How the Trouble Began
On Decoration Day, while everyone else in town was at the cemetery decorating the graves of our Glorious War Dead, Willie Beaner and me, Robert Burns Hewitt, took Mabel Cramm's bloomers and run them up the flagpole in front of the town hall. That was the beginning of all my troubles.
It wasn't that we got caught. In fact, I've often thought since that would have been the best thing in the world. If we'd been caught, Pa, who is a preacher and therefore has to be in favor of repentance, would have made us both apologize to Mabel, brought me home, and given me a good hidingor as good a hiding as Pa can manage. He never can put his heart into corporal punishmenta weakness often lamented by Deacon Slaughter. In the rest of the town there would have been a few days' worth of people cutting their eyes sidewise at us, but in a couple of weekssay, by the middle of Junethe whole affair would've been forgotten.
As it was, by the middle of June the boyswell, they act like boys even if they are the size of menthe boys that hang around the livery stable were still speculating as to who had had the nerve to do it "in broad daylight, mind you!" and then slapping their knees and snorting like horses.
I still think Mabel herself is due part of the blame. Everyone returned from the cemetery that morning to discover a foreign object streaming just below Old Glory. It was quickly evident that the object fluttering in the spring breeze was a pair of female unmentionables,so Deacon Slaughter and Mr. Weston (being the leading citizens) conferred and decided the said unmentionables should be lowered and handed over to the sheriff for decent disposal. But when those bloomers got to eye level, Mabel Cramm had no more sense than to shriek out like a banshee, "They're mine!" Whereupon she fainted dead away. From that moment, Chaos took charge and Rumor reigned.
And it wasn't just those loafers at the stable; the whole goldurn town was aflutter. Mothers were keeping their daughters indoors, except for Mabel's mother, who had bundled her off on the afternoon train that very day to visit her grandmother in Waterbury until she recovered her equilibrium or the culprit was found and punished, whichever came first.
With all the fuss, there was no way Willie and me could confess. If we'd been caught, which by all rights we should have been, we'd've been tanned and sent to bed without our supper, and the whole thing dismissed as a schoolboy prank. Which it was. I swear. We were just trying to keep up with Tom and Ned Weston.
Two weeks before, the Weston boys had put a green snake into Teacher's lunch pail. It made a lovely to-do. All those girls screaming and putting their hands over their eyes and jumping up on their desks. Miss Bigelow didn't scream, but you could tell she wanted to and was barely keeping herself in line. You could see in her eyes the war between screaming and staying calm so she could quiet those hysterical girls.
Funny thing about that. It was only the older town girls. The farm girls and the little girls didn't scream at all. To tell the truth, they were just as interested in studying the varmint as the boys. It was only the girls practicing to be young ladies who went berserk and threatened to expire. I'll never understand women. No, it's not the whole kit `n' kaboodle of the ladylike female race. Nobody beats my ma in the ladylike department, and she never once in my lifetime went silly over a snake or a mouse either. We have plenty of mice running through that rattletrap manse where we live. Ma just gets a broom and chases them back to their holes.
But I'm getting off the subject. Tom and Ned never got caught. Only Willie and me saw the whole thing, and we aren't squealers. Tom and Ned were well aware of this. It made them act even more superior to us than usual, which me and Willie could not tolerate. So we figured that the only thing we could do is think up something even more outrageous and get away with it. Only we'd be smarter than them. We'd not even let Tom and Ned see us. Then they wouldn't know for sure we'd done it. They'd just go crazy wondering over it.
See, if they knew for sure, then they'd have to think up something even worse and not let anybody but us know. And then Willie and me would be obliged to think up something still worse, and so on and so on until we were all four dead or too old to care, one or the other.
"Now, the hardest part," I explained to Willie, "is that we can't brag. Not by the flicker of the eyebrow, you understand?"
"No," he said. "How do you flicker an eyebrow?"
"It's a manner of speaking," I said, prim as a schoolmarm.
"Wal, why would I want to brag anyway?"
"You wouldn't, normally. But the thing ishuman nature being what it iswe're going to be fair busting with the desire to hint to the Weston boys that we were the ones who pulled this off."
The actual crime was easy to commit. On Monday, the twenty-ninth of May, which was the day before Decoration Day, we watched, hidden in the tall grass, while the Cramms' hired girl hung out the wash behind their house. She was careful, as all women are, to hang the bloomers and other unmentionables in between the other things, but we were watching sharp, and when we saw the Mabel-sized pink bloomers pegged to the line, we took note.
