PRAYING MANTIS

Kathi Twiggy

(Kathi Elder, age 8, in Great Falls VA backyard
Being Twiggy the Model)

Great Falls, Virginia, in the 1960s, was the boondocks! Wild woods. Green, rich countryside with rich, black fertile soil. Georgetown Pike was a winding road that led from our street—Ellsworth Avenue—southeast to McLean and Washington DC. It went northwest to Herndon and Reston, with Lake Fairfax Park between those two towns.

There were farms and small homes & a few newer brick ones, like ours. Ponds and lakes abounded. Great Falls Park was a cozy nook with a small snack bar. Rough, rocky waterfalls of the Potomac River rushed along toward DC. A bit further down, the river got calmer & teenagers swam in it.

We kids played outside a lot, even into our late teens. I was still climbing trees at age 18. We’d run through fields & woods all day, then watch lightning bugs & stars in the dark of night. Bob, Kathi & I swam in Beatnik artist neighbors’ pond when they were in Florida in hot Virginia summers.

But we had chores, too. I hated ironing. It was nerve-wracking because Dad and Mom were sure to find fault in how I did the job.

Get on with it. You’ve been dawdling down there for hours.” Mom hollered from upstairs.

I wasn’t dawdling, I was trying to get everything ironed perfectly, with no wrong creases. At least I was allowed to play records while ironing. Jimi Hendrix, The Animals & Soul Hits were LPs I’d bought with babysitting & allowance savings. Sometimes Bob would lend me his Beach Boys LPs. Kathi often joined me, insisting on her Rolling Stones records so she could dance while I worked through a huge pile of laundry.

This handkerchief isn’t square!” Dad would snap and he’d make me spray it down and iron it again. Often, he’d stand over me as I tried to get it perfect, my body shaking in fear. To this day, I have no idea why anyone’s handkerchief has to be perfectly square. Unless it’s going into a tuxedo pocket for a wedding!

This one Sunday afternoon, I had messed up Dad’s handkerchief and was taking too long in Mom’s opinion. That “Irish temper” was always broiling just below the surface.

So when Dad criticized my skills, I lost it. “Do it yourself, then!” I shouted.

Kathi was in the den with me, polishing Dad’s shoes over spread-out newspapers. She froze.

Dad slapped the back of my head, “What did you say to me?!”

He’d me smacked so many times, I was used to it.

I said ‘do it yourself‘” and I stepped away from the ironing board, arms folded across my chest, jaw jutted out defiantly.

Just then, Mom called from upstairs, “Bill—are you ready to take me to the grocery store?”

You’d sure as hell better have all that ironing done and I mean perfect by the time we get back.”

He took the stairs two at a time, as usual, burning up with fury I could feel all the way from the car as he roared out of the driveway.

Kathi looked at me, worriedly.

I picked up the spray bottle and stared at that basket full of shirts, slacks, dresses, handkerchiefs, sheets, napkins and tablecloths.

Halfway through, I sighed, “I give up! I can’t do all this.”

Let’s go for a walk and when we get back, you’ll be able to concentrate.” Kathi was always right. Or mostly always.

We went outside into the hot summer sun.

Which way?”

I was too angry to talk. Everyone who knew me for real realized that if I wasn’t talking, I was dangerous. Usually, I talked a blue streak. But if in a foul mood, silence descended like a black stage curtain. I pointed toward Georgetown Pike. We took off at Elder fast pace, heads down, then began running at top speed.

I picked up a stick along the way & whacked at weeds, sending them flying into the air. Kathi tried to come up with a subject that might cheer me up.

Maybe we’ll go to Ocean City later this month.” I said nothing. “Or what if we get to go to Maine?”

Our parents had been talking about camping out on an island called Acadia while Dad checked map points or whatever it was he did now that he had a desk job. He was so mean since he got that promotion to working inside. I wished he’d never agreed to stop working ‘in the field.’

We turned toward the Herndon route once we got onto Georgetown Pike, walking in the ditch to avoid sparse but dangerous traffic. Weeds hit our thighs. Mosquitoes flew in humid clouds around us. We were both wearing bell bottomed jeans, t-shirts and tennis shoes. Junky clothes for the weekend.

