Tag Archives: childhood

Tasty Truth

My daughter is an intelligent, funny, beautiful young lady. Only in her twenties, she already has a husband and a two year old son. On a recent phone call, as we discussed her fast-paced sales job, I was reminded that I wasn’t talking to my little girl anymore. Where did the tiny kid go I used to carry in my arms? I stopped mid-sentence and made a wistful comment about her being so grown up.

“Will you always think of me as a five year old?” she sighed. I could almost hear her rolling 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 a five year old, she was outgoing and curious. She sometimes asked questions that forced me, I felt, to come up with the tiniest of white lies. I wanted to shield her from the harsher realities of life for as long as I could. How dare anything ruin her happy, innocent world?

For instance, the time she asked why the raccoon was lying, belly-up, on the side of the road. I told her it was napping and I rolled up the window before she questioned the odor. And who could fault me for saying our goldfish was practicing the backstroke the day it floated lifelessly at the top of the tank? Or the time she saw two lewd Labradors lost in the throes of passion. Clearly, they were just playing leapfrog. I ushered her into the house.

I didn’t want her innocent mind tainted by such things and I found myself constantly on guard for realities I might need to filter. However, I was off my game the day the chicken truck pulled up beside us at a red light.

A few miles past where we lived at the time were huge chicken farms. Periodically, trucks loaded with live chickens traveled down a major road near our house. I’d made illegal U-turns several times just to avoid them. I couldn’t imagine what I would say if she ever asked about those trucks full of caged chickens being hauled to their deaths. I was always on watch.

Except that day.

I hadn’t noticed that it was an actual chicken truck when it stopped beside me. I was aware that a vehicle was there, but nothing prompted me to look over until I reached to change the radio station. That’s when something floated down and landed on my windshield. A feather.

Chickens!” I gasped.

As I glanced over, afraid to confirm, I noticed my daughter in the back seat looking intently through her window. Just feet away from her little face were hundreds of white chickens crammed into metal cages. Feathers floated everywhere. I can still see my daughter’s wide eyes as she stared at the sight.

I stopped looking at her, whirled around to face forward, and prayed for a green light. It remained agonizingly red. I thought maybe she wouldn’t ask anything.

Silly me.

“Daddy?” I heard the sweet little voice.

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

“Yes?” I answered, willing the light to turn green. It didn’t.

“Is that what chicken nuggets look like before we eat them?” She pushed her face against the window for a better look.

I couldn’t think of anything to say. I had no idea she even knew chicken nuggets came from chickens. She obviously didn’t pay attention the day I told her they were made by nugget elves.

Well, she was five. I guessed it was time she started processing some of those realities I’d kept from her. I couldn’t avoid this one. She was staring at a truckload of misery and there was no way I could save her. I nearly teared up as I resigned myself to the answer.

“Yes, Baby Doll.” I said gently. “That’s what chicken nuggets look like before we eat them.” I gripped the steering wheel, stared at the stubborn red light, and waited for her to wail at the awful truth. I kept waiting.

Finally, she spoke.

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

The light turned green.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Wrap Star!

It was holiday time again. Back from shopping, my sisters raced to their rooms. The sound of hushed whispers mixed with the crinkling of bags stashed hurriedly into closets. Christmas presents. The only thing they enjoyed more than shopping for them was wrapping them.

Mama taught them well. Before Christmas she cleared a table and lined up with military precision her wrapping paper, tape, scissors and ribbon. Unrolling a length of paper over the gift on the table, Mama’s keen eye determined the amount needed for perfect coverage. Her scissors sliced a cut so exact any surgeon would be jealous.

Folds and seams were flawless. The tape was snipped neatly and applied invisibly. Mama was meticulous even to the bow, another step made magically simple. Using several strips of ribbon, she gripped each between her thumb and a blade of the scissors then jerked her hand down each of their lengths. Voila! A festive cluster created by some mysterious feat of wizardry. The perfect bow of curls.

For years Mama repeated her fascinating exactness in gift wrapping and my sisters learned well. Our tree was surrounded by magnificently concealed holiday surprises but I sometimes wondered why they bothered. With paper so tightly formed around each gift it was no mystery what was inside. A book looked like a book. A box was likely a shirt. My new Frisbee was clearly just that. What happened to shaking mysterious gifts and guessing the contents? That was half the fun!

But, their wrapping efforts were works of art. My sisters took pride in their skills and enjoyed the process.

