Once we outgrew the snakes, the next toys we indulged in were sparklers. Sparklers were much more exciting than snakes. The sparkler was basically a piece of wire, about nine inches long; that included a fuel, usually charcoal or sulfur (the same as black powder); an oxidizer, potassium nitrate for example; a binder such as sugar or starch, which when coated on the wire and dried, allow the substances to remain; and finally, the best part, the aluminum, iron, steel, zinc, or magnesium dust that creates the beautiful, bright, shimmering sparks. The metal flakes heat up until they are incandescent and shine brightly. Once lit, the sparkler shot out colorful sparks at a ferocious rate. They were best played with after dark, so you achieved the full effect of the fire and color.
Each of us ran to Dad with sparkler in hand (Dad had the matches; he probably didn’t think it was safe for us to have our own matches), and he lit each of our sparklers. Whereas we then ran around the yard flailing our arms around in circles, writing our names in the air, and getting as close to each other’s faces as we thought we could get away with, squealing and giggling the entire time.
Once we became good at it, we graduated to a sparkler in each hand, and then maybe two in each hand (if you tried to hold too many at a time, the sparks burned your hand). Besides the obvious, in the wrong hands these little toys had the potential to be quite lethal, in an inconspicuous way.
You see, when the sparkler had burned itself out, we tended to throw the remaining wire on the ground and run back to Dad to get our sparkler refill. Unfortunately, the discarded wire was still extremely hot, and as I mentioned in an earlier chapter of the book, we always ran around barefoot, especially during the summertime. A hot sparkler on the bottom of the foot ensured that in addition to squealing and giggling, there was loud screeching and one-legged hopping around to liven up the evening.
Dad, with a look of incredulity, turned to Mom and said, “Honey, what are those kids doing, jumping around the yard and screeching like that?”
Mom, oblivious to the reality at hand, “I don’t know, dear, I guess they’re just having a good time.”
Purchase your copy of Little Heathens here.
(Nothing to Fear But…)
The year was 1933 and America was in the depths of the Great Depression. As our newly elected president was contemplating what to say in his inaugural address, here is what he and the nation faced: There was a 25 percent unemployment rate leading some people to starve and many others to lose farms and homes. This was the time of the hobo riding trains across the country (giving Jimmy Rodgers and Woody Guthrie something to sing about). People from the Midwest migrated westward in the hopes of striking it rich in the land of plenty: California. Times were tough and fear was rampant and real. Franklin Delano Roosevelt rightly sensed that Americans needed some confidence, some words of encouragement, a shot in the arm. In the midst of his address, he uttered this now famous line: “So first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
My comment on that comment was uttered by an even more famous president, Abraham Lincoln: “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.”
With all due respect to Frankie, I have to side with Abe on this one. He may have fooled the others, but he doesn’t fool me. Nothing to fear but fear? You have to be kidding me. I was afraid of everything (this list is exhaustive, but not all-inclusive): needles, spankings, scary movies, doctors, dogs, lockjaw, fear itself, girls, neighborhood bullies, cows, loud noises, Dad, dying, etc. I had nightmares. I avoided going into certain places (anywhere dark to be exact). I was even known to scare myself; it didn’t take much to frighten me. Of course, like me but not as severe, were my three siblings who were afraid of a few things themselves, as the following story illustrates.
Some people would refer to the four of us kids as “a handful” (in the same way a trek up Mount Everest would be referred to as a “good stretch of the legs”), yet Mom seemed to maintain her sanity for the most part. There were times, however, when she needed to get away from us (not to be confused with us getting away from her); a time to engage in adult conversation with regular human beings. There was one hurdle to overcome: finding someone willing to babysit us, if only for a couple of hours.
After numerous phone calls to potential sitters, it seemed strange that they all had “sudden emergencies” to attend to during the two hours in question. Not to be deterred, Mom came up with another plan. She decided to drop us off at the movie theater and while we were safely in the care of the public, she would go to the beauty parlor and get her hair done. The timing couldn’t have worked out better for her.
The particular movie didn’t matter much to Mom, and as she drove away, the three of us turned to Vicki who had all the money. “Vicki, what movie ah we going to see?” Kathy asked.
“It’s a comedy called The Nutty Professor and stars Jerry Lewis and Stella Stevens.”
“Jewwy who?” Timmy wanted to know.
