At eleven years-old, the most infuriating thing about trying to “apply yourself” is the universe doesn’t always cooperate.
Take this situation in which I’m smack in the middle of the evening of Tuesday, September 10, 1962. Blindsided by Sister Jean, Sixth Grade teacher at Our Lady of the Pines Catholic School with a very first day assignment to write 500 words all about “What I Learned This Summer,” I’m stumped. Fully…totally …and absolutely!
I don’t think I’ve written 500 words TOTAL since First Grade. And as if I don’t have problems enough already, the &%$#& thing is due Friday!
I can’t think of one thing I’ve learned in the last 90 days. Not one. Having fully basked in the glow of the “school is out” atmosphere, if — and that’s one of those great BIG ‘ifs’ — I have learned one thing this summer, it sure isn’t my fault. Any learning on my part has been when I was totally unawares — and also by accident. Fully…totally …and absolutely!
Nevertheless, I am trying hard to mine the data bank of my Sixth Grade mind. I am even employing previously unexplored tactics of (1) really applying myself and (2) discarding my normal shtick (and a common strategy employed by school kids the world over )–i.e. waiting until the last minute.
Of course, I might as well get started early. I have nothing else to do but apply myself in the evenings (and on weekends too). Just yesterday, I got my wings clipped again. Back in July, my two best friends, Booger and Pee Wee, and I sneak into the backdoor of the Ashby Theatre along with some Washington High kids we don’t even know and we finally get to watch Angie Dickinson in The Sins of Rachel Cade — in Cinemascope and Technicolor! Mom found out yesterday from Booger’s mom and was not at all happy about it. It will probably be awhile before I see another movie —or maybe even the light of day — on a weekend. If you put my cumulative groundings together, I’m now grounded deep into the 1990s.
Of course, if I were to write about Peter Finch and Angie Dickinson, Sister Jean’s 1962 nun’s head — or maybe that medieval outfit she and her sisters insist on wearing — might explode …and like I said, I’m trying to do “the right thing.” So as much as I love “Hot Mama’ Angie Dickinson, I pass on that topic. Sister Jean would read it, have a conniption and then call Mom. I’d be grounded into the Millennium.
In the midst of the dilemma, Mom comes in to my room, probably to see if I’m applying myself — and to see what her son applying himself actually looks like. She immediately sees blank pages on the desk and me staring into space.
“Applying yourself ain’t easy, Mom. I’m wringing my brain out, but I can’t think of a thing I learned this summer.”
“Well, Kiddo, you shoulda’ learned plenty.” Mom is a teacher herself, so maybe she might have some clues for me.
“I don’t think so.”
“You know, Kiddo, I love you to pieces, I really do. But sometimes I wonder about you. You mean you’ve forgotten about The Great Campout already? How could you ever forget how you and those other two stooges and Harlow…”
That’s the thing about my Mom, the woman doesn’t hold a grudge even after she’s recently grounded me. In a crisis, she has some really neat ideas –although I am not about to tell her how good some of the stuff she comes up with really is. (Doing so would violate the Universal Kid Code.)
“I’d been doing my best to wipe it out of my brain. Writing about it would only be rubbing it in…”
Booger, Pee Wee and I get the idea for The Great Campout by watching Clint Eastwood on Rawhide on Friday night television. The show is all about this big-ass herd of longhorns Clint and his crew drive aimlessly throughout the West for years. They never get the cattle to any kind of destination. Never! But every week on Rawhide, they camp out, sleep under the stars, cook over a campfire and have gun fights with cattle rustlers. Clint and his boys also never set foot inside of grade school classroom either unless one of the longhorns happens to get lose and wander into a schoolhouse that happens to be in the way out on the prairie. The outdoor life seems great and glorious. We want ‘in’, if only for a few days.
Building a campfire. Foraging for food. Cooking over an open fire. Sleeping under the stars. The three of us dream–-and day-dream—about living in the great outdoors FOREVER — or for at least six months, which to any kid is an eternity. Actually, we do all of this dreaming about The Great Campout through much of Fifth Grade, which is also the main reason Sister Katherine calls Mom last year –i.e. to complain about me not applying myself. Of course the real truth is that Pee Wee, Booger and I are city kids. We have no inkling about outdoor living…no natural outdoor skills…no talent for it at all. None of us has really seen any real wildlife except for a few free-range squirrels, several boorish chipmunks and a bunch of blue jays, who fly around like they own the air rights to the neighborhood. It all makes for a hair-raising –and blood curdling –campout, as well as something to write hopefully 500 words about.
So now that I have a topic I also remember a couple of tactics that might show Sister Jean that I have applied myself to this task. First, I recall that in addition to The List of Things We Nuns Hate, the sisters have turn-ons besides calling kids parents. Two things in particular that get nuns all hot and bothered are good penmanship and Roman Numerals, both of which turn out to be not all that necessary in real life unless you grow up to be that “John Hancock guy” or unless you’re trying to figure out which Super Bowl is coming up. On the other hand, you can be dumb as a bag of hammers but if you have good penmanship and find a way to sneak Roman Numerals into your homework, nuns will often let you get away with murder. (Or maybe even making thermonuclear devices at your desk.)
