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Revisit: I still like prunes—a story of my Miss Mary . . .

This is a revisit to a post I made in August of 2010. It has languished in the Stygian darkness of prior posts and in that period of seven months it has garnered an astonishing total of three comments—one from a blogger in Virginia, a person that combines the talents of a writer, blogger, painter, wedding planner, party planner, sculptor, photographer, desktop publisher and gardener—and two comments from her father, the King of Texas. Yep, that blogger is the second-born of three beautiful girls that unashamedly admit to the world at large that I am their father.

I  take an enormous amount of pride in the story of Miss Mary—writing it was a labor of love and reading it is, for me, a return to a gentler world, one without nuclear energy, atomic weapons or rap music. Miss Mary influenced my life to such a degree that I still adhere to most—but not all—of the principles she taught me, her efforts aided substantially by her use of an 18-inch wooden ruler.

This story is true. I wrote it in 1987 when I lived for six months—an eternity—in Houston, Texas. The story has appeared in sculptor Tom Clark’s Cairn Studio quarterly issue, a publication that is distributed to dealers and collectors of the artist’s work in every county in every state in our United States, including Hawaii and Alaska.  Please note that any use of this document, other than brief excerpts, is prohibited by US and international law—it cannot legally be used in any other fashion without my permission.

Yes, ma’m, I still like prunes

On a special September morning in Mississippi many years ago, the air was crisp and clean and cool, and the woman standing in the doorway folded her arms against the chill. Her deep-set eyes, startlingly blue in a heavily lined unsmiling face, were fixed on a small boy as he neared the steps.

To a casual observer she presented a normal picture. A portrait from an earlier time, perhaps, than 1938, a time of black high-buttoned shoes and ankle length skirts, black and thickly pleated. Her white cotton blouse, high-necked and long-sleeved, was relieved in its starkness only by lace at the neck and wrists. Her hair was tightly plaited and shining in the early morning light, the heavy braids coiled and crossed in an intricate crown of silver.

I was that small boy, and I was not a casual observer. For me the picture was very different as my dragging steps brought me closer to my first full day of school. Fear of the unknown made me forgo any shortcuts between home and school, choosing the longer way to delay the inevitable. I was late, and as I squared the final corner the tardy bell rang. From the bottom step the black-skirted figure loomed gigantic, conjuring up visions of darkness, of beating wings, of things seen only in dreams.

I would come to know the woman as a pioneer educator that brought many innovations to her state and city educational systems. And I would come to love her. On that day I found a friend, and that friendship would be broken only by death.

Although past retirement age, she continued her position and her duties as an elementary school principal, and remained a dynamic figure and force in state and local school administration. In a career that spanned three-quarters of a century, she gained the respect and love of all that knew her.

We called her Miss Mary. She had another name, Stokes, but few of us knew it and none of us used it. She was simply Miss Mary. I spent my first six school years in the square two-story red brick building, my attendance broken only by the unpredictable moves of an itinerant carpenter stepfather.

Miss Mary ruled her school with an iron hand, and meted out corporal punishment on the spot. Always present in one wrinkled blue-veined hand was a wooden ruler. With deadly precision the eighteen inches of supreme authority landed on miscreant knuckles, shoulders and backsides of boys and girls alike.

I had the dubious distinction of being Miss Mary’s pet. Apparently to refute that notion, she punished me for the smallest infractions of a bewildering array of rules. The taps were delivered with love, but became painful through sheer repetition.

Lunch was closely supervised. With military precision we moved through the line, plates on trays, collecting helpings from long-handled spoons along the way. Everyone received the same items in identical portions. Conversation was kept to a minimum with Miss Mary moving among the tables, scolding here, praising there, coaxing us to eat everything on our plates. Probably the most disliked food was spinach—in spite of Popeye’s efforts—and stewed prunes ran a close second.

How I loved stewed prunes! At a time when happiness for other little boys was a Buck Rogers ring with a built-in compass, happiness for me was a third helping of stewed prunes. Served almost daily, they were usually eaten only through Miss Mary’s insistence. Not me—I needed no encouragement. I ate the prunes before I touched the main course. Seeing the affinity that developed between me and stewed prunes, Miss Mary told the ladies on the serving line to give me as many of the wrinkled dark delicacies as I wanted. My taste for prunes and Miss Mary’s indulgence probably made me the most regular kid in town.

