Monday, September 19, 2011

Levee Hopping

One of the things that I have ruminated on over the years is the whimsy of who survives stupid childhood decisions when others do not. There were situations that some of my friends and I got into by choice that probably should have killed us. Yet, most of us are still here decades later; and those who aren’t, didn’t die from our antics.

Most of my friends and I grew up on large cotton farms or plantations, and most of those farms had airstrips with aviation fuel pumps nearby. They were used by crop dusters who were commissioned to poison boll weevils, armyworms, and spider mites that attacked the crops. A few of the families use those strips for private aircraft as well.

One of the families had two sons that were near my age. The younger one ran around with the group of kids I did while his older brother was too busy with the distractions of first love to run with us the summer I was sixteen. For the sake of telling this tale, I’ll call them Jack and Jamie. Jamie was the one who was a member of the gang, and he had two things that made him popular and fascinating. Jamie had the most mesmerizing eyes of the oddest color that any of us had ever seen. The girls described them as pastel green. The boys, who were probably a little jealous of the attention they brought him, called them pond scum green. The other thing that endeared him to all of us was that he owned an Army surplus jeep of World War II vintage. It was our favorite transportation because it could go anywhere.

Like most jeeps of that era, it had a ragtop stretched over a metal frame. At least, it started out the summer with one. The ragtop had been torn away when Jack and his girlfriend fell out of the barn loft where they had been, quite literally, rolling in the hay. Fortunately, for them, the jeep was parked right under the loft door and the ragtop broke their fall but tore apart from the impact leaving only the frame.

The other thing that the jeep had was a hinged front windshield that could fold down over the hood. Being young and impervious to such assaults, we usually drove around with the windshield down and ignored or cursed the bugs that flew into us. One or two people could sit on the hood and hold on to the dash or any knobs we could grab. That was my favorite place to ride even if it meant that I had my back to the road. From there, I could carry on a conversation with anyone else in the vehicle.

One evening, six of us were bumming around when Jamie noticed that we were running low on gas. We decided that we needed our money more for treats at the drive-in more than spending it on gas. Besides, Jamie had a key to his family’s aviation pump and we were near the airstrip. So, we went there and filled up the jeep on high octane aviation fuel. Since we were on the airstrip, someone suggested that we run the jeep as fast as we could down the strip to see if it would take off. After all, it was full of airplane fuel.

Needless to say, that didn’t work, but we were pumped up with the idea of a flying jeep. Then someone had a brilliant idea. We decided to go to the Arkansas River levee. We ran the jeep as fast as we could up one side of the levee so that as we went over the top, the jeep actually went airborne for several feet before bouncing down on the other side. We were all hanging on for dear life. It worked so well that we did it a number of times before we got tired and went off to the drive-in. Jamie would tell people for years afterward that he once flew a jeep. He loved to leave that remark hanging without further explanation. The rest of us came to refer to that adventure as levee hopping.

Why did none of us bounce out of that jeep? Why did the jeep stay upright? God only knows. Those six people went on to live productive lives. We became college professors and teachers, social workers and Jamie? He became a Presbyterian minister. When I wonder if this was just a stupid thing that God decided to protect us from, I am truly grateful. Other times, I think death just chose that time to look away.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Awful But Unspoken Truth

This last week, the WSB was deep in discussion about our childhood antics. Talullah and Windy were comparing notes on the behavior of teenage girls. Since Windy was raised a Catholic she was far more aware of the nature of sin than the rest of us. There was no escaping it. I remember thinking just that as a child. My cousin, Mary, would tell me about all of the types of sin she had to deal with. It was hard keeping tract of whether hers were the more serious kinds that could have a person skidding straight down that terrible shoot to hell or were the type that would cause you to spend a few thousand years hanging around somewhere between earth and heaven in a place called purgatory. I wondered about this a lot then because my grandmother said that everyone sinned and that we were all at the mercy of God. She didn’t seem to think there were degrees of wrong. For her life was pretty much a black or white issue. You were born to do the wrong thing and you had better keep on God’s good side if you expected to escape punishment.

I thought that I had a pretty good chance of being on the wrong end of the judgment thing. It seemed that I was always the one to challenge the authority of just about anyone who acted like they had any authority. Looking back, I wonder if all children don’t see themselves as the center of the universe no matter what direction they are headed. For that reason, we tend to do what ever it takes to protect out hides. I know that I could lie with the best of them and honed my skills often.
That may be why I got such a kick out of Pasty’s story of one of those things that only a kid would do unless it was a hardened criminal with experience in covering his/her butt.

She was about eleven when she and some of her friends were spending a nice summer’s day playing in the woods near her home outside of St. Louis. In those ancient times, this suburb was out in the country; and kids could roam free most of the day without worrying parents. Pasty has a sister and had a little brother. The neighborhood kids had gone to great effort to build themselves a tree house. This was not a pressure treated lumber thing designed by someone with fifty safety features to protect every digit a child has. This was a structure made of whatever they could get their hands on from various wood piles and garages. I like to see these kids, in my mind’s eye, confiscating nails and swiping dad’s hammer to beat this thing together. From what Pasty says, they loved their handy work and spent long afternoons going up and down that tree. On this particular day, Pasty’s sister climbed up, but she didn’t climb down. She fell, landing in a splat on the ground. The other kids, including Pasty, rushed over to have a look.

To her horror, there lay her sister, dead on the ground. At least, that’s what Pasty and her little brother and friends thought. So they did what any smart kid would do. They left her there and went home. They did not tell a soul because who wanted a mother to go all ballistic about how you had allowed your little sister to get killed so foolishly. At home, they carried on as if this was any other day. Pasty remembers thinking it would be much better if her mother went out looking for her daughter and found her herself rather than Pasty having to tell her mother the truth. She doesn’t recall being in a panic about her dead sibling. All she could think about was, don’t let them blame this on me.

Then Pasty got the shock of her young life. In walked her sister. Pasty thought she must be seeing a ghost because she had left her less than an hour earlier dead on the ground under the tree house. Her sister never knew that she had been left as a corpse and may not to this day know that. Pasty and her brother sure never told the parents. In fact, none of the children spilled the beans. It turned out that her sister came to under the tree and after getting a second wind, got up and came home with no one being the wiser. Except that Pasty carried this story with her to this day as a reminder of how self protective we all can be.

I like to think I could have done the same thing or better yet made it my sibling’s fault. We all seem to have that self-preservation gene, and it seems some of us can call it forth without the least bit of hesitation or conscience. We were all in awe of Pasty’s gutsy approach to solving this dilemma. I wonder how it would have effected Pasty if her sister had been killed. Or what would have happened if she had simply told her mother the truth as she thought she knew it. Pasty, however, isn’t impressed by my ruminations on these points. She just knows that there was no way anyone was going to point the finger at her.