Common Cause

Dictionary of Texisms:

Conniptions – a fit; getting upset

One day I came back to the classroom early from recess. Jackie McLanahan was alone in the room, supposedly doing her makeup homework. Only she wasn’t. She was reading a book I recognized. “Oh,” I said, “you’re reading Sherlock Holmes?”

She looked up, eyes blazing and jaw set, on the verge of having conniptions. “Yeah? What of it?”

“Nothing,” I said, hoping to defuse the tension. “They’re my favorite books.”

She stared at me for a second, as if she thought maybe I was toying with her. I guess being a favorite of Mrs. Kleiner made me suspect.

“Are you pulling my leg?” she said.

“I’m not. I swear.”

“Okay, so…”

“I think you have good taste,” I said.

“I was thinking the same thing,” she said. “About you, I mean.”

“Which ones have you read?”

Jackie ticked off a half dozen Sherlock Holmes stories, some of which I hadn’t heard of. I was impressed. “Have you read The Hound of the Baskervilles?” she asked me. I shook my head. “It’s the best!” she said, and at that moment she let down her guard. Her face was animated, eyes bright, and I glimpsed a different side of her. This budding delinquent was a girl who loved to read – maybe as much as I did. “There’s this old legend about a killer hound that lives on the moors and when somebody dies, the word gets out that the hound killed him. Only it’s not a hound at all.”

“Don’t tell me the rest,” I said quickly. “I want to read it.”

“I’ve got a copy at home if you want.”

“Really? You’d let me borrow it?” Considering that we’d never spoken before this moment, it struck me as a generous gesture.

“Sure,” she said. “Why not? I’ll bring it tomorrow.”

“Thanks.” 

It also seemed polite to return the gesture. “Do you like science fiction?” I asked.

“Some of it,” Jackie said. “I like Asimov and Heinlein and Bradbury. But a lot of the rest of them are dull. Boys with toys in space.”

“I’m partial to Heinlein,” I said.  Have you read Starship Troopers?”

“No.”

“Then I could trade you. A Heinlein for a Holmes.”

She grinned. “Okay. You’re on.”

When I got home that afternoon, I found Starship Troopers and pulled it from the bookcase. I carefully printed my name in ink – so it couldn’t be erased – on the inside front cover.  I had never done that with a book before – but then, I had never let anyone else borrow one of my books before. It seemed like a reasonable precaution to mark it, just in case someone forgot to return it.

At school the next day, I spotted Jackie on the playground before class started and approached her with book in hand. “Oh good,” she said, “you remembered!”  She took the paperback from my hands and stared at the cover. “Fantastic!” she said. “I brought something for you too.”  She reached into her knapsack and pulled out a thick paperback. On the cover were the unmistakable images of Holmes and Watson.  I opened it. Pasted to the inside front cover was a bookplate that read, “From the Library of,” and in its center, printed by hand in ink, was “Jackie McLanahan.”

She noticed me looking at the bookplate. “Just in case,” she said, sounding apologetic.

“I see we think a lot alike,” I said, and I pointed to my name on the inside cover of my book. “Just in case.”

The bell rang at that moment, so we ended our conversation and filed into the building.

It was several days later before we spoke again. “How are you liking Starship Troopers?” I asked her.

“It’s good,” she said. “I would have finished already but my mother made me practice piano.  Is it okay to keep it until Thursday?”

“Sure,” I said. “Take as long as you need. I should be finished with the Sherlock Holmes by then.”

“Are you having any nightmares about giant hounds?” she asked.

“Not yet,” I said. “Did you?”

“No, of course not. I just wondered.”

True to her word, on Thursday before the opening bell, she returned my book. “What did you think?” I said. The bell rang.

“Let’s talk about it at recess,” she said.

I brought Starship Troopers with me when I went outside for recess, but I didn’t see Jackie. I thought perhaps she was in detention again, and my stomach churned with a  mix of feelings – disappointment at being left alone, anger if I was being stood up, and sadness that she was being punished again for whatever reason. These thoughts were swirling around in my head  as I walked slowly toward the ball field, where a game of kickball was starting up, when I felt a tap on my shoulder.