I did not.

My uneven folds and botched tape jobs were the brunt of their jokes. Not that I didn’t care about the gift wrap, but wasn’t all of this going in the trash? My sisters encouraged my efforts though I knew mine would never look like theirs.

They giggled. “Keep trying, you’ll get there.”

I tried to imitate Mama’s keen eye yet ended up unrolling enough paper to wrap any one gift two and a half times. My scissors didn’t glide through the paper, so I was left with torn and jagged edges. Folding ragged bits to hide my blunders only resulted in lumps, wrinkles and ridges. It was bad.

My tape job was worse.

Instead of tidy strips I ripped foot-long pieces knowing it would take that much to rein in my mistakes. Once under control, each of my gifts was ready for a bow. Gripping the scissors, I tried to imitate Mama’s maneuver. During one noble attempt I yanked back hard, the ribbon snapped, and I stabbed my bedroom door. The gash is still visible today.

With wrapping eventually finished, my pitiful packages were made fun of instantly. “Did you just put a bow on a ball of trash?” “Wait, that is a bow, right?” I heard it all. I could never achieve the beauty crafted by my sisters.

They giggled again. “Keep trying. You’ll get there.”

As they wrapped theirs, they chuckled about mine. Enough was enough. If my gifts brought that much Christmas joy even before being opened, then I knew just what to do.

I taped wadded scraps of paper to each gift, forming odd-shaped masses, which I then wrapped in paper ripped from the roll. Who needed scissors? Pulling a length of tape from the dispenser, I wound it entirely around what became a wrinkled blob. No worrying with folds or seams. My gifts looked like distorted little mummies ready for bows.

I decided to forego the bows.

Finally finished, I hauled the gifts to the tree and stood beside the gleaming gift wrapping of the others aligned there in symmetrical perfection. I dumped my pile of Yuletide rubble.

There, let them make fun.

One sister approached the Christmas tree and stared at my heap of colorful debris. As she reached down and grabbed one of the holiday blobs, she called to the others. I waited for their good-hearted ribbing.

“What are these?” she asked as she handed each of them a wrinkled mass.

Eyes began to widen. “Shake it!” “Shake this one!” “What could it be?” they squealed with excitement as they poked and prodded.

For days leading up to Christmas they investigated my oddball gifts. They pondered, guessed and took visiting cousins to the living room to show off the crazy presents. They found humor, not in my mistakes, but in my new style of wrapping. By Christmas Eve they admitted what fun it had already been.

My fancy designs had caused quite the stir.

“How did you decide the shapes?” “How did you make them lumpy?” They agreed that next year instead of forming smooth and perfectly wrapped gifts topped with beautiful bows they would attempt my oddly unique method.

“We’ve wrapped ours the same way for so long. Not sure we could pull this off!” they said.

I giggled. “Keep trying. You’ll get there.”

Stuart M. Perkins

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Get Dirty!

This is another re-post from a few years ago I was reminded of when I walked outside this morning. Nothing gives me an instant shot of happiness like the smell of spring, and more specifically, the smell of good old earth in spring. I played in dirt as a kid, I play in dirt now as a gardener, and I certainly expect to become a dirty old man. In the garden!

Get Dirty!

I’m going to be dirty today.

As a kid, Mama often met me on the back stoop as I came in from playing outside. With a broom in her hand she’d have me slowly turn in a circle while she brushed dirt from my blue jeans. She wasn’t against sweeping my bare legs either if I happened to be wearing shorts.

“Don’t bring that mess in this house.” She’d say. “Did you plan to get dirty?”

Well no. I hadn’t planned to. I was a kid. There was dirt. We met and fell in love. The end.

I remembered that this morning as I thought about where to plant some things in the yard. I still love dirt. Not potting soil in shiny garden-center bags. I don’t care for the sterile smell of plastic and perlite. I love real dirt. Earth.

One of the finest smells of spring is that first whiff of good clean soil. Sealed in by frigid winter, spring unlocks the distinct scents I first noticed as a kid. Dirt in our garden had a plain chalky smell, dirt in the yard had a more sour smell, and digging in the woods provided pungent aromas too delightful to describe.

Dirt smells good.

Dirt feels good too.

The powdery dirt in the garden stuck to our sweat when we worked the long rows and red clay in the yard felt almost oily as it clung to our fingers and hands. The different soils in the woods provided a variety of textures from mushy sludge along the creek to sandy light mix up on the hill.

