Sunday, May 24, 2009

A Memorial Day I'll Never Forget

Memorial Day, 1969, is one holiday I'll never forget, but not because it was good.I was a fourth grader, as was my best friend David. We were walking to school the day before the Memorial Day holiday when we got the idea to play hookie from school. One of our little sidekicks who was in kindergarten was walking with us and he got sucked into the vortex as well.It was a typical northern Virginia day, hot, humid and filled with insects.
My dad commuted to Washington, DC each day on the Metrobus for his job at the Navy Building in DC, where the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is now. My mom was a stay-at-home mom and was busy taking care of my new baby brother, who was barely one year old. Would anyone ever notice if I took the day off from school? I doubted it. I didn't particularly care for school by this time, and the prospect of doing something kind of naughty really appealed to me.In an instant, the three of us decided to head for the woods rather than go to school. We'd spend the day playing, hiding out, telling stories and having a generally good time for a few hours, then go home with no one any the wiser.
The woods in Virginia is much the same as a jungle in Vietnam, full of deciduous trees,vines, creepers, bushes, prickers, ferns, poison ivy, copperheads, stinging insects, ticks, quicksand, ants, termites, horseflies, poison sumac, gnats and other forms of life both uncomfortable and unpleasant, and it took a while to find a suitable spot for our camp. We finally found a small clearing surrounded by brambles within earshot of the highway, and settled down to enjoy a day of freedom. But once we got settled, we discovered that we didn't have many good stories or jokes, and that the gnats, snakes and ticks seemed to be sensing our presence and joining our party by the thousands. If you've never lived in Virginia, you cannot appreciate the utter misery of having several hundred gnats buzzing around your eyes trying to drink out of your tear ducts. Ticks in the trees, equipped with heat sensors, were jumping down into our hair from above, and burrowing into our scalps.
After what seemed like three or four hours, we sent the kindergardener home, as he only had a half day of school. We found out later that he arrived home, dirty and with sticks in his hair, about ten-thirty in the morning, the first of many critical errors involving the passage of time we were to make that day. David and I had one brown paper bag lunch to share between the two of us. When it felt like lunch time, we ate it, but it didn't fill our bellies and we decided we needed to find more food. In those days, you could buy a lot for a buck, and we had about thirty-five cents, so we decided to sneak into town and get some food. Though I insisted on taking a wooded route for stealth, David simply walked along the shoulder of the highway.
About this time, my mom was driving down the highway with my little brother, and she remarked to herself that it was strange that David was walking down the side of the highway, filthy dirty, in the middle of school day. About this time I fell in the creek. Not only did I get soaked, but I got covered with good ol' Virginia mud that has a smell very much like cow manure. Both of us were covered with bloody scratches from the pricker bushes we had to push through in our bushwhacking. We had leaves and sticks in our hair and even down inside our clothing.
We knew of a couple of high school boys in our neighborhood who never went to school. They were generally wild and out-of-control juvenile delinquents, so we decided to go visit them, since we knew they would not rat us out. They opened the door, laughed at us, and stuck us in the basement of their house. They gave each of us a carton of the parents' cigarettes and told us we couldn't come out till we'd smoked 'em all. David and I quickly turned green and then a lighter shade of pale as our small bodies succumbed to nicotine poisoning. How we kept from throwing up I'll never know. Finally, we smoked the cartons and bid our wonderful new friends the sadists goodbye.
When I walked into the house, I tried to act as nonchalant as possible. My mom took one look at me and somehow instantly knew I had been up to no good. "Why do you have sticks in your hair? Why are you covered with mud? Why do you smell like cigarette smoke? Why are your clothes ripped?" I told her I'd tripped and fallen on the playground. She didn't buy it. She called the school and talked to my teacher. When she came back, my stomach was in knots and my bowels had turned to jelly. "She says David was also absent today," said my mom. "And I remember seeing David walking down the side of the highway in the middle of the day." I stuck to my story for a few more minutes until I could tell it was hopeless. Also, my dad would be home soon and he was the guy who administered the spankings. My dad's spankings could be quite painful, and they were usually followed by what he called "constructive training", which was his way of saying lots of chores. I cracked and told her everything.
Needless to say, I was whipped, tongue-lashed, and given some work to do. But nothing my family could do was half as bad as playing hookie. And to this day, I have never done it again.

No comments: