Monthly Archives: September 2013

What Man?

“Y’all heard about that man, didn’t you?” Daddy asked when my sisters and I were kids.

“What man?” we responded.

Daddy grinned slightly as he gazed into the distance. He pulled a pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket, slowly lit one as suspense built, then pretended he’d forgotten he asked a question.

What man?” my sisters and I repeated. We grinned and stomped a foot at him.

We were familiar with his exasperating style but we knew a joke was coming. Or was it a joke? With Daddy we were never sure. He told a joke in such a way that after we had a good laugh we still had to ask him whether it was true.

“Is that real, Daddy?” one of us asked after he delivered the punch line.

“I don’t know, that’s what they tell me.” he answered, then walked off to busy himself with Daddy things, leaving us still wondering.

Daddy’s joke and story telling styles were the same – set us up, draw us in, hit us with a good one, then walk away like he’d had nothing to do with the laughter he left behind. Clearly it was genetic because I saw similar styles exhibited by his siblings. All excellent joke and story tellers.

Just like many families gather around the television at night, our families walked across the field to gather on my grandmother’s back porch. Nannie enjoyed the fact that her children had homes next to her farmhouse, and we all enjoyed her back porch filling with aunts, uncles, and cousins. Story telling would soon begin.

My parents, aunts, and uncles would shift chairs around the huge screened porch as they asked Nannie about the garden, wondered out loud as to when we’d dig potatoes, or decided we ought to fix home made ice cream the next weekend. Eventually, they would settle into the random collection of old metal chairs that lined the porch. Amid the sounds of ice tinkling in the tea glasses, metal chairs being scooted into final position, or a cousin’s dog barking to be let onto the porch, one of them would finally say, “Y’all heard about that man, didn’t you?”

The games had begun.

Daddy or an uncle would stretch a story out for a while and the porch would laugh. The first story would trigger a second. The second story would give rise to a third. Then someone would remember a joke. More laughing from the porch.

At times, Mama or an aunt would feign disgust over a story or joke they considered remotely off color. “Thank goodness that’s all you told.” they might say. “I was afraid you were going to tell the one about the horse!”

A clear signal that the one about the horse should now be told.

Once the horse joke began, Mama and the aunts would sigh in disgust, then grin at each other between sips of iced tea.

The stories my family told were always funny, but I remember how much I loved their story telling styles. If Daddy told one, you may as well have a seat. He could stretch a knock-knock joke into a filibuster. One uncle might deliver lightning fast one liners, another might rival Daddy for air time. One aunt could hardly finish a funny story for all the laughing she did as she told it. I loved hearing what was told and couldn’t get enough of how it was told. There were many years of good story telling on that porch.

Earlier this year, both of my kids and I sat on the screened porch at my parents’ house. Daddy, eighty years old now, sat down to join us. As the four of us discussed what my kids had planned for the summer, I remembered my own summer evenings on Nannie’s porch listening to relatives do their story telling.

During a rare pause in Daddy’s conversation with the kids, I asked, “Y’all heard about that man, didn’t you?”

“What man?” they both asked.

“He’ll tell you.” I said, as I nodded towards their grandfather.

Daddy said nothing, but he grinned slightly as he gazed into the distance. He pulled a pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket, slowly lit one as suspense built, then pretended he’d forgotten I’d asked the question.

What man, Big Daddy?” the kids asked him.

Like the pro he was, Daddy slowly launched into one of his best. He stretched it out, paused when necessary, sped up when required, and hit the punch line hard at the end. Both of the kids doubled over with laughter and told him he was “awesome”. I could tell something was on their minds.

“That was funny, but was it true Big Daddy?” they asked him.

He looked at me and grinned from ear to ear. He remembered the old days on Nannie’s porch, just as I had.

Getting no response from him, the kids turned to me.

“Well?” they asked me. “Was that true?”

I grinned at the inquiring looks on their faces. I remembered that feeling when what I’d just heard had been hilarious, but had been told to me in such a way that I really wasn’t sure it was a joke. Daddy’s grin became even wider when I responded to my kids.