"Write it down, Private Beaner," I said. "Right between the brown skirt and the pink shirtwaist."
"Private? Who's private?"
"Ah, Willie, somebody's got to be private or it ain't a scouting mission."
"Then what are you, Robbie?"
I rather fancied cap'n or major, but I could tell from the look on Willie's face that neither of those was likely to go down too well. "Sergeant," I said. "The sergeant has the private write stuff down."
"I ain't got nothing to write with," he said grumpily.
"Pretend, Willie. Write it down in your head."
He gave me that kind of patient look he gives when I want to pretend we're fighting in a war. Well, can you blame me? I wasn't born when they fought the Great War to End the Oppression of Slavery, and when they were sending troops to avenge the Maine and free the Cubans from Spanish tyranny, I was only nine years old. I don't think there's ever going to be a war I can really fight in.
"I can't write nothing down in my head. My whole forehead's turned to granite trying to keep my blamed eyebrows from flickering."
I gave up. We waited without whispering until we saw the hired girl go out the door with her basket, headed for the meat market and the general store. We'd already made sure the family had gone off somewhere. That's why we picked Cramms'. We didn't have any grudge against Mabelno more grudge, that is, than we have against most girls. We crept down the hill, pinched just the one pair of bloomers, and tidied the line to cover the spot. The bloomers were still damp, but I carried them in my hand all the way up the hill to our secret place deep in the woodsan act which I considered fairly brave, but which Willie gave me no credit for at all.
Willie's and my place used to be someone's cabin, but the last owner left fifty or more years ago, probably headed west. In those days lots of people left Vermont, just up and deserted their hill farms, looking for an easier life on the plains. Woods have grown up now where pasture and fields had once been. It's a bit spooky, that tumbledown cabin. But once Willie and me stumbled on it, we knew it was the perfect place for us. We can hide away there from the Weston boys and anyone else that aggravates us. Sometimes we read dime novels there that Ma never wants to see the likes of around the manse. Sometimes we talk. Sometimes we just go there to do nothing but get away from stuff at home.
We have a lot to get away from, Willie and me. Willie's folks died when he was a baby, so he lives with his aunt Millie. She isn't really mean, and she's too arthritic to chase him up a mountain, but she does like to make the boy work around the house and garden. Willie even washes dishes. She gets cranky as an old hen when she thinks he's slacking off.
I don't have to do women's work. I have Ma and Beth, who's fifteen and practicing hard at being grown up. Then there's Letty, who's only five but who always loves to think she's helping. And ... Elliot. It's hard to tell you about Elliot. If you could see him ... But you can't. He's almost two years older than me and about a foot taller, but, well, Elliot's simple in the head. That's the best I can explain it.
One of the worst fights I ever had with the Weston boys was because they were picking on Elliot. It was right after church one Sunday. The grownups were hanging around chatting like usual. A bunch of us boys had gone over to the horse sheds to see the horses. The farmers' horses are pretty much old friends, since we see them Sunday after Sunday in the sheds, where they are waiting patiently for their owners to get out of church and get them home for dinner.
Willie and me were doing acrobatics on a shed door when over from the churchyard we heard Ned Weston say, "Hello, there, Elliot. How's tricks?" We knew he meant nothing but trouble, but Elliot loves everyone. He didn't know he was being picked on.
"Sing us a song, Elliot," says Tom.
"Yeah, big fellow," Ned chimes in. "Sing us a song!"
Me and Willie slid off the shed door and went to see what was happening. If your pa's the preacher, you know a lot of hymns, even if you're slow. Elliot started singing his favorite"What a Friend We Have in Jesus"only Elliot slides his words, so it comes out something like "Wha a fen we ha in Sheeshush." Elliot was singing along happily, and the Westons joined in, both of them shuffling their feet and walking around with their right shoulders lower than their left and copying Elliot's way of making his words, so the next line comes out "Aw our shins and grease to bear." They were holding their stomachs to keep from laughing.
Elliot was smiling away. Other boys don't usually play with him, and here was Tom and Ned Weston, the sons of the richest man in town, heaping all this attention on him, smiling and singing his favorite song along with him.
I walked up and whacked Ned Weston in the face. "Hey, you!" he yelled. Then his big brother, Tom, jumped in. They were both on me, knocking me to the ground. Willie would have jumped in, too, but I called him off. It was my fight, not his. The Westons probably would have beat me senseless, two on one like that, but Elliot stopped singing and started yelling for Pa.