Is RW coming over to watch TV tonight?” Kathi was still trying to get me talking about anything but Dad smacking me.

Dad won’t let him now. He’s mad at me.”

I hate it when he hits you. I can’t wait ’til we can move out!”

Me, too. Where will you go? Harvard or Yale?” This was my frequent question, since Kathi was so intelligent.

Anywhere far away.”

Yeah, me too. California. That’s where I want to go. RW does, too.”

What’ll you do for jobs?”

Anything. He can fix engines, trim trees, any type of labor work. He’s a great artist, too.”

So are you.”

So are you.” We laughed. “He and I could set up a stand on a pier and do caricatures or portraits. Live in a van or tent on the beach!”

You’re almost sixteen. Only two years ’til you can legally move out! I have to wait forever!”

You can come with us. You could go to school in California. It would be groovy out there. You’re too smart for these stupid schools.”

Kathi wasn’t sure about her intelligence. It wasn’t until we found out about the freedom of information act five years later that we went to Langley and got her test records. She’d taken an IQ test in the 7th grade. It showed that her IQ was between 150-156. My records had been shredded by then, the secretary told us. Kathi could have easily gotten a scholarship to any college at age fifteen if she’d realized how smart she was. She’d hated school since that mean first grade teacher.

 When we told Mom & Dad about Kathi’s high IQ score, Dad said “You are all 3 geniuses. Dixie’s score was about 10 points below Kathi’s & Bob’s was right around there, maybe 5 points lower than Dixie’s.”

Bob certainly accomplished a lot in his life, so did Kathi. I was more “twisty-turny” with some fantastic achievements but many, many failures.

My sister & I picked daisies and made crowns, wearing them despite bees hovering over our heads. We got about a mile and a half down the road which led to Herndon, alongside a farmer’s corn patch, when Kathi said, We better turn back, they’ll be coming this way soon.”

Yeah, you’re right.” We climbed a fence and cut through another corn patch. Running, we were smacked in the face with stalks and leaves. We left the baby cobs alone so they could grow. Often, we Great Falls kids stole full grown cobs and ate sweet white kernels raw.

My sister and I climbed a fence near the Pike and jumped into that ditch, then walked a few feet when something bit me.

AAAA!” I screamed.

What! What!” Kathi yelled.

Oh my God! Something bit me! A snake!”

I pulled up one bell bottom to try to get a look but was so scared, I was jerking around and couldn’t see. I lost my balance and fell into the ditch, legs in the air.

Kathi ran around in circles screaming. “Help! Help!”

Then she got control of herself and rushed into the two lane road. She waved her arms at a station wagon coming from the Herndon route.

Stop!” she screamed.

The driver pulled over onto the shoulder. It was a middle-aged man with greased-back hair and black 1962 style glasses. His wife had a Thelma Lou from “Andy of Mayberry” hair-do. She was looking at us suspiciously, as if we might be mass killers. A little girl sat between them.

Please get us home! My sister got bit by a snake!” Kathi shouted.

We piled into the back seat before the husband or wife could say No.

The little girl, with no seat belt on, turned and stared at us with huge round blue eyes the whole way to Ellsworth Avenue.

Right there, turn here!” Kathi instructed urgently.

We jumped out of the car before it came to a full stop.

Thank you!” we shouted, polite even during an emergency.

The man pulled back onto the Pike as fast as he could. I rolled around in the grass, ripping my tight blue jeans off while Kathi yelled, “Get ’em off, get ’em off!” She helped by pulling on the bottoms of my jeans as I wriggled out of them, both of us shrieking in that high-pitched key only pre-teen & teenaged girls can achieve.

I was wearing my underwear set that had butterflies on it, sort of like a bathing suit but still hoped no one would see me half naked. I flapped my bell bottoms in the air and out flew a huge bug.

Praying Mantis!” We yelled.

Is it OK?” I asked. Kathi trod gently over to the milkweed stalk upon which the insect had landed.

He looks fine, he’s praying.”

Or she. They eat the males.”

