Richie had just gotten on bus 34; it was Friday and it was a day that he had looked forward to for two weeks—ever since Tommy Smith and Joe Herman had gone into the office and called The Webb Theatre in Gastonia to reserve the thirty five seats to see The Shaggy Dog. Of course Miss Winnie, their teacher, had to talk to the movie people also but Tommy and Joe got to make the initial call. Then it was all set; the twenty eight students in the third and fourth grade, their teacher Miss Winnie, and six grade mothers would see the movie two weeks from the phone call. As was customary the grade mothers provided the transportation, Costner Elementary School not having an activity bus. Richie remembered wondering about why the school had no bus but his mother explained that only schools in Gastonia where there were a bunch of rich people were able to afford such a luxury, not poor little country schools.
He went to the usual seat that Jesse Wilson always saved for him. Richie felt pretty proud of this arrangement, what with Jesse being in high school and all. To add further to the mystique Jesse had an older brother named Lloyd who was fat and had failed the twelfth grade last year and smoked cigarettes. Lloyd wore his hair like Elvis Presley, while Jesse had a more traditional flat top; Jesse had made up for his conventional style by dying his hair orange. Richie’s tattle tale sisters had told his mother about his being friendly with the two older boys and she had grilled him about them but had backed off after he told her that neither of them said bad words. They were both friendly, and Jesse even liked him enough to save him a seat on the bus every morning. Once he plopped into the seat beside Jesse he started talking about the movie and how much money his daddy had given him to spend at the concession stand.
“I’ve got eighteen cents to spend on whatever I want,” Richie said, smiling and thinking about what he could buy with that sum.
Orange haired Jesse smiled real big and rolled his eyes and said “good gosh, you will be able to buy a bunch of stuff with all that money.” Things Jesse said always made Richie feel good, kind of like he felt when his older brother, Ray, would tease him or wrestle with him in the floor in in the living room in front of the kerosene heater. The heater was a Perfection brand and it had a chrome piece about an inch wide going up the front of the unit, topped off by another chrome piece that was perpendicular to it and had the word PERFECTION on it. Richie sometimes would fantasize about taking that thing off the heater and using it to dig up the ground, but had stopped recently when his daddy had told him that taking that off would damage the heater and that they needed it to stay warm in the winter. Sometimes Richie thought that maybe he spent too much time thinking about the Perfection heater; for example, one day he found himself perplexed about how it was that the kerosene in the elevated tank could come up into the heater. He had seen that the copper tubing from the tank went underground and went into the basement but he figured that at some point it would have to go vertically up through the pine floor to enter the heater. That was something worth pondering at length; he wound up asking his daddy about it.
When the question was posed Russ Hoffman smiled and realized that a teaching moment had presented itself. Russ loved it when the kids asked questions, and would always respond “look it up in the dictionary” when any of them asked about a definition or spelling of a word.
“Well, son, I understand the confusion,” he said. “Logically it seems that when the copper tube starts to turn vertical the kerosene would not go up the tube. Think about water running downhill. But here we have something else going on. Ya see, the tank is a lot higher than the heater so as long as that is the case the kerosene will travel upward.” Russ saw the confused look on his son’s face and said “come on outside and I’ll show you how it works.” They went into the back yard where the hose pipe was attached to the spigot. Russ turned it on and let it run a second and then cut off the spigot.
“Now unscrew the nozzle son and walk over toward the house and hold the hose pipe about waist high,” Russ said. Richie did that and Russ held his end at his waist level. Russ picked up a pail of water they always kept there at the spigot and started pouring it into his end of the pipe. When he did so water started coming out of Richie’s end, it being a good 18” lower.
“So do you see what is happening?” Russ asked the little boy. “You see that you are holding your end of the pipe vertical and water is coming out of it?” Richie thought for a few seconds and then it hit him.
“So its like your end is the tank, and my end is the heater; my end of the pipe is lower than your end so the water will keep coming, right?” Richie said smiling.
“Exactly, son, exactly,” Russ said, smiling broadly. “Don’t ever be afraid to ask a question.”
