It was time to leave Edina behind. After an adoption and a bankruptcy, we moved to Arkansas so my new father could start a Forest Service internship. Its office was based in Booneville, a tiny town up in the lush, swampy, humid northwest corner of Arkansas. We arrived in Booneville as a legal family, a strange little family in a strange little town.
Dad went to work in the Ouachita National Forest. The rest of us spent our days in the falling-down farmhouse I’ve written about before. When we arrived, that house had no air conditioner. It was only May, but it was always hot, day and night. One hundred plus degrees, one hundred percent humidity. We went to school during the week, but on the weekend, we lay limp and gasping, dying fish on the battered linoleum of the living room floor.
My pregnant mother was disgusted. She’d hoped to inch us up the social ladder with a better address in Edina. Perhaps she thought we’d do our part and take up tennis and the like. But we were pallid indoor creatures who were no help at all. Still, this was next level torpid. She couldn’t even rouse her daughters for housework. She used all the weapons in her motherly arsenal to motivate us; rage, accusation, guilt, shame. Nothing could budge us.
One afternoon, we finally heard it on the roof. A patter, then a smatter, then a steady thrumming. Could it be? We rose to our feet, weak from inactivity, and emerged from the rotten shell of that rotten little house. We turned our chalky faces to the sky. It was raining.
Thunder rocked the earth, lightning split the sky, and our mother shouted a warning. But thunder and lightning belonged to Thor, and so did we. We were children of the North.
Well, not such children. My brother was sixteen, my sister thirteen, and I was eleven. We had lost the grace of childhood and become ungainly in our bodies. But there we were, leaping and waving, soaking and spinning, and laughing, all three of us, dancing in the southern downpour.
As a Northerner, how do you prepare for the South’s summer heat? You can’t. You can’t even describe it, through you try. Deliquescent, you might say, or oppressive. You struggle through the heavy air like one of those dreams where you’re trying to run. You don’t roast in Southern heat. You drown. It was like living in a terrarium.
But we were children, and children adjust. We more or less acclimated in the weeks before summer. In the early mornings, before the heat became unbearable, my sister and I found a pocket of time in which we could explore this strange new landscape.
We made strange Northern noises as we padded down red clay roads under overhanging trees that resonated with the songs of frogs, insects, and unfamiliar birds. We kept to the center, where we could see the telltale SSS of snakes as they crossed the road, the black scuttle of hairy tarantulas as they went about their scary business.
Within walking distance of our house, we came upon a still river, so dark and green that its depths were impossible to perceive. What was it called? We had no idea. It was just there. Was it shallow? Was it deep? Most importantly, were there snakes?
With great trepidation, we tiptoed across a concrete bridge that had no guardrails. We leaned towards each other, too frightened to shriek. It seemed to me that the viscous green water, thick as mud, would rise up over its sides and claim us, suck us down into the Arkansas waters, leaving behind no trace.
Within a few months, we were used to this different world. We made friends with neighbors who had horses and a private lake. We would modulate our voices to be heard over that symphony of flying, hopping, slithering, scuttling life. We would run across that concrete bridge without fear, without even thinking.
We wouldn’t even sweat.
No one would ever have accused us kids of being athletic, but water tends to be forgiving of that. We could splash and bob and shriek, practice our shitty crawls and pointless breaststrokes. Swimming in Arkansas gave us a break from the heat and boredom of our tiny town, and removed some of the awkwardness of our growing, graceless bodies.
As a forester, Dad had access to key information for water safety, like when a swimming hole had last been sprayed for copperheads. Once he’d decided the chance of poisonous snakebite was low, he’d pack up us three older kids in our family’s VW van and head for Jack Creek. Mom stayed home with the new air conditioner and the even newer baby brother.
Jack Creek was a pretty place. A diagonal upthrust of rock defined the swimming hole, and provided a place for the more daring to jump. Kids would scale the rocks, edge out, and plunge into what must have been the only water deep enough to safely enter.
How did they keep from breaking their necks?
Sister and I stuck to the still green waters. We would have done that without our mother’s warnings not to break our necks. I was cautious by nature, always watching for the S-shaped ripple of a swimming snake. We didn’t break our necks by jumping in, and we never got bit by snakes. Once, when we were sort of wallowing at the edge of the creekbed, a crawfish bit my sister in the butt. That was the extent of our misadventures with wildlife.
I would have lived at Jack Creek if I could. Swimming there gave us some low-key time with just our dad. He understood parts of parenting that our mother didn’t, like the fact that we needed to go outside once in a while. We would never jump off cliffs, but we needed nature, even if we stuck to the shady spots, muddy banks, and shallow waters.