Kathi looked at me. “Put your pants on!”

It was difficult to pull up my blue jeans with my sister laughing her head off and me trying to hold back guffaws. Gusts of laughter burst out of my chest. We were both weak from mad cackles. It wasn’t a vicious rattlesnake, no Cleopatrian asp—just a praying mantis.

They eat the males!” Kathi shrieked, giggling away.

We ran home, put the Doors LP on and swirled around in the cool den. Then I got to work ironing. When Mom and Dad got home, Kathi rushed upstairs to help them unpack groceries, knowing I needed time to get caught up on the pile of laundry. She kept Dad busy, asking if we could go to Ocean City or Maine or Georgia soon.

That got him talking about when he mapped the Okeefenokee Swamp and other wild stories. He was in a great mood by dinner time and so was I, thanks to sister Kathi.

Floridian Adventures

More About Silver Lake & Sanford Jr. High

Bob & I rode the bus to school in Sanford. It was a big city. I hated that school, except for band class. The kids in band were nice & that conductor was friendly. I got to be first chair flautist that year. It was an incredibly long bus ride.

There were mean girls at that Sanford Jr. High, where I was in the 7th grade. They wore Egyptian style eyeliner, jangly bracelets, high heels, tight black skirts & cashmere sweaters. Three of them would loiter at the door to the girls’ PE lockers. I dreaded going to PE, my first class each day.

“Hey! Here she is! Little Miss no tits.”
They’d laugh. “She doesn’t even wear a bra!” 

One of the girls, a 9th grader with teased, shellacked, bouffant black hair-do, reached out every morning to run her hand down my spine.  “No, still no bra.”
She chawed bubble gum & snapped it in my face. Sometimes, the PE teacher would break up their cluster. Other days, I’d have to shove my way through the gauntlet, using bony elbows against their soft arms.
“Ow, you are such a bitch!” They’d snicker.

Mom finally insisted on taking me brassiere shopping. It was humiliating. I’d never grow bosoms so why bother? Mother picked up a box. Maidenform.
“You’ll grow into this,” she stated.

No I wouldn’t. I knew I was doomed to look like a boy all my life. My mother insisted I wear that torpedo-shaped undergarment to school on Monday. I stuffed toilet paper into the cups. Otherwise, they’d collapse & look weird.

Here she is!” The mean girls chanted.

Oh my gosh! She’s got one on!” They all snapped their fingers. Mean beatniks.

I could not wait until Dad got another USGS assignment. Why couldn’t there be a small school closer to home? Kathi got to go to an elementary school near our house. Mom drove her over, she was too young to walk alone.

We kids Loved Silver Lake, trees hanging with Spanish Moss, swimming after school, lying in the sun. Playing with our dog, Gretchen. Running around our three acres, pretending to be pirates with cut-off saw palmetto fronds.

collage early 60s

page from my photo album: top left, Gretchen von Elder had puppies when we lived in Bryson City, NC. top right, me giving Gretchen a bath in Silver Lake, FL: middle right, my 13th birthday party at our home (between Waycross & Hoboken, GA). We girls had been swimming in the Okeefenokee swamp right by our house; middle right: me wearing pink dress Mom made for trip from Florida to Washington D.C. Dad had interview for desk job with USGS. He drove Uncle Jack, Kathi & meto hear Martin Luther King, Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech. “That guy is going to change the world,” Dad said.

The neighbor kids were friendly at Silver Lake. Their father worked at the Air Force Base. He was involved in the space program, doing some sort of engineering. Dad was a civil engineer, so they’d talk about that while the women sat & smoked, drinking cocktails Mom mixed in the metal shaker.  “Shaken, not stirred,” the men joked. My brother walked around in a red bathing suit, wearing sunglasses, saying “I’m Bob, James Bob.” The Bond films were all the rage.

One day, I got my friend to go running up the sandy lane with me to the asphalt highway that passed by the orange groves.
“Let’s see who can run the fastest!”

It was late Spring & I was in full mania. We ran for thirty minutes or more, until we were winded. Then strolled through the forest.

What the HECK?” I pointed to a burned area, a perfect circle with three scorched ovals inside the bigger circle.