“I don’t know, that’s what they tell me.” I said to them. In unison, Daddy and I left the porch, leaving the kids still wondering.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Tasty Truth

My daughter is an intelligent, funny, beautiful young lady already in her late teens – I still wrestle with that fact. Not long ago I watched as she drove up in her car, walked in high heels, and made a phone call about her job. I was reminded that sadly I was no longer looking at my little girl. I’d been reminded of that before and she knew what I was thinking when she saw my face. Where did that tiny kid go I used to carry in my arms?

“Will you always think of me as a five year old?” she asked as she rolled her eyes.

“Yes Baby Doll.” I answered, calling her the name I’ve called her since the days I carried her in my arms.

Even as that five year old kid she was outgoing, curious, and questioning. Like every child with every parent, she often asked questions that forced me, I felt, to come up with the tiniest of white lies in order to shield her from the harsher realities of life for as long as I thought I could. How dare anything ruin her happy, innocent world? I couldn’t stand the thought of her sweet little head being contaminated by life’s occasional negatives.

For instance, the time she softly asked why the cute raccoon was lying on the side of the road, I naturally told her he was just taking a nap. I rolled up the window before she could ask about the odor. And who could fault me for telling her that our goldfish was simply learning to float on his back the day she saw him belly up in the tank? I turned on her music box so she wouldn’t hear the toilet flush him away. Once day we watched a program on television about Africa and before I could grab the remote she saw a crocodile drag a gazelle into the river. “Everybody likes to wrestle their friends in the water, Baby Doll.” I said as I hurriedly switched to cartoons.

I couldn’t stand her innocent little mind being tainted by such things and I found myself constantly on guard for additional realities I might need to protectively water down. I was off my game the day the chicken truck pulled up beside us at a red light.

Just a few miles past where we lived at the time were chicken “factories”. Periodically, trucks with loads of live chickens traveled down a major road near our house. Several times in the past I had done illegal U-turns just to avoid them if I had my daughter in the car. I couldn’t imagine what I would say if she ever asked me about those trucks with stacks and stacks of pitiful live chickens, obviously miserable, being hauled off to their deaths. I was always mindful when I used that road. Except that day.

Only she and I were in the car at the time and I hadn’t even noticed it was a chicken truck as it pulled up and stopped beside me at the red light. I noticed the truck cab beside me, but trucks of all sorts used that road and nothing in particular was triggered until I reached over to change the radio station. That’s when I saw, through the windshield, a huge white feather float slowly down and land on the hood of my car. I sat bolt upright.

“Chickens.” I said to myself.

As I leaned over to look, almost afraid to confirm what sort of truck it was, I noticed my daughter in the back seat looking intently through her window. Just feet away from her dear, chubby little face were hundreds of terrified white chickens crammed into tiny metal cages. Feathers floated everywhere. My daughter stared at the birds. I can still see her red cheeks and wide eyes as she scanned the many cages full of chickens.

I whirled around to face the front, said nothing, and prayed for a green light. It remained agonizingly red. I thought maybe she wouldn’t ask me anything. I thought wrong.

“Daddy?” she asked, in that sweet little girl voice.

This was it, I realized. Please let me think of a good one.

“Yes?” I answered, willing the light to turn green. It would not.

“Is that what chicken nuggets look like before we eat them?” she asked. Through the rear view mirror I saw her lean forward to get a better look at the birds.

I couldn’t think of anything to say. In fact, I had no idea she even knew chicken nuggets came from chickens. She apparently hadn’t paid attention the day I told her they were made by nugget elves.

Well, she was five after all. I guessed it was time she start processing some of those harsh realities of life. I could think of nothing to say to avoid this one. She was staring face to beak at a truckload of misery and there was no way I could save her. I nearly teared up as I resigned myself to the ruination of her innocence.

“Yes, Baby Doll.” I finally answered, in the saddest of tones. “That’s what chicken nuggets look like before we eat them.” I held on to the steering wheel, stared at the stubborn red light, and waited for her to scream, cry, and wail from the pain of that awful truth.

“Mmmm!” she said with a huge grin. “I love chicken meat!”

The light turned green.

She asked to go to McDonald’s.