This movie seemed innocent enough; after all, Jerry Lewis was a comedian, so what could possibly be amiss? In The Nutty Professor, Lewis plays a nerdy professor who discovers a potion that when consumed, turns him into a suave, handsome, ladies man, and this allows him to pursue the girl he has a crush on, played by Stella Stevens. The movie was initially pretty boring for us kids until one particular scene. As the professor drinks his magic potion, the music begins to turn eerie, which perks up the attention of four little kids sitting side by side in the dark theater (other than us, there weren’t many people watching the matinée). Our eyes became as large as saucers when the camera panned to the professor’s hand, which began to grow thick brown hair and resembled something more like that of a werewolf. This was all I needed to see, and within seconds, I was out in the lobby (I could still hear the scary music and other sounds emanating from the professor out in the lobby and my imagination went into overdrive). If I had stayed in the theater, I would have seen the complete transformation of the professor as he knocked over test tubes and beakers, falling to the ground and finally emerging as Buddy Love. The entire scene only lasted around a minute, but I wasn’t taking any chances.
Out in the lobby, the young man at the concession stand asked me, “Hey kid, what are you doing out here? Are you going to buy some popcorn? Candy?”
Startled out of my daydreaming I replied, “What? No, I don’t have any money. Can I stay out here for a while?”
“No. You have to go back in the theater. You can’t stay out here.”
By this time, it was all four of us out in the lobby. We huddled together and weren’t going back into the theater until an usher came out and coaxed us back in. The movie was now back in the boring mode, so we stayed put for a while. When the scene switched to the laboratory and the music changed to scary, we didn’t wait around for the transformation, instead moving en masse to the lobby once again. This time, we were threatened. The usher was firm when he said, “You kids get back in there, or I’ll go get your mother.”
I flippantly replied, “Good luck if you can find her. She went to get her hair done, and we don’t know where she is.”
We stayed one step ahead of the usher by moving between the lobby and the bathrooms and even hiding behind the cameraman’s perch. When the movie finally ended, Mom was out front to pick us up.
Occasionally when fishing, we caught something other than fish, although not intentionally. One day at Horseshoe Pond, we were fishing for catfish; so it was earthworms on a treble hook weighted down to the bottom with a few split sinkers. With the pole placed in the V of a stick we’d pounded into the ground, Timmy and I sat staring out at the water.
After a while, the undulating waves and the glare from the sun on the water created a mesmerizing effect, and we entered into an almost trancelike state. It was hard to concentrate on the line as it stretched out from the end of the pole to the point where it entered the water. To alter the effect, you either had to close your eyes for a few seconds or change your gaze from the line to the end of the pole. Again, fishing is all about patience, and fishing this way required all that I had to give. I have to admit that from time to time, I wandered down the bank, looking for something interesting along the shore; the tadpoles or spawning fish being a couple of examples, but even with the distraction, I would look back at my pole to make sure the tip wasn’t bent down, indicating that a fish was on.
Suddenly, I jumped up with excitement as the pole tip bent down and stayed there. The line was fairly taut, but it was not pulling like it usually did when a fish was on. I still thought something had to be on the end of the line. I grabbed the pole, thinking I may have on a large catfish, and began to reel it in. I shouted to Timmy, “I’ve got one! Come over here and see.” As usual, I yelled out that I had one, but knew that it could be a rock or stick that was causing the resistance, and just in case it really was a fish, my excitement level was amped up to fit the moment. Timmy had to interrupt his rock throwing so that he could see what was going on with me.
As I reeled it in, the look on my face was one of confusion. Whatever was on the other end of my line was heavy, but it wasn’t giving me much of a fight. The normal tug of war that ensues when a fish is hooked wasn’t occurring. I wondered if I had snagged a log or large rock. I continued to pull hard and reel even harder, and finally, something broke the surface. Timmy was helpful and said, “That’s not a fish. That wooks wike a wock with wegs covehed in mud.” It did look like a rock covered in mud until the rock began walking onto the bank. The snapping turtle without warning opened its large jaws, with sharp beak visible, and hissed. We both jumped back, and my initial instinct was to run, but I couldn’t; I still had the fishing pole in my hand, and it was now hooked to this large prehistoric looking creature.
By now, the “smart one,” Vicki, had walked up and commented, “That creature is the common snapping turtle, scientific name Chelydra Serpentina, not to be confused with the alligator snapping turtle. It is a member of the reptile family, and the female can lay as many as fifty eggs at a time. They can grow as large as eighteen inches in shell length, and this one looks to be among the larger ones.”
