Kids will say and do the darnedest things. I think the earliest memory of my first word was no. Not Mama or Dada. I was told that I was a cute child, and I was a tad mischievous too. When my Aunt Sally would visit, she would often catch me in an act of trickery and bad behavior (such as grabbing buttermilk biscuits when I wasn’t supposed to) which generally led me to get disciplined. I was probably 2 or 3 years of age, and for this particular infraction, it was usually a couple of smacks on the hand as a “warning”. I would retreat in an over-sized cabinet and pout. After about 15 minutes or so, I would quietly reappear and strike again. When successful, I would enjoy my forbidden contraband! When I was again caught, the punishment went from a smack on the hand to a spanking on my young and ample behind!
When I began to understand that my actions led to certain consequences, I changed my behavior to minimize any negative reactions. Besides, I could no longer fit into any cabinetry and the tools of discipline had also changed to reflect my age and size. No longer was the swat or a rapid- fire spanking by hand the instrument of discipline. I, we, had graduated getting a whippin’ by belt, shoe, or even worst of all, the switch. The switch was usually the preferred tool of torment when I, or my older sister, really misbehaved. Yes people, in this Black, African-American household, corporal punishment was alive and thrived! There was no time out, sitting in a corner, or the suspension of computer privileges for us like there is for kids today. My mother had her hands full as a single parent and she strongly believed in the rule, “Spare the rod, and spoil the child”. She wanted me and my two siblings to be truthful, respectful, and courteous. Not just to her, but with other adults, and more importantly, towards each other.
When my mother married another military man, we soon found ourselves leaving the east coast and heading for Texas. Having only knowledge about Texas from the handful of western shows, we thought that we’d be living on a ranch and would be riding horses to school. We were living in San Antonio, TX and attending John Tyler Elementary school. Sadly, no horseback riding for us. In fact, we actually walked to school since it was only two blocks away. Truthfully, my two sisters and I were great kids for the most part. My youngest sister (Latonya) at the time, wasn’t really old enough to get into any trouble without being provoked by either my older sister or me. With my stepfather working on base and our mother working a part-time job, we needed to carry our share of the workload when it came to doing chores around the house. This sometimes even included cooking. Nothing too extensive or complicated, something simple like Kraft Hamburger Helper or even rice.
I remember one Sunday evening my mother and stepfather had a military friend over for dinner. Afterwards, we kids were assertively requested to go outside and play with Brutus, our loving German Shepherd Husky mix puppy. We didn’t view this exile or a punishment by any means and besides, they were going to be “talking” about grown up stuff. This friend of theirs must have been a smoker judging by the ashtray and matches that remained in the living room. It smelled of something else was being smoked and it wasn’t cigarettes! With my adult experiences today, I now know that it was a little herbal delight (weed, pot, ganja…you know what I mean) that was lingering in the air!
The next day as we returned from school, my mother reminded me and my older sister that we had a few responsibilities to take care of while she and our stepfather were at work. I was responsible for cleaning up the dog poop in the backyard and Sonya, had to watch after Latonya and cook up a batch of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese before the parentals came home to finish up dinner. I really got the crappy end of the deal with the duties, but luckily Brutus didn’t leave too much of a mess in the yard. After I cleaned up, I headed back inside the house. Sonya was with Latonya in the kitchen measuring out the ingredients for the macaroni and cheese dish. I kept my sisters company briefly as they lovingly and patiently prepared this cheesy and zesty delight.
Out of boredom, I headed to the living room where the ashtray and matches still remained. At this point, I became fixated on the matches and did exactly what we were taught never to do, which was never play with fire. I struck a match and held it in my little fingers mesmerized by the smell of the sulfur and the color of the flame. I wasn’t paying attention to how close the flame crept towards my fingers. In a panic, I dropped the match in the ashtray and turned it over on the couch to prevent the smoke from alerting my sisters. I just forgot to check to make sure the flame was really out. I quickly retreated back to the kitchen as if nothing ever happened.
What happened next really is a bit of a blur. I could still gaze in the living room from where I was seated in the kitchen. Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted smoke where the ashtray was placed. When I reached the couch, the match had burned (melted) away a perfect circle on the arm of the couch. Oh, shit! My little brain was working in overdrive to concoct a viable story as I set the ashtray inside the hole, now burned down to expose wood, hoping that no one (Ma) would notice. All of this happened within minutes as I stealthily returned again to the kitchen with my sisters. Then our mother came home (cue impending doom track)! The very moment our mother stepped into the kitchen, she knew something wasn’t quite right. She asked what was burning. Being that we were in the kitchen, that would be the logical source of the scent. It wasn’t until she went to the living room that we realized something was terribly wrong. “Sonya, Junior (me), and Latonya get in here,” she growled!
The interrogation was short and sweet, “Who did this?!” We all said not me. Sonya further clarified that she and Latonya were in the kitchen and I claimed that I was there too. My mother knew someone was lying. Because no one owned up to this infraction, we were all punished. We each were spanked and sent to our rooms. I knew what I did was wrong, but was afraid of what my mother do if she knew I was really responsible. For years, even as we kids grew into our late adolescence, my mother would bring up the couch and our responses remaining the same. It wasn’t until about five years ago when we, now adult kids, were together to celebrate my mother’s birthday when the subject was again mentioned. Now towering over my mother, I proudly proclaimed admission to the deed. Yes, it was me and I was playing with matches! My mother smirked but had her suspicions. My older sister smacked me on the back of the head because she received a punishment for my refusal in telling the truth. We all laughed, and then my mother said to me, “Boy, don’t you ever think you are too big that I can’t throw you over my knee!” “That may be true, but you’d have to catch me first,” I replied.