Something landed here!” My friend was shaking.

UFO!” I cried.

Rustling in the bushes. Something black ran out & across the pathway.

Oh my God! An Alien! He got burned in the crash.” I screamed.

My father was a UFO believer. He was mapping near Roswell, New Mexico when that crash happened. He talked to the locals & knew the FBI had quieted the truth down. They’d carted away the poor, dead aliens & kept the secret so the public wouldn’t panic. Mom always told him to stop telling tall tales when he regaled me with these stories.

Dad told me Earth was populated, originally, by volunteer space explorers from other planets in far away galaxies. Black people from one planet, Caucasian, Asians, Aboriginals from others. Hopis, Sioux, Cherokee all came from separate planets. The experiment was to see if people of different worlds could all live together. They all took vows to improve life for all beings before getting into their space ships & heading toward Earth, the most fertile planet they could find that was not yet inhabited by intelligent beings.

“But they mated with primitive humans that evolved from chimps,” Dad warned. “That’s how they got thrown out of the Garden of Eden.”

What do you mean? Who threw them out?”
We didn’t read the Bible in our house, my father was an atheist.

If you screw up & go back on your vows, you’ll make a mess of your life.”

I took that to heart, vowing to keep vows.

My father read science magazines & loved Ray Bradbury’s stories. He was 100% for the space program. We kids were for it, too. Yeah! Some day, we’d all live in Outer Space!

My friend & I stared at the burned sand.

This is an Emergency! Let’s get your father!” I shouted.

We took off & got to her house in no time flat. Banged the screen door into the kitchen.

Daddy! Come Quick!”

The tall, thin man came out looking worried. He shoved his black glasses up & asked, “What’s going on.”

A UFO!” we screamed.

“Calm yourselves. Walk me to where you saw this thing.”

And a burned alien! Like at Roswell. My father said!” I was babbling.

We got to the location of the burned circle. The engineer bent down to examine it. He studied the ovals from every angle. He sniffed some of the burnt sand.

I’d say this was a failed rocket that set down. Somebody’s toy.”

Toy?” I was crestfallen. I wanted an alien invasion. Proof that Dad was right about Roswell.

You know, all engineers fiddle around with stuff at home. One of the Air Force guys probably made a miniature disc, remote control. Landed it & sent it up into the air again. Nothing to get excited over.”

My cousin Mike made all sorts of gizmos. He even flew a remote control airplane for us one day up in Maryland.

But what about the little black creature?” I asked.

There are wild pigs all over the place down here. That was just a black boar. Now you girls go play quietly. Settle yourselves.” He ambled along with us down the sandy path toward home.

My friend & I walked to the lakeside & sat down. We talked about boys. She had a crush on a red-headed guy named Tommy. He had freckles & was nice.

I was madly in love with Doug Button, a trumpeter in band class. We’d gone on an all day field trip to play in a state competition. We competed against other schools & did individual recitals. It was scary!

Boys & girls had to dress in black & white: black trousers, white shirts for the boys, with neckties. Black skirts, white blouses for the girls. Mom made me a cute, shiny pink necktie. I always wanted to dress more like a boy than a girl. But girls weren’t allowed to wear pants in those days.

As we were getting settled on the bus, Doug came up to me & said, Let me fix your tie.” He took hold of the knot & arranged it neatly.
I was blushing like mad. The other
musical girls whispered, “He likes you!”

My friend was in awe. Doug Button was the cutest boy at Sanford Jr. High. He had black hair, with long bangs. Dark brown eyes. He was taller than most of the 7th grade boys. He dressed real fine..

“He’s so fine!” we sang, trying to sound like The Chiffons.
Romance filled our heads, blocking out War of the Worlds images.

The Witch Trail

It was nearing summer. We lived in Clear Lake, Florida. Our brick, one floor rental house was right next to a huge lake. Across the lake was a plantation with peacocks strutting all over the lawn. Dad could make a perfect peacock cry. He’d go outside at twilight, make the sound & peacocks would fly over the lake & land in our yard. The owner finally caught on & told Dad in no uncertain terms to “cease & desist.” Dad laughed over that at parties for years.  
The neighbor kids were friendly. I climbed trees with the girl from next door.
There was a bomb shelter on our property! The landlord gave us a guided tour of it. “Only for real emergencies. If JFK does attack Cuba, the Russians will bomb Florida first.”