Pa came running off the church porch and saved my life. I was not grateful. It just made the Westons feel even more superior that I had to be saved by my "big old papa." Pa waded into the fracas and hoisted me up right off the ground by the back of my shirt. There I hung with my legs dangling in the air. I could see his eyes flashing, and I thought for a minute he was going to wallop me. Instead he lets me down gentle. "Oh, Robbie," he says, "when are you going to learn to settle things with your head instead of your fists?"
At that point I could see the Westons doubled over trying not to laugh out loud in front of the preacher. Pa couldn't have humiliated me more if he'd yanked down my britches and paddled my bare bottom right there in the churchyard. I couldn't understand why he didn't leave me alone to fight my own fights. A boy has got to learn to take up for himself in this world. I couldn't walk away from a fight. It would ruin my reputation.
Besides, a lot of my fights in those days were because of Elliot. You'd think Pa would admire the fact that I was willing to get my nose bloodied for Elliot's sake. But no, he thought I should let those ignorant Westons call me a yellow-livered coward and never raise a finger. All because I was born to be his son.
Pa hates any kind of fighting. It's because he can remember the Great War, though just barely. His father fought in it. They were living in Massachusetts then. Pa says what he remembers is how much grieving the womenfolk did, and how, when his pa came home, everyone was laughing and crying at the same time. He says he couldn't understand, being only four years old, why his mother should be laughing and crying and all because of some stranger. It didn't make sense to him.
Pa started talking about all the pain and sorrow that the Civil War caused when everyone was yelling and hollering that President McKinley should hurry up and send troops to get the goldurned Spanish out of Cuba; Pa didn't like it one little bit. In fact, he said in church one Sunday right in the sermon that war was Hell, and he thought it broke the heart of God to see His children killing and maiming each other.
Deacon Slaughter rose up from his pew kind of slow like and marched down the aisle and clean out the door. Willie, who is my spy in the world at large, says that Deacon Slaughter told Mr. Weston that the Reverend Hewitt needed to learn a bit more about Hell before he went to throwing the term around. For once in my life I was inclined to agree with Deacon Slaughter.
Don't get me wrongmost days I really like my pa. I wouldn't trade him for anyone else's, even the Westons', who owns half of Leonardstown and has bought them both brand-new bicycles. But land o' Goshen, why did I have to be a preacher's boy?
It isn't just Pa. The whole town thinks they got a right to tell me how to behave. People just have unrealistic expectations if your pa happens to be a preacher. One: You are supposed to be cleanall the time, not just on Sundays. And Two: You are supposed to be good. I don't have a talent for eithernor wish to.
I wasn't the one wanted to be a preacher. It was Pa, and he's clean and good enough for eight or ten people. They should be plenty satisfied with that and not go laying impossible demands on his offspring.
Of course, Beth is clean and good in the way girls her age tend to be. Which makes her a pain in the neck to me and a joy and comfort to the rest of the world. No one's keeping score on Letty yet. She's still a baby to their way of thinking. Poor Elliot. I guess he's kind of in the baby category, too. So it is always and only me that gets the pursed lips and tut-tuts and "Robbie, you of all people! And your father a minister!"
All right, back to the problem of Mabel Cramm's bloomers. No one got caught. There was mighty speculation, as I think I've said, down at the livery stable. Neither Willie nor me was privy to those conversations, but I think I can assure you that our names never came up in that sniggering talk.
The ladies of Leonardstown were noisily appalled, and whatever their menfolk might have thought privately, there was a general agreement, at least among the members of our Congregational church, that it was yet another evidence of the creeping moral decay that was rotting America from the core like a worm in an apple. Previously, they had been able to look down their noses at the other forty-four states, but America's worm had invaded the Green Mountains of Vermont and crawled all the way into our beautiful little village.
In addition to the shocking affair of the flying bloomers, there was the rowdy crowd that hung around the livery stable. They weren't just talking horseflesh, that was plain. You don't do that much snorting and knee slapping discussing gait and coat and size of livery-stable mares and geldings.
And then there were the Italian stonecutters. Now, the Italians go to the Catholic church in Tyler if they go anywhere at all, and in my opinion that isn't any business of the old-time New England Protestant population. But while the pious folks were on the subject of wickedness, they started in on the Italian population as well. Those men were drinking something considerably harder than the local ciderand none of them even pretended it was for medicinal purposes. Everyone knew that certain of the Italian women brewed their own, so to speak. But in a state that enshrined prohibition as law, maybe it was high time the sheriff stopped looking the other way.