I remember swimming at a lake in Arkansas. I thought it was called Green Lake, but I can’t find a lake by that name near Booneville out there on the Internet. My sister thinks it was a reservoir, but I remember seeing fish, and going out on a boat with a friend of the family’s who was fishing. Are there a lot of fish in reservoirs? I have no idea.
Anyway, if you’re reading this and you know what lake it was, leave a comment.
Because Arkansas is mild in the winter, and hot all the rest of the year, we went fairly often, but never often enough. We adored this lake. It had a sandy shore and trees nearby, offering shade if the heat became too much. There were picnic tables and a sense of social possibility. I was eleven when we moved to Arkansas and only twelve when we left, but adolescence was bearing down on my sister and me. There were boys at that lake, including those blonde and handsome Daffron/Daphren brothers.
One weekend, Mom and Dad had gone somewhere for the weekend—probably Fort Smith—leaving my sister and I in charge of our baby brother. Our older brother was away at college by this point. I was 12, which means my brother was a year old. Yes, we were all quite young to be left alone for a weekend, but my sister had been babysitting me since she was five and I was three, so we were used to it.
Anne and Tom—friends of my parents—knew we were home alone that weekend. They had possibly been enlisted to check in on us. Anne called and said Tom had the idea to take us to the lake. Would we like go to the lake with them? Oh, we wanted to go! But we couldn’t figure out how to handle a one year-old. Could we bring his playpen? Would it fit in their car? Would he be okay while we swam? Would Mom be mad?
My sister called them back and said we couldn’t go after all.
When my parents came home, we told them all about our almost-trip to the lake and our oh-so-mature decision not to go. We were pretty proud of ourselves, but I watched my mother’s face harden as we talked. Mom was stony and disapproving.
She finally said, “You know why Tom wanted to take you to the lake, don’t you?”
No, I didn’t. To have fun, maybe?
She hissed, “He wanted to see you in your swimsuits.”
The way she said it. I felt soiled and somehow responsible. That’s what happens to girls as we reach maturity milestones that trigger male interest. We blame ourselves for anything creepy.
As it turns out, that was the last opportunity we had to go to the lake. We moved to Montana soon after. There was nowhere safe to swim out at the Ranger Station. That didn’t stop me from testing the waters.
I would step into the churning, icy flow of the Gallatin River, hoping to make it to a rock before my feet froze. I was young and lonely and bored, and there was nothing else to do. Why not risk my life?
There was no swimming in that river. I missed those Arkansas waters, warm, lazy and green, my sister beside me, my dad watching to keep us safe.
Photo courtesy Pixabay
I have always despised smoking and loved smokers. That’s where the action is, at a party. Outside with the smokers, even when you’re not smoking a cigarette, like me. In fact, my first stab at writing a memoir was titled “Not Smoking.”
My parents (one mom, an original father, an eventual dad) smoked with the abandon of people who took up the habit long before the surgeon general’s warning went on the packets. My childhood was spent choking my way through a hazy scrim of tobacco smoke, complaining and whining with every breath.
When I was eleven, I spent a year removing my parents’ cigarettes from the pack, drawing a red line round the midpoint of each cigarette with a red felt tip, and carefully returning them to the package. I did this to entire cartons of cigarettes for most of a year in order to keep my parents from smoking down into the dangerous second half of the cigarette (something I saw on a PSA, I’m sure). My dad smoked them down anyway, but Mom trained herself to only ever smoke half a cigarette in deference to my concerns.
It was inconceivable that I would ever smoke.
We’d left Arkansas shortly before my thirteenth birthday and moved to a log cabin on a ranger station in Montana. It was almost as rustic as it sounds, aside from the electricity and indoor plumbing. The name “Gallatin” will be overly used in this forthcoming sentence, because we lived in the Gallatin Valley carved by the Gallatin River through the Gallatin Range, named after Albert Gallatin, who was the longest-serving Secretary of the Treasury, and let’s just top this all off with the fact that I went to school in Gallatin Gateway. My sister went to school in Bozeman.
I don’t quite understand what had happened to us in Montana. In Arkansas, we were academically gifted girls who sang in the choir and had boyfriends. At age twelve, I’d been attending high school in Booneville, because it started in seventh grade. I was an odd one who only ever had one friend at a time, and counted myself lucky to have that one. My sister actually ran in cliques. She’d always included me in Arkansas.
Montana was a social challenge for both of us, since we lived an hour’s bus ride from our respective schools. She went to the bus stop later than I did, and was dropped off earlier. I was the first stop, out there in the icy darkness before 7am, and also the last dropped off. I assumed this was because the bus driver, like almost everyone else at Gateway, hated me. I had left Booneville High behind for a K through 8 grade school, and I did not fit in.