“Did you forget?” said Jackie.

“Hey! No, I thought maybe you were stuck in detention.”

“Ha! Lucky me, I had a ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card today.”

“And you used it for me? I am touched.”

“Maybe. Maybe a little touched in the head.” She winked.

“I think I might be in good company, then.”

“May be.” She grinned, and I couldn’t help grinning back.

We sat cross-legged underneath a tree where we could watch for any runaway kickballs without getting drawn into the game. We shared our thoughts about the book, and Robert Heinlein, and science fiction, and anywhere else the conversation wandered. Jackie was excellent company. She had some strong opinions, but she had good reasons to back them up.  She was also interested in what I thought.

It’s mysterious, really. I’ve had friends before, but never what you might call a best friend. Yet with Jackie, something just clicked. And I could see it was mutual. It was like we had always known each other, always liked each other, and always would like each other. It felt nice.

The Mystery of the Rusty Springs

Dictionary of Texisms:

            Talk the ears off a cow – what a long-winded speaker can do.

In Mrs. Kleiner’s class we were knee deep into Texas history, which can be fascinating if you don’t have a problem with violence. Texas history is pretty much just one killing after the other. Indians kill other Indians, Indians kill white settlers, white settlers kill Indians, Mexicans kill white settlers, white settlers kill Mexicans, white settlers kill each other over slavery, and that brings us to the present day. Also, six flags have flown over the sacred soil of Texas, which is where you get Six Flags Over Texas, our state’s version of Disneyland.

We had already gotten into the war for Texas independence. Mrs. Kleiner pointed out that both Houston and Austin were named for heroes of Texas history. That got me curious, so I raised my hand. “Who is Rusty Springs named for?” I asked.  I expected Mrs. Kleiner  would know, since she teaches this subject.

“Why Alec, what a great question,” she said. Something about the way she said “question” set off alarm bells. I had a feeling this was not good news. It wasn’t. “Why don’t you do some research and find out?” she said.

It sounded like she had answered a question with a question, but I wasn’t born yesterday. It wasn’t the sort of question that could be answered with a “no.”  It was an assignment.

She gave me one week to find the answer.

At supper I asked Mom if she knew the origins of the name Rusty Springs. “I never thought about it,” she said. “But someone must know.”  She chewed on a bit of hamburger patty. “So how do you plan to find out?” she asked.

“Maybe somebody older would know,” I said. “Grandpa, do you know?”

“Know what?”

“Where Rusty Springs got its name.”

“No idea,” he said. “But that’s a great question.”

“You teachers all think alike,” I said. No help coming from that quarter.

I thought about it for most of the next day, and then I hit upon an idea. I had seen a bunch of older men hanging around the courthouse downtown. Maybe they knew the history.  So on Saturday morning, I asked Mom to drop me downtown at the library while she shopped for groceries. But before going to the library, I walked two blocks over to the county courthouse, a square, white two-story building with four massive white columns across the front, just like an antebellum plantation. On the front porch were half a dozen men sitting in metal folding chairs. They all looked to be older than Grandpa, and a few looked older than dirt. With my spiral notebook in hand, I trotted up the stairs towards them.

“Well, hello there, Skeeter,” said a man in a green plaid shirt.

“Actually, my name is Alec,” I said.

“Well I’m pleased to meet you, Alec.  My name is Red.”

That struck me as funny, since Red was bald, but I kept that to myself. I must have given him an odd look, though, because he answered my unspoken question.

“My hair used to be red,” he explained, “back when I had some.”

“Must have been some time ago,” piped up a fat, grey-haired man wearing bright red suspenders. “You’ve been bald long as I’ve known you.”

“Why did you call me Skeeter?” I asked Red.