Timmy and I noticed that she was saying this from a safe distance, and due to her being herpetologically sophisticated, we didn’t question Vicki’s knowledge. What I saw was a scary-looking monster turtle—looking to inflict damage on anyone dumb enough to get within striking distance of that sharp beak at the end of its snout. It stood about two feet high from the ground to the top of its head. Chunks of mud were falling at its feet as it began to dry out in the hot sun, its color going from a moist dark green to a dry and dusty brown.
At this point, it was a standoff. The turtle stared at us, occasionally opening its mouth to keep us honest, and we stared at it, at one moment, thinking its eyes were a glowing red. Not sure exactly what we were going to do next, we did nothing. I just stood there, contemplating. Timmy thought of an easy way out and suggested, “Wonnie, bweak the wine and the tuhtuh wiwh go back into the pond.” I had thought of that option, but due to the limited availability of fishing tackle, I didn’t want to lose any just yet. I came up with another plan. “Timmy, go find a stick and try to knock the hook loose from its mouth.”
“Why don’t you twy it?” he replied.
Although he had asked a good question, I had a better answer. “I have to hold onto my pole and reel the line in when you knock the hook loose.” He fell for it, hook, line, and sinker.
As Timmy approached the beast with stick in hand, we all braced ourselves for the quick getaway, just in case my plan didn’t work. Timmy maneuvered the stick within inches of the turtle’s mouth, and then the turtle lunged forward with mouth wide-open, and chomped down on the stick, snapping it in half. Timmy ran one way, and Vicki another. I was stuck. The turtle glared my way as I was the only tormentor remaining. I didn’t take my eyes off the creature, and as the stalemate wore on, I knew that Timmy’s idea was going to be the only option in the end.
I finally pulled my line as tight as I could, in an attempt to break it and free myself, when the turtle jerked its head from side to side—and the line snapped. The giant snapping turtle realized its freedom and turned to walk back into the pond, to return to the muddy depths from whence it came.
We began throwing rocks at the retreating turtle, as if we were the victors in this encounter, and yelled a few epithets: “Go back to where you came from, you stupid turtle.”
“Yeah, we hate you.”
I’m sure the turtle was thinking: What a bunch of knucklehead kids. I made a mental note at the time to never swim in Horseshoe Pond. If creatures like that were lurking around unseen on the bottom of the pond, I wasn’t going anywhere near them. Vicki and Timmy approached the area once again, and we spent a few minutes recapping the experience. The ordeal left me drained, and Timmy asked me “Ah, we going to fish some moh?”
“Not today,” I answered. “I’m out of hooks and sinkers. I’m going home and eat a baloney sandwich.”
It’s been three years since my first book of memoirs, Little Heathens, has been published and although I’ve sold hundreds of copies, in retrospect I have to be honest with myself and wonder why. Why would anyone want to read a book about me and my siblings? After all, I’m not famous. I’m not a world-renowned athlete or a war hero. I haven’t invented a cure for some heretofore incurable disease. I haven’t climbed Mt. Everest or swam the English Channel. I definitely didn’t grow up in an abusive household, quite the opposite. I haven’t been to rehab or been a victim, of any kind. I did grow up with asthma, but I never perceived it as a hindrance nor did I allow it to be.
Quite the contrary to those qualities listed above, my life was fairly normal and ordinary. But was it really? It is true that people who’ve read the book and given me feedback, have almost universally found some story in the book that they relate to their own childhood. But was everyone’s childhood as unique, or as odd as mine? Was everyone’s childhood, in retrospect, as funny as mine was? I have to say no based on feedback from reader Ken, “That book was funnier than hell.” Well, since Ken brought it up, here are ten reasons why you should read Little Heathens:
- 10. You’re tired of hearing the same old depressing stories on the evening news and need something to cheer you up.
- 9. Your childhood was bland and you are curious as to how the other half lived.
- 8. You had such a traumatic childhood that you’ve blanked out all memories and are now wondering what childhood was really like.
- 7. You’re a young parent whose children are making you crazy and you wonder if things could possibly get worse.
- 6. You’re parents never allowed you to run around the neighborhood barefoot.
- 5. At times you’ve wondered if your kids are “normal”.
- 4. You’ve seen “those kinds of kids” in the neighborhood and feigned shock and outrage, but inside you were laughing yourself silly.
- 3. You’re secretly a voyeur.
- 2. You had a fun, wonderful childhood and would love to relive it.