That was scary & exciting! Mom got us kids to help lug boxes full of canned goods to the shelter. She placed each tin neatly on the metal shelves.

“Can we sleep here?” Bob asked.

“No, you may not. This is for disasters only.”

“Dang!” I sighed, flopping onto one of the military-style bunk beds.
Kathi & I carried gallons of water to be stored in the shelter. It was ready for action!  I’d lie in bed at night, rehearsing how to Run to open the heavy cement shelter door if an atom bomb hit. That was insomnia-inducing.

Kathi got into trouble at her school. The teacher was leading a “duck & cover” drill.

“Crouch under your desks & cover your heads with your hands.”

“How is That supposed to save us?” my second grade sister spoke aloud.

“Get to the principal’s office!”

Mom & Dad agreed with Kathi but told her to act more respectful to teachers from there on out.

Everyone was tense at the Bay of Pigs time. I knew Bay of Pigs meant Cuba but I pictured a herd of hogs swimming from Cuba to Florida. That made me laugh when I was supposed to be sleeping. My laughter often woke Kathi up.
“What now?” She’d ask. “Nothing, go back to sleep.”
But I’d be snickering under my breath & have to tell her. Then she’d start giggling.

The landlord’s guided tour of his bomb shelter got Bob thinking. He blasted into my bedroom one Saturday, talking full tilt.
“OK, girl but your book down! Here’s the deal!”

“What? I’m Reading.” I lay “To Kill a Mockingbird” on my bed & glared at him.

“We’ll be going up to visit Grandma & the cousins next week. Let’s do a safari but with witches!”

“There’s no such thing as a witch safari, goofy.”

“I know but I have a plan. I’ll be the safari leader. We’ll get all the cousins to follow me on the trail that goes through the palmetto forest to the old drive-in.”  

“Then what?”

“As we go, I’ll yell out stuff like ‘Look! A monkey!’ You’ll be last, way behind Kathi. You do monkey sounds. Or if I say ‘An Owl!’ you hoot through your hands like you can do.”  

I put my hands together & blew, as a boy had taught me to do in the 5th grade. It did sound like an owl.

“Perfect! And as soon as we get to Grandma’s, I’ll go down to Collins’ drug store & buy some Kool Pops.”  

“Kool Pops? What for?”

“To put up in that hollow tree. Pirate Treasure.”

 “Pirates with Witches?”  But I thought about the tree where Boo Radley hid notes. It might be a plan.

“Witches & Pirates are outlaws, they’d get together, girl.”  

I pondered. It sounded fun. But: “How can we keep the popsicles from melting?”  

“Get ice out of Grandma’s Frigidaire, fool. I’ll go first thing in the morning & set it all up.  You make voodoo dolls to hang in the trees. And signs! With skulls. No writing, they’d recognize your writing.”  

“How am I going to make voodoo dolls?”  

“Out of Spanish moss–for the hair. I don’t know, figure it out. I came up with this whole danged idea. Can’t you do Anything? And don’t tell Kathi. She’d tattle to Mom.”  

“Well, OK. I can probably get yarn from Mama & wrap it around to make dolls.”  

“Deal?!” My brother was super excited. He slammed his arm onto his chest like a Roman soldier. I stood up & did the same. Fealty!

Dad put Bob’s & Kathi’s bikes into the truck of the Bonneville. I could never balance on a bicycle, so there was room in the trunk for presents & the big brown suitcase. When we got to Hinesville, Bob helped Dad unload the car.

I went inside to hug Miz Bonnie. She was crying over something on TV. “What’s wrong, Grandma?”  She wailed.

“It’s just her stories.” Dad said. “Soap Operas.”  

Bob immediately took off on his bike. Kathi & I went to the huge, saggy bed in the girls’ bedroom & lay down to read comic books Uncle Jack left in the house when he married Aunt Inez.

