Monday, January 19, 2009

Chapter 6: Games Children Play

Life at our house was never boring. There were always plenty of playmates ready and willing to engage in whatever games or adventures came to mind.

Dad was a big fan of Georgia Tech football, since as a child he had lived not far from the Georgia Tech campus. He tried to interest us boys in football by giving us a ball and gold-and-black Georgia Tech helmets and jerseys for Christmas. We would play football in our yard or at a nearby park with three or four siblings to a team. But truthfully, it wasn't my favorite sport. Maybe it was because I was a clumsy kid and never excelled in athletics.

In the seventh grade at Mayfield Elementary School I did give in to peer pressure and tried out for the football team. Dee Frisbee, who was both my seventh grade teacher and the coach, told me I was a tackle and put me on the "B" team. For the first three games of the season I sat on the bench, or would have if we had had a bench. Actually I just stood on the sideline. Then, when our team was 30 points ahead of Templeton Hill School during the fourth game of the season, Coach Frisbee let me go in and play the last quarter. It was no fun at all. The only thing I was allowed to do was butt heads with the big Templeton Hill boys. I never even got to touch the football, much less run with it. After that game, I retired from football.

A favorite game which was unique to our family at the time was Fruitcake Lid. We played this any time of year, but particularly between Thanksgiving Day and Christmas, when we would have a new fruitcake tin. We discovered that the lid was a wonderful object for tossing back and fourth to each other. I could make it sail as straight as an arrow just a few feet off the ground. It would fly all the way across our yard and into the next if someone didn't catch it. Dad enjoyed tossing this with us and we would spend hours entertaining ourselves with it.

On several occasions over the years, a neighbor, or even a stranger passing by, would stop to watch us play and asked us where we got such an interesting toy. They wanted to know where they could obtain one for themselves. We showed them that it was just the lid from a fruitcake tin. Many times Dad mused that we ought to get a patent on the idea and manufacture the "flying saucers." Maybe a fad would catch on, like it did with the hula hoop, and we would become rich. But those occasional musings were as far as the idea ever went. Several years later someone else had the same idea, while tossing the lid from a tin that came from the Frisbie Pie Company, and the "Frisbee" was born.

The type of play I enjoyed most were unstructured adventures like catching wild creatures in the creek behind our house: frogs, tadpoles, salamanders, crayfish and such. Occasionally we would even find a snake and that was really exciting. I learned how to pin a snake down with a stick and grab it behind the neck so I could hold the writhing serpent without being bitten. Of course these were harmless garter snakes or black rat snakes for the most part. The water snakes were much harder to catch and they had a nasty disposition, but were still harmless. Very rarely we saw a copperhead - a poisonous pit viper. Whenever we found one of those we killed it either by hitting it in the head with a stick or throwing rocks. I learned to identify the different animals with books, such as a big volume in Dad's library, A Nature Atlas of North America, and also field guides I checked out of the public library.

One summer noonday Mom called us children in from our play to have lunch. I sat at the table beside my younger sister, Sharon, a toddler not much more than two-years-old at the time. Sharon was chewing on what looked to me like a strip of rubber about 15 or 16 inches long. She took it out of her mouth and laid it beside her plate when the food was passed. That's when we all noticed that the "rubber" toy was a live garter snake. Sharon had chewed on it so thoroughly that the poor little snake just wiggled there on the table for a while and died.

Mom threw the snake out and also washed Sharon's mouth and hands, lecturing her to be more careful of what she put in her mouth. George Kepler, our next door neighbor, worked as a photographer for the local newspaper, the Cleveland Daily Banner. He told a writer at the newspaper office about the incident and the next day a headline on the front page read: "Girl Bites Snake; Snake Dies."

Snakes could be difficult to find when you wanted one, but there was another dangerous animal that was much more plentiful - the honeybee. The blooming of the white flowering crab tree beside our front porch in early spring marked the beginning of the honeybee season. One of the big kids in our neighborhood told me that if you picked up a honeybee behind the neck just right it couldn't sting you.

