the cure for all that ailed the human race.

Again, I have to ask; Who thought it was a good idea to leave us alone?

Trust me, he said, I do this all the time, he said, it won’t hurt a bit, he said.

I opened the wound and he poured in the salt.

After Mom got home, several neighbors called and asked her why the ambulance came to our house. Mom reassured them that no ambulance had been there that day and wasn’t sure what they were talking about. Apparently, about three o’clock in the afternoon, most of the neighbors within a two-mile range heard what sounded like an ambulance wailing.

Mom launched a full-scale investigation after she hung up from the last phone call. She saw the bloody dishrag in the trash; saw bloody fingerprints on the Morton Salt container; saw bloody footprints on the kitchen ceiling; saw the curtains ripped to shreds; saw all the crystal shattered in the china cabinet; saw the dog whimpering in the corner like it was shell-shocked; saw the cat having a seizure on the floor and saw that the milk in the fridge turned to cottage cheese. She then hauled me into the dimly lit interrogation room.

“What happened? She began.

 “I cut my foot on piece of glass?” I replied.

“Why were you barefoot? I thought you wanted to be a cowboy and everybody knows that cowboys don’t run around barefoot.”

“I know. It’s just that Jeff said that I was a sissy if I didn’t run around barefoot and I don’t want to be a sissy.”

“So would you jump of a cliff if he told you to?”

“Yes, Mother,” I replied dutifully, “I would.”

“So where did all the noise come from the neighbors called about?” She kept grilling me.

 “It may or may not have been me screaming after we poured salt in my cut.”

“You did what? Why did you pour, oh, good grief, never mind, Jeff told you to, right?”

 “Yes, Mother, he did.” I sat proudly.

Mom mumbled something about us being the death of her and The Cows of Hobson’s Pond were right about little boys being stoopid and who in their right mind thought it was a good idea to leave these two little idiots at home alone for the afternoon.

Jeff found more important research to conduct while I was being interrogated and later checked in on me while doing his rounds. He was pleased I held up so well under cross-examination and that I now held scientific discovery in such high esteem. He patted me on the head and said, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.”

For a splendid moment in time, heaven came down and glory filled my soul.


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Growing Up Kansas: What I Learned in Second Grade About the Weaker Sex

Pop Eye

(Names are changed to protect the guilty)

Whomever said that females are the weaker sex did not learn the same lessons I did in second grade at my rural grade school; country girls are tough.

My first encounter with the weaker sex happened on the playground. Looking back on the kind of playground equipment we had, it’s a small wonder we’re not all missing body parts or walking with a limp. Where were the plastic slipper slides while we were blistering our bottoms on those old shiny metal ones? Where was the cushy matt to fall on when Pippi Longstocking pile-drived me off the merry-go-round then rolled me over and started kissing me? Where were the caps to cover the pipes that housed fourteen thousand wasps that terrorized little children? What’s that? You want to know more about the incident with Pippi? Oh, sure, I talk about being wounded by playground equipment and all you want to know about is the first time I was molested by a girl.

My first, second, and third grade teacher were all the same person: Mrs. Beulah Bohn. Mrs. Bohn looked like Granny off the Beverly Hillbillies and was only two inches taller than the rest of us second-graders. Mrs. Bohn was the quintessential schoolmarm with the hem of her skirt way below her knees and black shoes with a low heel. Kansas’s winters would not deny us our birthright of spending recess outside, so Mrs. Bohn would try to stay warm by hopping up and down like a robin. Other than Pippi attacking me and Eugene Saunders starting a chain reaction of little kids barfing, that is about all I remember about a woman with whom I spent my first three years of formal education.

The situation in question happened one blustery day on the playground with dirt the consistency of concrete. Oh, sure, someone sprinkled a few grains of sand under the monkey bars to make it look like it would cushion the blow, but it didn’t matter what playground equipment you were thrown from, the likelihood of breaking a bone was pretty high. To my recollection, no parent ever whined to the principal about the equipment because they didn’t even have recess back in their day when they had to walk three miles to get to school.

I was minding my own business swirling around on the merry-go-round and decided to jump off. I was headed to the monkey bars to see if I could to knock the wind out of my lungs and the next thing I know, someone face plants me in the hard-pan. I uuumphed as the air was knocked out of me then I was violently rolled over on my back so my attacker could begin kissing me. She smelled a whole lot better than Eugene.

I did not have enough hair growing on my body yet to enjoy that moment for what it was. Later, though, I would not only regret having fought her off, I would offer chocolates and flowers to a variety of the female species in anticipation of being abused that away again.