- 1. You enjoy reading a book full of funny, delightful stories of four knucklehead kids and the great times they had growing up together.
“Wanted to let you know how much I’m enjoying your book, Little Heathens. Your stories bring back many of my own experiences as a child, including the witch’s house, $2 bills, bed-wetting, the “stop touching me!” battles… Today I kind of wish I related more to innocent Kathy, but what fun it was being a little heathen! For everyone who’s ever been told they should write about their childhood, you’ve set the standard with the ideal prototype. Thanks Ron! Can’t wait for Part II!!”
“Ron, where do I start? I am over half way through the book. As I read the journey through your childhood I feel that with each adventure I read there is something that reminds me of my childhood. I have laughed and went to places in my mind that I had forgotten about. All I have to say is Bravo for reminding us of a time when it was ok to be a little heathen, and when it was still ok to have fun and not be afraid of the society we live in.”
“Little Heathens is a well written, humorous book that brought me back to my childhood with my sister. When reading, I had to keep a box of Kleenex near to wipe the laughter tears from my eyes. It’s a book that will keep you laughing to the point where your sides and cheeks hurt. I am ready for the sequel to see what kind of mischief the Bay kids got into when they were in High School!”
“I was able to read the first 50 pgs of the book yesterday 🙂 and I love it. You were talking about those brass tags (I used to get when swimming). I totally forgot about them until that chapter. I can’t wait to finish it. I wonder how much more I have forgotten from my youth….I am sure a bunch! You’re awesome. Keep it flowing.”
“It’s funny I laughed at you playing in the dirt at the construction site and throwing dirt clods at cars especially at the police car!” “Also, you having to break off your own stick when you got in trouble with your brother”….”I can’t wait to read more!”
My twelve-year-old sage is finishing up your book (she is reading three at one time, for pleasure, plus her school work). Anyway, thanks for setting the bar so high… She has already said “Eli, Emma and I are not even close to that bad….” She also “…relate(s) to (your) older and more wise sister…” and “… what that little kid did to the lizard thing, almost made (her) throw up…”
I am so sorry I missed your book signing while you were in Carthage. I have been reading my book and I think it is wonderful. It reminds me of some of the things my sisters and I did when we were that age. Fun times.”
“Really enjoying your book – makes me smile a lot inside”
“Want a light-hearted book about growing up? This would be the one for you! Easy to read, and will definitely make you laugh, or, at least smile really big! In today’s life we can sure use some smiles. Thanks!”
“Ronnie, I enjoyed your book and all the stories about Vicki, Timmy, Kathy and you. Brought back memories of memories I had long forgotten of my childhood. Thank you for bringing back some fun thoughts of my childhood as well as sharing yours with me. Look forward to reading what mischief you guys got into in Missouri.”
“Also, I had an absolutely wonderful day off Wednesday (just in case you were wondering)………I actually slept in, watched the local news, drank 2 cups of coffee and…READ YOUR BOOK AND LOVED IT !..my favorite part was the chapter on Holidays……………I was in memory heaven. Great book Ron, keep writing, you have such a gift.”
“Ron, I finished Little Heathens this weekend. A couple of things I realized were (1) the fact that kids in Southern California, and kids in Southwest Missouri really weren’t that different in those days, and (2) just how similar our families’ activities and lives really were. Your dad and my dad must have gone to the same “Dad School”. Thanks for the memories. I laughed, and I related to so many different stories. Can’t wait for the sequel.”
“Hi Ron !!
“I read the bulk of your book while vacationing at the shore … it was a fun book to read and your memories sparked many in my household (little sister, included … she was the one who was always picked on and would do ANYTHING we asked of her !!! Bless her heart !! 🙂 ).You reminded me much of a brother who was 11/2 years older than I, a wrestler, and a real dickens for our folks !! My favorite which my husband and I still chuckle about comes every time we hear the ice cream fella drive through our neighborhood … you hanging on for dear life …. STOP … I WANT ICE CREAM !!!!! Arriving home to find your war wounds were for naught, as your little brother munched down on his ice cream !!! Some things just aren’t fair in this life – ha !!”
“My Favorite part about your book was your attitude/excitement about seeing what everyday could bring forth. You are privileged to have had that kind of life. I thought it would be a good book for a new father or mother to read that would steer them in a direction of making a good life for their kids and give them insight on the participation it takes to raise a family.”
Angie wrote: “Hey Ron, I started reading your book L-O-V-E it!! I have laughed and cried remembering my childhood.”