Inez was a gorgeous half Cherokee woman. Jack had been in love with her all his life but she married someone else. Every time a friend asked, “Jack, when are you going to settle down & get married?” he’d say “I’m waiting for Inez.” Her husband was tragically killed in a car wreck. So after a time of grieving, she married my fun uncle. She brought three children into the new marriage. Then they had a baby, Jay-Bird.

We grew up visiting Dad’s family at Easter & Christmas & during Dad’s summer breaks, whenever we lived close enough to get to Hinesville in less than 4 days. Dad & Mom went to visit with Jack & Inez. They’d bring the cousins over later.

We’d all set down to dinner at our Great Aunt’s & Uncle’s house: Miz Tempie & Uncle Edward. When Mom & Dad drove away, Bob & I dashed out to the trail. I hung 15 tiny voodoo dolls in trees. They were made of yarn twisted around twigs. Smaller twigs were arms & legs. The hair was Spanish Moss. I’d hidden them in the box my patent leather shoes came in. Mom would kill me if she found out I’d put those fancy shoes under my bed. Dust would get on them!

Bob unrolled signs I’d painted, wrapping the rubber bands around his wrist.
“Cool! Dixie, excellent!” My brother was born enthusiastic.

Leering skulls with worms crawling out of the eye sockets decorated 3 signs. I’d used Dad’s black & red permanent magic markers in case of rain. Bob nailed the signs up onto trees along the pathway. Then he put a bag of ice into the hole of the big old oak. On top, he set the box full of Kool Pops.

We dashed back to Grandma’s. Dad’s & Uncle Jacks cars were pulling up the gravel driveway! We ran over to greet our cousins.

“Hey, guys!” Bob enticed, “Wanna walk over to the old drive-in?”  

“Oh, Lordie no. it’s So hot!” Debbie complained.

“Just a short walk. We were in the car all day long! We gotta get some exercise.”

“Yeah,” I agreed. “Then get supper at Miz Tempie’s. Iced tea & all!”

“OK, let’s go.” Rusty agreed with anything Bob said. They were close in age, like Debbie & me, Kim & Kathi. Jay-Bird was the wild card.

Bob announced at the start of the trail. “I am the Safari Leader. Beware that you might hear wild animals. But do not fear! I have a big stick.” He picked up a tree limb he’d laid there after we’d set up the Witch Trail.

“This is the Witch Trail,” my brother whispered.

“I never heard of that,” Debbie looked all around for witches.

“C’mon scairdy cat,” Rusty insisted. We all followed Bob.

I lagged behind as he’d commanded.

“Look! A Monkey!” I did my best monkey call, based on Tarzan movies & a monkey that lived in a gift shop in Clearmont, Florida where we’d lived a few years back.

“Where? I don’t see it.” The other kids looked all around but didn’t notice it was me making the sound effects.

“What’s This!” Bob grabbed a voodoo doll out of one tree & threw it over his head.  

“AAA!” Screamed Kim & Debbie.

“Witch doll,” Bob whispered. Stay quiet. They must be nearby.” He crept along, hunched down & we all followed suit.

“What’s that?” Debbie pointed at one of my skull & crossbones signs.

I put my hand over my mouth to keep from laughing. My little sister turned & saw me. I zipped my mouth ‘quiet’ to get her in on it. She scowled. Wise to our trickiness. I bent over & whispered in her ear.

“Kathi, there’s going to be a prize so Please don’t tell.”  She nodded, still frowning.

“Now we are in Owl Territory!” Bob announced.
I put my hands together & blew the soft hoot.

“Lordie! Owls claw!” Debbie shrieked.

“They ought not to be out in th’ day,” Rusty was suspicious. He knew Bob was a Trickster.

Bob hacked his way through a huge stand of palmettos with his big stick. He shoved a hand into the oak tree’s hole.

“Bobby! NO! It could be an owl up in there!” all the girl cousins hollered.  

“What IS this?” my brother pulled out the box of Kool Pops. “Look you guys. Popsicles.”  

We all ran toward our Safari Leader. “What color do you want?”  

