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At the course I'm Bernie. Bernie the caddie. That's a good name and I like it when the boss calls me Bernie. Or even Hot Dog. He knows I'm a good caddie, one of the best he says. Maybe that's true. I hardly ever lose a ball. The other caddies they watch the ball as the club hits it, and sometimes they can't find it. I can almost always because after I see the way the ball's going I know where it's going to end up. I can't say how I know this, but I just know where to look. And I don't have to watch it land or anything like that either. The hitter will be looking all over for the ball where he thinks it ought to be, but mostly I go right to it and holler, "Over here." Sometimes they shake their heads and wonder how I do it. I wonder myself, but it's just the way I am.
I'm a good caddie. Andy, the boss, says so, and I know it's right. I get good tips which I give to my mother. What do I need money for anyway? Somebody buys me a bottle of pop once in a while, I drink it. If they don't, no pop. The money goes home.
I wasn't good at school. I knew that all along, but my mother made me go. She said the trunt officer'd come and make me if I didn't go. So I went. But it was like being a no-good stray dog what everybody wants to kick. Everybody wanted to kick me.
In school the teachers always wiped my nose. I guess I didn't care at first, but after a while that didn't seem right to me. Didn't anybody else's nose ever need wiping? This one time, Miss Prissypants or whatever her name was grabbed me and swiped at my nose; I didn't like it. I said, "Hey, I'm saving that."
She said, "You're saving snot?"
"Well, it's mine, ain't it?"
"It isn't any more," she said, walking away. Still after that she left me alone, so from then on I used my sleeve. Sleeve was all yellow now. Only the right one. I'm left-handed and I might have needed the left arm or sleeve for something else.
Being left-handed caused me a lot of trouble. Teachers always tried to make us lefties use our right hands. Couldn't write that way. I tried, but the letters were all squiggly and wrong. So switch the pencil to the left hand again. Every time get caught. Some times get smacked on my left hand so it stings hard. Some teachers weren't as bad as that; they'd just switch the pencil to the right hand. Once they turned their back, I moved it back to my left hand.
Lots of time I didn't do anything in school. I just sat there and let it go on by. Sometimes I watched it, and other times I didn't. The others were reading or working on papers, sharpening pencils, or erasing holes in their papers. Not me.
At the front of the room were two flags. I liked the California Republic flag best. That's what it said on the flag: California Republic. Lots of people were democrats, I know, but it said Republic. At the top of the flag was a star, just one. Maybe it was supposed to be like a star in the sky. Didn't look like it, though. Stars in the sky were just bits of light I could see when it was dark. My favorite part of the flag was the bear. He was walking on all fours, and maybe he was meant to be the state of California. I didn't know how.
The other flag was of the United States. It was taller than the California flag. Every morning we had to salute the flag and say the Pledge. It starts, "I pledge allegiance to the flag." What that means I don't know, but we all said it. And we didn't need words for it either. All the others knew it. I think I do, but I can't say it by myself. In the morning when we said it, I went right along with them, but by myself it won't come out.
Sometimes we sang in the morning, too. "Oh, beautiful for spacious skies" or "My country 'tis of thee." These were good songs, and I liked singing them. Another song we were supposed to sing is "Oh, say can you see." But that song I didn't like as much. I don't know why; just seemed harder to me is all.
There were decorations and pictures all around the room. Some of them were presidents. I knew President Washington and President Lincoln. Oh, and President Roosevelt, too. President Washington and President Lincoln never looked happy. Maybe they didn't have a good lunch or something, but I didn't think they ever smiled. President Roosevelt did. He had a real long cigarette he held and I could see his teeth in the picture. He smiled like he had a good breakfast.
At the back of the room was a wall with I guess a bulletin board. It had a lot of papers and announcements on it with thumb tacks. Sometimes the teachers put up pictures some of the others had made. Never any of mine. I couldn't draw or even color very well. I'd take them home to my mother who always said, "That's all right. You just do the best you can, Bernard." So I tried to.