As a kid who spent almost every day outside, I knew my dirt. Mama ended up sweeping off quite a lot from my pants before allowing me into the house. She didn’t sweep off mere dirt, she swept off ground-in goodness and muddy proof of the fun I’d had that day. I didn’t plan to get dirty, it was just good luck.

Excited to get into the yard this morning, I remembered the happiness that digging, feeling, and smelling good old dirt can bring about. Coming home with blue jeans caked in mud for Mama to sweep off was never my goal. I’d had great fun in the dirt and the muddy jeans were just a byproduct of my good time. I never planned to get dirty.

Today I’ll put on blue jeans to dig in the yard and plant a few things. Along the way I’ll wipe my hands on my pants, feel the gritty soil stick to my skin, and marvel at how sweet the earth can smell when you stir it up a little.

Today I plan to get dirty.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Home Is Where The Nose Is

“I wanted to tap my heels together three times in that bakery!” the woman said as she sat down beside me for the flight back home to Virginia.

I glanced at her feet expecting ruby slippers.

“Smell this.” she leaned towards me and opened a paper sack containing several blackberry pastries. “I loved France but the smell of blackberries made me miss childhood summers at home!”

“Well, there’s no place like it!” I added.

I was fortunate to do some traveling over the last year and found myself captivated by the beauty and history of various cities in Colombia, Spain, and France. Every day, in every city I visited, I’d daydream about what life might be like to leave the place I’ve always called home and live abroad in such majestic locales. I doubted that a hint of blackberries, or anything else for that matter, could cause me to pine for home the way this woman seemed to. Just because she smelled a pastry? I wasn’t so sure about that one.

However, while waiting for our flight to depart Paris we continued discussing the strange power some scents have to unlock fond memories of people or places and to sometimes make us homesick. She insisted that the mere hint of blackberry instantly transported her back to summers as a little girl. She stopped reminiscing as the plane took off but I continued thinking about the power of scents. I admit that a remembered smell is like a souvenir from the past, but how silly this woman’s sudden urge to tap her heels three times to be home – because of a smell!

Born in and spending most of my life in Richmond, I then realized, had given me many scents to fondly associate with those years. During countless youthful Saturdays along or in the James River I remember its water’s pungent dank aroma in summer and how it took on a crisper essence whenever rainfall upriver came barreling through. Cookies baking at the FFV off of Broad Street made my mouth water almost as much as a whiff of sugary sinfulness when passing by Krispy Kreme. Closer to home, the call from fresh slices of our garden’s first cantaloupe would lure me into Mama’s kitchen. To this day, the aroma of butter beans cooking makes me homesick I confess. Maybe I have wanted to tap my heels a time or two after all.

For decades now, summer trips to my uncle Tuck’s cottage in Lancaster County where the Rappahannock River meets the Chesapeake Bay have provided many a memorable sniff. Saltwater marshes with their fishy odors make me recall the childish excitement of simply nearing the bay. Even the acrid sulfur stench of the paper mill in West Point has the power to remind me of long gone summers. In the air is a bracing spice given off by layers of decaying pine tags along the shaded sandy road approaching the cottage and entering the cottage itself I experience a rich potpourri of aged wood, salt air, and a suggestion Old Bay. Every one of those aromas has the power to take me back in time.

Another uncle, Jiggs, owned a farm in Lunenburg County where I also spent many summer weekends. The musty old wood of a barn is comforting to me and hundreds of bales of fresh hay emit a tangy sweet bouquet. Summer sun beating on a field of dry alfalfa causes it to release its zesty aroma and sometimes I think pure country air itself is invigorating perfection. Just after a summer rain, I know that it is. The fragrant perfume of honeysuckle on the fencerow, the peppery redolence of old tobacco barns, the faint sweetness of cornfields in the morning, and the lightly pungent pile of composted cow manure behind the barn all make me smile when remembered. Even today I can brush by a tomato plant and have the sharp scent from the crushed stem take me right back to the country. The more I thought about it, tapping my heels didn’t seem too silly anymore.

It was back to reality when I heard the pilot announce our landing. The woman beside me held up her bag of blackberry pastries and smiled. Once on the ground I gathered my things and made the slow walk up the aisle to the exit. As I neared the door a gust of wind from outside blew into the plane. Wow, I thought. There really is a sweet Virginia breeze. In that small burst of summer air I smelled trees, blooming trees of some kind, and remembered the pasture at home.