“Yes, I did read Little Heathens and absolutely loved it. It was so heart-warming and funny! And it brought back lots of childhood memories. You have such great recall of details from back then; things I found buried in my memory’s archives. So glad you brought those back to life for me. And yes, I’m really looking forward to the sequel! Bring it on!!!” Vickie
“That book is funnier than hell.” Ken in Schaumburg
My Sister’s Keeper
Speaking of freeways, Kathy, and candy, there was an incident on the San Gabriel Freeway that is still talked about today. The fact that we were banned from “playing on the freeway” made total sense (of course, at the time we had to ask “how come?”) and is probably why we were destined to end up there anyway. One day, Mom called me into the house and peppered me with this: “Ronnie, where is your sister?”
Being a bit of a smart aleck I replied, “Which one?”
Beginning to be irritated, Mom was a little more forceful, “You know which one. You were supposed to be watching Kathy. Where is she?”
By now I was becoming exasperated with the line of questioning and replied, “Am I my sister’s keeper? (I really didn’t say that, although it does fit). I don’t know where she is.”
Timmy, always helpful, added, “David P. said he was taking heh to his gwandma’s to get candy and ice cweam.”
Mom now turned her attention to Timmy, to my relief, and questioned him, “Where did they go? Where did he take her?”
Timmy answered, “He said they weh going to his gwandma’s and they weh wahking on the fweeway.”
Once again, Mom turned to me with instructions, “Ronnie, you go get your sister and bring her back home. Now!” Mom didn’t seem too worried about me being on the freeway.
Now David P., our next-door neighbor, was often times a little bit off (in the way that Jack Nicholson in The Shining was a little bit off). He had to take medicine to remain calm, if you know what I mean. We didn’t quite know the clinical term, but today, I think he might be considered mentally challenged. All I know is, when he wasn’t taking his medicines, we tended to play on the other side of the block. Just to give you a little insight as to David’s possibilities: one day, Kathy came home missing her ponytail. Mom saw the new hairdo and demanded of Kathy, “Kathy, what happened to your pony tail!? All that’s left of it is a rubber band!” Kathy, not knowing what else to say told the truth, “David cut it off.” (Maybe David thought we were in a game of cowboys and Indians and he was just claiming the white girl’s scalp). David, after the incident, was seen around the neighborhood with Kathy’s ponytail attached to his belt.
Anyway, David apparently convinced Kathy to go with him to his grandma’s house to get candy and ice cream (I indicated earlier that candy was Kathy’s kryptonite). It was news to me that I was supposed to be watching her, but then again, I was known to have selective hearing. I got on my bike and headed to the freeway, and I saw two figures walking on the shoulder of the freeway, about a half mile ahead. I rode real fast and caught up with them. As I jumped off my bike and grabbed Kathy’s arm I said, “Kathy, Mommy said you have to come home. I came to get you, so get on my bike and I will ride you home.”
Kathy was intent on the candy and tersely replied “No!”
Not to be deterred, I insisted, “Kathy, Mommy said you have to come home! Stop pulling and come with me.”
She too was insistent and adamantly replied, “I want candy and ice cweam.”
David and Kathy were pulling one way and I was pulling the other (a little tug-of-war by the side of the road, or better yet, Kathy was the wishbone and David and I wanted to see who would get their wish). Cars were flying by at seventy plus miles per hour, and the tugging and pulling spilled out into traffic. A woman in a passing car was heard to exclaim, “Honey, those kids are going to get killed!” Her husband, not near as concerned, said, “I wonder what they’re doing on the freeway?” His wife, in a moment of introspection said, “Probably looking for ice cream and candy.”
At this point, I gave up and turned around to head back home. I wasn’t sure what to tell Mom, but figured I might as well tell the truth this time. As I pulled into the driveway, a black-and-white police car was leaving (I waved at the policemen). When I got in the front door, Kathy was bawling, and Mom was staring at me with a mean look and a switch already in hand (at least I didn’t have to go get my own switch).
I had dreamed of this event for years and it finally happened, I took my grandchildren fishing over the weekend. The old fashioned kind of fishing; in a pond with red and white bobbers, lead weights, hooks, and worms; slimy, crawly, wiggly, giant night crawlers. And like I remembered from the time when I was a boy; worms attract fish, especially the sunfish found in most ponds. But what I had forgotten was, catching fish this way is really hard!
