Tuesday, April 11, 2006


Every week, Mom "warshed and wrenched" our hair. She used Fels Naptha soap, then rinsed our hair with rainwater, despite the little squiggly creatures that sometimes appeared in the barrel. The rainwater kept our hair soft and shiny, she said, so she used it liberally. We hated shampoos, mainly because Mom could rinse...or "wrench" as she called it, with the strength of ten lumberjacks. She would squeeze that hair so tight your eyes stretched to your ears and your nose lost two inches of height. Nor was the Fels Naptha soap any picnic, a far cry from today's sweet-smelling shampoos. But it did get our hair clean, and Mom knew that cleanliness was next to Godliness. If she had any trouble getting into Heaven, it wasn't going to be because her children were not Godly.

The only thing that rescued me from wearing Helma's worn-out shoes was the fact that her feet were tiny, while mine were like boats. We didn't get new shoes until October, when the weather changed and shoes were a necessity. All summer, we ran around barefoot and happy, the soles of our feet hardening to a point where we could walk over a bed of nailsl without flinching. That may be exaggerating a bit, but occasionally one of us did step on a nail. The procedure was to yank the nail out and move on with your life. No nasty shots for us!

My brother Deed (Harlan) wore high top boots. I think they were four sizes too large and he wore them until they didn't fit, for I cannot remember him without his boots. Since we walked two miles to school every day, those boots came in handy. Deed wore them rain or shine, through snowstorms or calmer weather. He would trudge along in his corduroy pants and high-top boots. The pants swished as he walked...swish-swish-swish!

Because he wore his boots every day throughout fall, winter and spring, when he pulled the boots off at night, they smelled like two dead cows that had lain in a marsh for three months, rotting and buzzing with flies. Those boots smelled so bad that our entire upstairs, where we slept at the Farm, was well-nigh unbearable. Even flinging the windows open wide did not help. We did not have screens, so opening the window admitted many weird creatures, even bats, but that was better than the smell of Deed's boots. Mom would chase the bats outside with her broom, as Helma and I cowered under the bed.

Helen lived in San Francisco then and wrote us marvelous letters about her life there. She would dine and dance at the Top of the Mark, dress in the sophisticated fashions San Franciscans wear, and was dating a young Naval officer. That was about as romantic as you can get, we thought, and we waited eagerly for her letters.

One day, Helen sent us a box of supplies. There were articles of clothing for Helma and me, and several items for Mom. But what I remember most is that enormous bottle of Tabu, a popular, quite expensive perfume and two black lace nightgowns, completely inappropriate but delightedly received.

This delighted Helma and me. We perfumed ourselves liberally and pranced around in our black lace like a couple of glamorous courtesans, smiling tempestuously, or so we imagined, andsmelling great. But, when night fell, we were once again faced with Deed's smelly boots. So, in desperation, we emptied liberal dollops of Tabu into each boot, the golden liquid dripping into those boots like elixir entering the gates of Hell.

The smell of Deed's feet combined with the powerful perfume stretched from upstairs to downstairs, where Pop declared he felt sick and Mom opened every window in the house, bats be damned! The dose of Tabu had not improved matters at all. In fact, it made the odor worse. Such a sickening, cloying, clinging, deadly stench! It cannot be adquately described with mere words.

So we set the boots outside on the porch to air, even though the smell still came in through the cracks in the windows and the seams of the old farmhouse. You couldn't escape it. It followed wherever you went and I daresay that, if you had sailed the seven seas, Deed's feet would have been discernable as you crossed the Equator or tackled the North Pole. Someone in the Orient or Antartica or in some other exotic place would have wrinkled his nose and asked, "What is that unGodly smell?"

The next day, Deed was forced to don those boots and trudge off to school, the sweetest smelling 13 year old boy ever! One could smell him coming from four blocks away, that sickening smell, then the swish-swish-swith of his corduroy pantlegs rubbing together as he walked. What Hell he must have endured at school, with the other boys holding their noses and calling him names! He attacked one of them on the way home, for they were rolling in the dirt, smacking at one another, as Helma and I screamed in panic and ran to a doorway for help. A lady came out and stopped the fight. She must have wondered about that cloying odor, but was nice enough not to mention it.

It toughened Deed up, I think! After the Tabu episode, he was never afraid of anyone or anything again. He grew up to serve in the Philippines and, for a short while, fell in love with a girl named Conception. Any man brave enough to date a girl with that name is courageous indeed!

I never wear perfume that I do not remember that bottle of Tabu, which sat on our dresser until the liquid turned to something akin to vinegar mixed with vodka. As for Deed, eventually he did get a new pair of shoes and the boots were retired, still vaguely smelling like paradise mixed with dirty feet.