With so many siblings, not to mention the other children in our neighborhood, there were always plenty of recruits for a vast assortment of clubs. With a club you could have more fun than by yourself. Together you could do wondrous things like build forts or tree houses, fight wars, dig caves, or get stung by bees. That's right, the Bee Sting Club was the most popular of all.

My brother Paul and I originated the club on a long hot summer afternoon as we were watching the bees work the white clover which carpeted our yard. It must have taken us half-a-day before we summoned up enough courage to deliberately pick up our first bee. We each carefully grasped a buzzing insect at the base of the wings, holding it between our thumb and index finger, always keeping a close eye on the throbbing stinger. To our half surprise and great relief, it worked. We weren't stung.

It's not that we really minded bee stings. We had stepped on enough bees with our bare feet that we had acquired a tolerance, if not an immunity, to their venom. We also had learned to keep the Arm-and-Hammer baking soda handy to make a paste for applying to fresh stings to soothe the pain. So now what? What do you do with a live bee in your sweaty little hand? It is said that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, but surely the opposite must be true of a honey bee. A bee in the hand is of little value at all.

We decided to carry our prey to the top of a grassy knoll down along the creek bank. And there, while the warm breezes blew and the Mockingbird mocked, the club was born. We each dared the other to place the bee in the palm of his hand and cup it over with the other. Then holding our cupped hands out in front of us, with the honeybee buzzing inside, we closed our eyes, held our breath, and waited for the sting. It didn't take long for the bees to do their part, and when they did we rolled down the hill to the base of the weeping willow, hollering bloody murder all the way.

A crazy idea? Not on your life. When you are eight, and the sky is blue, and the sun is hot, and the summer is eternal, our actions made perfect sense. Our exaggerated screams of agony summoned an instant swarm of brothers, sisters, and neighborhood kids who congregated under the shade of the Weeping Willow to hear of our brave and heroic exploit. We explained to our admirers that we had just started a new club, the most special and exclusive one of all. It was the Bee Sting Club, and it was only for the strong, the daring and the brave.

In order to belong you had to be stung by a bee. After that a sting a day was required to maintain your membership. Peer pressure had never known a finer moment. Everyone wanted to join - except chicken Richard, who was known as a Mama's boy anyway. We thought surely our parents would hear the commotion and come stop our madness. They didn't. And one daring soul after another took his turn of plucking a bee from a clover blossom, climbing the hill, cupping his hands, waiting for the sting, and them rolling in the grass. Each of us tried to outperform the other in our torturous cries, while our playmates cheered. It gave new meaning to the term, "The agony and the ecstasy." The neighborhood supply of baking soda was soon exhausted.

Most of our clubs only had a lifespan of a few weeks, but two of them lasted an entire spring and summer. They were the 4-H Club and the Mad Men. My older brother, Philip, came up with the idea of starting a 4-H club. We lived in town, not in the country, and they didn't have a 4-H at our school. However, Philip had heard about a club by that name from one of his friends, and although he had no idea what the name meant he thought it was a good one and wanted to start such a club himself.

Philip called a meeting of six boys. It was Phil, Paul and me, and also the three Burt brothers who lived up the street from us: Daniel, Larry and Neil. We decided that our first major club project would be to raise money with which we would purchase a pocket knife for each of us. The knives cost 59 cent each, plus tax, downtown at the F. W. Woolworth five and dime store.

We figured we would need four dollars, which would require collecting 200 returnable pop bottles to be cashed in at Vest Grocery for two cents each. Soft drinks didn't come in cans or throw-away plastic containers in those days, just returnable bottles. Those bottles were as good as money and finding them along the roadways, back alleys, and railroad tracks became a pursuit which occupied us for weeks. Every day we would walk the three quarters of a mile to Arnold School and back by a different route, scouring every roadside and ditch for bottles.

Occasionally we would find a beer or whiskey bottle and we had heard that the returnable deposit on them was a whole nickel. Even though the temptation was great, we were horrified at the thought of doing anything that would encourage the evil of drinking. We reasoned that if one of the bottles we redeemed for cash were refilled and someone were to drink out of it, we would be an accomplice in their sin. We would be partially responsible for someone losing their soul and squirming for all eternity in hell. That was unthinkable, so whenever we found a beer bottle we would quickly pick up a rock or any other nearby object and with a righteous zeal we would bash it to bits. I always held my breath when we broke beer bottles because I didn't want to smell any of the fumes. You just couldn't be too careful in the presence of such evil.

