AN UNFORGIVABLE BREACH OF FIFTIES RULES

When my best friend, Robert, retired several years ago, his niece prepared a scrapbook for him. She asked me and some of his other friends to write a memory of Robert to be included in the book. Here is mine.

When people have known one another for more than 60 years, said people accumulate many memories. Some of us have zip for long-term memories; others have trouble with short-term memories. Some have no memory at all, but I’m not naming names.

Since Robert and I met in the 6th grade (he says the 7th grade) and we’ve spent much time with one another starting way back then, I thought I would plod through my recollections, knowing it would be difficult to select the best one for his scrapbook. As it turned out, it wasn’t hard at all. One memory so stands out from the rest, it was easy to choose.

The event I shall relate landed us in the soup, to say the least. Today it would be a minor misdemeanor, but in the 50s it was a felony punishable by death or at least being sentenced to a year of dish washing.

Here’s what happened:

Once upon a time around 1953-1954, Robert invited me to go with him on a hayride and cookout. He attended the Nazarene Church, which sponsored the event. I can’t remember who thought of it, but the idea appealed to both of us.

We would find some way to obtain a bottle of vodka, with which we would spike the chaperones’ Big Orange drinks when we arrived at our cookout destination. Nehi orange soda pop was stuck with the “Big Orange” appellation in those days because of a popular Andy Griffith monolog in which he referred to the drinks as Big Orange. At least that’s where I think it started.

One of our best friends was Joyce Schurman, who was the minister’s daughter. We ran the idea by Joyce, to test the waters, so to speak, to find out what she thought about it and how much trouble she thought we’d be in if we got caught. To our surprise and delight, Joyce thought it a splendid idea and asked if she could join us. So, there were now four of us, counting Joyce’s unsuspecting date, Charles, who would go along, but didn’t wish to take an active part. Never mind; more was better if it became necessary to spread the blame around.

Having no earthly way to find vodka, it seems to me we really thought we wouldn’t be able to secure it, making the caper impossible to actually fulfill, but fun to talk about. Little did we know just how easily it would fall into our hands and make our daring escapade doable.

My sister’s best friend was from a big drinking family. When my sister told her friend about our plan, she immediately took us to her mother, who obliged by filling a small bottle with vodka and sending us on our way.

That night when we gathered at the church, I had the bottle secreted in a blanket. Robert, Joyce and I referred to the blanketed vodka as “the baby.”

“Let me hold the baby.” “Would you take care of the baby for a while?” “Be sure to keep the baby covered up.” And so on.

Riding in the hay wagon, we giggled all the way to our cookout destination. When we arrived the chaperones (of which there were many, in an abundance of Nazarene caution) they began to set out fixings for a wiener roast, et al. To our giddy delight, we saw the Big Orange drinks opened and lined up on a table very near the edge of the dark woods.

It was the work of only a second to figure out how we were going to do the deed. We crouched behind the table, hidden by the trees and the darkness. One of us served as lookout while the other two grabbed a drink and poured some of it on the ground, replacing it with vodka. No one saw us, and after a while, we were able to give the drinks yet another shot of the booze. By the time the Big Oranges were to be drunk, we had completed our mission.

We stayed where we were in order to gauge the chaperones’ reaction. To our surprise and amusement, one of the drinkers said, “I think this orange drink is the best I’ve ever had.” The revelation caused us so much mirth, we had to clap our hands over our mouths for fear of being discovered.

We were very pleased with ourselves for pulling off the practical joke of the century. I think the hayride was on a Friday night, but I’m not sure about that. It was Sunday afternoon when Robert called me.

“The whole church knows about the baby,” he said feverishly.
“They’re going to make me apologize to the congregation.”

“How did they know it was you?” I asked, terrified. “How did they know it was booze?”

“I guess they tasted it. We put a lot in those Big Orange bottles. But I don’t know. Joyce said one of the girls told on us. She’s grounded for a week for her punishment. And listen to this. They know I had another girl accomplice. They also know she’s a Baptist, and they want me to tell them your name, so they can tell your church and your mother about it.”

“You didn’t tell them, did you?”

“I think it’s going to go worse for me if I don’t tell them,” he said. “If they know you go to the Baptist Church, they’ll find out it was you, so I might as well tell them.”

“No-o-o-o,” I stage-whispered into the phone. My mother was in the other room, and I tried to drag the phone into my room and close the door. The cord wouldn’t stretch that far.

“Please, please don’t tell them,” I begged. He desperately tried to convince me we would get off easier if he told them who I was, on the condition they wouldn’t tell my church and my mother. “Even if they do go for that, you will have to come to my church and apologize to the whole congregation.”

So, there it was. Damned if I did and damned if I didn’t. I pleaded with him. Some of Mother’s friends went to the Nazarene Church, and she would surely get wind of it. And after she heard about it, she would kill me.

There were many whispered conversations on the phone that Sunday. I was able to talk Robert out of telling them my name, and I didn’t want to even whisper about it further. That sucker had to be buried alive or dead. I don’t remember how it turned out, but I think he was forced to apologize. I escaped with my “good girl” reputation intact.

But the episode wasn’t over. I was not discovered, but I wound up confessing it to Mother anyway.

Mother had a mental list of “Boys Who May Not Be Dated.” At the top of the list was — I’ll call him –- Bob. Patricia, my sister, had been explicitly forbidden to go out with him for some reason now forgotten. But Patricia had subterfuge in her soul as well. Bob would send a friend to our house to pick up my sister. She would then be delivered to Bob, and when they came home, he would let her off at the corner, and she always said whomever he was had a deadline to get home, and he was running late.

I worried about her telling those lies, and I thought I had to let Mother know what was going on. I knew if I told on her, my sister would tell Mother about that damned “baby.” There was nothing for it but to tell Mother myself what I did, so I could then reveal my sister’s deception freely, and she would have no such power over me.

Mother, of course, had a conniption fit! She and her family were world-class criers. This time, I thought she was never going to stop crying. She wept buckets and paced the floor while I just stood there totally taciturn.

“No wonder Mrs. Young won’t speak to me,” she wailed. Mrs. Young, a Nazarene, was our next-door neighbor. “I’ll never be able to hold my head up again. I’m ruined. You’ve disgraced the whole family.”

When the tears slacked a little, I broke the news to her about my sister.

More tears. More anguish. More consternation. But what was this? She wasn’t upset about the Bob lies. She was still furious with me.

“You should be so ashamed of yourself to say those awful things about your sister. Don’t you tell your daddy that, and don’t confess your own sin to him. It would kill him. Oh, where did I go wrong?”

A deluge. More tears. More threats. More accusations. More everything.

On further reflection, perhaps I should have fessed up to the Nazarenes with Robert. It might have gone down better, and by then I would have come out smelling like a rose.

But it was not to be, thanks to my postponing my just desserts; it was my lying, no-account sister who was smelling like a rose. I was stinking to the high heaven, into which my mother said I would never see.

Sinners of my ilk were drop-shipped directly to the devil himself.

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.

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