When I was twelve years old, my good friend Jim and I would gather up our earthworms, tackle boxes, sack lunches and fishing poles and trek the one mile west on Fairview Avenue until we reached the railroad tracks. From there we would turn north and walk another hundred yards to our secret pond; one we named Rosebush. Getting to the pond through all the briars and brambles was a chore, but we didn’t let a few scratches deter us; we had fish to catch. And slaughter the fish we did; filling our stringers to the point it was a struggle lugging them back home. I remember how hungry the fish were and how when the bobber landed on the water it was immediately pulled under and how too many times our timing was off and we would set the hook too late or too early. We eventually learned the technique and became quite successful; catching Pumpkinseeds, Long Ear, Bluegill, Redbreast, Green and all other subspecies of the sunfish family.
My son Christopher and I were a little nervous about taking Jake and Cara with us; he’s not yet five and she just turned three. Christopher was also skeptical we would even catch anything in the retention ponds that surround my neighborhood. A couple of days earlier Christopher had purchased Jake’s first fishing pole; one of those little three foot, themed for a kid models. We decided to bring along our poles; just in case.
Once at the pond, we readied the poles and then opened up the Styrofoam container of worms. Jake wanted nothing to do with the slimy critters, but Cara was fearless and dug one out of the dirt and proceeded to study it; fascinated by the wiggly, tube-shaped, segmented worm. Once we cast them out into the shallow water, we immediately started getting bites. “Kids, look at the bobber, there it goes, wait, wait, pull, pull, ah, you missed it!” After a few misses by both of us, Christopher finally hooked one and let Jake reel it in. Shortly after, I hooked one and this scenario played out over and over for the next couple of hours. I was so excited I forgot we were there for the kids and it took a lot of effort for me to hand my pole off to the grand-kids and let them reel the fish in. They each “landed” a number of fish before we were through and Jake actually went through the entire process of casting, setting the hook, and reeling the fish in entirely on his own. And just like I remembered from all those years ago, catching fish this way takes skill and patience, but after a few misses we finally got the hang of it.
When it came time to get the fish off the hook and release them back into the pond, Jake again wanted nothing to do with them, but Cara, ever fearless, grabbed the fish and attempted to throw them back in. At one point she had a fish in both hands and as she reached back over her head to throw it, the fish slipped out and landed on the ground behind her; flopping around in the green grass, with Jake jumping as far away from the distraught fish as possible.
We eventually became hungry and dusk had arrived so we packed up our gear and went back to Gigi’s for some pizza. We were all hungry from being in the fresh outdoor air and the four of us spent the next hour eating pizza and telling tall tales of our fishing exploits. I have to say, it was a blast for me to see the look on my grand-kids faces as we caught fish after fish and they experienced something for the first time that I had when I was a kid, just like them. And oh, by the way, it was also a blast for me because I was catching fish; who cares if they were only six inches long.
Did you ever notice the similarities between the snail and the slug? Well, we did. As far as we could tell, the only real difference was that the snail had a house on its back. Other than that, they both were ugly, slimy, and left trails of mucous on the sidewalk (slugs and snails will never get lost as they always leave a trail behind them; like bread crumbs), and were extremely slow (we didn’t need Vicki to help us catch either of these creatures).
Once located, either one of them could be observed, untouched, for an extended period of time as they slowly moved down the sidewalk. For some reason, as we observed (observation is usually the first step taken in a scientific investigation) this mollusk moving along the sidewalk, the thought entered our minds; is there any salt around here? Now, what put that thought in our minds, I cannot say. Some would say Satan, but my guess is it was one of the older kids in the neighborhood. Into the house we went.
Timmy asked Mom, “Mommy, do we have any sahwt?”
Suspicious, Mom answered, “Of course we do. What do you want it for?”
Before Timmy could spill the beans, er, tell the truth, I interjected, “We are doing a scientific experiment, and salt is needed in order to complete it.”
Mom was impressed and said, “That sounds very nice. I love it when you kids learn things. How much do you want?”
Outside we went with the salt shaker in hand. The slug had gone another couple of inches down the sidewalk (this particular slug was in pretty good shape and moved rather quickly as slugs go). We all got down on our hands and knees, surrounding the slug, and I poured the salt from the shaker onto the slug. It recoiled in agony and began to shrivel up. As I moved closer to the slug, to observe the effects of the salt, I could have sworn I heard this coming from the slug (having recently seen The Wizard of Oz, what I heard sounded very familiar):
“Aaaahhhh! You cursed brats! Look what you’ve done! I’m melting, melting. Ohhh, what a world, what a world. Who would have thought that some little kids like you could destroy my beautiful wickedness? Ooohhhh! Nooo! I’m going… Ohhhh…ohhhh…”
So much for the slug. If it worked on the slug, why not a snail? But where could we find a snail? I asked my brother, “Timmy, have you seen any snails?”