In class we had these ik tests all the time. They were supposed to measure how smart we were. What they measured was how dumb I was. I couldn't do well on those tests. Seemed like the tests were smarter than I was. Never did figure out how to do well on those tests. Fill in the blanks or choose the letter of the alphabet and go on to the next one.
I tried different ways, but none of them worked for me. Ik tests were for the others, the ones who wore clean clothes that had been ironed.
My mother had used to iron my clothes. She put that old crying iron or whatever it's called onto the stove to heat and then used it to smooth out the wrinkles. One time she burned herself on that crying iron and it made her so mad she thrown it out the window. Lucky for us the window was open or we'd a had fresh air all the time instead of just when the window was up. Anyway after that she didn't iron clothes. "People want ironed clothes, they can go to the laundry," she said. She still did the washing.
The others always wore ironed, clean clothes and they made fun of me. Called me Bernie and I could tell they were making fun of me by the way they said it. I never was good at words; probably that's why I didn't do good on those ik tests, but I can listen to what a person says and not understand what he's saying, but I still know what he's getting at. I guess it's the way the voice sounds. I also watch faces. Faces tell a lot that the person behind them don't realize he's saying. People who lie to me do it with a smile, maybe thinking I'm too dumb to know what they're doing, but I know. They might just as well wear a sign that says, "I'm lying," cause I can tell.
Anyway they called me Bernie, making fun of me. When I didn't say anything back, they tried other names: Frankie, Frankfurter, and then Hot Dog. At first when they said that, I knew they didn't like me. But later on, maybe after they got used to having me around, they said it differently, like it might have been John or Mary or some regular name and that's when I got to like the name. Especially I liked it when at the course the boss called me Hot Dog. Then it meant something good.
The boss never made fun of me. Oh, I know I'm not smart like the others, and the boss knows it, too, but he never says anything bad. He's one of my friends, even though he's older. And some of the players, they call me Hot Dog, too, almost as if they like me. The others—I can tell when they don't like me. Those are the ones who make fun of me just using words. Mash their balls into the mud is what I do when I get the chance.
At school I tried not to let on I cared. Dumb or not, I still have feelings. But I just stood there and let them go on. Somebody hit me, I hit back, but mostly they didn't as I was bigger. After a while they quit.
Then this other kid came. His name was Moqxuwitcz or something like that with all the z's and x's in his name and very few of the short sounds. Him they made fun of because he had a name they didn't like and he ate food they had never eaten themselves. He had a hard time at first, but when I saw what was going on, I started just standing beside him and watching what was going on. They weren't sure how to handle that. I didn't do anything, I just stood there, and Moxie, as we called him, stood up a little more and I think became my friend. Anyway I never made fun of him, and when he called me Bernie or Hot Dog I could hear he wasn't making fun of me. He was a friend, I think.
School wasn't really hard for me. Not that I knew what was going on as I didn't. But I just did what I could and let the rest go. It was like trying to wash without soap. The dirt just stays, and what I didn't understand I just let wash over me like plain water. It didn't do any harm for all I could tell.
Well, the teachers didn't like that. My mother had to go in to talk to the teachers at first until she finally quit going. Then one or two might come to the house to talk to her, but they quit that, too, after a while. After a few years the teachers began to leave me alone. I liked having my own desk and being able to print my name which was mine alone. But most of the rest of it was just noise taking up space in the air. I didn't know what it meant, and I left it alone. Just like those ik tests. I never really understood why we took those tests. I already knew I was dumb, and so did everybody else. Why did I have to prove it again? But every year here came another ik test, and I tried to answer right, but I never did.
Once we saw a play by this Shakespeare. I've learned since I quit school that Shakespeare is real famous, as if he invented something important like the radio or the bath tub but at the time all I knew was it was a day we got to go to a park and sit on the grass and watch a play. It was all about people who got mixed up about each other with men pretending they were women and women pretending they were men and then mistaking one person for another. A lot of it was funny with people slapping each other on the back with this loud KRAAK sound which made me and all the others laugh, but I never got clear what was happening. Oh, I enjoyed it, but if I had to say what it was about, I couldn't. Shakespeare. After that I got to thinking that Shakespeare and plays weren't for people like me. Maybe you had to be smart like the others to know what was going on.