Stuart M. Perkins

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That’s Noody

I was in ninth grade when my English teacher asked us to write a three page paper on someone we respected. We were to choose someone who had influenced our thinking and whose character we admired. After groans from the class that the paper must go on for three long pages, we each set about choosing our person. Once we had decided, we were each to walk to the front of the class and write our choice on the blackboard. Since the person could be someone from any point in time, many chose religious, historical, or political figures. After we each wrote our person’s name on the blackboard, the teacher read them aloud.

I remember she went slowly down the list as she read names like George Washington, Mahatma Gandhi, and Neil Armstrong. Soon, she reached my chalk written choice.

“Margaret P. Lankey?” she asked, as she frowned and turned to the class, puzzled.

I raised my hand. “That’s Noody” I said. “She’s my aunt.”

I was never sure why we called her Noody. I probably asked but don’t recall an answer. It didn’t matter really. I come from a large family and almost everyone had a nickname. That’s just how it was done at home. Extended family lived all around me but I was lucky that Noody lived right next door. She and my uncle were as much a part of my everyday life as my parents and sisters.

Noody had an old redwood picnic table in her yard under the trees where she did everything from shelling butter beans to cleaning fish to cutting a watermelon for whoever happened to be in the yard that evening. When I saw her at the picnic table I’d walk over to visit. She was a great conversationalist and always seemed interested to hear what I had been up to. If she said “Let’s go sit in the swing.” I knew I was in for a treat. I loved to hear old family stories and she loved to tell them. She taught me the importance of remembering where you came from while not forgetting where you wanted to go. That’s Noody.

She could do things like drive a pickup truck, haul firewood, feed hogs and chickens, work hard in her garden, and slap on a baseball cap to cut grass, all while holding a handful of cookies to snack on now and then. She and Nannie, her mother and my grandmother, once cornered a snake near the barn. Noody, thinking she was lined up just right for a good decapitation, raised a hoe over her head and came down with all due force towards the snake. She missed, leaving a hole in the ground so deep that Nannie asked me to bring a shovel full of dirt to fill it. Noody belly laughed. Do your best to get the job done and if it doesn’t work as you’d hoped, so what, have a good laugh. That’s Noody.

Many winters if there was enough snow, we cousins took our sleds to a nearby hill. Noody would come along to be part of the fun. On other occasions we all went roller skating. Noody came along for that too, strapping on her skates to head into the rink like a pro. She even joined in the Hokey Pokey dance in the center of the rink a few times. At the family place on the Chesapeake Bay, while other adults sat on the beach or in the shade, Noody put on her bathing suit and plunged into the water with us kids. She taught me how to float on my back, and also taught me that hard work may be necessary, but playing hard is just as beneficial.

One time I stayed with out of town relatives for a few days. When I returned home I met Noody at the picnic table to tell her about it. When I finished relating my adventures she asked if I had yet sent them a “bread and butter note”. I told her not yet, but didn’t tell her that I had no idea what one was. She went inside and brought back some of her own stationery. There at the picnic table she helped me write a proper thank you note to the relatives I had visited. She taught me many lessons over the years. That’s Noody.

She was not just a mentor, but also an ally. Just before my thirteenth birthday I saw an ad in the back of Southern Living magazine for a tiny incubator and six quail eggs. Mama, not thrilled by my idea to add more animals to the ones I already had, gave me an instant “No”. I took the next logical step and met Noody at the picnic table. I showed her the ad and told her I really wanted to try hatching some eggs but Mama said “No”. Noody read the ad, put her hand on her hip and said, “Run bring me my checkbook.” With help from her, my uncle built a huge enclosure and the quail I hatched were part of my life for the next few years. If you want something that badly, why not go ahead and try. That’s Noody.

Many of my relatives are buried at the church near home that most of my extended family attended, and many still do. A couple years ago I took my kids for a walk around the cemetery there. As they read names from each of the family tombstones I would say, “That’s your great grandfather.” or “That’s your great great grandmother.” or “That’s your great uncle.” From a spot just a little further down than some of the older tombstones I heard one of the kids read a name. “Margaret P. Lankey” they called out.

“That’s Noody.” I said.

As soon as I heard her name I thought of the many good times with my fine aunt.

I also thought about the note my ninth grade teacher wrote in the upper right hand corner of my paper once she read it. “Please show this writing to Noody.” it said.

