SURVIVING THE HAZARDS OF HOE MEK

Sorry, Dear Friends, for staying away so long. I have spent the past  seven weeks enjoying four frenetic ambulance rides up and down the Interstate scattering less attention-craving vehicles thither and yon. After as many hospital incarcerations, it was decided to dose me with a new med, and now all is cool at least for the time being. Thanks for your concern and your patience. 

SURVIVING THE HAZARDS OF HOE MEK

Being a female teenager in the 50s, it was expected I should “learn to cook and to sew; what’s more, you’ll love it, I know.” (From a popular song of the period.) I think classes in Home Economics, as they were called in the 50s, no longer exist. It’s a good thing, too. I have a strong suspicion I am partially responsible for the demise of what I nicknamed “Hoe Mek.” If that is true I’m not ashamed to admit it. It is one of my proudest accomplishments. And believe me when I tell you, it wasn’t easy. I barely escaped Hoe Mek with my life, but not without bruises and spilled blood.

My first sortie into the heady atmosphere of classroom domesticity scarred me for life, but I had no choice in the matter. Back in those unenlightened days, at least in Nashville, Tennessee, 7th grade boys took “Shop.” Girls took Hoe Mek, which was considered too sissified for boys just as Shop was too dangerous for girls.  My father and I had worked together on small building projects for years. I knew my way around a coping saw and a tack hammer with the best of them, but Bailey Junior High’s curriculum was sexually explicit. No exceptions

The Hoe Mek teacher’s name was Mrs. Wray. She was an acquaintance of my mother’s. Mother told me I must be very attentive in class, and I was to take care to not give Mrs. Wray any trouble. It seemed she had a “nervous condition.”

But try as I might, I managed to give her grief practically from the first day of classes. I never knew the answers to the simplest questions: “How does one starch a shirt?” “Why is the tip of an iron hotter than the rest of the iron?” “How do you boil an egg without breaking the shell?” I hadn’t the slightest idea. Still don’t.

The first hands-on activity was sewing. We were told to buy two yards of a nice cotton print, and bring it to the next class. We were going to make a skirt. I announced the coming purchase to Mother, and she said we would go to town and pick out my fabric on Saturday. I was not in the least interested in sewing, and even less in owning a cotton print skirt. But Mother was excited about it, and promised to answer any questions I might have at home. She would even introduce me to her own sainted sewing machine. I didn’t even try to appear interested.

I took my fabric to school as instructed, and followed Mrs. Wray’s direction. We did some cutting, none of which I remember, and set about basting the seams. I was happy to discover I understood the directions, and “with a song in my heart” (another popular song of the period) I proceeded to take long hand-stitches.

I soon noticed Mrs. Wray hanging out near my seat at the sewing table. At one time, I managed to glance unnoticed up at her, and she had a quizzical look on her face as she studied my stitching.

Suddenly, she yelled, “Mildred, you’re stitching backwards.” I nearly jumped out of my skin. “You’re sewing backwards. You’re using your right hand, but you’re sewing in a left-handed direction. Stop it this instant!” I hadn’t the slightest idea what she was on about. I asked her, but she was becoming more and more distraught.

Oh no! I had activated Mrs. Wray’s nervous condition!

She quickly wrote a note and told me to take it home to Mother just as the bell rang releasing me from her frenetic note-writing and material- gathering. She literally shoved me out the door.

This incident was the first in a long series of similar occurrences that continue to this day, which seems to indicate there is a wire crossed in my brain. I use my right hand, but somehow I do things in a left-hander’s direction. It’s caused no small amount of consternation, mostly among those from whom I have taken instruction, such as square dancing, pottery making and horseback riding. The first two caused amazement, but the horse didn’t seem to notice.

It soon became obvious to me Mrs. Wray thought I had some evil intent to send her over the edge by sewing backwards. Little did she know what lay ahead. When the skirts finally reached the sewing machines, I was terrified. My machine looked to me as though it was the one with evil intent.

My first day at the machine began surrounded by an aura of unaccustomed calm. Mrs. Wray took her usual position standing over me. My confidence built slowly and before I knew it, I was busily  pushing my skirt gathers underneath the presser foot. I may even have been humming a little ditty, as I happily ignored the sinister watchfulness of Mrs. Wray.

“No, Mildred!” she suddenly shouted, successfully destroying the mood. “You’re doing it again! You’re sewing back…”

I looked up at her while the sewing machine continued to gobble up gathers. Mrs. Wray screamed again just as I felt a jab of pain. I looked down to see a logjam of gathers under the needle. The fabric was rapidly turning red, and I realized underneath the fabric my finger was impaled on the needle.

Mrs. Wray’s hands flew to either side of her head as she quickly backed away from me. Some of the girls helped her to a chair; some ran for the school nurse; and some helped me get my finger out of the sewing machine. Blood was everywhere. Mrs. Wray, whose nervous condition had her in its grip, continued to scream.

I’m not sure about the order of events after that. I do know Mother came to pick me up. She took me to the doctor, who told me how lucky I was. The needle had only grazed the outside of my index finger. It looked, he said, a lot worse than it actually was. He added I should be more careful when operating a sewing machine.

The photograph you see below was taken the following Monday. During the ensuing weekend, Mother called Mrs. Wray to ask after her health and to apologize for my behavior, after which she went to the fabric shop and bought another two yards of a “nice cotton print.” She sewed it up into a gathered skirt, put a clean band-aid on my finger and sent me off to school. She suggested I might want to avoid Mrs. Wray, if at all possible.