Naturally I couldn't understand the words, but that wasn't anything new; I couldn't understand the others most of the time. But these words were even harder, words like institutionalization or such. That wasn't one of them 'cause I can't remember the real words, but that's what it was like. It was like another language. Still, by watching the actors' faces and listening to their voices, I could tell they were all having fun, so we did, too, just watching. But understand? Not a hope at all.
I asked my mother about Shakespeare after that, but she wasn't much help. She had gone to school through the seventh grade, so I thought she might be able to tell me. In fact she had gone two years to the seventh grade as she didn't make it the first time. It wasn't that she liked the seventh grade; she had to repeat it. After that, she said, she didn't want anything more to do with school, especially the seventh grade and Sister Mary Margarine or whatever her name was. Anyway, what she said was that Shakespeare wasn't for everybody. Just like church wasn't for everybody.
I had heard the others talk about church and especially at Easter about Jesus rising from the dead as if that was possible, so I wondered. My mother and I went to a church once where they sat and the man up front dressed fancy all in white spoke in a language that I think I had never heard before. I couldn't tell from his tone or his face either what he was getting at; a lot of the time he wasn't even looking at us in the audience. Then he gave a talk which was like being in school and this part, at least, I could follow, but it left me wondering, "What is happening here?" I really didn't get it.
Then at Christmas my mother liked to go to church, too, but it was about the same, only now it was about the baby Jesus being born. Whose birth gets celebrated like that? Only kings, I guess, so I figured out Jesus was some sort of king, but after that, the darkness settled over my mind and there I was looking for the light.
After that I didn't want to talk about religion much, and my mother didn't mention it either, so we let the others go to church and they let us stay home.
Once in a while somebody would come knocking on our door, trying to get us to go to her church, but the message whatever it was just didn't take. My mother wasn't rude or anything like that, but when she talked to the person outside through the screendoor, she appeared to be listening, but I thought she wasn't even there; she had gone away somewhere in her mind, I guess. The person would leave, sometimes giving my mother some papers or such, but the papers were thrown away or used for writing on the backs of. We were done with religion.
Sometimes one of the others gets mad at somebody, and I guess they don't know I can see it. They straighten up different in their chairs and make faces. Anybody could see it. Then sometimes they're happy, too; that's even easier to see. All smiley all over their bodies in a way that says they aren't mad at anybody. The girls are easier to watch this way as I guess they don't have to care much how others see them. This I'm not sure about. I know girls care what others think about them, but their faces are a lot easier to watch than the boys'. And cry? They cry over just about anything. I try not to watch too close then because it doesn't seem right, somehow. Maybe it would be like peeking through somebody's window at night and watching. That kind of watching isn't good. They scrunch up their faces and it's easy to see they're about to cry. Once in a while one of the boys will cry, too, but usually they don't because the others make fun of anybody that cries, calling him "Girl," or "Sissy," or "Pantywaist." I don't even know what "Pantywaist" means, but I can tell it's bad.
The teacher, whoever she is, is easy to watch. Most of the time the teachers are good. That means they don't try to hurt anybody. I can't understand the words always, but even so I can feel what they mean. We had a sub one day who didn't like anybody. Everybody could tell that, even the others. When he called on me, I didn't answer. The regular teacher never calls on me since I never answer. But the sub was mean and nasty. He waited for me to answer, but I don't answer in class.
"Well, Bernard?" he said in a bad voice. "Do you know any of the capitals?"
I just sat there looking straight ahead which is what I do when I don't like where I am. If I look straight ahead like that, it means I'm not there, I'm somewhere else.
The sub didn't know that, and I could feel the others not liking him, too. Anyway he went on, "Bernard Frank, that's you, isn't it?"
One of the girls in the front row said, "He doesn't talk in class."
"Doesn't talk in class? Why not? Is he dumb?"
"He can talk, but he doesn't talk in class."
The sub shook his head. Then he called on somebody else.
Excerpted from The Days of Thy Youth by Donald J. Richardson Copyright © 2012 by Donald J. Richardson. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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