I still wish I had.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Cardboard Adventures

A mother and her young teenage son sat behind me on my bus ride home from work. From their conversation I could tell that the son had just come from a dentist appointment and was feeling a bit whiny from the experience.

His mother said, “I know it was rough, but when you get home you can go upstairs and play with your Xbox.”

A nice day like this, I thought, yet she suggested her son go inside and play with his Xbox?

When I was his age Mama would tell me to go outside and play with a cardboard box.

Not just any cardboard box. One of the huge discarded cardboard boxes from the nearby T.V. shop.

When my sisters and I were kids there was a T.V. shop across the field from our house. As new televisions were delivered for display, the huge cardboard boxes they were shipped in were then stacked behind the shop for disposal. If we promised to ask the owner first, Mama would occasionally allow us to drag one across the field to our backyard. Along the way, we attracted the attention of our cousins playing outside. They always joined the fun.

Although Mama allowed us to drag a box home from time to time, she did so reluctantly knowing that ultimately she would be left to dispose of the ragged remains. Sooner or later we would be done with the box. Sooner if it rained. Rain is cardboard’s enemy.

Those huge boxes easily held me, a sister or two, and one of the smaller cousins. An old rusty pair of scissors in Daddy’s garage helped us shape each box into our fantasy of the day. Once, we cut portholes in a seaworthy box and hacked off the top to make an open air deck. We crawled inside and waited for tidal waves.

“What’s this one?” Mama asked as she walked by to pick tomatoes, clearly wondering how long it would be before she had to dispose of our creation.

“A cruise ship!” we answered back.

“No. It’s trash is what it is.” she said, shaking her head.

We once hooked two boxes together to make a train. We cut away the front of one box so the engineer could wave to cars and we cut away the back of the second box so that passengers could wave from the caboose. We crawled inside and waited to arrive at the station.

“What’s this one?” Mama asked as she swept the sidewalk.

“A train!” we answered back.

“No. It’s trash is what it is.” she said.

One particularly grand box which had held a console television made the perfect army tank. We cut a lookout hole in the top, made several holes in the walls from which to shoot pretend guns, and we crawled inside and waited for the enemy.

“What’s this one?” Mama asked as she carried in groceries.

“A tank!” we answered back.

“No. It’s trash is what it is.” she said.

There was a period when we’d gone quite a while without cardboard adventures. It was during this bleak time that a delivery truck backed into my neighbor’s driveway. As we watched the truck maneuver closer to the back door, one of my cousins was the first to realize the magnitude of the event.

“Mrs. Brenneman’s getting a new refrigerator.” he said under his breath.

We fidgeted with anticipation.

After what seemed an eternity, one of the delivery men appeared with the empty cardboard box which had held the new refrigerator. With some effort, he dragged it into Mrs. Brenneman’s yard and went back inside.

Four of us kids, working feverishly like ants carrying bread crust, managed to slide, drag, and inch the massive cardboard box over to our backyard. We climbed in to savor the new cardboard smell and to experience the muffled silence. The silence was momentarily broken as our collie pushed her way in, licked each of us in the face and left. Even she seemed amazed by our good fortune.

We sat inside the cavernous box trying to decide what to turn this gift into. Before we reached a consensus it got dark outside. Cousins had to go home and my sisters and I had to go inside.

Morning came and horror of all horrors, it had rained in the night.  We ran outside to check on our massive cardboard box. The rain hadn’t ruined it completely, but the once stately walls now sagged, corners were rounded over by the rainwater, and the smooth outside surface was wrinkled and peeling.

Three cousins approached. We stood staring at our sagging mound of a box not wanting to believe that our prize was ruined, but it appeared to be so.

“What’s this one?” Mama asked on her way to get the mail.

“It’s trash is what it is.” we answered back, resigned to the soggy truth.

“No. It’s an igloo.” Mama said.

We looked at each other and grinned. We ran to the rounded shell of a box, molded the wet cardboard so as to give us one long tunnel as an entrance, and we crawled inside to wait for polar bears.

That young teenager just back from the dentist most likely went inside to play alone with his Xbox. I never had an Xbox, but unless it came in packaging large enough for cousins and me to fashion a cruise ship, train, tank, or igloo, I don’t know that I would have wanted one.

Stuart M. Perkins

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