Timmy, always intrigued with my ideas, said, “I saw one in the cohnuh house’s ivy the otheh day. Maybe it’s stiw theh.”
With salt shaker in hand I said, “Let’s go.”
After digging through the ivy for a half hour, we finally spotted a snail; crawling, sliming through the dirt right off the edge of the sidewalk. We refrained from touching the snail, not because it was dangerous, but because we were afraid it might be. A stick we held in hand continually blocked its path, eventually steering it onto the sidewalk where we could conduct our experiments in the open.
Snails, as well as slugs, have a couple of antenna like tentacles’ extending from their heads and on the end of each tentacle is the eye. Part of the experiments we conducted included the tentacles and eyes of the snail. As we put anything close to the tentacles, and at the time we didn’t have any idea that the eyes were located on the ends of them, the tentacle would begin to retract, to the point of retracting all the way into the body. Really neat! Each tentacle operated independently of the other, which was also pretty neat. We waited awhile and the tentacles would again extend out to an inch or so away from the body and the snail would proceed down the sidewalk. Now, back to the original experiment.
If the salt worked on the slug, it should also work on the snail. Unfortunately for us and our experiment, the snail proved to be a much craftier mollusk than the hapless slug. Maybe it was the additional house on its back, but whatever the reason, when we tried applying the salt to the snail, it just retreated into its shell; out of harm’s way. Similar to a turtle, once it went back in its shell it became a waiting game. How much patience did we have? Not much. A couple of times playing out this scenario and we got bored with the snail and moved on. I’m sure that if the slugs would work hard and save enough, they too could afford a mobile home, just like the snails. After all, there’s no place like home.
Mom wasn’t the only one in the family who, even though she loved us much, had set us up for ridicule at the hands of our peers. Dad actually beat her to the punch. Not long after arriving in Missouri, Dad approached Timmy and me with a new gift he had purchased.
“Boys, I bought you these winter hats. The temperatures get pretty cold here in comparison to California, so I decided you could wear these. They will keep your head and ears toasty. You know that most of the heat you lose from your body exits through your fingers, toes, and head.”
Dad was always teaching us new things, and I appreciated the physical science lesson, but when he handed us our new hats, my jaw dropped. If I described them as Russian winter hats, I think you would get the picture. The outside was made of leather, and the inside was lined with fur. A front flap was snapped to the forehead portion of the hat, and there were two flaps designed to cover the ears. When the flaps weren’t covering the ears, they could be snapped to the top of the hat.
Thinking that was the end of it and that these new hats could be thrown in a drawer and never see the light of day, Timmy and I thanked Dad and started to walk away.
“Well, try them on.” Dad seemed excited to show us how the hats worked; the various snaps and multiple ways they could be worn. Finally satisfied, he walked out of our room. Timmy and I looked at each other, and I said, “I’m not wearing that hat.”
Timmy wasn’t sure and asked, “What if Daddy finds out?”
Again, being cocksure, I replied, “How is he ever going to know?”
On the way to school the next morning, the temperature in single digits, my new Russian winter hat was tucked snugly inside my coat pocket. Out of nowhere, I felt a car approaching behind me and heard these words, “Ronnie, put your hat on.” I was at a loss for words, shocked, but at the same time wondering, Why isn’t he at work, and how did he know I wouldn’t be wearing my new hat?
Dad had underestimated the heat-holding ability of my new Russian hat, with Southern Missouri not quite as frigid as the tundra of Siberia. As I entered the school with sweat dripping down my sideburns, one of my friends remarked, “Nice hat, Ronnie.” My retort, being the only one I could think of on short notice was, “It’s warm.”
I kept it on, for the time being. Eventually, the hat “accidentally” became lost or destroyed or stolen; I’m not sure which. I suppose I was a typical boy my age, who was more concerned with how I looked than keeping warm. I’ve noticed the phenomenon exists to this day; I am amazed at the teens I’ve seen walking in mid-winter wearing only a t-shirt, arms folded across their chests, bowed at the waist against the frigid air, and a coat nowhere in sight. It seems that some human traits cross all generational boundaries.