Keeping all of this I mind, I write and hand in, the paper below:
The Great Campout
(or What I Learned This Summer)
William Cantrell, Sixth Grade (Sister Jean’s Class)
This summer, my two best friends, Booger Wadsworth and Pee Wee Higgins, and I went on The Great Campout, sleeping and living in the Great Outdoors for the first time ever. We went camping in a farmer’s pasture on the outskirts of Atlanta, at a place owned by a friend of my Aunt Vera’s.
I. The first thing I learned is that no matter what it says in the Boy Scout Manual, it is not humanly possible to start a fire by rubbing two sticks together. If you’re going to attempt to start a fire using this stupid method, one stick better be a match…and the other stick better be soaked in “Regular Unleaded.” Otherwise, you’re just wasting your time, which in our case turned out to be eight hours after we first pitched the tent. We didn’t get the camp fire started until way after dark.
II. On account of us taking so long just to light the campfire, Booger’s Uncle Harlow, who Booger’s Mom made come along in order to keep an eye on us, said we could forget foraging for food in the woods when it was pitch black dark. Besides, he said, you never could tell what we might run up on in all those woods in the dark. So then Harlow and Booger drove to Butch’s Drive–In to forage for hamburgers and fries, but only after we swore Harlow to secrecy about it because what would people think if they knew we were eating burgers and milkshakes from Butch’s when we were supposed to be eating off the land the way Clint Eastwood would do on Rawhide? (I wouldn’t even write about it now, but I need the words in order to get to 500.)
III. By the way, while we tried to light the fire, we also learned a lot of new cuss words from Harlow, but you probably don’t want to hear these new cuss words, you being a nun and all.
IV. Another thing me and Booger and Pee Wee figured out is that bigger is not always better. By the time Booger and Harlow got back with the burgers and fries and shakes, we’d found some railroad ties on the nearby Southern Railway overpass. We threw a bunch of them on the fire and in no time flat we’d built this big honking bonfire you could probably see from outer space, which is the reason the Atlanta Fire Department showed up. We learned that the Atlanta Firemen knew a lot of the same cuss words that Harlow knew, so maybe Harlow wasn’t all that original anyway. Despite the fact the firemen cussed at us, we offered them some of the Butch’s Drive-in burgers and fries. Luckily, they said they’d already eaten because after all of that we were hungry enough to eat one of the farmer’s cows that was walking around the pasture like he owned the place. We didn’t eat the cow though.
V. How to know something is done when cooking over a campfire is something my friends and I figured out too. The first thing to do is to stab the potato or hunk of meat you’re cooking with a sharp stick. Holding the stick in such a way the meat or potato hangs out over the fire, the raw food is done when the stick burns through and the food falls into the fire and ashes. Of course, you probably should invite Harlow along as he knows the way to Butch’s Drive-in, which is where you’ll now need to go again and get food that’s not burnt-up or have ashes on it.
VI. On the last night of our campout, we learned pine wood is a lousy fuel for a camp fire. During the day we’d cut down a couple of big pine trees and throw them on the fire. What we didn’t know before is that pine bark pops right off the tree whenever it gets burning hot. It pops a long way too, like maybe twelve or fifteen feet right on to our tent. Tent material, we learned, burns lightning fast and really bright, which makes you think maybe that tent material is what the two sticks people rub together to make fire should be made of. Anyway, when the tent caught fire, it was really bright but not so bright that you could see it from space, though you could probably “see it from France” which is what the Atlanta Fire Department said when they came back the second time.
VII. We also learned those firemen could be real wisecares when they weren’t putting out fires and cussing out little kids. Pee Wee and me had been in the tent when the thing went up in big flames. I got singed hair and Pee Wee got a face full of smoke. One of the firemen takes a quick look at Pee Wee’s face blackened by smoke and says “Nice soot you got on, kid.” Everyone laughed but Pee Wee.
VIII. We even learned things after the trip was mercifully over. One of the things Mom said she HOPED I’d learned was “…my lesson” which was “…to never go camping –or maybe anywhere else — with Pee Wee and Booger as sidekicks. The reason, she said was Pee Wee and Booger were “…the only two people on the planet who know even less about the outdoors than you do.”
I turn the paper in and receive a grade of “B” although since I used Roman Numerals, I figure it should have definitely be an “A.” Mom told me that maybe, like The Great Camp Out itself, the ‘B’ grade might be a lesson in lowered expectations.
She also tells me that both she (and the Atlanta Fire Department) fervently pray “the camping out thing” — as well as my infatuation with Angie Dickinson — are phases I’m going through and that hopefully I’ll grow out of both rapidly like when I went through the bed wetting phase when I was five and six.
It was then that I announce to her that in fact I’ll probably have a lot more adventures in the great outdoors in the future. Pee Wee, Booger and I have already started thinking about doing other things we saw Clint Eastwood do on Rawhide. Next summer, the three of us are planning The Great Cattle Drive!
As my Mom is increasingly wont to do, she throws her hands towards the sky and shakes her head in what I’m pretty sure was frustration. Then she rolls her eyes at me and leaves my room. On her way out, she stops and re-considers what I’d just said about The Great Cattle Drive. “No worries, Kiddo,” she says. “There’s a pretty decent chance that you’ll do something to get yourself grounded by then anyway.”