I’ve enjoyed my world travels and hope there are more in store. Surely my daydreaming of life abroad will continue with each trip, but as I walked from the plane that day I inhaled deeply and fought the urge to tap my heels.

Ahhh, I had just smelled Virginia and there really is no place like home.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Get Dirty

I’m going to be dirty today.

As a kid, Mama often met me on the back stoop as I came in from playing outside. With a broom in her hand she’d have me slowly turn in a circle while she brushed dirt from my blue jeans. She wasn’t against sweeping my bare legs either if I happened to be wearing shorts.

“Don’t bring that mess in this house.” She’d say. “Did you plan to get dirty?”

Well no. I hadn’t planned to. I was a kid. There was dirt. We met and fell in love. The end.

I remembered that this morning as I thought about where to plant some things in the yard. I still love dirt. Not potting soil in shiny garden-center bags. I don’t care for the sterile smell of plastic and perlite. I love real dirt. Earth.

One of the finest smells of spring is that first whiff of good clean soil. Sealed in by frigid winter, spring unlocks the distinct scents I first noticed as a kid. Dirt in our garden had a plain chalky smell, dirt in the yard had a more sour smell, and digging in the woods provided pungent aromas too delightful to describe.

Dirt smells good.

Dirt feels good too.

The powdery dirt in the garden stuck to our sweat when we worked the long rows and red clay in the yard felt almost oily as it clung to our fingers and hands. The different soils in the woods provided a variety of textures from mushy sludge along the creek to sandy light mix up on the hill.

As a kid who spent almost every day outside, I knew my dirt. Mama ended up sweeping off quite a lot from my pants before allowing me into the house. She didn’t sweep off just dirt, she swept off ground-in goodness and muddy proof of the fun I’d had that day. I didn’t plan to get dirty, it was just good luck.

Excited to get into the yard this morning, I remembered the happiness that digging, feeling, and smelling good old dirt can bring about. Coming home with blue jeans caked in mud for Mama to sweep off was never my goal. I’d had great fun in the dirt and the muddy jeans were just a byproduct of my good time. I never planned to get dirty.

Today I’ll put on blue jeans to dig in the yard and plant a few things. Along the way I’ll wipe my hands on my pants, feel the gritty soil stick to my skin, and marvel at how sweet the earth can smell when you stir it up a little.

Today I plan to get dirty.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Baby Doll

My four year old daughter, Greer, resisted a bit when I told her bath time was over. After I’d scrubbed dirt from her that only a four year old could accumulate, she quietly played with her bath toys. For a good twenty minutes she casually poured water from a plastic toy telephone into a pink Barbie car, back and forth, until I urged her again to get out of the tub.

“Come on Baby Doll.” I said, using the nickname I’d given her the day we brought her home from the hospital.

I helped her from the tub and draped her with a towel warm from the dryer. That was something I began doing for her and my son Evan when I noticed their tiny teeth chattered the instant they stepped from the warm bath water. She hugged the warm towel and pulled it over her head as she spoke, mispronouncing her thanks as only a four year old comically could.

I couldn’t see her face but I could tell her lips were quivering.

“Tattoo Daddy.”

“You’re welcome Baby Doll.” I admit I choked back tears in the sweetness of the moment.

That was almost fifteen years ago.

During most of those years I continued to call her “Baby Doll”. I slowed up some when she became a teenager and the dramatic rolling of her eyes indicated she preferred to be called by her real name. At least in front of her friends.

As years passed I’d often recount the bath tub story and how she’d thanked me for the towel. She had no memory of that but thought it funny. “Tattoo Daddy” became her thanks to me again for a few years as our own inside joke. In recent years, however, both “Tattoo Daddy” and “Baby Doll” slowly faded away.

Greer is eighteen now. She drives her own car, the pink Barbie car from the bath tub a relic of the past and recently she called me on her iPhone, which has replaced her long gone plastic toy telephone. She called to talk about paperwork she needed for college admission and during the course of that conversation we also discussed how time has flown by so quickly.

That tiny baby girl we brought home from the hospital is now about to embark on a very big milestone in her life. I used to laugh at other parents when they became emotional about their children going to college. How silly, I thought.

It’s not silly.

We didn’t bring up the bath tub story, but Greer and I reminisced about a lot of things during that one phone call. I was impressed with her maturity, happy she remembered fun childhood moments, and surprised by the emotion in her voice.