“Red!”  “Orange!”  “Purple!”  

“The pirates left treasure for us. Now we must turn back for supper.” Bob marched down the trail to take the lead. We all followed. By the time we got back to Miz Bonnie’s, each of us was covered with popsicle coloring, face, hands, shirts soaked in the melted syrup. We crowded over the kitchen & bathroom sinks, trying to get clean before our parents saw us.

23 years later, Mom & Dad came back from a visit to Georgia. Dad called me & said “What the hell was that Witch Trail?”  

“Oh, that was one of Bob’s big ideas.”  I laughed.

“You people scared the living hell out of Debbie & them.”  

“Dad, they knew it was us. It was goofy. We had popsicles in a tree.”  

“Debbie said they believed there were witches down there. So they never went on that trail again. I don’t know what gets into you sometimes.”

Of course, it was all me. Bob was the Navy Hero. I was shocked. Bob & I loved telling stories but we surely did not want to scar anyone for life!

 

 

 

Stealing Copper: Crime Pays

In the dark of night, I heard the guys get up out of bed & rustle around. Mrs. P was snoring in her bedroom down the hall. Danae was sleeping quietly. The moon shone brightly through our thin curtains. I had insomnia from Day One but could sleep if the drapes were thick & dark. Mom had sewn beautiful, lined royal blue, full length curtains for the two windows in my Great Falls bedroom. But this was the crash pad. Nothing fancy now.

I stood at the window-door, overlooking the parking lot. RW & his two younger brothers snuck across the asphalt, toward a construction site south of the complex. What were they going to do?

I slid my Levi’s on & put a shirt over my sleep-T. Tip-toed into the living room & tied up my Keds. Crept out the front door, down stairs & began running toward where the boys were. I caught up with them just as Cameron was whispering, “Here’s some!”

What the heck are you guys up to?” I demanded. Hands on hips like I did at Lake Fairfax Park in my Junior Park Ranger uniform when I caught someone smoking in the forest.

Jr. Park Ranger

Jesus, Dixie! You scared me to death. Go on home.” RW shooshed at me with his hands.

No way. You are stealing. I know it. What’s that, Cameron?”

Cameron sheepishly held up a loop of copper tubing. It gleamed in the moonlight.

Listen, Dixie” Cameron got close to me. “We are starving! You weigh about 90 pounds right now! Mom’s check only goes so far. And the food stamps run out by the middle of each month. You & RW are working as hard as you can but that money is gone! This is necessity!”

I have to use my money for college. I’ve gotta take classes & get a better education so I can get a better job. I am not going to run a cash register & clean bathrooms all my life!”

Nobody expects you to,” RW said. “But this shall bring us a princely sum.”
He held up a large loop of copper.

Where are you even going to sell it? Everyone will know it’s stolen! They might report you to the cops.”

Breathe deep, Mama San. Ain’t gonna happen. My boss will buy this outright.”

What? Your construction boss? He’ll know you don’t own a copper business!”

Get back home. Leave this to the men.”

Augh! Some men! Cameron is only 15!”

And I’d work if anybody would hire me. But they all say ‘cut your hair’ & that ain’t never gonna happen.”

Cameron had gorgeous, golden-red curls that fell to his shoulders. Nobody wanted him to ever cut that lovely hair.

Well, OK but if you get arrested I will not bail you out! And that’s Final!”

The boys laughed. “The rules girl strikes again!”

I snuck back up to my bedroom. Danae woke up, What’s going on?”

Nothing. I was just outside talking to RW about something.”

Outside! Why outside? About what?”

He was smoking a cigarette. You know your mother won’t let anybody smoke in the apartment. Just this & that, working, making money & all that jive. Let’s try to get some sleep. You have school tomorrow & I have to go to work & classes.”

I tossed & turned until hearing the boys return at nearly dawn. They rattled around in their bedroom, clanking pipes & whatnot. I got up & went to have a look. RW was shoving copper tubing into a big satchel.

Lord! How much money can you get for that?”

We shall see, my Love. We shall see.”

He came home from his construction job that night, flashing six twenties around. He handed his mother four of the bills. Gave me one & kept the other for his own spending cash.

