Last week I left off where I read Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island” as a young boy and came away with the idea that tropical islands were the paradises he pictured them to be. Which they are — if you can handle mildew, dry rot, bugs, and rain.
Something I didn’t learn until I visited a couple of them.
I was also pointing out that we blame kids for all the crazy ideas they come up with. But you know something? I’m not too sure that claim would hold up in a court of law. In fact, I’m willing to bet that everyone of us can look back to the days of our youth and find a few glaringly dumb things we believed because someone we trusted told us they were so.
Take this one: Century plants only bloom once each 100 years.
You know who told me that? My own mother.
Along with a couple of other Big Ones.
One day when I was about 4 she told me a whopper. I was looking out the window one evening, just as the light was failing. Two fat old robins were pecking away at something out in the back yard. I loved birds. I guess all kids do, probably because they haven’t yet had to wash all that stuff off the new car after it got parked under a tree.
Anyway, Mom saw me admiring the robins, and later as she was putting me in bed she asked me if I’d like having a bird some day.
“Sure!” I told her, thinking it was an honest offer.
I was thrilled. Mary Hein, Mom’s best friend, had a pretty little canary named Petey in a cage in her kitchen. Every time I was over at the Hein house, just two doors down the street, I sat watching Petey doing his high wire act on the swings in his cage and singing away as happy as a little yellow bird can get.
“You bet!” I told Mom as she tucked me in.
So what did Dear Old Mom come up with?
The Big Lie! “All you have to do to catch a bird,” she told me as I closed my eyes, “is sprinkle a little salt on its tail.”
And so, the next morning ... You were expecting a sentence beginning with those five words, right Johnny? Who wouldn’t?
Anyway, the next morning, right after breakfast, I headed out the back door. At age 4 my area of freedom ranged all the way from the back yard to the back yard. It was the only place on the planet, other than inside, where I was allowed to go without asking.
And what do you suppose I had with me?
A big old box of Diamond Salt.
And plans, Johnny! Plans!
I won’t burden you with the sad tale of that sordid morning. Let it suffice to say I ran at least a mile before noon, box of salt and all, and the closest I got to a bird was 20 feet.
After that, the Big Ones came even faster.
“Don’t swallow your gum, Tommy. If you do it will stay in your stomach for seven years.”
Which meant I already had a lifetime supply down there.
“Don’t do that! It’s bad luck to open an umbrella indoors.”
So I waited till I got outside and got half drowned.
“What if your face freezes while you look like that?”
That one didn’t worry me. I saw myself in the mirror a couple of times a day and I knew I didn’t have much to lose.
But then, as I grew older, I began to realize that it wasn’t an act Mom was putting on just for me. The way I discovered that was interesting — in a boring sort of way.
These days people are always casting aspersions on television and saying that the “art of conversation is dead.” So what? I can prove from personal experience it didn’t die.
It was never alive!
Back in the ’30s when a mother went on a day trip to a relative’s house it was the custom to take the “children.” Being the youngest of four boys, I fell into that category, but my three older brothers were in school, which made them draft exempt. So whenever Mom went off to visit someone I was pressed into service as the token kid.
It was bad enough that I had to give up a whole day of being what a kid should be — several not altogether clean arms and legs running up and down in a vacant lot, yelling and screaming from within a set of threadbare half-me-downs. But if Mom decided to visit any one of our three — yes, three! — straightlaced old lady Aunt Mabels, I got scrubbed clean, stuffed into my one and only good pants and shirt, and my almost good shoes, and handed a dire warning that I had better not get a speck on anything — all day!
Do you have any idea how boring an Aunt Mabel can be?
Tea and little white crumbly cookies, neither of them sweet enough. A seat on the hardest chair in the room. Legs crossed like a little angel. An aunt combing your hair out of your eyes. People saying what a good little boy you are. Ugh-h-h-h!
And the conversation. All day spent watching two people doing nothing while they sat saying nothing about nothing.
If boredom could kill I’d have died tragically at age 4.
But I learned something — where those crazy sayings come from.
I used to call them Aunt Mabel’s Fables. Listen to a couple of them, always spoken in a very knowing voice.
“Your ears burning, Tommy? Someone is talking about you.”
(Yeah. Or maybe it’s because I went to the beach yesterday.)
“Shivering, Thomas, means someone walked across your grave.”
(Or else it means you’re too cheap to heat this tomb.)
One thing I liked about Aunt Mabels was that when they gave me clothes for Christmas or my birthday I always found a nickel in the right hand pocket to ward off poverty. A nickel I could use!
I will never forget the time that I went to Aunt Mabel’s house over in New Jersey one winter day and I dropped my glove as I was putting it on by the front door. I never heard such a piercing scream in all my life. “Don’t do that!” she yelled. Then, after my heart started beating again, she picked up the glove and handed it to me. “It’s bad luck to pick up your own glove, Thomas. But it’s good luck if someone else picks it up for you.”
I dropped it again on the ferry ride home and before I knew what I was doing I picked it up. “Uh-oh!” I thought. All the way across I just knew the ferry was on its way to the bottom.
Liar! Liar! Pants on fire!