Always a Little Heathen can be found on Amazon here.
Opening my inbox, I noticed I had received another rejection letter—which I suppose is preferable to no reply—from a heartless literary agent. It seems not everyone is as enamored with The Boat as I am, but like a proud father or hopelessly lovesick teen, the object of my affection will always be special to me and I’ll never understand how others don’t see what I assume is so obvious. This idiosyncrasy isn’t exclusive to my writing; being evident throughout my life in my music, movie, food, and people preferences as well. “I can’t believe you don’t like this song. It’s the best song ever.”
But as it is, rejection is part of the writing process and ultimately an integral part of life. If you haven’t been rejected, then you haven’t lived. I suppose I haven’t experienced rejection any more or less than others, but the effects seem to stick with me longer than most. It might be said, and has been on occasion, my feelings are easily hurt. True. I recall an incident from my childhood—probably not the first, but the one that lingers in my subconscious—that serves as a great example of the pain and hurt rejection can cause.
I was seven or eight years old at the time and in our neighborhood, on our street, were a number of kids within a year or two of my age. This factor made the neighborhood vibrant and teeming with action, but not all the action was fun. Sometimes there were frictions between kids, which often led to conflict; with the end result being kids running home, with tears flowing down their cheeks, looking for Mom or Dad to lick their wounds and protect them from the neighborhood bully. One such bully in the neighborhood was Neil. He was a year older than me, in the same class as my sister, and I recognized a tendency in him resembling that of a cantankerous dog; one minute he wanted to play and have fun, but in the next he might bite your leg and chase you around the yard. I avoided Neil.
One day, I was playing in a neighbor’s yard and wandered near enough to Neil’s driveway, and when I ran by I thought I heard him say, “Hey Ronnie, you wanna go fishing?” At first I thought he must have meant another Ronnie—there were three of us living on the block—but when he called to me the second time, I drew near and asked a couple of follow-up questions. “Are you talking to me?” When it was determined that he was indeed talking to me, my next question, once he had explained the offer, was, “Why me?” He never directly answered the question and I later discovered the truth; all the other kids he asked couldn’t go. Once I said yes—and there was never a doubt that I wouldn’t—I then had to go home and get permission and then find out if I even had a fishing pole.
When I told Dad what had transpired down the street at Neil’s house, he at first didn’t believe me. “Are you sure it was you he was asking?” Since I was the only kid standing there when he said it, I answered, “Yeah Dad. I was the only kid standing there, so it must have been me.” Once I had convinced him, Dad was very enthusiastic about the trip and loaded me up with a pole, tackle box, and food and drink. He then patted me on the rear and told me to go have a good time. I walked on air as I made my way down to Neil’s, knowing that all the other boys in the neighborhood were sure to be watching out their windows and were likely stewing in their jealousy at my good fortune.
When I arrived at Neil’s house, I noticed his car was already loaded and in addition to his father, I recognized another boy in the back seat of the car. It was one of the other Ronnie’s in the neighborhood. The car was running and as it backed out of the driveway—almost running me over—Neil rolled down his window and said, “You can’t go. I found somebody else to take.” And from there the car pulled out onto the street and sped away. I stood there staring at the car and it didn’t take more than a few seconds for the tears to begin falling. I was crushed and my heart was broken.
All the way home I cried and when Dad noticed me being home, he didn’t seem all that surprised. He tried to console me, but I would have none of it. I retired to my bedroom and while lying on my bed, nearly drowning in my tears, I thought of a thousand scenarios of how I could pay back the bully down the street. And I thought of becoming extremely ill and on my death-bed and how sorry everyone would be when I was gone from this earth. Looking back, I now realize something good actually came from the heart-break; after this experience, there wasn’t a rejection in the world I would ever have to face that I couldn’t handle; with the exception of my fiancé throwing her engagement ring in my face and calling off our wedding. But that’s another story.
There was one other silver lining; Dad, knowing how hurt I had been, a few days later arranged for a family fishing trip at a pay-per-pole lake. It was a fine gesture on his part, but I don’t think he fully realized what he was getting into. In a small boat filled with four whiny kids, and Dad being needed to bait hooks and untangle lines and having to repeatedly hear “I’m hungry” and “I’m thirsty,” he finally lost what little patience he had and rowed us back to shore. But I had caught some fish and my fate was sealed. From that day on I would be a fisherman. Thanks to Neil and the fishing trip that never happened.
*This story is one of many featured in my book Little Heathens.