Son, should I ask where you got this?” Mrs. P fingered the money & the cross around her neck.

No, Mama. Just be happy we can buy food.”

We ate well for the next two weeks. Baked chicken, mashed potatoes, corn on the cob! Mrs. P even made brownies.

Crime Pays!” I whispered to RW as we washed dishes.

He laughed, “Sometimes it do, Mama San. Sometimes it do.”

But we kept our jobs. RW doing construction & tree trimmer. Me at Lum’s, running the cash register. Mrs. P cleaning apartments.

Lums friend

My friend & co-worker at Lum’s Tavern  Northern Virginia

WE’RE SO SORRY!

I shouldn’t have been so uppity & self-righteous with the boys about the copper tubing. A few years prior to the copper incident, I’d gone with RW, his brothers & sister to a falling down mansion in Herndon.

It’s abandoned!” cried Cameron. “The old lady got sent to the nuthouse. Let’s go in.”

No deal,” Rules Girl struck. But I did sneak up to peer in through the dirty windows. It was hard to see anything.

The door’s ajar. It’s not liking breaking in or anything,” said RW’s little sister.

If the door is a jar, how will we enter?” Joked RW. Oh, I hated puns!

You guys go ahead. I’ll look in through the door but I am not breaking & entering.” I was adamant.

They went inside the once-elegant house, one by one. Sunlight shone on an oaken, living room floor covered in papers & books. There were built-in shelves full of leather-bound books. It was like the Library of Congress. Temptation caught me. I rushed over to flip through pages. Found an autograph scrapbook. There were sketches, watercolours, signatures like “To Angel From your Dickie Bird! August 8, 1928.”

Oh, wow! This is History,” I shouted.

The boys were creeping up ancient stairs. “Come back, you might fall through!” I was only slightly worried. The books held my interest in a vise grip. But it wasn’t fair. If the lady came home from the insane asylum, wouldn’t she want her items all neatly shelved? I began picking books & knick-knacks off the floor, dusting them off & replacing them on the shelves.

What in tarnation are you doing, Dixie?” asked Danae.

Cleaning up in case the owner comes home.”

Geeze, you are So weird. She’s probably dead. Look how old everything is!”

We could sell that chandelier for a thousand bucks!” yelled RW from the second floor.

No, you don’t! That is dangerous, you’d fall & crack your head. Get down here this minute. I’m going home & if you want a ride, you will leave now!”

Everyone moaned but teased me all the way to their house.
“Dixie, why don’t you write a new 10 Commandments! Thou shalt not go upstairs. Thou shalt not take one little book.”

Or a chandelier made of cut glass!” I was furious.

A few months later, RW & his mother (!!) persuaded me to drive everyone to the old lady’s house. I took them & Cameron but refused to go inside. I sat in the car, reading a book, studying for yet another Langley High exam. I was so engrossed in my studies, I didn’t see a car pull up behind mine.

A tap at the window. A cop! Oh my God!

Are you the getaway driver?” He was almost chortling. My eyes were as huge as Betty Boop’s.

No, sir! I did not want to go in! I am waiting to drive them home. They’re just exploring.”

He marched toward the house. Should I hit the horn to warn them? That would be obvious. The officer would get mad. I sat sweating with fear.

The cop came back post haste. He led the troupe, Mrs. P in front.

How old are you, M’am?” he asked her.

Forty,” she hung her head.

Well then you ought to know better. That woman goes in & out of the madhouse. She has a 30 ought 6 shotgun & she will use it! You are lucky she wasn’t at home. Now ya’ll get on. If I see you here again, I’ll arrest the lot of you. Pay more attention to Little Miss Do-Good here.”

I blushed like crazy. I hated being called a goody two shoes. I was wilder than Anyone but I’d perfected an innocent, wide-eyed look from the time I was 6, to prevent beatings from Dad when he was in a rage fit.

We’re SO sorry, Sir. It won’t happen again,” I promised.

All the way home, the kids repeated that phrase. Mrs. P told them to stop but they kept on for weeks. “We’re SO sorry, Sir!”