My family has been blessed with three princesses produced, with a little help from me, by my wife, the Queen Bee of Texas. This posting is in response to an e-mail from Cindy, the middle daughter, a royal princess who lives, loves and works in Northern Virginia.
The e-mail is a passionate plea for me to blog about two events, one that took place in the early years of my education and was reprised some 32 years later, and another that took place around the same time as the reprisal. I have divided her e-mail into two parts, and will respond to the two parts separately.
This is the first part of her e-mail:
I have always loved this memory…you, me, and Kelley…sneaking into an abandoned grade school in Mississippi…you got up on stage and started singing some bee song. You told us about your mother making you a bee costume but she either couldn’t (or didn’t care) that you would be the only orange and brown striped bee. Your costume wasn’t yellow and black, as assigned. I think I was only 12 or 13 when you told us this story. Remember that adventure?
And this is my response, my blog posting, to the first part of her e-mail:
My acting career began and ended at some point in my fourth grade school-year at Barrow Elementary School in Columbus, Mississippi, a town of some 25,000 people, situated on high bluffs overlooking the Tombigbee River. My school occupied a relatively small two-story red-brick building, but with its surrounding playgrounds it covered a full city block. It was ruled by the iron hand of Miss Mary Stokes, the school principal, a white-haired high-buttoned-shoe spinster throwback to the 19th century.
I loved that lady with all the fervor a little boy could muster, a love that still exists many years after her death. I loved her despite being a frequent target—perhaps the most frequent target—of the 18-inch ruler she always carried in that iron hand, a tool that she used for punishment, and one that she wielded with vigor, accuracy and effectiveness on recalcitrant palms and backsides.
Ah, those were the days! corporeal punishment no longer exists in our elementary schools, whether public or private, and our nation suffers horribly because of its demise.
That’s my opinion and I’m sticking to it, and I humbly offer myself as a shining example of the effectiveness of the system, with full credit given to Miss Mary and her ruler.
She never left home without it.
I attended her school for the first four years of my education (a process that continues to this day). For the fifth grade and through (almost through) the tenth grade, I began each school year in one city and finished it in another. That tortuous progression in my education resulted from my mother’s remarriage near the end of the fourth grade year. At the close of that year I began a pilgrimage that lasted seven years—a pilgrimage that would have me living, and attending schools, in several different cities in several different states.
Now on to my acting debut and its reprisal
I was fortunate enough to successfully complete the academic requirements of the fourth grade, chiefly because the school did not grade its students on their acting abilities. I debuted my acting career in that year, and some 32 years later I briefly revived that career with an impromptu reprisal of my debut performance. The reprisal was a command performance of the part I played so many years before, at the same school and on the same stage. My reprisal was performed before a wildly applauding audience comprised wholly of my two younger daughters, aged 8 and 12 years.
The school year was 1940-1941 and I was enrolled in the fourth grade at Barrow Elementary School in Columbus, Mississippi. The principal, Miss Mary Stokes, felt that every student should be involved in everything—if the third grade performed on the auditorium stage, every student in that grade had a part, even if it consisted of lining up on stage and watching their peers perform. However, the play in which I made my debut required flowers of different sizes, so students from grades below and above my grade were pressed into service—one of the taller flowers was my sister, a fifth grader. I mention all this because the stage was small and the cast of the play was huge.
I debuted as one of several boys cleverly costumed as bees. The curtains opened to reveal a group of girls—including my sister—cleverly costumed as flowers. The girls were almost immobile, because flowers have neither the option nor the ability, perhaps not even the desire, to move around. In this case, because the script called for it, these flowers were allowed to lean forward, backwards and sideways to simulate swaying in the breeze, most of which would be created by the bees buzzing around them, doing their pollinating thing.
The flowers began singing a bee song on cue, and on cue we bees spread our wings (arms), trotted on-stage and buzzed—as in bzzz, bzzz, bzzz, etc.—all around and between the flowers, pausing briefly near each flower and bzzzing like crazy, with the bzzzes aimed at the flower’s ear (a bit of symbolism there—hey, we didn’t write the script—we just emoted!). We were given to understand that we were simulating pollination and that the actual pollination was a vital activity of the bees, although they accomplished it unknowingly and accidently by transferring pollen (with their legs) from flower to flower—the pollen accumulated on their legs while they were gathering nectar. We learned that bees were absolutely necessary to propagate the flower species and to ensure a good honey crop and beehive survival.
That which we bees were doing was simulation, not stimulation—I don’t think I learned the latter word until junior high school. Here I must note that, contrary to the popular and virtually universal belief regarding familial relationships in the deep South, I did not pollinate my sister, nor was I in the least bit inclined to pollinate her.
