They used to say that the call of the cuckoo heralded the coming of summer. In the Middle Ages some fatuous villagers captured a cuckoo and built a hedge around it, thinking to preserve the summer by imprisoning the bird. It's the spring that wants preserving. I can never get enough of that glorious season. That's because I got hooked on the rituals of spring in the south, which is, after all, where spring begins.
In Weldon, North Carolina, where I grew up -- well now you are talking spring. By the first week in April, we had already eaten our first mess dandelion greens, and the tall bottle of Wompole's Cod Liver Oil had been brought out to start "building you up."
The next ritual was to shed those long, thick stockings. No instrument of the Inquistition could compare with them. They were held up by supporters that were pinned to a tab on your undershirt (euphemistically called an E.Z. waist). I spent a whole day in my mother's sunlit pantry, being punished for refusing to wear the horrid get-up. I enjoyed the day immensely, sitting in a laundry basket eating an entire quart of pear preserves.
Then all the girls began coming to school in low-cut, sparkling white tennis shoes. They were not for tennis, mind you; they were our spring shoes. They made you feel light as air; your feet were on springs. I barely skimmed the ground as I ran all the way to Mr. Larkin's store for an Orange Crush, or a dark, cold, tangy drink called a Bracer. Be sure to save the bottle cap! Under the wet cork was a magic letter to be collected for some wonderful prize.
But nothing equaled the exquisite, delicious feeling of the first day of going barefoot. I would sit on our front steps and beg and cajole for hours before my mother would concede that it might be warm enough. That first, cool, tingly step on the fresh, young grass! 'Twas heaven.
At recess we jumped rope until we were dizzy. Double rope and single. The fat girls did the turning:
Mamma, Mamma, I am sick
Send for the doctor
Quick, quick, quick. And then the blitz, jumping as fast as you could:
Salt, pepper, vinegar,
Circles for dodge ball and hopscotch squares were scratched out on the hard dirt of the school yard. In my pocket I carried a choice piece of broken glass, tinged a pale lavender, as my hopscotch thrower, along with something green. You couldn't be without something green -- a leaf, a blade of grass, a piece of green string, in case someone yelled "Greenie!" at you. As you produced your symbol of spring to your challenger, you joined little fingers with her and chanted, "Greenie-Greenie-Key-Lock-It," and magically all wishes came true. Caught without a trace of green, you were in a for a whack. w
Often after school we would sneak away to the forbidden-therefore-enticing "bottomless" pond, called The Gut, and swing breathlessly across the expanse on a slender grapevine, or, naked as worms, plunge in the cool water on a dare.
Everybody built tree houses, but mine was different. It was made of solid wood on three sides, but the fourth side was the bench slab of a "one-holer" privy. Sitting inside, we lit cigarettes made of rabbit tobacco rolled in toilet paper and read the deliciously wicked Ethel M. Dell books, while the smoke poured out our "porthole."
One spring evening I collected six pint Mason jars of lightning bugs, then released them all at once. It was like a great scattering of silent fireworks across the dark night sky.
Down under the Seaboard Airline railroad trestle, on the banks of the Roanoke River, long-stemmed violets grew thick as thieves. We picked great bunches, bound them tight with rubber bands and sold them for fifteen cents each to tourists coming through our town on U.S. 301 from Florida. Ten cents would get you into a Hoot Gibson Western, leaving five cents for a Tootsie Roll.
Hard Rock Slaughter and I had a knockdown-drag-out fight at recess. He beat me for the first time.After that I decided it would be more fun if I let the boys chase me instead of fighting them.
I had two sorrows that spring: My dishpan full of tadpoles grew up and hopped away and my pet black baby chick, named Roland, grew into a rooster. I sold him to Mister Parker at the local market. Later in the day I regretted disposing of my pet in such a cavalier manner and went to the market to get him back, only to find he had met with his demise and was cooling his heels in Mrs. Applebaum's Kelvinator. I indulged in a period of semi-sweet sadness, sitting atop our garage, listening to the spring frogs, writing atrocious poems and mooning over Emily Dickinson.
But soon the rock fish would be running in the Roanoke River and the tiny garden peas would be fat enough to shell, and the blackberries ready for the picking, and Hard Rock Slaughter was sure to chase me tomorrow.