As with all activities at Miss Mary’s school, playtime was highly regimented and closely supervised. Boys and girls were separated and each grade had its own area for recreation. If one of us strayed into another zone we were reprimanded and returned to our own.

There were exceptions. Miss Mary felt that in sports and at play children should be evenly matched. If one of us was appreciably smaller than our classmates, or lagged behind in muscular development and coordination, we were assigned to an area where we could compete more effectively and where the chances of injury were reduced.

I was smaller than most of my classmates—perhaps because of the prunes—so I spent my playtime with the next lower grade. There were some advantages. I was better coordinated than the younger boys, and I often spent the entire play period at bat by intentionally hitting foul balls. The rule was, “99 fouls and you’re out.”

Miss Mary ended her career in education at the same time I began mine in military service. Our friendship endured as the years passed, but our visits became infrequent because of my duty assignments. Returning to my hometown after several years overseas, I learned that Miss Mary, nearing the century mark in age, lived near the sister I had come to visit. After a call to her nurse and a short walk to the house, my sister and I were ushered into Miss Mary’s parlor. In the cool dimness of the room with its heavy drapes drawn against the bright fall sun, we saw the tiny figure seated in a massive rocker.

Her frail shoulders sagged under the weight of a thick brown shawl. She sat slumped forward, head down and eyes fixed on skeletal folded hands. Silhouetted against the single dim lamp she had an ethereal quality, her skin almost translucent, the diffused light a halo for her bowed head with its wispy strands of white hair. She seemed unaware of me, and paid no heed to my gentle reminders of the past. The nurse said that long periods of withdrawal were common, that Miss Mary might not recognize me or correspond in any way. I tried several times to talk to her, but there was no indication that she knew me or even heard me. Feeling awkward and ill at ease, and filled with a deep sense of loss and sadness, I told the nurse that I would come back later. I stood and moved toward the door and then I heard it.

“Do you still like prunes?”

Each word loud and clear, the voice deep and strong, lightly dismissing the long years, pushing back time and space to another day when a small boy found an unexpected and lifelong friend. Memories flooded over me as I turned back, sat down and replied, “Yes, ma’m, I still like prunes.” But that was all. Not another word. She remained silent and unmoving, head down and hands folded, and did not respond to me or to the nurse. Throat swollen and blinded by a scalding rush of tears, I stumbled to the door and out of the house.

I never saw her again. She died several months later, peacefully in her sleep according to newspaper accounts. Tribute was paid in eulogies by leading citizens and educators from all over the South, and the press detailed her long career and her many accomplishments. All the pictures in the newspapers were of a stranger. Not one was of the woman I remembered. Not one of them was of my Miss Mary. And not one of them was the Miss Mary in my strongest memories, the first time and the last time I saw her.

My sister did not hear Miss Mary ask me the question that day. She heard my answer that I still liked prunes, but thought I was trying to bridge the gulf with another reminder of the past. Nor did the nurse hear the question. She heard only my answer. Did Miss Mary speak to me? Did she remember me? Did the other two people in the room simply fail to hear the voice I heard so clearly? Could I have wanted recognition so badly that I imagined she spoke to me? Or did Miss Mary somehow transcend the need for speech and reach out to me without words?

My old friend spoke to me that day. I did not imagine her voice. I heard it. She knew me and in order to show that she remembered, she asked the one question that would identify me among the many thousands of people whose lives she had touched and shaped and strengthened.

“Do you still like prunes?” She knew me and she spoke to me and she heard my answer.

I have no doubts, no misgivings. I know it.

 
2 Comments

Posted by on March 23, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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I still like prunes—a story of my Miss Mary . . .

This story is true. I wrote it in 1987 when I lived for six months—an eternity—in Houston, Texas. The story has appeared in sculptor Tom Clark’s Cairn Studio quarterly issue, a publication that is distributed to dealers and collectors of the artist’s work in every county in every state in our United States, including Hawaii and Alaska.  Please note that any use of this document, other than brief excerpts, is prohibited by US and international law—it cannot legally be used in any other fashion without my permission.

Yes, ma’m, I still like prunes

On a special September morning in Mississippi many years ago, the air was crisp and clean and cool, and the woman standing in the doorway folded her arms against the chill. Her deep-set eyes, startlingly blue in a heavily lined unsmiling face, were fixed on a small boy as he neared the steps.