When the day finally came that we had 200 bottles, we loaded them into two Red Ryder wagons and all six members of the 4-H Club hauled them the six blocks to Vest Grocery to cash them in. I was so excited that I was soon going to have my very own pocket knife - a well deserved reward for all the many weeks of hard work.

Bill Vest, the owner of the store, looked over our bottles with a sour expression on his face and counted them carefully. He then straightened up, arched his back and grunted from all the leaning over. "Boys, these bottles are dirty," he drawled. "I'm not going to be able to give you but a penny each for dirty bottles. How does two dollars sound?"

My countenance fell. I was no dummy; it was clear that Bill Vest was ripping us off. He was going to turn those bottles in to the man who delivered his soda and get full credit for them, and was taking advantage of us just because he felt he could get away with it. Mr. Vest had a reputation for being stingy anyway. Behind his back everyone in town called him "Make-a-Buck-Vest," and now he was going to steal two bucks from us.

Our protests fell on deaf ears. Vest held out two one dollar bills and Philip, our club president, reluctantly took them.

Dejectedly pulling our empty wagons back home we discussed what to do with the money. Philip suggested that since we only got half the money we expected, we should buy only half the pocket knives on which we had planned."

But which three of us will get the knives?" I asked.

Philip explained in a matter-of-fact tone that it would only be right that the three oldest get the pocket knives. That would be Philip, Daniel and Larry, leaving nothing for Paul, Neil and me. To settle the question Philip called for a vote. There was a tie, three votes for and three votes against the motion. Philip explained that in such a case the votes of the three oldest of the club counted more, so the three youngest would just have to wait and get their pocket knives after we had collected more bottles. I was heartsick. That would take forever. It seemed we had already cleaned out every back alley and roadside ditch around and I doubted there were 200 more empty bottles in the whole county.

Philip, Daniel and Larry headed off to Woolworth's to buy their pocket knives and Paul, Neil and I went home and had a meeting under the Weeping Willow tree. We were mad - really mad - first of all at Bill Vest and also at our older brothers. We decided then and there that we would secede from the 4-H and form our own club.

"What are we going to call our club?" Neil asked. "We're mad, so let's call our club the Mad Men." I suggested. "Yeah," Paul agreed, "The Mad Men's Club." And so it was.

When Philip, Daniel and Larry returned from town with their new pocket knives, they found that we had torn down the 4-H fort that the six of us had been building from scrap lumber in the woods down by the creek. While they surveyed the ruins, we ran around them in circles, whooping like banshees, and shouting, "We're the Mad Men and we declare war!" The feud lasted until school started back in the fall.

It happens that waging war was very much to the liking of all of us. We didn't fight all the time. Often the six of us would play together as we had before. But whenever the mood struck us, which was often, the Mad Men would announce the time and place for a battle and both we and the 4-H would make our preparations.

For some battles we would gather up every available garbage can, arranging them in two rows about 50 feet apart. Next we would collect an ample of supply of small rocks or stones. Hunkering down behind the trash cans, and using the lids for shields, we hurled stones at each other until one side called a truce. After a few stone-throwing battles, that got to be a little boring, so we expanded our arsenal with spears and bows and arrows we made from saplings scavenged in the woods.

Bombs came next. These consisted of paper bags filled with gravel, broken glass, rusty nails, or whatever else we could find. The most feared of all our bombs, and my personal favorite, also carried a special ingredient - dog poop. The two oldest Conn Sisters wanted to join in the fun, so Sarah sided with the 4-H and Sharon joined the Mad Men. Because they were girls we didn't give them full fighting rights. Both sisters had the title of "cook and ammo girl" for their respective camps. The "cook" part meant that they would bring us vanilla wafers, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, or whatever else they were able to scrounge in the kitchen. The job description for "ammo girl" was to make bombs. We boys were quite happy with this arrangement because we didn't really relish collecting dog poop. Fortunately Sarah and Sharon both knew a woman's place. Women's liberation had not yet been invented.

I came up with one battle plan that was truly brilliant, if only it would have worked. I positioned myself up in the Weeping Willow tree on an overhanging branch with three bricks, one in my hand and two in my lap. Then Paul and Neil called for a battle. Their job was to taunt the 4-H boys by making faces at them and calling them names. When the 4-hers began to chase Paul and Neil, they ran directly beneath my perch. I was waiting to drop the bricks on the heads of our enemies. Fortunately for them I missed.

Actually this was all in good natured fun, and nobody ever expected that anyone would actually get hurt. However, during the thick of one battle Philip let fly with a home-made arrow and it stuck into Paul's head with a thud, right behind his left ear. Paul had to be rushed to the emergency room at the hospital to have the arrow extracted. The doctor said it just missed doing serious damage. Our parents didn't know about the wars until the arrow incident. After that war was outlawed. We made our peace, and turned to less violent pursuits, like the Bloody Nose Club.

I conceived the concept of the Blood Nose Club with brilliant cold logic. The idea first came to me when I heard the story of the straw that broke the camel's back. Just one straw was as light as a feather, but enough of them piled on one after another would ultimately break a camel's back, or so the story goes. So I reasoned that a single feather-light tapping on the nose would hardly be felt. And if I continued to tap the nose ever so lightly, with each blow being only a feather harder than the one preceding it, then when the blows were sufficient to raise blood, the person being hit would hardly notice it at all.

That seemed entirely logical when I was nine years old.. I ran my idea by Philip, Sarah, Paul and Sharon but none of them bought it. Then I shared my theory with Raymond, and he volunteered his nose for a test run. We got a cold wet cloth ready to sop up the mess. Raymond then laid down on the grass, face up, and closed his eyes. From the World Book Encyclopedia I took the "S" volume, the heaviest book in the set, and straddled over my little brother, to hold him down just in case he changed his mind. Ever so softly I touched his nose with the book, then again just a little more, then again and again.

I kept asking, "Does it hurt yet?" and he would wince and say, "Not really." Raymond was such a tough kid; I liked his spunk. Within three or four minutes Raymond was initiated as the first full-fledged member of the Bloody Nose Club. After we got the bleeding to stop, and went back into the house for a fresh cold wet rag, I laid on my back in the grass and took my turn.

Raymond was either very impatient or he didn't fully understand the concept behind the club. He abbreviated the process and in only four or five whacks he brought me gushing into the brotherhood. I must confess that this club was not one of our most popular ones. Even the Bee Sting Club had more members. But four or five siblings finally joined, although none were eager to submit to regular bleedings to maintain their membership.

Our 11th Street house had a full walk-out basement divided into four quarters. On one corner was a utility room with washer, drier and freezer. Another corner became the family room and library, and yet another was made into a bedroom which Paul and I shared. The garage corner was basically empty. It was here that we children often played on rainy days, and it was also here that I first felt "the power."

At church people often testified of feeling the power of God. Some said it was just like electricity going through their bodies. Others described it as hitting them at the top of their heads and going out the soles of their feet. Often I would hear preachers, especially the evangelists who frequently visited our church, say, "Oh hallelujah. I feel the power. Don't you feel it, Saints of God?" And the sanctified brothers and sisters would shout back. "Amen, I feel it." As they did, some would recoil in a jerk and shout out "Whoop, Glory!" I imagined I could actually see the current of God's glory going through them.

I wanted to feel that power and often prayed that God would zap me like he did the evangelists and the testifiers. But God never did. I reasoned that if it felt like electricity going through your body, then I could at least get a sample of that anointing if my coat hanger theory worked.

An electric outlet on the basement wall had a broken cover and copper wires were visible through a small crack. I noticed it every time I plugged the radio in to that receptacle to listen to the Lone Ranger broadcast, which came on every afternoon at 4:00 o'clock, shortly after I got home from school.