And getting closer to home, there was the current preacher at the Congregational church. Whether you were Methodist, Baptist, Unitarian, or nothing at all, you still looked to the tall white steeple on Main Street as a symbol of purity and piety come from Heaven straight down to earth. There was, it was noted, a certain lack of rigor in the current occupant. According to the going opinion, he was a good man, but he was far too easy on sin.
Then I had to go and make matters worse. I was sitting with Willie in the evening service. Ma knows it is a burden for me to have to go to church twice on Sundays, and Wednesday-night prayer meeting to boot, so sometimes she lets me sit with Willie, making me promise to behave. Willie's aunt's pew is right behind the Westons'. I was behaving, just like I promised, but fate intervened.
The church was stuffy as a coffin. What was I doing in church on such a night? My mind drifted miles away. I was a sweating private on the lines waiting for Johnny Reb to show the whites of his eyes over the rise. The rise being Mrs. Weston's back, which is about as broad as East Hill. Boy, it was hot. I pulled out one of the pew fans from the rack in front of me and begun to flap a little breeze toward my sweaty face. That was when I saw it. Right in the middle of the sermon, there was a large black spider crawling up that generous expanse of brown silk, heading for Mrs. Weston's high-necked collar.
I punched Willie with the fan, and we both watched fascinated to see how far the spider would get before Mrs. Weston knew it was there and what would happen if and when it got to the top of her collar. Well, what happened was it crept right up that stiff collar, teetered, and was about to get its balance and ruin all our fun. So I leaned over as if in prayer, and, delicate as a Civil War surgeon removing a bullet, put the edge of the fan under the spider's four lower legs and tipped it right down the back of Mrs. Weston's dress.
At first, Mrs. Weston just twitched a bit, but before long she began wiggling like a caterpillar when you tickle it with a stick. And the way she wiggled and pawed, you had to figure that the creature had made its way around to the front and was exploring the territory on the other side of the world. I tried to control myself, but before I knew it, a livery-stable-sized snort just popped right out of my mouth. That got Willie going and only made matters worse.
Suddenly I realized that there was silence where there should have been preaching. I felt it before I looked up. There standing at my elbow in the aisle was the tall form of my father. He wasn't saying a word. He was just looking at me. Nobody ever sobered up as fast as I did that night. Pa never said a thing. He just marched back up the aisle, climbed the stairs to the platform, and took up preaching where he left off, leaving my face as red as the side of a new-painted barn. While every eye was on Pa, Mrs. Weston seized the opportunity to escape down the aisle and out the door.
It doesn't make much sense to me even now, but that night I raced homethe manse is just up the hill behind the churchran up two flights of stairs to Elliot's and my bedroom, and climbed under the quilt. I guess I was hoping if Pa didn't see me right off, he'd forget the whole incident. It was Elliot, not Pa, who came looking for me.
"Oooo, Robbie, you in big trouble."
I stuck my head under the pillow. I was in no mood to deal with Elliot.
"You scare', Robbie?"
"No, I am not scare'."
"Den why you hidin'?"
I threw back the covers and jumped out of bed. "I'm not hiding, you dummy! Just go away and leave me alone, will you?" He stood there with his mouth open, looking more dumb than ever, which made me yell all the louder. "Get outta here," I said. "Take your stupid self out of my sight!"
"What is going on up here?" Pa was standing in the doorway. He's so tall, he has to stoop a little or bump his head on the doorjamb when he comes into our bedroom, which is under the eaves.
I shut up yelling pretty quick. He was staring at me something fierce, but I didn't want him to think I was as ashamed as I felt, so I made myself look him in the eyes.
He turned toward Elliot. "Elliot," he said quietly, "please go downstairs. I need to talk to Robbie a minute."
Elliot smiled his sweet silly smile. "'kay, Pa." Sometimes that smile could drive me near crazy.
Pa waited until Elliot had clumped down the stairs. "Well, Robbie," he said, "I don't know where to begin."
I just sniffed. I was still furious, though I couldn't have told you who I was mad at.
He waited a minute, but when he realized I wasn't going to say anything, he went on. "I'm less concerned about your behavior in church than I am about your behavior just now toward your brother."
I shrugged my shoulders. Nobody needed to tell me I shouldn't have yelled that way at Elliot. But I didn't want him saying so.
I guess he realized that it wasn't the time for a lecture on Elliot. "As for your behavior in church"
"I don't know why I always got to go to church"
"Because you're a member of this family."
"Nobody asked me about that."
"Oh, Robbie" I could tell he wanted to say more, but he was too exasperated and hurt to keep at it. "When you're ready to talk in a sensible fashion, I'll be in my study."
I showed him. I never went downstairs until the next morning.