Focusing back to the business of college paperwork I told her not to worry. Even though I was in denial that my tiny baby girl was about to set off into the real world, I would certainly get everything back to her as soon as I could. She probably heard the emotion in my voice as I told her I would do anything she needed. There was a momentary pause on the line.

I couldn’t see her face but I could tell her lips were quivering.

“Tattoo Daddy.”

“You’re welcome Baby Doll.” I admit I choked back tears in the sweetness of the moment.

Stuart M. Perkins

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A Load of Fun

It was still cold the day I noticed that in spite of an unyielding winter determined to wear out its welcome, the local hardware store had taken a leap of faith by filling its storefront and walkway with a grand display of all things summer. I saw birdbaths, a gleaming row of new lawnmowers, and a stack of wading pools depicting smiling cartoon elephants spraying water on laughing cartoon hippos. Closest to the sidewalk was a row of huge, bright red wheelbarrows with glossy black wheels, price tags swinging in the still chilly breeze.

As I hurried past the hopeful display and on to the grocery store one building over, I passed a small boy waiting for his father who was busy admiring an array of shiny new grills. The father turned to catch up to his son who had stopped at the row of red wheelbarrows. With both of his little hands gripping the side of one wheelbarrow, the boy stood on his tiptoes to peer over the edge.

“It’s a toy?” he asked into the empty wheelbarrow.

“No.” the father said as he took the boy’s hand to lead him into the hardware store. “You only use that for work.”

“It’s a toy.” the boy said with conviction.

“No, it’s not.” the father repeated. “It’s only for work.”

“No, it’s not.” I thought to myself. “It’s not only for work.”

One of my earliest childhood memories is of my grandmother, Nannie, helping me and a cousin into her wheelbarrow for a ride. She pushed us to the pear trees in the pasture where we helped her pick up fallen fruit. Riding back to her farmhouse in a pile of pears, we held on to the sides of the wheelbarrow during the bumpy ride and pretended we were on a boat. That was no wheelbarrow only for work. It was a toy.

As older kids, cousins and I took turns pushing each other in the random wheelbarrow that always leaned against Nannie’s barn, maybe the chicken house, or sometimes left under a tree. If lucky, we came across two wheelbarrows and races began. Those wheelbarrows were not only for work. They were cars or planes or motorcycles. They were toys.

My aunt Noody once gave me and my cousins a package of little plastic sailboats. Having nowhere to float them, we soon lost interest until Noody suddenly appeared with her old wheelbarrow. As we watched, puzzled, Noody unrolled her garden hose and filled the wheelbarrow with water. Instant lake! Her old wheelbarrow was not only for work. It was a toy.

Years passed and when my own two kids were small I spent as much time behind the wheelbarrow as I ever had inside the wheelbarrow. I pushed first one, then the other, but usually both at the same time. The wheelbarrow became a train, a rocket, and once it was a dinosaur they rode. The wheelbarrow was not only for work. It was a toy.

I was still thinking about these examples as I left the grocery store and headed back towards the summer display next door. As timing would have it, the little boy and his father were leaving the hardware store when I approached. As the father walked on ahead, the little boy lagged behind just a bit when he got to the wheelbarrow display. Once again, he gripped the side of a huge red wheelbarrow and craned his neck to peer over the edge.

The little boy looked up and grinned at me as I neared him. His little hands never let loose their grip on the edge, but one tiny finger rose up and pointed down into the wheelbarrow.

“It’s a toy?” he asked as I walked closer.

I leaned down just a bit as I reached where he stood.

“Yes, it’s a toy.” I said grinning as I walked past.

Stuart M. Perkins

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The “Fencident”

If you take a left out of my parents’ driveway you come to an intersection. Look across the intersection and you’ll see a house with a chain link fence along its driveway. Look again and you’ll notice that the end fence post is slightly askew and the chain link is buckled. It’s been that way for thirty-five years.

And I know, because I did it.

There is rarely a time when I leave my parents’ house that I don’t glance at the bent fence and think back to my first year of driving. I’d never told anyone about the fence until recently when my teenage kids were with me as we stopped at the intersection. Somehow, the off-kilter fence post caught my son’s eye.

“What happened to the fence?” he asked, unaware that was a question I feared for a very long time after I caused the damage.

Unfortunately, there have been many times in life when I haven’t been as honest or as forthcoming as I should have been. In the case of the bent fence, however, I’d had an occasion of truthful glory. Remembering what I’d read about “teachable moments” I decided to confess the story to my kids, hoping to teach them something about the value of honesty.