“‘Cuz you’re such a little thing.” I didn’t get it. “You’re not much bigger than a mosquito,” he said, only he said it “mus-KEET-er.”  He gave a little laugh. None of the other laughed. Maybe they had heard this one before.

“You look pretty bright,” Red went on. “I bet they call you Smart Alec.”  Again he laughed.

I rewarded him with my special, time-tested, close-mouthed grin, the one that means “I am pretending I have not already heard this same lame joke 100 billion times.”

“What you need, son?”  This from a thin fellow with a trim grey moustache. “You come see us because you’re thinking about retirement?”

This time all the men laughed. I didn’t get the joke.

“I’m trying to find out how Rusty Springs got its name.”

“Is this a school project?” asked the man with the moustache.

“Yes, sir, it is.”

“Well you have sure come to the right place,” said the man in the black suspenders. “Here,” he said, standing up, “you can sit yourself down right here and get the facts from them that knows.”

“And who might that be?” said Grey Moustache.

“Now don’t mind him,” said Black Suspenders. “Go on. Sit down.”

I sat.

“Now you mean to tell me you have looked high and low and haven’t come across the story of Rusty Springs?”

I nodded. ” Well now, I wasn’t there,” he said. “It was a little before my time, but here is what I’ve heard.”

“Look out, Sonny,” said Red. “You might be here awhile. Elmer can talk the ears off a cow.”

I opened my spiral notebook to a blank sheet of paper and grabbed a pencil.

“Now you be sure to write this down,” Black Suspenders said. “There was a wagon train of settlers coming across the trail and they camped out one night not too far from here – now this was back when the Comanches still roamed in these parts, and they didn’t take too kindly to seeing bunches of white folks farming on their hunting grounds, you see?  So first thing in the morning, these settlers wake up to a war party of Comanches charging at them on horses from every direction, whooping and hollering and shooting their bow and arrows and throwing their tomahawks and all kinds of general mayhem.  It was pretty nasty, so they say. The settlers finally chased them off after an hour or so, but not before the Indians made off with a bunch of their horses. So, after the settlers buried the dead and took care of the wounded, they realize they didn’t have enough horses to pull all their wagons anymore.”  He paused.

“So what did they do?” I asked.

“Why, they had to leave some of the wagons behind. So they unloaded all their belongings off three of the wagons and piled in all they could fit into in the wagons they had left, then they pulled up stakes and rode on down the trail. But them three wagons stayed right where they left them, along with all the stuff there wasn’t room for.  They stayed right there until the wood just rotted out, and all that was left was the metal nails, just rusting in the sun and rain. Nails and bedsprings, of course. The settlers didn’t have room for all the beds, so they left some bedsprings behind. Now the Comanche was some clever Indians. They used every part of the buffalo, and I mean every part – meat, fur, bones, teeth – nothing went to waste – but they didn’t have no use for bedsprings, seeing as they preferred to sleep on the ground. So those wagons and those bedsprings stayed right where they were, and they got rained on, and pretty soon, they started to rust.

“Now many years later, long after the Comanches had been cleared out, people started to settle around here, and they needed a name for it, so they just said, we’ll just name it for those old wrecks of wagons sitting out there, and those old bedsprings. And that’s how it came to be Rusty Springs.”

I was writing it all down. “What year was the Indian attack?”

“Year? Well, I don’t recall exact dates and such, but I’m pretty sure it was around the time of the Alamo.”

I closed my notebook and was about to go when another man spoke.

“That’s a nice story, Wilbert, but I heard it another way.” The speaker was wearing a white shirt, a bolo tie, and a straw hat.

“I heard,” he continued, “that the town was founded by the first white man to homestead in these parts, a fellow by the name of Obadiah Rusty.”

“I heard that myself once,” said Red, “but then I also heard it was something about the water. You know, like there was some ore in the ground and the spring looked all rusty-like.”

“Oh for the love of God!” It was Grey Moustache. “This poor boy’s trying to write a research paper. He ain’t come here to judge no liars contest.”

