In my family you got clothes when school started, plus an outfit for Christmas and an outfit for Easter and that was it. This must have been my Easter outfit as this particular memory was of a summer at my grandparent’s farm. We spent every school holiday and summer on that farm from birth until my grandfather died and they moved to East Texas. This must have been that last summer between fifth and sixth grade, as I had just started realizing that I wanted to look cute all the time, regardless of location or activity; at church, on a three-wheeler; in the back of a bean truck. This was a new thing for me. Prior to this school year I wore whatever I was told and didn’t think anything about it. But something had happened when I turned 11 that awoke the slumbering preppy inside me.
I had been specifically forbidden to wear this shirt outside to play. This was back in the day when children were awakened at dawn each morning, fed and hustled outside into the yard to ‘play’ until dark; dark-thirty if you were brave. Then you were pulled back into the house, bathed, fed and put in bed. Children were to be unseen and unheard, which was fine by me. ‘Seen and heard’ children had to do all manner of unpleasant things associated with work. Now, I don’t know what compelled me to put on the shirt because I knew I would get caught. My mother had the first wireless communication system which was God tapping her on the shoulder and pointing out our misdeeds. I don’t know how else to explain her omniscience.
My sister had specifically requested my presence on a three-wheeler ride which was a rare treat indeed. Shontyl, two years my senior, was not known for demonstrating affection for other children. She treated us as if she were some benevolent dictator; acknowledging us from a distance until assistance was needed and then summoning us from her spot on the trampoline behind the butane tank. That she specifically asked me to ride with her should have filled me with suspicion and foreboding but I was a stupidly trusting child. The only thing that kept me from getting kidnapped is that kidnappers couldn’t have found my grandparent’s community, Alsatia, with a map, because it wasn’t on any maps that weren’t configured in crayon on left-over construction paper from Vacation Bible School. Alsatia consisted of a store, a church, a feed mill, an abandoned steam shovel and seven or eight farms with inhabitants who prayed for just enough, but not too much, rain.
For some other unknown reason, also accompanying us on this sojourn was our cousin Dodi who couldn’t have been more than three or four at the time. How she ended up on the back of the three-wheeler with us has been lost to the mists of time.
Like every country family worth its salt, we had a daredevil among us and that was my cousin Jody. Jody had many talents and habits, most of them death-defying. I don’t know if it was due to his size (at the age of twelve he was 6’2” and wore a size 12 shoe) or lack of fear but I can report that by the age of nine he had flipped his mother’s car in the ditch and had somehow captured and killed a water moccasin which he threw onto the trampoline at my sister which was the only time she ever left her perch. She summarily ran into the house screaming, “Jody’s not a Christian!” but his punishment didn’t slow him down one bit.
His talents extended to three-wheeler driving tricks. I still don’t understand the physics of this but he could drive full-speed down the road and make a 90 degree turn without slowing down; simply downshifting the gears in some way. I must have seen him do this 300 times. Apparently my sister was determined to show him up but I was unaware of this plan when I climbed onto the three-wheeler behind her, wearing the forbidden striped shirt. It dawned on me that our lives were in danger as she failed to slow when we approached the corner of the cotton field nearest the ditch. I very calmly screamed, “Slow down, you’ll kill us all!” She roared back, “I can do anything he can do!” Whether she was referencing Evel Knievel or Jody, I wasn’t sure and it really didn’t matter. All I knew was that I was about to die. More importantly, I was about to get my favorite shirt muddy. There had been a blessed rain and the ditch was full of muddy water, not to mention possibly snakes and typhoid and whatever else resides in water that is the color of asphalt due to the fertile deep-brown earth in Northeast Louisiana.
Without any further communication, she commenced to down-shifting which did not go as planned. She, I and the three-wheeler all headed to different parts of the ditch; I made contact half in and half out of the water. Unfortunately, the half that was in the black dirt water was the half covered in the previously pristine Garanimal top. Always good in a crisis, I had the wherewithal to throw Dodi clear of the water and Jesus very nicely helped her land without a scratch. She proceeded to caterwaul as if she had just been thrown from a moving vehicle, which she had, and I leapt up to see what I could do, hoping that my Christian charity might reduce the punishment I was preparing to endure.
My Aunt Perri had been walking between her and Mama Dot’s house with a baby bottle and had seen the wreck. She screamed, threw the bottle over her shoulder and ran the eighth of a mile to where we were, followed by my Uncle Ronald, mother and, of course, Jody. Aunt Perri immediately picked up Dodi, hugging and asking why she was crying. Dodi’s response, “I lost my gum” was not met with what she believed to be an appropriate response so she continued to cry. Uncle Ronald came and retrieved the all-terrain vehicle from the muddy depths and, as politely as he could, asked my sister, “What in tarnation were you trying to do?” She replied, “Well Jody does it.”
Jody’s derisive laughter was stopped only by Uncle Ronald’s response, which is floating around lost in my memory because that was the summer we we forced to work in the fields hoeing cotton. Yes, you read that right; child labor was alive and well in Louisiana, people. We had to chop johnson grass down with a hoe! For at least a week, if not two; okay, maybe just one. And, yes, my sister chopped down everything for a half a row because she didn’t see any fluffy white cotton balls. And, yes, we sang “Tiny Bubbles” and “Whistle While You Work” throughout the day. And, yes, we were paid and used that money to go to Critter’s Creek Water Park. And, yes, we got to stop for breaks every couple of hours. And, yes, we got snacks and drinks at each break. But it was brutal, y’all. Brutal!
I don’t know if my memory has softened due to sunstroke but all I remember is walking back to Mama Dot’s house and trying to avoid eye contact with my mother and knowing that Jesus had already told her I ruined my good shirt. When I finally looked up she gave me that look and shook her head and then smiled and gave me a hug and said, “Well, I don’t know what you’re wearing to church tomorrow.”
We never did find that baby bottle.