“What happened to the fence?” my son repeated.

“I did it.” I said.

Both kids gave me their full attention as I crossed the intersection and passed the scene of the long ago incident. Almost in slow motion, they looked from the fence then back to me as I began to explain.

I was sixteen at the time and hadn’t been driving long. A friend was visiting and I decided to drive us down to the service station for a Slim Jim and a Yoohoo, I guess because they’re such a delicious combination. The car my sisters and I shared at the time was a 1963 Mercury Comet, affectionately known around home as “The Vomit”. It was an ugly beast with tail fins akin to those of the Batmobile.

As I stopped at the intersection with my friend I realized I’d forgotten my money. I crossed the intersection to turn around at the house with the the chain link fence and return home for cash. Eager to show off my driving skills, I backed into the driveway. It went well until one of the jutting tail fins snagged the chain link. I heard a slight screeching sound as the fence bent and the post shifted. I began to sweat.

“Go! Just go!” my friend insisted as he looked around for anyone who might have seen us.

I considered just going, but couldn’t.

My hands shook as I put the car in park and told my friend I’d be right back. My nervous knees nearly buckled as I walked from the car up the sidewalk and to the front door of the house. It took several tries to convince my finger to push the doorbell. I pushed it and waited for the worst. I felt my lips quiver and assumed I wouldn’t be able to speak when the man opened the door. Surely I’d have to start over several times before being able to tell him what I had done. “What happened to the fence?” he’d ask, unable to understand the stuttering I was sure to do.

As I waited for an eternity for the door to open, I also imagined how it would be when I had to tell my parents. “What happened to the fence?” they would ask, forcing me to repeat to them the awful incident. Luckily, when I imagined telling them, I hadn’t yet had my Slurpee so the urge to wet my pants went unfulfilled.

I heard the front door being unlocked and the doorknob turning. An old man stared at me through the storm door as he then unlocked that too, and opened it partially. He stared at me.

“I messed up your fence, sir.” I croaked to him. I waited for him to curse, demand to talk to my father, or tell me to wait while he called the police. He just stared at me.

“I backed in and accidentally hit the end of it.” I said, turning to point to the fence with my shaking hand.

His expression never changed as he said very calmly, “I know. I saw you do it.”

He went on to say he was watching television in his den when he saw me back in and hit his fence. I hadn’t realized that living so close to my parents he’d seen that unmistakable car a thousand times, he’d known my father and extended family for years, and he’d seen me driving the car a few times before.

“I saw you do it but you came and told me.” he continued. “If you’d driven off I would have known who to call, but you came and told me you did it. So don’t worry about it.”

“What?” I asked, not understanding. He never raised his voice, no cursing, no calling the police, and no calling my father.

“Don’t worry about it. It’s between me and you.” he said as he shut the door. I heard the lock turn and his footsteps fade away as I stood there with sweat on my upper lip. I told the truth and the old man had respected that.

My kids listened as I wrapped up my teachable moment. I told them that although I had been scared to death of whatever punishment might come my way, I had done the right thing by being honest with the old man. In return for my honesty, he forgave the whole thing. Had I not been honest, things would have turned out very differently for me.

“So you never told Mamaw and Big Daddy?” the kids asked.

Many times I thought about telling my parents. I always wondered if the old man would eventually tell them. For a while I was certain one of my parents would approach me, having learned what I’d done and ask, “What happened to the fence?” I’d started many times to tell them but each time I could only get a few words out before I began to sweat. “Nevermind.” I’d say. “I’ll tell you later.” The old man passed away long ago and two families have lived there since. The chain link fence, rusty now, still remains.

Feeling empowered by the teachable moment, I told the kids that as soon as we got back to my parents I would tell them all about the little accident that happened over thirty years ago now. Being ancient history at this point it would make a funny story. What could be the big deal?

Hours later as we sat around my parents’ living room the kids looked at me and grinned. “Hey, don’t you have something to tell about a fence?” they asked, very loudly.

I took a deep breath and asked my mother if she remembered way back when an old man lived in the house across the intersection, the one with the chain link fence. She nodded yes. I tried to keep talking but I got tongue-tied and suddenly felt a little warm. I stopped talking.

“Well, what happened to the fence?” she asked.

I felt even warmer.

Daddy entered the room and caught part of the conversation. “What happened to what fence?” he asked.

