When I Was Tom Sawyer

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Back before the beginning of time, in the late Fifties when the sun lowered over small-town Alabama like a steaming towel, and it was so humid a tadpole could just about fly, we kids of eleven didn’t have many store-bought toys. We didn’t need ‘em, neither. On slow barefoot afternoons with nothing to do, we did things anyhow, most of ‘em the which you couldn’t do now. Some, probably, we shouldn’t have done.

Well, maybe it wasn’t quite before time began, but it was before it got more than a rolling start. Anyway, I’m going to explain to you how to be a kid. This is going to be a technical manual. A few of you already know it. You can hum along.

To begin with, we all had BB guns. It was a rule. You couldn’t be a kid without one. Well, a girl could, and Alabama had some mighty fine girls, but we were four years away from figuring it out. Me and Jimmy Jack Callister and Don Berzette and…all of us, had BB guns and lived as small hunter-gatherers.

Today BB guns would be illegal and send mothers screeching and hiding under sofas and calling for federal help. Alabama knew about federal help, and didn’t want any. There was a little country store behind our house on Prior Street, really mostly just a shack, that sold Moon Pies, RC Cola, peach soda, and twelve-gauge shotgun shells. Pickled pig’s feet too, and Vienna sausage and mayonnaise, which a lot of people ate because it was all they had.

Anyway, the shotgun shells were sold loose, so you get just as many as you needed. I discovered I could stick them in the middle of a roll of toilet paper, then buy the toilet paper and get the shotgun shell. It wasn’t honest. It was what I did.

It was a different country then, and the South was a differenter part, warts and all. Nobody much watched us. You could do sensible things, like line shotgun shells up on a board and shoot at the primers from fifty feet away with the BB guns. Contrary to what a Yankee might think, this didn’t produce much of a bang because the shell wasn’t confined in a barrel, but it was better than nothing.

I guess things were kind of unsupervised. You couldn’t do it today. You’d need a Caring Adult to be in charge, meaning some tiresome school marm who didn’t think you should make black powder and blow things up. What’s black powder for, then? Tell me that.

Sometimes we’d cut the front part of the shell off with a pocket knife, which weren’t illegal yet. Now they would set off the x-ray machines everywhere and get everybody prosecuted as terrorists, even if they were nine years old. Back then they were just pocketknives. Nobody cared. You could go for years without hearing about a case of pocketknife terrorism.

We’d take the birdshot out of the shell and make spoke guns with it. You got a bicycle spoke with the little sleeve on the end, unscrewed it partway so there was a cavity you could mash a match head into, and then jam a piece of birdshot on top. Then you could hold a lit match under it until, snap! it fired like a real live gun. Only not very much like one.

We mostly did this in the back field near the College where this sort of scraggly undergrowth glowed bright green like it had batteries in it when the sun slanted sideways through it late in the afternoon and it looked like fairy castles from a storybook or maybe space-alien invaders that needed shooting with a spoke gun.

Then there were match guns. (We had all manner of guns, and bombs too. I used to fill Nytol bottles, which were some kind of patent medicine, with baking soda and water and snap the tops back on. A minute later, ker-POW the top flew off. Maybe it was violence. Tough.)

Anyway, match guns. You got one of those old clothes pins with the two wooden sides and the spring in the middle. There was a way — I could show it to you today — to take it apart, put the sidepieces together backward with a rubber band to make a V, and cock back the spring till it caught in that little half-moon declivity you ought to know about but probably don’t. Then you could stick a Lucifer match into it headfirst, though the matches would be illegal today because they might start a fire. When you pulled the spring, it snapped forward, lit the match, and threw it maybe a yard. It was no end satisfying, though not real useful. Maybe not everything has to be useful.

You could buy dynamite fuse at the hardware store on the town square. Contrary to what ninety-eight percent of Washington might think, dynamite fuse doesn’t blow up. It goes “Ssssssssssss.” However, it will do it underwater too. Fuse had many uses. One was we’d take it to the pond behind the science building at Athens College, all covered with nasty green slime, and chuck burning fuse in tied to weights. Sulfurous smoke then bubbled up most impressive.

I guess we did this because we were deprived. The times were premodern. There was no crystal meth whatever in the whole town, and nothing called Idiot Barbie for the girls, who also amused themselves perfectly well, and we didn’t have a Three Inch Stare from fiddling with video games. It was just like, you know, the Depression, or the Dust Bowl.

Once I got the idea of going out behind the house where apples fell from the tree and rotted with a sticky sweet smell and most of the world’s wasps came to eat them. If you needed some dead wasps you could spray them with bug poison. I did. Then I stuck them on an old empty wasp nest with Elmer’s Glue and walked around town carrying what looked like a real nest full of active wasps. If you ever wanted to make an impression — I usually did — you sat down in the Limestone Drugstore and started reading comics with a nest of wasps in front of you.

I was going to tell you about how I was a mad scientist and made rockets with zinc and sulfur stolen from the college chemistry lab, or smeared mercury on pennies and made them shiny and slippery like frog eggs. You probably aren’t ready for it though so you’ll have to wait until another time. Which, come to think of it, this sure is.

Fred Reed is author of Nekkid in Austin: Drop Your Inner Child Down a Well and the just-published A Brass Pole in Bangkok: A Thing I Aspire to Be.

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