My sister wasn’t having much more luck. After a little recon, it became clear to her that even though we were “good kids” with excellent grades and definite nerd-like qualities, the only social group we stood a chance with in Bozeman was the hoods. You know, the heads, the stoners, the greasers, whatever you called them in your hometown back in the olden days. They were the hoods in Bozeman, Montana.
To be a hood, you had to smoke.
My sister had run away for a short time (I was in eighth grade, she must have been in tenth). She hitchhiked to Minneapolis and stayed with a friend from her junior high years. She returned a smoker. I wasn’t, so we stole a pack of Benson & Hedges 100s from the refrigerator shelf where my parents stored their signature smokes and went down to crouch on the riverbank.
She coached me in the fine art of inhaling. I would draw deeply, filling my mouth with the foul, forbidden smoke. “Like this?”
“No, you have to inhale it in,” she’d say.
The smoke would come out of my mouth and make my eyes water. I’d give it another try. “Am I doing it now?”
She would study me and shake her head. “You have to breathe it.”
I had no idea how to do that, which makes no sense because it was just breathing. I knew how to breathe. I kept trying.
Eventually, it was too cold down by the river. But my sister could drive. My parents had graduated from the VW Microbus to a pair of VW Beetles. One was a bright orange Super Beetle, and that was our parents’ car. The other was older, with a dull red paint job, and that was the one we could drive the twenty miles to Bozeman whenever we wanted to.
You might wonder why a pair of wayward sisters aged fourteen and sixteen were allowed to drive into a college town, basically at will. I can’t answer that for you. I wonder myself. There were absolutely no parameters put on our behavior by my parents, other than not bothering them.
Our father might try to be stern with us at our mother’s behest—in fact, that was why my sister ran away, because he’d yelled at her for something. Her running away ended his attempts to restore some order to our adolescence. So, it was my mother who made the rules. And her rule was, there were no rules. We could wear what we wanted, eat what we wanted, read what we wanted, go where we wanted. Or not! Mom didn’t care, as long as we didn’t involve her.
If we drove to Bozeman and came home at three in the morning, she did not care. If we received terrible grades, she did not care. If we skipped school but were clever enough to forge our own attendance excuses, she did not care. Even if I misbehaved at school badly enough to involve a call home, she didn’t care, unless it somehow embarrassed her, in which case I heard about it. But if we argued, and the noise from that impinged on our mother’s mental airspace, then all holy hell would rain down. We learned to argue in whispers.
My sister drove us to Bozeman often. My family was broke as usual, but we would always have a little babysitting money. We knew how to make that last.
We dragged Main, because even with the gas crisis, we were in a VW Bug and it basically ran on air. We went to Sambo’s for coffee (“Ask Me About The Tiger Club!”) because coffee cost a dime. We sat there for hours, taking up a four-top for a twenty cent tab. We went to midnight movies, even though I often fell asleep because I was a growing child. We sat at the Western Café so she could ogle her crush, who worked there as a busboy (his name was Bob, he had a sheepskin coat and a gurgling laugh, and when he pierced her ears with a needle and dental floss, she fainted).
And we went to the Student Union Building (the SUB we called it) at Montana State University. The SUB was in a basement. It held pool tables, bowling lanes, and an enormous commons that had a fantastic jukebox. It was the jukebox we loved. We only played two songs, “Living for the City” by Stevie Wonder, and “Reeling in the Years” by Steely Dan. There must have been a serious sound system involved, because you could hear the two glorious guitars dueling their way from speaker to speaker in the latter.
(put in your earbuds and crank the volume for maximum enjoyment and hearing damage)
Here, finally, I finally smoked my first cigarette. The pilfered Benson & Hedges 100. It went down easy. I was instantly cool. Inhaling was just breathing, after all. I laughed, I gestured, I casually tapped off my ash. When I’d smoked a respectable amount, I stubbed it out like a pro. I felt unbelievably sophisticated.
And then, I became incredibly sick.
This was floor-tilting-vertigo, stomach-roiling, green-at-the-gills-nauseated sick. I was definitely going to throw up. Soon. I lurched up from the table and off to the bathroom, where I opened the door on a nightmarish scene of diarrhea overflow that sent me reeling back out. I staggered to the bathrooms by the bowling lanes, barely making it to a toilet to avoid creating my own nightmarish bathroom scene.
I returned to the table, pale and trembling. My sister was concerned. She got me a Coke, I think. After an hour of sipping and shaking I was fine, but it was a difficult hour. After that, my sister and I understood that I would have to earn my hood status another way. Smoking was off the table. Thankfully, my ability to drink an entire Colt 45 40-ouncer in one night did the trick.
It wasn’t smoking, but it would have to do.