One of the pleasures of teaching creative writing at EAC-Payson is watching students discover that their lives have more meaning than they sometimes realize ... that their personal experiences and insights can be every bit as significant a Hemingway's or Frost's or Twain's ... that what they needed was a vehicle to recognize, sort out, and express them in a way that makes sense for them and touches others.
Here is such a story by one of my students, Stanley Jones II that has been edited slightly for space and format. It's a childhood reminiscence about growing up in the Rim country. Even if this area isn't where you or I experienced childhood, this is a story that touches a place a lot of us haven't been in a long time. Stanley calls it "Summertime Blues and Greens."
School's out. It's summertime, and all this 10-year-old boy has to do is survive. Three weeks into the summer and nobody has even made me take a shower. And it's kinda handy going to sleep wearing tomorrow's clothes. Makes the mornings less of a hassle.
Finishing meaningless chores created by my dad to keep me busy, I grab my Daisy lever-action, one-pump BB gun, a 10-year-old's pride and joy. Heading down the hill to the creek, I meet my friend Jeremy.
His parents must not be paying attention either. The rings of dirt hang in layers around his neck. We take great pride in not taking showers for long periods. Like trees, you can tell the age from how many rings we have. Judging from the two perfect lines of dirt around his neck, I would say he hasn't bathed in at least two weeks. Me? It's been a little longer.
The creek, which lies between his house and mine, is our own little playground, a place where anything we do can be hidden from prying little sisters who like to tell. An old, weather-beaten stump has a steady flow of water running past it, eroding it so the roots are exposed along the bank.
We venture if we dig under it we can make a cool fort.
What seems like countless hours later, the dirt not being as easy to dig as we thought, we abandon the idea. With the sun now straight overhead, we look at one another as if to say, "What next?"
Now let me tell you straight up: trouble had a way of finding me and Jeremy that summer. Looking at him with a mischievous expression I pull an old wrinkled up foil pouch out of a pocket in my mud-caked Levi's. Written on it in big red letters was a name we both understood: RED MAN CHEWING TOBACCO.
It wasn't going to be mint or grape leaves today. It was going to be the real deal. "Where did you get that?" Jeremy asked with a shocked look.
"Old man Burt's dashboard," I replied. Opening the pouch like a new-found treasure, I took a pinchful between my fingers. It felt like oil-soaked seaweed and its sweet aroma filled the air. This was going to be fun.
I put it between my cheek and gums. It tasted bitterly sweet. Jeremy did likewise. We sat down on the pine needle-covered bank, both of us looking like we had a golf ball growing out the side of our cheeks.
I laid back and studied the sky, trying to make out the shapes in the clouds. Life couldn't get any better.
The juices started to flow, and not really knowing what to do we just kept swallowing. A couple minutes later I looked at Jeremy. He had a greenish tinge to his face that seemed to highlight the dirt rings around his neck.
Simultaneously, it seemed, we spit out the oil-soaked seaweed, trying hard not to swallow anymore. "I need some water," Jeremy said, his words garbled.
Standing up, he tried to walk toward his house, but he didn't make it very far. When I tried to get up I found out why. Standing up wasn't the hard part. It was walking that was impossible.
The ground was pulsating and spinning and my feet felt like huge balloons that floated out into space between each step. I felt myself stumbling backwards, tripping over unseen rocks. I fell against the bank.
After laying there awhile on the creek bank, pine needles poking me in the back, I told myself that I wouldn't chew this stuff ever again. Eventually the world stopped spinning, but my head felt like a ripe watermelon. Regaining my balance I stood next to Jeremy who, I could tell without him saying a word, had about enough of chewing himself.
We sat back down together and watched the sun as it began to set. That's when the thought struck me. I quickly proposed it to Jeremy and he readily agreed.
We took the RED MAN out of the package and laid it out on a flat rock to dry. Tomorrow we would try smoking it.