Red and Wilbert and Black Suspenders took offense at Grey Moustache insinuating that every word they uttered was not the God’s Honest Truth, and while they were defending their truthfulness, I slipped away unnoticed and headed back to the library, which was no more help, and where Mom picked me up an hour later.  She knew me well enough to see I was frustrated so she let me marinate in my own juices on the ride home.

At supper it was Grandpa who started probing.

“How is that research project coming along?” he asked.

“I’m stuck.”

“What do you mean stuck?”

“I couldn’t find anything in the library,” I said. “I also talked to some men at the courthouse, and they gave me three different stories. I don’t know which one to believe.”

Mom and Grandpa between them plied me with questions until they got the full report of my courthouse interviews.

Grandpa swiped a napkin across his mouth and leaned back. “What a bunch of low-life, good-for-nothing pond scum,” he pronounced. “I hate to say it, Alec, but you’ve been had. You have been played like a two-dollar ukulele.”

“I was afraid of that.”

Mom tried to be consoling. “It was a good idea to ask them, Sweetie. That shows a lot of initiative on your part. It’s too bad they had a bad attitude about it.”

“It makes me angry to see them take advantage of you like that,” Grandpa said. “I ought to go teach them a thing or two about respect.

“By the way,” he added, “that story about the bedsprings is bogus for sure.  Settlers wouldn’t have had bedsprings. They hadn’t been invented yet. That’s an anachronism.”

“A what?”

“An anachronism. Means out of time.  Shakespeare writes a play about Julius Caesar, and there’s a clock striking the hour. Only the ancient Romans didn’t have clocks, because they hadn’t been invented yet. They used sundials to tell time. So the clock is an anachronism.”

“Daddy,” said Mom, “I’ve even heard some people say you’re an anachronism.” She gave me a sly wink.

“Yeah, well, that may be so,” he mumbled, and went back to his supper.

Mrs. Kleiner got her report. I did the best I could with what I had. I wrote that no one alive today seems to know how Rusty Springs got its name, but that there are several theories. I told the story about the settlers’ bedsprings, and I pointed out that that was an anachronism because I thought that word would impress her.  I said that story was probably a legend, which I thought was being generous towards a bald-faced lie. I mentioned the Obadiah Rusty theory but noted that his name does not appear in any reference books of Texas history. Finally, I mentioned the metal ore in the water, and said that was the most likely, but it was just a theory too.

Mrs. Kleiner never mentioned it again. I wonder if she even read it. Maybe she forgot she had assigned it.

Barbershop, September 1962

“Norbert, you hear about that nonsense down at Ole Miss?”

“Yeah, I hear about it, same as you. Can’t avoid it. It’s all the evening news wants to talk about.”

“That crazy nigger like to get himself killed, is what I think.”

“He’s got some folks stirred up, that’s for sure.”

“Now I hear they’re bringing in U.S. marshals to get that boy registered. That’s an awful lot of trouble just so one colored boy can go to Ole Miss.”

“Yeah.”

“You know what I can’t figure out?  What in the world is a nigger supposed do with a college education? He’s still just a nigger – just a more uppity nigger.”

“Why would he want to go to Ole Miss, anyway? There’s plenty of nigra colleges that’d be happy to have him. Like those two nigra colleges up in Marshall. You remember when they made such a big to-do year before last with their sit-ins at Woolworth’s?”

“Didn’t they fire a bunch of nigra professors?”

“They fired one for being a Communist. Probably should have fired a darn sight more. Communists and outside agitators gone and got them young bucks all aggravated.”

“But they were a big success. Now Woolworth’s gone and closed their lunch counters, so they don’t serve anybody – but they don’t serve them equally.”

“Well a nigra at a nigra college is one thing. A nigra at Ole Miss is a whole ‘nother thing altogether.”

“Somebody liable to get killed if they don’t settle down.”

“You’re not kidding. Mm-mm-mm.”