I broke a sweat.

“Nevermind.” I said. “I’ll tell you later.”

After all, the old man did say to forget about it. It was between me and him – and now my kids, for the sake of a teachable moment.

I did finally tell my parents about the “fencident”, the code word my friend and I used for that day now thirty-five years ago. They grinned as I told them, they had never learned of it from the old man, and the passage of so much time made the whole event seem pretty irrelevant to them. To me though, it has remained relevant. Being human, I’ve sometimes failed to apply what I learned. Then again, there have been many times when that lesson has served me well.

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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Filled Need

One summer evening back in 2006 I happened to see a P.B.S. documentary on people living in the Appalachian region of Virginia. My kids, 8 and 10 at the time, had been with me for the weekend and we’d had a great time as usual. After they left, I cleaned and washed a few dishes. The television was on for background noise really. I hated how quiet it was once the kids left.

I started to pay attention to the documentary when someone began to interview an Appalachian couple as they sat on the front porch steps of their tiny frame house. The couple had two kids but little else of any value besides their home. The father worked as a coal miner and handyman while the mother took care of the kids and worked a part-time job at a corner grocery store.

During the interview the couple held hands as they spoke about the hardships of living in such an impoverished area where most people had little education and jobs were scarce. I was struck by the fact that they never complained. Not once. The simply did the best they could and were grateful their good health allowed them to work.

They were serious when they spoke but smiled when asked about their kids. The mother described how much they loved them. The father smiled at first, then his expression changed. This big, burly, tough, coal miner and handyman who lived a rough mountain life began to cry as he spoke about his children. He expressed disappointment in himself because he was unable to give his kids things he knew other children had. At Christmas, he said, it was especially rough. It was hard to tell what he said, he cried so hard as he said it.

I cried with him. To some extent I understood that disappointment. This couple worked as much as possible to keep the kids taken care of and happy. In spite of their efforts, they felt shame and disappointment because in their minds they were letting their kids down. Every empty Christmas was a reminder of that feeling.

At that time, I had very little myself. I have never had much, but that was an especially rough period. Still, as I watched that grown man cry, and not just tear up a little but completely sob because he felt he was letting his kids down, it dawned on me. This was suddenly all pretty simple. I had very little, but he and others in his situation had even less. Surely there was something I could do.

The first call I made was to my friend Mary Dell. I told her what I’d seen, how it made me feel, and asked what she thought of collecting clothes and shoes and once we had enough we could take them all…somewhere. I had no idea where. She immediately agreed. After my call she drummed up donations on her end while I did the same on mine. Friends and family eagerly pitched in. Over the next few months a spare bedroom in my basement began to overflow with bags of clothes and shoes.

As collections grew I began to email various community action programs operating in Virginia counties within the Appalachian region. I also spoke with various social service departments, charitable organizations, and even fire departments, anyone I could find who might know which agency would get the most use out of the things we were quickly stockpiling in my basement. The idea was not to start our own charity, but to feed into established programs that provided help to the people they served.

Amazingly, my calls reached many dead ends. No one was rude or unappreciative, they just didn’t know what to make of my proposition. I simply wanted an address of the office or warehouse used by the program. My friends and I would pack up the hundreds of items we were still collecting and deliver them. I got responses from those I contacted like “We can’t pay you anything.” or “We don’t have it in our budget to reimburse your gas.” I never asked for any of those things. I just wanted to deliver the clothes. Many times I was asked for the name of my organization. People I contacted seemed to have trouble understanding why one individual, hours away across the state, would call with such an offer.

If these program directors felt more comfortable feeling they were dealing with an organization, then I would give my group of friends a name. I decided on “R.E.A.C.T. Virginia” (Reach Every Appalachian Child Today) and registered our group online so that my contact information could be accessed.

After weeks of back and forth with about thirty agencies, I managed to get the attention of the director of a community action program in a county in southwest Virginia. I told her we had hundreds of items, clothing and shoes for men, women, boys, and girls. All sizes. If she would tell me where her office or warehouse was, I would make sure the items were delivered.

She initially responded with comments I’d heard before. “We thank you for your desire to help, we can’t come to Richmond to pick items up, we can’t pay for shipping.” I told her I understood, that friends and I had collected the items and at this point we only needed to be told who needed these things the most and where we could take them. If her agency could use them we had no problem packing it all up and driving the four or five hours to deliver them.

The director’s next email to me was one word. “Why?”