One day after the Lone Ranger and his sidekick, Tonto, had rode off into the sunset for another day, I unplugged the radio and looked long and hard at the glistening bit of exposed copper wire. Working up my courage, I thrust the end of a metal coat hanger into the socket. The power hit me like a bolt of lightning and knocked me to the floor. It was the first time I ever fell out under the power.

I was elated with my new discovery. And like anyone with a new spiritual experience, I could hardly wait to find someone with whom to share it.

Sarah was always game for an adventure, and she was my first recruit. After Sarah was zapped, and picked herself up off the floor, we decided to try it holding hands and see what would happen. The power went through both of us. I had heard something about rubber shoes serving as an insulator, so our next experiment was for me to put on my tennis shoes while Sarah stood barefoot. I then held Sarah by the left hand while I touched the coat hanger to the wire with my right. It was amazing. I only felt a slight tingle and Sarah was knocked to the floor again.

One by one Sarah and I brought our other siblings to the basement, only telling them that we had a surprise for them.

We both wore tennis shoes, and made sure that our victims were bare-footed on the damp concrete floor. We told them to take our hand and close their eyes. It was wonderful. One by one all of our siblings felt the power, and after we explained to them how we had done it, each one was more than eager to go and recruit the next victim. Before supper that night there was a line of us nine kids long, all holding hands and wearing tennis shoes, except for the last one. It was as much fun as what our pastor called a "gully-washer revival."

By the way, please DO NOT try this stunt at home. It is said that the angels watch over children and fools. In this instance, we qualified for angelic watchcare on both counts.

I wish the angels had done a little better job when we started the Blind People's Club. But then maybe they were on duty, because Raymond could have been hurt much more seriously than he was.

This club actually started out of empathy for the blind. I had seen such a man in our town, with a white cane, tapping out his footsteps as he walked along. Some of us children had been discussing what it must be like to be unable to see. So we thought we would find out.

Paul and I were the first two to blindfold ourselves. Three blocks from our house was Fowler's grocery, across the street from Mayfield School. We went there often to pick things up for Mom. The proprietor, Russell Fowler, was a member of our church and prided himself in knowing all of us children by name, and even keeping up with our ages. We figured the three blocks from our house to Fowler's Grocery would be a reasonable distance to travel in our experiment.

With blindfolds we made of cloth baby diapers, we felt our way up Montgomery Avenue to the corner of 11th Street. Crossing this street was our biggest obstacle. We did it by standing on the curb and listening intently until we could not hear any traffic, then we made a mad dash until our feet found the curb on the far side of the street. From there we had two more blocks to go down People's Street. Our second intersection was only an alley, with scant traffic, so it presented no significant problem.

What a proud moment it was when we stumbled into the front door of the little store, took off our blindfolds, and told Mr. Fowler of our accomplishment. He just smiled and told us we had better be careful. I'm not sure he believed we had actually done it without peeking, but we had. We put out blindfolds back on as we exited the store and found our way back home the same way.

Upon hearing of our exploit, the other children were more than eager to join the Blind People's Club. We all thought it was such an adventure that some of us went to Fowler's Grocery and back blindfolded three or four times over a period of as many days. But that all ended the morning that Raymond collided with a car while crossing 11th Street. The automobile didn't hit Raymond so much as he hit it. He ran right into the side of the moving vehicle, and the back right tire rolled over the top of his right foot.

The man driving the car was horrified at the sound of the thud and the sight of a screaming little kid with a crushed foot lying there on the pavement. My concern was for Raymond, and also for myself, for the licking I knew I was going to get as the club's founder and president. The stranger put Raymond in the back seat of his car and took us home. Then he rushed Raymond with our mother to the hospital emergency room. When they returned a couple of hours later, Raymond was hobbling on crutches, sporting a huge cast on his right foot, and proud to report that he had eight broken bones.

The Blind Man's Club ended that day never to be revived again. However, it was only a couple of days before rambunctious Raymond was ready for a new adventure. It was summer. The honeybees were still buzzing. Raymond was behind in his membership obligations but eager to catch up. Hobbling outside on his crutches he managed to find three bees in the clover that were close enough together that he could step on all three at once with his good bare foot. With three bee stings on the sole of his left foot and eight broken bones in the right one, he took a few days off to recover.

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