Richie thought about different combinations of candy, coke, and popcorn he could buy with his treasure trove as the bus headed toward Costner Elementary School. When they arrived he said goodbye to orange haired Jesse and he and the rest of the kids got off the bus, leaving the high school students to make the trip to Dallas High School. The morning’s work went by like like a flash and before you knew it lunch time had arrived and the third and fourth graders lined up and went out into the auditorium to go the short distance to the lunchroom. Costner Elementary School was a typical red brick schoolhouse built during the WPA era, made of red brick with the interior layout the same as all the other ones. There was a large auditorium in the middle of the building and there was a classroom at each corner of the structure. Additionally there was an extra classroom on the side that was away from the stage, and the corner to the right of that classroom was occupied by the lunchroom. The classroom adjacent to the lunchroom was where Miss Winnie’s third and fourth grades were, so they had a very short trip to the lunchroom. Richie loved the lunchroom food, and especially on Fridays. That was the day they had hot dogs and hamburgers, pork and beans, slaw, and potato chips. Most days seconds were available, but you had to be fast on the draw on Fridays. Richie had very fond feelings about the lunchroom; he loved to eat was one reason. The other was that every Christmas the class would show up unannounced with two little cupcakes, nicely decorated, to give to the two cooks. All of the classes did this, even the seventh and eighth graders. The cooks would gush unabashedly, especially Mrs. Mixon. She was very nice, a portly woman, and quite jolly. She did have a facial characteristic that took a little getting used. She had several moles on her face that were as large as the beans she served on Fridays but were darker. But the kids were pretty accepting of things; Richie remembered how one day Roger Hampton had said something about Mr. Mixon’s moles and Miss Winnie had chastised him roundly and made him write twenty times “I must not say mean things about Mrs. Mixon.”
After lunch when everyone was back in the room the six grade mothers arrived and Miss Winnie dutifully assigned each child to a grade mother; it was fairly tight with the seating, but fortunately a couple of the grade mothers had station wagons and Miss Winnie would of course drive her old Chevy. Richie was assigned with several others to ride with Miss Winnie; Richie felt kind of honored to be picked by her until Debbie Harmon who was sitting beside him, whispered in his ear “bet she picked us ‘cause she was afraid we would be troublemakers with the grade mothers.” Richie’s feeling of being honored took a nosedive but recovered very quickly when he reflected a bit and realized that he was the one who Miss Winnie always picked to take names when she was out of the room and that he had taken Debbie’s name several times in the last week.
“She’s just trying to make me feel bad ‘cause she is jealous of me and my good grades and everything,” he said to himself and concentrated on the movie, “The Shaggy Dog”, and his 18 cents. The trip to Gastonia was about six miles so there was plenty of time to drive there, park, and walk to the theatre. The Webb was the oldest theatre in Gastonia, the only other one being the Center on Main Street. Parking was not difficult to find; in fact, all of the grade mothers were able to park in the same lot. The lot was several blocks away from the theatre so they would all have a good little hike. Before they set out to the movie Miss Winnie called everyone together to tell them what was expected of them.
“Now children, I want all of you to remember that the grade mother you rode with is the person you need to obey while we are walking back and forth to the theatre. Of course the children who rode with me shall listen to me,” she said, smiling and looking at the group. Listening to Miss Winnie was not a problem for any of the group; she ruled the roost with a firm hand. In addition to her teaching duties she was the principal of Costner Elementary School, her tiny office being where Tommy and Joe had called from.
“Alright, each grade mother has the tickets for her group and will dispense them when we get to the Webb. I will start out first and the grade mothers and their group shall follow behind, and we shall congregate in front of the theatre. Any questions?” she asked rhetorically and with that the troupe started out. When they arrived in front of the Webb there was another little meeting on the sidewalk.
“I have arranged for all of us to sit down front and in the center. These will be great seats and were possible to get because it is a school day,” she said using her best ‘I am your teacher but also your friend,’ smile. Whenever anyone wants to go to the concession stand or the restroom they may go, but please do not make it toward the end of the movie. Of course the concession stand is the first thing you will see when you walk in and the restrooms are off to each side. Okay grade mothers, pass out the tickets and lets all go inside. Remember to sit with your own group and behave yourselves. Think of yourselves as Costner Elementary School Good Will Ambassadors.” This last comment excited the kids and they jumped up and down and clapped their hands. At that point the grade mothers and Miss Winnie gave out the tickets and they all went into the theatre.