The picture was taken for Bailey Junior High’s annual. Its purpose was to show off the 7th Grade Girls’ sewing skills. I showed off my mother’s sewing skills. The photographer showed off his people-arranging skills by placing the Giant Girl (me) in the center of the shot and placing the cute, short girls in descending order by my sides, making me appear even taller, but what the hey! Given the indisputable fact I was already the star of the show, like it or not, I guess it was appropriate. Oh, by the way, that was the first and LAST time I wore that skirt.

skirts_1

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A SURPRISE ADVENTURE RIDING THE MEXICAN RAILS

If you become a regular reader of my posts, you will soon learn of my love for Mexico. This is the story of my ignominious introduction to my favorite place to visit.

A SURPRISE ADVENTURE RIDING THE MEXICAN RAILS

It was our first visit to Mexico. My husband John and I love trains, and we had decided to drive to Laredo, Texas, walk across the border and take a train into the Mexican interior. The three o’clock train rumbled into the Laredo station, only two hours late. Having read all the guidebooks, I was aware the Mexican people paid little attention to time and schedules, one of the country’s most endearing qualities to my way of thinking.

Boarding the sleeper car in which we had reserved a bedroom for the 12-hour trip to Mexico City, I found it wasn’t the bedroom at all. It was a tiny, one-person roomette.

“There must be some mistake, I said to the young porter, who spoke a little English. “We reserved a bedroom.”

“This is a bedroom, Senora,” The porter smiled and nodded toward the other roomettes lining the narrow aisle of the sleeper, all of which were being quickly occupied by Mexican families.

John, who was less than enthusiastic about this particular adventure, spoke: “Stop arguing and sit down. There’s no mistake. This is what they’re obviously referring to as a bedroom.” He was right. I gave up. If five Mexicans could sleep on one narrow cot, the two of us could manage as well. After all, we wanted to experience the true essence of the country, and believe me, the essence on that hot, humid, sleeper was overpowering.

Pretty soon, I heard band music. Not wishing to miss one Mexican moment, I ran to the little platform on the sleeper to see a student band arranged across the track playing its heart out. I seemed to be the only one impressed by it. Our fellow travelers paid them no mind at all.

As I listened to the music, the train suddenly came alive and lurched forward. There being no rail to hang onto, I very nearly fell off the platform. It was the first of many such experiences in my travels There are no safety rules or warning signs anywhere in Mexico. You are totally responsible for the safety of your person. If you fall off the back end of a train, you shouldn’t have been out there in the first place.

I bounded from side to side back down the aisle of the swaying train and sat down on the bench in our “bedroom.” It was covered in patched plastic, the stuffing long gone. The journey was to be non-stop to Leon and then an express to Mexico City. We were no sooner off than the train groaned to a stop.

“Great! It’s broken down already,” John wailed. But no. After a few seconds it started up. I breathed a sigh of relief just as the train stopped again. After the fifth stop, which occurred in a curve, I discovered the reason. Peering out the grimy window, I saw a man alight from a car up ahead in the curve. His family was waiting for him, standing beside a campfire and an adobe hut. I was amazed to find that our express train stopped to take on and let off individual passengers.

We had now experienced at least three surprises. We’re still being surprised by this magical country even after 26 years.

We ate our picnic supper, and decided to turn in. There was nothing to see anyway. We soon discovered that was no easy feat. By standing in the aisle and with much tugging and pulling, the berth fell down from its overhead compartment completely covering our other accommodations.

Peering down into the toilet before the berth covered it gave me a quick view of the railroad ties as they sped by underneath the train. There was no need for a flushing mechanism.

By now it was at least 110 degrees in the sleeper. We clamored into the berth from the aisle. There was no sheet. Back in the aisle we shoved the bunk into its receptacle, pulled our luggage from under the bench and found our largest towel. At least it would be absorbent. The way we were now perspiring, the towel would be soaked in no time.

Back on the bunk, we found if we both lay facing the train wall and not bending our knees we wouldn’t touch one another. The bed was about 30 inches wide and about eye level to anyone passing by in the aisle. Fortunately, there was a zippered canvas curtain hiding us from the view of passers-by.

I lay there for an hour, unable to sleep and very nearly suffocating in the stifling heat and the dank air.

“I’ve got to get these clothes off!” I hissed. I was barely able to peel them off. Although better than sticky clothing, it was precious little relief to wear only my skin. I then found if I bent my body slightly, just enough to poke my posterior over the side of the bunk, I was treated to the merest whisper of air under the canvas curtain.

I was just settling in when suddenly I felt the zipper being unzipped up my backside. A voice in the aisle said, “Pardon, Senor and Senora, I have come to make up…”

There was a brief pause and then a blood-curdling scream. “Dios Mio!” cried the voice. I flopped over and peered out the curtain just in time to see the young porter dashing up the aisle. Heads began popping out of curtains up and down the sleeper car. Pandemonium reigned as the other passengers tried to identify the source of the pandemonium.

I quickly zipped the curtain up again. John still lay with his face to the wall. He hadn’t moved. Finally he spoke quietly: “I hope that boy’s reached his full growth. If not, it’s stunted now.”

“Dios Mio,” I replied.