She was baffled as to why anyone from across the state would contact her little program and volunteer to hand deliver such an amount of clothing as I had described. I once again quoted my grandmother, Nannie, to a complete stranger. I repeated the line of hers that I have repeated many times. “When you see a need, fill it.” My friends and I were just trying to fill a need.

Still baffled, she sent me directions to her office warehouse. We agreed upon a date to make the delivery, which happened to fall on my 44th birthday. I couldn’t wait to tell Mary Dell, her son Greg, and her sister Brenda, who had all been instrumental in making this effort work. I was thrilled. Finally I had found people who knew how to make the best use of all we had collected. I walked downstairs and looked at the room full of clothes in bags and boxes.  The room was literally full to the ceiling in the corners. Then it hit me that all of these things would have to be packed onto the truck.

What truck?

Without hesitation, Brenda’s husband Fred offered us the use of his pickup truck. What followed next was a blur of the core group of friends, my sisters, and my mother who arrived with a cooler packed full of sandwiches working like ants over that room full of clothes and shoes. We sorted, sized, folded, bagged, and laughed for hours. Everything was ready to go on the truck in the morning.

When Mary Dell, Brenda, and Greg arrived in the truck early the next morning I remember thinking we probably wouldn’t need so big a truck. I was wrong. Before the packing was done the truck was piled high, rounded over with bags of clothes, a tarp stretched across and lashed with ropes. All we lacked was Granny Clampett in a rocking chair as the cherry on top.

The four of us left for our five hour trip to southwest Virginia unsure of our directions, where we were actually going, or what we would find when we got there.

What we found was a small but effective organization run by kind, caring, and determined people. We drove to the back of the office warehouse and were greeted by a man at the door. When he asked if he could help us with something, I told him my name and who we were. He suddenly disappeared from sight but we could hear him yell to someone inside, “Come quick! R.E.A.C.T. Virginia is here!”

I was embarrassed and suddenly feared that maybe I had overplayed the amount of things we were bringing. What if they were disappointed?

They were not disappointed. There was disbelief in their eyes as they saw the mountain of bags of clothes, contents all clearly labeled. That alone had saved them a lot of work, we learned. It took a while to unload the truck and I stopped counting the number of times we were thanked. With the truck unloaded I looked at my friends, knowing we were all feeling pretty good that we had accomplished what we set out to do. That’s when we were invited inside for a tour of the office.

We went inside and were told in detail how they work, what they do, where the items go, who can receive the donations, and every other detail. We were also told that our delivery couldn’t have come at a better time. There had recently been two house fires in the nearby town and both families had been left with nothing. The timing was perfect.

They thanked us, we thanked them, and we told them we would be on our way since we had to make the return five hour trip. We were told we couldn’t leave until they took our picture. We were escorted outside where we lined up in front of the agency’s sign and had our group photo taken. R.E.A.C.T.Virginia was going to be in the local paper.

After the photos we headed home. It had been a long, satisfying day. My intention was to continue that effort. Maybe a yearly trip to other programs, if not that particular one. Unfortunately, life got in the way a bit. I changed jobs, moved, and the planned effort was basically left behind.

This has been seven years ago now, but just recently I got a phone call from the director of a community action program in North Carolina. She had learned about us from the director of the agency where we had delivered our truckload of clothes – seven years ago. She wondered if R.E.A.C.T. Virginia would consider helping agencies located outside Virginia and if we would, could she talk to me about their particular needs.

I apologized to her and let her know that we had not been active for a few years, but I hoped she would be able to find the help she was looking for. She very pleasantly thanked me. I hung up and since then have pondered how to make it work again.

It all started because I saw a hard working grown man brought to tears when he felt he disappointed his children. Even though I had little, I still had more than that man, and it caused me to remember what Nannie always said. Seeing that sad man sparked the effort, but my friends and family are what made it succeed.

I felt such satisfaction knowing that many, many people benefited from the huge amount of clothes and shoes we were able to provide. There is so much red tape, sometimes, in getting charitable acts accomplished.  The people who needed the things we delivered had no time for red tape. Somewhere a kid needed shoes, and he got them.

That truckload of clothes and shoes we were able to deliver was not the result of years of planning, debating, budget reviews, and demographic mapping. It happened because we saw a need and with the help of our families and others, we helped to fill it. It didn’t take master plans and countless meetings to accomplish.

It was accomplished by four friends and a pickup truck.

Stuart M. Perkins

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