They walked down the dimly lit aisle to the front, Miss Winnie making sure that everyone got seated and that the children were with the proper grade mother. Richie was greatly relieved when he got seated beside his friend Ronnie Jones and not Debbie Harmon. Ronnie lived out the road from Richie in an old 2 story house with a tin roof that set back from the road up on a hill. Richie’s daddy called it the old Worth Thornburg house and said that Worth was known for drinking a lot; in fact, Richie had heard his momma call his Daddy “Worth Thornburg” when he came home from work a little happy. Richie’s momma allowed him to play with Ronnie; she would even let him walk the half mile to his house. Richie remembered how his momma had a strict rule about eating at other people’s houses when she did not know them well. This had become an issue when Ronnie’s mother had offered him a butter and sugar biscuit and he had made up an excuse of “not being hungry”, remembering what his momma had told him. But overall the two were pretty good buddies, although lately Richie had become a bit dubious about the veracity of what Ronnie Jones told him, like the time the two of them had been talking about favorite burgers and Ronnie told him that the best one was one over in Gastonia called a “Water Burger.” Richie’s dad was in Gastonia everyday so Richie had asked him if he had ever eaten a “Water Burger.” His dad had rolled his eyes and laughed and explained that it was called a “What a Burger”, not a “Water Burger.” Then there was the time Ronnie had told him that what the boxers stood on inside the ring was concrete. Richie’s dad provided the correction that it was indeed canvas, which made a lot of sense to Richie’s little 9 year old brain, considering that Richie had given some thought as to how unforgiving concrete would be to one’s body. Everybody was loving the movie; how can a boy turning into a dog not be funny. At about the halfway mark Richie got up and went to the concession stand, returning with a coke and a payday and still three pennies in his pocket. He noticed that his friend Ronnie had brought half of a chocolate pie; Richie declined the pie when Ronnie offered, remembering his momma’s strict rule. But it did look good to him.
When the movie ended all the children clapped happily, Tommy and Joe, the boys who had made the phone call, even gave a standing ovation; Richie liked the guys but thought that was a bit over the top. He figgered that they were just wanting to bring attention to themselves. As they filed out Richie thought about how sitting beside Debbie Harmon had not been too awful bad; she was not nearly as aggravating as she usually could be. She used to bother him all the time, trying to talk to him in class and hanging around him at recess, but Richie had curtailed the biggest part of her activity. One day while Miss Winnie was out of the classroom she had been picking on him a lot, making like she was going to slap at him and then pulling her hands at the last second. After trying to ignore did not work at all he took one of his newly sharpened pencils and pointed it at her with the sharp end out. There was quite a bit of squalling and tears when he did this and Miss Winnie came back to where they were immediately when she returned; the point of the lead had broken off in her hand so Miss Winnie took Debbie to the office to administer first aid. After about ten minutes they came back into the room; Debbie’s face was all dried up and she sat there shooting daggers at Richie; however, he just looked at her out of the corner of his eye and didn’t say a word. Miss Winnie never said a word about the incident to Richie; his guess was that she had seen Debbie worrying the dickens out of him and that she thought Debbie pretty much got what she deserved. The broken off pencil stayed in Debbie’s hand and sometimes he would see her showing it off to her friends at recess and pointing at him.
When the whole group emerged from the Webb Theatre at Miss Winnie’s direction the children gathered with the grade mother to whom they had been assigned.
“Now children, I want all of you to remember that you are to listen to your grade mother and walk back to the car in an orderly fashion,” Miss Winnie announced, and one by one the grade mothers started off toward their respective cars, walking behind their kids. It was about four blocks to the car and everything went along just fine for a while, but when Richie’s group got to the second intersection trouble began brewing. His group was the first one to leave and somewhere in the first block one of the children started whining about something and about half of the group lingered behind to see what it was about and the rest, including Richie, kept walking. They stopped at the second intersection to wait on the others but Debbie Harmon came running up to them; she had stayed behind with the whiner.
“Y’all just keep on going and wait at the car,” she yelled out, so Richie and the others just kept going. When they got to the next intersection Debbie came running up again and said “the grade mother says to stop and wait.” Richie and the others obediently held up and then Suzette, Debbie’s best friend, came running up and yelled out “the grade mother says to keep going,” so the group went across the street and on down to the parking lot where the car was. Richie was a little unsettled about the mixed signals and especially that he was relying on the truthfullness of Debbie and Suzette. Suzette was not on his “A” list either; at the beginning of the year she had kind of staked him out as her boyfriend but he had ignored her advances and after a few weeks she had left him alone.