As I was fighting off my attacker, Mrs. Bohn started hopping again. Rick, she chirped, you quit that! You leave Pippi alone! Naturally, I was the one in trouble.   Since I already learned the lesson from my nieces and the Three Generals that resided at our house during the summer that males are always guilty of everything that is wrong in the world, I immediately accepted the guilt and anticipated the punishment. Not much could be worse than getting kissed by a third-grader, but a few un-repented-of-sins came to mind so I concluded that I deserved it. I’d been marched to the principal’s office for lesser crimes against humanity; surely this one was not worthy of the dreaded swats.

My other encounter with the weaker sex happened on the bus. As time passed, I decided the experience with Pippi hadn’t been so bad after all; in fact, it was more enjoyable than I first realized. I thought I was dizzy from being pile-driven into the hard pan, but it turned out that my dizziness came from my little second-grade heart palpitating to a new stroke after being smooched. I concluded that that encounter was worth repeating and thus began my life-long quest to relive that moment with Pippi.

Candace Johnson was the prettiest girl in my class and we shared the same bus route. The bus route for rural schools is the devils workshop for stirring up unscrupulous ideas in the minds of bored-out-of-your-gourd little boys. Riding for an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening of largely unsupervised time is an opportunity to concoct various forms of mischief. Second-graders are still short enough to hide most of their activity from the omniscient eye of the bus driver that stared at you in a gigantic rearview mirror. However, we were still sent to the principal’s office with great frequency to atone for sins committed on the bus route.

During my childhood, the school hired former Gestapo operatives planted in our community through a witness relocation program to be our bus drivers. Naturally, to hide their former identities as torturers and prison guards, they assumed surnames appropriate for our culture like Smith and Jones then dressed up as little old ladies with beehive hair-dos and bright red lipstick. They smiled knowingly when we referred to them as Fraulein. Regardless of how well they pulled of their disguises, in times of great rage at the little occupants on the bus, their thick German dialect revealed the origins of their motherland.

It was on one of those interminable bus routes that I decided to make my move on Candace. Since Pippi was so forthcoming with her affections for the male species, I assumed that all females were so inclined. Thus began my lifelong predilection of not understanding women. Furthermore, here’s a good lesson for all adults: never trust the logic of a second grade boy that’s just been kissed for his first time.

However, Candace was not thusly inclined and wanted a bribe of chocolates and roses first. Or at the very least, I was supposed to pass her a note and ask her to please go with me, check yes or no. I’m not sure where we were supposed to go, but she was supposed to go with me before I made my move.

It turned out that Candace had a mean right hook. She anticipated my amorous intention and, as I leaned in for the smooch, she feigned with her left then busted me in the nose with her right.

This was the second most valuable lesson I’ve learned about the female specie: their instincts are uncanny. If the instinct of a woman and the findings of science contradict each other, I’ll lay all my money on the instincts of a woman any day. I frequently use the quote about my wife from Muppet Treasure Island: How does she bloody know? Experience has taught me I have a greater chance of hiding something from God than I do my wife.

I don’t know what Fraulein Hildegard noticed first, me bawling like a newly branded calf or bleeding like a stuck hog, but she began barking at me in Gestapo-like cadence something about I saw what you did you little sickness and you had it coming and if I was her I’d hit you again. The site of blood stirred up memories for the Fraulein of past tortures; she was reliving former days of gore.

I made the trip the next day to the principal’s office with sulking shoulders and head bowed in shame. News of a girl bloodying a boy’s nose traveled fast even before social media so as I trudged to the office, the girls looked at me in disdain and the boys patted me knowingly on the back.

I sat down in the chair across the desk from the principal with the familiar wood paddle nicknamed The Enforcer hanging on the wall behind his desk. That two-foot long tool of torture was administered after we were told to bend over and grab our ankles. Later, I would watch between my legs as my chubby fifth grade teacher would aim first then swing so hard her feet would come off the floor. They all learned from the bus drivers how to administer the most amount of pain with the least amount of effort.

 “So,” he growled, “I hear you tried to kiss Candace? Is that true?”

 “Yes, Mein Fuhrer, I mean, Mr. Jones.” I mumbled

 “You know you’re not suppose to do things like that, right?”

 “Yes, Mr. Jones, but I guess I’m a bit confused,” I admitted, “I was in here recently for the Pippi Longstocking incident after she jumped me from the merry-go-round so I just thought that all girls want to be kissed. Help me understand; what do girls really want?”

I discovered a topic upon which Mr. Jones could wax eloquent; the complexity of the female species. He pontificated for what seemed like hours about the mysterious delights and devices of women. Even though I was still only in second grade, I surmised he didn’t understand them any better than I did. The Enforcer hung silently on the wall.

As he stood up to walk me out of the office he put his fatherly hand on my shoulder and asked, “So have you learned your lesson?”

“Yes, Mr. Jones, no man really knows the mind of a woman.”

“Correct. And if you ever figure that out, son, you can have my job.” Mr. Jones softened. “But trust me, they want chocolates and roses first before you ever try something like that again.”


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