The basement digging summer represented the longest period of time that Harriette, Buddy and I actually got along with each other. I believe that one of the reasons we got along so well was the fact that Buddy stayed in the basement with Daddy digging and filling buckets of dirt, and when Harriette was in the basement retrieving her two buckets full of dirt, I was in the front yard dumping my two buckets and we seldom passed by each other in the gangway. Another reason was that there were a couple of teenage neighborhood boys who had volunteered to help dig out that basement and Harriette was probably trying to be on her best behavior. To be completely honest, I was trying to make a good impression as well. After all, this was the very first time in my life I had ever been in close proximity to a member of the opposite sex other than my brothers and the boys in my class and face it folks, one of my brothers was still in diapers and the other was just . . . well, my brother, and the boys in my class were the same age as me, which was totally uninteresting. Thinking back on that summer, though, I can see how both of those boys might have been impressed with my feminine appearance and ladylike demeanor. There I was, a tomboy in shorts and a tee shirt, covered from head to sneakers with dirt and dust and kept busy hauling buckets of dirt from sunup to sundown from one end of the house to the other. Yep, I can see where that would be a real turn-on for anyone. The final reason the three of us got along so well was simply due to the fact that we were too tired to fight. Not a single one of us had the energy or the inclination to raise a hand to the other after sixteen hours of that backbreaking labor. We were thrilled just to be able to walk into the house long after the sun had gone down so that we could crawl into a warm bath and scrub ourselves until our skin glowed and tingled, put on our nightclothes, and found our way to bed. While none of us ever complained about any aches and pains, that summer will forever be remembered as the summer we all hurt in places we didn’t even know we had.
To most people who witnessed the event that summer I guess my father would have appeared to be a slavedriver, but we didn’t feel that way at all. Daddy’s usual philosophy when it came to getting anything done was not to ask for help, not to expect help, and to basically do it himself. Those times that he actually included us in his endeavors (like building Ma’s house and digging out that basement) were very few and extremely far between. It gave all of us a great sense of accomplishment to think that we not only had completely dug out that basement, we had worked with Daddy and each other to do it.
By the end of that long summer we were all glad to get back to the monotony of school. It wasn’t all boredom, because that fall I learned that there were fights in the playground most afternoons after school let out so I’d sneak behind the school to see who was fighting who. While I have always been a pacifist (I don’t like pain and I don’t like to see anyone in pain), there was something exciting about watching a boy try to draw blood from his opponent. What I didn’t realize at the time was that girls fought, too and I was soon to become the target of just one of those girls.
You see, the girls in my class were just beginning to develop physically. Some of them, however, were developing at a faster pace than others and those that weren’t developing at all sometimes used whatever means necessary to give the appearance of developing. One of those means involved stuffing tissue into a bra until the empty cups were full. Then these same girls would walk around school with their backs held in amazingly painful positions so as to thrust those tissue-filled cups forward. I’m sure that grown women of today who took those measures and who have worn bras now for the past 40 some odd years wish they could have had just a few more years of freedom from those confining, binding contraptions (as for me, my bra is the first thing to be taken off as soon as I walk through my front door!).
One morning after recess a classmate pulled me to the side and told me that so-and-so had said that I wore falsies (you know, the “stuff it till it’s packed bra”). She then backed off and let the other so-and-so who the first so-and-so had told me had said that I wore falsies pull me aside and confide in me that the previous so-and-so had actually been the one who said that I wore falsies. My thoughts ran from ‘I don’t even own a bra, so how can I stuff it?’ to What do I do now?’
I pondered those questions all through the rest of that day and during the walk home. I discussed it with Harriette and she advised me to nip it in the bud. “You’re going to have to whip the snot out of one of those girls so that they’ll all leave you alone.”
“How am I supposed to do that when I don’t know the first thing about fighting.”
“Who needs to know how to fight? The first thing you’ve got to do is learn how to be mad.”
“I’m not mad Harriette, I’m scared. Either one of these girls could beat me up and you know I don’t like pain.”
“Well, Susan, if you don’t like pain you’re just going to have to beat them up first. Bullies usually stop at the first sign of pain.”
The next week was a living hell for me. Everyday when I got to school either one or the other so-and-so who had first instigated the incident further irritated the situation by passing along a new rumor by saying that I had said that another so-and-so wore falsies. Being prepubescent is the pits. Either you’re in the in-crowd or you’re the target of the in-crowd. At that point in time I was the target of every prepubescent girl in that class and I was petrified.
The following Friday I was at my wit’s end. The Big Sister of one of my classmates had told my classmate, her Kid Sister, that if Kid Sister could get me out onto the playground that Kid Sister wouldn’t have a thing to worry about because Big Sister had her back. All my classmate had to do was get me to throw the first punch and Big Sister would take over and knock me into next week. The only promise I got out of Harriette during that week was that if I didn’t whip the tar out of the first so-and-so who had started this whole mess that Harriette would be more than happy to beat the hell out of me and then I’d really have a reason to be scared. What a choice.
I finally decided to call everyone’s bluff. I told Big Sister’s Kid Sister that I’d meet her in the playground after school and we’d settle this once and for all (even though I had no plan as to exactly how to carry that out). When the 3:00 bell rang signaling the end of the school week, I headed for the playground and waited.
Evidently, the entire fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth grades had heard about my challenge and were quickly gathering behind the school. Big Sister showed up first and waited at the front of the crowd for her big chance to step in and finish me off. The last person to show up was Kid Sister, the person who was responsible for creating this emotionally charged monster that I was somehow expected to slay.
Kid Sister looked at me and waited, but Big Sister wasn’t about to wait for anyone to take the first punch. She stepped out of the crowd and raised her right foot, kicking me squarely in the mouth and chipping my front tooth. I hadn’t prepared myself for this. All I could think was ‘How could she do that to me? I haven’t done anything to her. Hell, I don’t even know her or her sister!’ I quickly appraised the situation and realized that Kid Sister would have to remain my target since she started this mess, and by now I was really angry. I could feel my face suddenly get very hot as my mind went completely blank. Concentrating on Kid Sister, I reached straight out and grabbed the front of her blouse. What I didn’t know at the time was that when I grabbed the front of her blouse I had also grabbed her bra, a thin training bra. I held on for all it was worth, twisted the fabric in my hand, turning my fist from palm down to palm up, and pulled as hard as was physically possible. The effect was instant. Off came the blouse, off came the bra, tissue flew and fluttered all over the playground and there stood Kid Sister, her arms wrapped tightly around her body in a vain attempt to cover her bare, flat chest. Big Sister was far too busy trying to collect Kid Sister’s clothes to have anything more to do with me (and I think she had finally figured out just how pissed I was).
The whole event took less than five minutes in that school playground all those years ago, but the result lasted me through the rest of my grade school years. From that day forward I was left alone and was nobody’s target. No one ever threatened me again. No more rumors were spread about me. What’s more, Kid Sister and I actually got to be on friendly talking terms. I guess there’s some truth in the saying that nothing gets a person going like a good swift kick in the teeth.
One thing is for certain. Hauling buckets of dirt all summer didn’t hurt a bit.