To a casual observer she presented a normal picture. A portrait from an earlier time, perhaps, than 1938, a time of black high-buttoned shoes and ankle length skirts, black and thickly pleated. Her white cotton blouse, high-necked and long-sleeved, was relieved in its starkness only by lace at the neck and wrists. Her hair was tightly plaited and shining in the early morning light, the heavy braids coiled and crossed in an intricate crown of silver.

I was that small boy, and I was not a casual observer. For me the picture was very different as my dragging steps brought me closer to my first full day of school. Fear of the unknown made me forgo any shortcuts between home and school, choosing the longer way to delay the inevitable. I was late, and as I squared the final corner the tardy bell rang. From the bottom step the black-skirted figure loomed gigantic, conjuring up visions of darkness, of beating wings, of things seen only in dreams.

I would come to know the woman as a pioneer educator that brought many innovations to her state and city educational systems. And I would come to love her. On that day I found a friend, and that friendship would be broken only by death.

Although past retirement age, she continued her position and her duties as an elementary school principal, and remained a dynamic figure and force in state and local school administration. In a career that spanned three-quarters of a century, she gained the respect and love of all that knew her.

We called her Miss Mary. She had another name, Stokes, but few of us knew it and none of us used it. She was simply Miss Mary. I spent my first six school years in the square two-story red brick building, my attendance broken only by the unpredictable moves of an itinerant carpenter stepfather.

Miss Mary ruled her school with an iron hand, and meted out corporal punishment on the spot. Always present in one wrinkled blue-veined hand was a wooden ruler. With deadly precision the eighteen inches of supreme authority landed on miscreant knuckles, shoulders and backsides of boys and girls alike.

I had the dubious distinction of being Miss Mary’s pet. Apparently to refute that notion, she punished me for the smallest infractions of a bewildering array of rules. The taps were delivered with love, but became painful through sheer repetition.

Lunch was closely supervised. With military precision we moved through the line, plates on trays, collecting helpings from long-handled spoons along the way. Everyone received the same items in identical portions. Conversation was kept to a minimum with Miss Mary moving among the tables, scolding here, praising there, coaxing us to eat everything on our plates. Probably the most disliked food was spinach—in spite of Popeye’s efforts—and stewed prunes ran a close second.

How I loved stewed prunes! At a time when happiness for other little boys was a Buck Rogers ring with a built-in compass, happiness for me was a third helping of stewed prunes. Served almost daily, they were usually eaten only through Miss Mary’s insistence. Not me—I needed no encouragement. I ate the prunes before I touched the main course. Seeing the affinity that developed between me and stewed prunes, Miss Mary told the ladies on the serving line to give me as many of the wrinkled dark delicacies as I wanted. My taste for prunes and Miss Mary’s indulgence probably made me the most regular kid in town.

As with all activities at Miss Mary’s school, playtime was highly regimented and closely supervised. Boys and girls were separated and each grade had its own area for recreation. If one of us strayed into another zone we were reprimanded and returned to our own.

There were exceptions. Miss Mary felt that in sports and at play children should be evenly matched. If one of us was appreciably smaller than our classmates, or lagged behind in muscular development and coordination, we were assigned to an area where we could compete more effectively and where the chances of injury were reduced.

I was smaller than most of my classmates—perhaps because of the prunes—so I spent my playtime with the next lower grade. There were some advantages. I was better coordinated than the younger boys, and I often spent the entire play period at bat by intentionally hitting foul balls. The rule was, “99 fouls and you’re out.”

Miss Mary ended her career in education at the same time I began mine in military service. Our friendship endured as the years passed, but our visits became infrequent because of my duty assignments. Returning to my hometown after several years overseas, I learned that Miss Mary, nearing the century mark in age, lived near the sister I had come to visit. After a call to her nurse and a short walk to the house, my sister and I were ushered into Miss Mary’s parlor. In the cool dimness of the room with its heavy drapes drawn against the bright fall sun, we saw the tiny figure seated in a massive rocker.

