I didn't mean to be, but I was almost always into something when I was a kid. I'd be minding my own business, and the devil would find his way into my head. At least, that was one of my excuses I used when I got caught doing something I shouldn't have. I was saying that long before Flip Wilson's TV character, Geraldine, was saying, "The devil made me do it."
Our little town's school was officially out for the summer. All six of the 1958 senior class students were handed their diplomas, flipped their tassels to the other side of their graduation caps and stepped off the stage. From that day forward, they were expected to act like grownups. A couple of them were already married and had a baby or two.
I'd made it through the fourth grade with flying colors. The whole summer was ahead of me. June, July and August were my favorite months of the year. I'd wake up every morning with a smile on my face. The days lasted longer. There was more time to do more stuff.
We lived in a little farming community an hour south of Nashville. City kids rode their bikes on sidewalks, played baseball and went to Saturday matinees at their local theaters. We country boys rode ponies and fished.
Once in a blue moon, we'd get to go to a drive-in movie. A bunch of us kids jammed into a neighbor's car, and off we went with an ice chest filled with Cokes and a couple of brown-paper grocery sacks full of popcorn that one of the mothers popped just before we took off.
From the time the Almighty pushed the sun up into its early rising summer mornings, we kids were out the door. To us, the summer was meant to be enjoyed from sunup to sundown. There was always plenty to do. Of course, fishing was always at the top of my list. Riding ponies and swimming in my favorite deep part of the creek came after.
I still had my base of weekly clients that I worked for. Instead of chopping kindling and bringing in coal, I switched to mowing and raking front yards and running errands for them. I worked weekends for a black bootlegger everybody called Blind Remus.
The beauty of summer days is that they last till 9. There was always plenty of time for me to do my chores and have several hours of sunlight left to mess around.
Often, which I kind of counted on, one of the old ladies for whom I worked would give me an extra 15 cents to buy myself a Coke and a bag of peanuts. If you grew up in the South, you know there is an art to preparing a Coke and peanuts delight.
First, swig down a little bit of the Coke. Then put your hand around the top of the bottle. Make sure the circle you form with your fist is a touch higher than the top. Open your bag of peanuts, and empty them and the salt from the bottom of the bag through the funnel you've created with your hand and into the bottle. Consuming salted peanuts floating at the top of an ice-cold Coca Cola makes the world a better place.
A couple of my buddies had told me they'd seen Walter, the big old fish that couldn't be caught, down by the first bridge. Maybe this would be the summer I'd land him. Bobby Thompson came by on his pony and asked me if I wanted to go with him to see the twins, Nora and Flora. I loved riding ponies, and I was kind of sweet on Flora.
Tommy Mullens called, inviting me to come on out to his house and play in the barn. I could spend the night. They were going to roast hot dogs on a stick over an open fire. I loved hot dogs almost as much as riding ponies and a little more than Flora.
My excuse of "the devil got into my head" hadn't worked on Preacher Man. A few weeks back, Miss Swann, a prim and proper English teacher at the school, had ratted me out to Preacher Man pertaining to something I had done wrong. After he and Miss Swann spoke to God about my wrongdoing, the three of them came up with my punishment.
In order for me to get back in the Almighty's good graces and pay my debt to society, I had to help Miss Swann clean up and paint her classroom. It seemed like overkill to me, but I wasn't going to challenge it. After all, according to Preacher Man, the Lord had spoken.
To me, that old three-story, soot-stained, brick building looked and felt like prison. The only thing missing were bars on the windows. Every hour of every school day was sheer misery to me.
In the colder months, those iron-coiled, classroom radiators spewed claustrophobic, raging heat. I felt like I was sitting in a torture chamber. I'd start itching and scratching profusely. The only thing that saved me was the teeny-weeny fabrication that I whispered to my teacher, Ms. Dehur, about my bladder infection and that I was gonna have to go to the bathroom several times a day.
The cafeteria food must have been prepared by grownups who hated children — Brussels sprouts and watered-down mashed potatoes. Prison guards, disguised as teachers, tried to make me learn stuff that I couldn't have cared less about.
In the warmer months, I escaped from classrooms on a regular basis. All they needed to do was turn their backs, and I was gone. Somebody would send somebody to run down to the creek and drag me back. The day school finally, finally let out for the summer was my happiest school day of the year.
Now, with just a few weeks of summer left, I reported to Miss Swann. She was headquartered at the corner of the second floor. I walked up the concrete steps and into her classroom. She was sitting at her desk and going over her to-do list. It was really her list of things for me to do.
She kept her head down, and before I could say, "Good morning," she asked me, "Billy, what time is it?" I looked up at the clock above the chalkboard. I said, "It's 8:04, Miss Swann." She said, "And what time did I say to be here?" I said, "Eight." She said, "Don't be late again." I said, "Boy, you sure are a mean, old woman." Mind you, I didn't say that out loud to her. I said it to myself.
I worked several hours every day, except Sundays, for the better part of two weeks. The only time painting a classroom is fun is when you're done. To add insult to injury, Miss Swann lectured me on every school subject there was. Even worse, she'd sometimes quiz me about the stuff she lectured me on. I made my mind up, right then and there, that I was never gonna steal another soft drink for the rest of my life.
I must say, Miss Swann could show her sweet side when she played her records. Her rather stoic, expressionless face burst into a happy smile when the music began. She didn't have any Elvis records. No Connie Francis. No Coasters or Brenda Lee. But she did have a big stack of opera and symphony albums.
Miss Swann and Enrico Caruso just about did me in. I was too weak to escape. There was no way out. I wasn't sure that I could take one more day of Miss Swann's lectures and Mr. Caruso's bellowing.
My last day, I was there at 8, right on the button. Miss Swann was sitting at her desk. As I walked in, Miss Swann looked up at me and asked, "Billy, what time is it?" I said, "It's 8, Miss Swann." She said, "Yes, it is, Billy. You have become responsibly punctual. Showing respect for another's time is an asset for which to be proud. Never lose it. Thank you for your assistance. I shall look forward to having you in my classroom in the next few years." And with that, I was dismissed.
All these years later, Miss Swann comes to mind every time I'm running late. I don't think too much about all that painting I did. Nor do I ponder her countless lectures. As I'm heading to the car, keys in my hand, a song comes on in my head. "'O Sole Mio."
No doubt in my mind that Miss Swann made it to heaven. She and Caruso probably have 3 o'clock tea together. I'll bet Enrico is right on time. I'm sure that pleases her.
Pardon my ambiguity, Miss Swann, but, respectfully, I'll see you if and when I get there.
Bill Stamps' book "Miz Lena" may be purchased on Amazon (soft-cover and Kindle). Or order a signed copy at firstname.lastname@example.org. His second book, "Southern Folks," is due to be released in late June.