A Spy in the Barbershop

Dictionary of Texisms:

            Dumb as a box of rocks – not too bright. Variation – dumb as a box of hammers.

Once a month, whether I need it or not, Mom insists that I get a haircut. So every month, whether I need it or not, I have the privilege of hearing the barbers engage each other and their adult male customers in a lively discussion of current events.  

My regular barber, Norbert, is gruff. I suppose if my name was Norbert, I might be gruff too.  I’m pretty sure he doesn’t know my name; when it’s my turn, he waves at his chair and says, “Hop on up, Sport.” He calls all boys Sport. I once saw him give a girl a haircut, and he called her “Missy.” In the early days Norbert would ask me if I wanted a crewcut (I don’t), and he never fails to ask if I want my sideburns “long like Elvis.” Other than that, Norbert assumes I have nothing valuable to say and ignores me.

Norbert, on the other hand, has a lot to say, as do Tony and Jerry. Grandpa used to wait for me during my haircuts, but now he’s taken to dropping me off because, as he puts it, “Every one of those clowns is dumb as a box of rocks, and I can’t abide their ignorant blathering. If I stay I’m tempted to argue with them, and that’s a waste of good breath.”

I’m not tempted to argue, since they don’t think kids know anything. To make it so I can abide it, I imagine that I’m not just a customer but a spy, listening carefully and taking mental notes  so I can understand the pulse of public opinion in Rusty Springs. It’s a dangerous job, but I think I’m the man for it.

The New Kid

The New Kid

Dictionary of Texisms:

Nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rockers – fidgety, jumpy.

It only took Jackie McLanahan three weeks to become a standout in our class. And not in a good way.

If I had to come into a classroom full of strangers, I’d be nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rockers. I think I would lay low for a while and try to get to know the situation. I expected Jackie McLanahan to blend in with the quiet girls, the ones who never raise their hands when Mrs. Kleiner asks a question, and never ask questions of their own, and try to make themselves invisible when Mrs. Kleiner is calling on people at random. Well, that’s what I would do, anyway. Jackie McLanahan took a slightly different approach.

Mrs. Kleiner was at the blackboard talking with Texas pride about our glorious state, as she often did, and how Texas was Number One in oil, gas, cotton and just about everything important, when Jackie raised her hand.

“Yes, Jackie?”

“Texas doesn’t have a Broadway musical named for it, but Oklahoma does.”

(Did I mention that Jackie came from Oklahoma?)

“Thank you, Jackie,” Mrs. Kleiner said, sarcastically. “I guess other states just have to grab their little bit of glory wherever they can.”

Jackie’s face flushed. She raised her hand again.

“Yes, Jackie?”

“It says in the Bible that pride is a sin.”

“Yes, but what does that –“

Then Mrs. Kleiner stopped, because she realized the answer to her own question, and she didn’t much care for it. This time it was her face that colored.

“Thank you, Jackie,” she snapped. She stared intensely at Jackie, who stared back just as hard. It was almost like two wrestlers circling each other, looking for a weakness.

Finally Mrs. Kleiner turned away and resumed the lesson.

Apparently, that was round one. Within another week it was no holds barred and Jackie was walking the well-worn path towards being branded a juvenile delinquent. There were testy exchanges in class, with Mrs. Kleiner telling Jackie she had a bad attitude and lacked respect. By week three, Jackie was forced to miss recess every second or third day, so she could do the homework she hadn’t turned in.

Missing recess was a regular punishment, for boys.  But a girl? It never happened.  Not only that, but the boys who got punished were usually the real dumbbells, the ones who had trouble spelling “cat” if you spotted them two letters.  Jackie was no nitwit. If anything, she was too smart for her own good. The prospect of having our first female juvenile delinquent added an undercurrent of excitement to class each day.

On the face of it, Jackie was an exact opposite of me.  I always did all my homework assignments, Jackie did some or none. I was one of Mrs. Kleiner’s favorites, Jackie her least favorite.

So much for first impressions.