Her frail shoulders sagged under the weight of a thick brown shawl. She sat slumped forward, head down and eyes fixed on skeletal folded hands. Silhouetted against the single dim lamp she had an ethereal quality, her skin almost translucent, the diffused light a halo for her bowed head with its wispy strands of white hair. She seemed unaware of me, and paid no heed to my gentle reminders of the past. The nurse said that long periods of withdrawal were common, that Miss Mary might not recognize me or correspond in any way. I tried several times to talk to her, but there was no indication that she knew me or even heard me. Feeling awkward and ill at ease, and filled with a deep sense of loss and sadness, I told the nurse that I would come back later. I stood and moved toward the door and then I heard it.

“Do you still like prunes?”

Each word loud and clear, the voice deep and strong, lightly dismissing the long years, pushing back time and space to another day when a small boy found an unexpected and lifelong friend. Memories flooded over me as I turned back, sat down and replied, “Yes, ma’m, I still like prunes.” But that was all. Not another word. She remained silent and unmoving, head down and hands folded, and did not respond to me or to the nurse. Throat swollen and blinded by a scalding rush of tears, I stumbled to the door and out of the house.

I never saw her again. She died several months later, peacefully in her sleep according to newspaper accounts. Tribute was paid in eulogies by leading citizens and educators from all over the South, and the press detailed her long career and her many accomplishments. All the pictures in the newspapers were of a stranger. Not one was of the woman I remembered. Not one of them was of my Miss Mary. And not one of them was the Miss Mary in my strongest memories, the first time and the last time I saw her.

My sister did not hear Miss Mary ask me the question that day. She heard my answer that I still liked prunes, but thought I was trying to bridge the gulf with another reminder of the past. Nor did the nurse hear the question. She heard only my answer. Did Miss Mary speak to me? Did she remember me? Did the other two people in the room simply fail to hear the voice I heard so clearly? Could I have wanted recognition so badly that I imagined she spoke to me? Or did Miss Mary somehow transcend the need for speech and reach out to me without words?

My old friend spoke to me that day. I did not imagine her voice. I heard it. She knew me and in order to show that she remembered, she asked the one question that would identify me among the many thousands of people whose lives she had touched and shaped and strengthened.

“Do you still like prunes?” She knew me and she spoke to me and she heard my answer.

I have no doubts, no misgivings. I know it.

 
3 Comments

Posted by on August 7, 2010 in Childhood, education, friends, Writing

 

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Let me tell ya ’bout the birds and the bees . . .

I have dredged up this posting from the depths of my blog in order to bring it into the bright light of today. It was posted early in my blogging career, dated June 11, 2009. My daughter in Virginia considers the subject a favorite memory—it’s also one of my favorites.

The original posting follows—it is my remembrance of a very positive multi-grade on-stage presentation at my elementary school, a presentation chock-full of lights and action, but no cameras except for a smattering of Kodak Brownies—none with flash capabilities—wielded by family members in the audience. It was a presentation that should be replicated on-stage in today’s schools, in high schools as well as elementary institutions. It was a highly positive learning activity that taught us all we needed to know—at that age—about the birds and the bees.

Now for a redux of the original posting:

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 system’s effectiveness, 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 never pollinated my sister, not even once, nor was I in the least bit ever inclined to pollinate her.

I drew the line at pollinating her.

I did not even 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.

Bummer.

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 our 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:

Danger!

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.

 

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My acting debut reprised, circa 1972 . . .

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.

Bummer.

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:

Danger!

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.

 

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Why “The King of Texas?”

The Queen and I have three daughters, one of whom lives in Virginia. Some years ago one of her closest friends wrote a beautiful story about a “princess” who lives in the neighborhood and does kind, beneficial and beautiful things for her friends. The princess does all these things in a purely altruistic manner with no thought of recompense, asking only that those friends appreciate their mutual friendships and all things beautiful.

Her friend began the story by saying that the princess came from a “far-away kingdom” known as Texas, a beautiful and bountiful land ruled by her parents, the King and Queen of Texas, both dearly beloved by their subjects. I gratefully (and gleefully) accepted the mantle of Supreme Ruler—I felt fully qualified for the job, and it seemed to be the natural thing to do. The title stuck, and that’s why I chose it for my blog. So “now you know the rest of that story.” I solemnly promise that I will make every effort to avoid besmirching that mantle (and if I should happen to stray, please help me return to the proper path).

 
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Posted by on April 6, 2009 in Uncategorized

 

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