As the rest of the children arrived Richie could tell that something was wrong; first of all Debbie and Suzette were speaking very earnestly and loudly to their grade mother and pointing at Richie and the group that had been in the lead. Then when Miss Winnie and her entourage arrived the grade mother called her over and they talked in hushed tones and occasionally looked over toward Richie and his group, and the looks were not exactly friendly. When the session broke up Miss Winnie addressed everyone.
“I want to see the following students in my office when we get back to Costner,” she said, and called off the names of Richie and the rest of the children who had been walking with him. “Now everyone get into their assigned vehicles and we will head back to the school,” she said, more than a hint of a scowl on her face.
The chastised ones were Richie and two other boys and they were as quiet as church mice on the way back, although Debbie and Suzette and the others chattered away gaily. Richie and the boys knew they were in trouble but could not figure out why; they had followed the instructions of Debbie and Suzette. Richie pondered on this all the way back to Costner, concluding that he probably should have known better than to listen to those two girls. He finally decided to give up worrying about it until the meeting in Miss Winnie’s office.
The three boys hung together when they got back to Costner Elementary; they hurriedly went over the circumstances surrounding the confusing statements of the girls and found that they were in total agreement as to what had transpired. Richie was reminded of the statement attributed to Benjamin Franklin: “We must all hang together or we shall surely hang separately.” Richie was so taken with his recollection of this quotation that he repeated it out loud to the other boys and was rewarded with two blank looks. When they arrived at Miss Winnie’s office the door was closed; Richie knocked lightly and after hearing a stern “enter” Richie opened the door and walked in, followed by his partners in crime.
“Boys, I think I understand the gist of the situation and I am not saying that the girls were blameless but the bottom line is that you all made a mistake in listening to someone other than your grade mother. I do not know the motivations of the girls in doing what they did, but as I said you did not follow the rules that I laid out. I will address this issue with the two girls after we have finished. Now your punishment will be to write ‘I must obey my leader’ two hundred times; it will be due Monday morning. The weekend will give you plenty of time to think about what happened and complete your punishment. You have to understand that something terrible could have happened; what if one of you had been hit by a car when you were disobeying the rules?” At this juncture Miss Winnie removed her glasses and put them on top of her head. This action was a habit she had when she was agitated; it served two purposes. She did it very quickly, which got a kid’s attention, and it revealed her big dark eyes which were very penetrating.
There was deathly quit in the tiny office; then Richie said “we are very sorry Miss Winnie” and the other two boys nodded yes solemnly. Miss Winnie’s big dark eyes continued to glare at the boys, then after a few seconds she said “well I hope you have learned your lesson,” and she pulled her glasses from the top of her head and placed them back on her face, the very faint hint of a smile showing.
“Dismissed,” she said sternly and the trio went out the door, only to almost run over Debbie and Suzette. Richie noticed that the girls would not look at them; he figgered that they had been listening at the door. After the girls went in Richie said “let’s wait out here until they come out and see what happens,” and the boys agreed. They didn’t have long to wait for within five minutes the door opened and they emerged, both of them streaming tears.
“Miss Winnie told us that we had to tell you all the truth about why we did what we did. We made up the stories about the grade mother just to get you all in trouble and she said that we must apologize to all three of you. We are both very sorry,” Debbie said, Suzette nodding her little tear stained face in agreement. Richie was getting fairly accustomed to being the spokesman of the “Shaggy Dog Three” and he assured the girls that all was forgiven. The girls left and it was time to go outside and wait on bus number 34. Richie had some time to reflect on the day’s activities as he rode home; he came to the conclusion that what the girls had done was not the worst thing that had ever happened to him. He reckoned that it lagged somewhere behind the time Ronnie Jones had stuck a wad of chewing gum in his hair and he had to wash it out with kerosene and when he had a new Handy Andy tool kit for Christmas and he had a piece of wood laying across the 5 gallon slop bucket sawing on it and the wood broke and his foot went in the bucket. And he guessed it was kind of nice for the girls to come clean like that; he might even consider liking Debbie Harmon. After all she was kind of cute, and he did feel a little guilty about that piece of lead lodged in her hand.