I drew the line at pollinating her. I did not even like her. As her brother I was required to love her, but I was not required to like her.
As we bees flapped our wings and trotted, buzzed and pollinated, the girls sang the bee song, a catchy refrain of which I remember only a smattering. I googled the term and was faced with a bewildering array of bee songs but none sufficiently comparable, as I remember it, to this line from the song the flowers sang:
“Honey bee, honey bee, fly to and fro, gathering honey where ever you go,” etc., etc.
I know now that bees do not gather honey—they gather nectar, a substance that is ultimately turned into honey in the beehive. And all that pollination, a process that generated a lot of giggling from the girls, is purely accidental. We bees, bless our hearts, may not have been fully aware that our pollination was ensuring the propagation of the flower species. However, our lack of awareness did nothing to reduce the giggles.
The girls made their own costumes, with considerable help from the school staff. Their costumes consisted of varicolored crepe paper shaped as petals and affixed to their regular clothing, effectively obscuring their clothing and transforming them into beautiful flowers filled with pollen.
The flower costumes were made by the girls with staff assistance, but the bee costumes were made by the bees’ mothers at home. Our costume was a one-piece ensemble similar to a jump suit with short sleeves, with the legs descending only to mid-thigh—the ensemble’s legs, not ours—our legs continued all the way to our bare feet—evidently bees do not wear shoes. The basic color of the bee costume was light yellow, with strips of black material affixed horizontally to give the effect of stripes.
I was given no samples to take home to assist my mother in selecting cloth for my costume, so she winged it (so to speak) based on my verbal description. She chose bright orange for the basic color and light brown, almost tan, for the horizontal stripes.
I can truthfully state that I would rather have been a normal bee, one of several normal bees, but I was not—I was a standout among bees, a honey bee of a different color, if you will—I was like, you know, a honey bee with panache and lots of it. In later years I would happily conclude, in retrospect, that my costume was intended to identify me as the king bee, the strongest of the beehive’s male bees—all the others were mere drones.
I was the lucky bee that would be able to follow the Queen Bee’s flight straight upward to unimaginable heights, while one by one the other suitors would be falling back to earth, completely exhausted, and ultimately, at the apogee of our ascension I would mate with the queen, thereby ensuring that the pollination and propagation of flowers would continue, nectar gathering would continue, and the production of honey would continue in the new colony that the queen would establish.
Sadly I also learned in later years that, immediately following our coupling, the queen would begin the new colony as a widow. I, the bee with panache—the bee with the spectacular colors—the strongest and highest-flying bee—would not survive the mating.
Very soon, after you know what, I would have died—with a smile on my bee face, perhaps, but no less dead.
But that’s how things go in the bee world—if you don’t believe me, google it.
And now to the crux of this posting:
I and my two younger daughters were touring my home town, with me pointing out the various places I had lived, played, worked and gone to school, and we found that my elementary school was still standing, but just barely. The building was condemned, surrounded by a tall chain-link fence with warning signs posted prominently:
This building is condemned!
Do not enter!
So we squeezed through an unauthorized opening in the fence and entered the building. It was in total disrepute, with broken windows, sagging sheet rock and debris everywhere. We were not deterred. I gave the girls a limited tour (we avoided the second floor because the stairs did not appear trustworthy), but we thoroughly toured the lower floor that included the auditorium. The seats had been removed but the stage was still there and reasonably intact.
I told my daughters about the fourth grade play, and at their urging I even mounted the stage for a reenactment of my part, including my entry, the play’s sound effects and my exit. I was a smash hit, with a far better reception than I received at the original performance, and I bowed to thunderous applause from the audience. In fact, I received a standing ovation—well, it was necessarily a standing ovation because there were no seats, but my daughters assured me that, had they been seated they would have nevertheless stood to applaud, and I accepted that gracefully.
And here is the second part of my daughter’s e-mail. Again, the e-mail is a plea for me to blog this subject:
And another segue….we always marveled at a) how many places Hester shuffled you and Dot off to whenever Papa John demanded the two of you be banished…and b) how you could remember exactly where (even if the house had been replaced by a 7-11 at the time you were showing us the location) each house was, which aunt/uncle/cousin took you in, and how long you were there before Hester cajoled Papa John into letting you return home. It seemed like dozens of locations, but maybe that is just how I remember it. That memory sticks out because we can’t relate to being tossed out of our home. We always had such stability (still do) in our family. I recall only living in five places—155 Farrel Drive in San Antonio, the house in Louisiana, then 155 Farrel Drive again, then briefly in Bonnie’s trailer park in Weslaco, then finally on 109 N. 10th Street in Donna.
I’ll get back to you later with more details.