As a child, I was encouraged to believe that Yankees ate their dead.
Yes, the Civil War had been over not quite a hundred years, but somehow the topic was still fresh in Texas. This feeling was encouraged by countless TV shows and a weird revival of Civil War clothing and toys in the stores. As a child we rarely played cowboys and Indians, we refought the War of Northern Aggression. And the South invariably won these reenactments, in part because the Northern army, Texas Division, was pitifully puny; we only had one Yankee kid for miles around, he was forced to fight alone.
Actually, this one poor child didn’t do much fighting; all I seem to remember were his lengthy and dramatic death scenes. This kid could die better than anyone I’ve ever seen, staggering and flopping around for 10 minutes while moaning piteously. His deaths were a glorious conclusion for every victorious battle for, at least the way we kids interpreted history, the south never lost.
Predisposed to hate the north by geography and popular will, I was greatly encouraged by my uncle, who besides providing me with the information that northern funerals were a buffet, filled my head with incredible lies about the world outside of Texas. Actually he believed there was little of value north or east of Fort Worth.
You can imagine my horror when my Dad announced that the family was taking a vacation, by car, to Illinois to visit a preacher friend of the family. Now, I was a product of Texas public education, but I was pretty sure Illinois was a suburb of New York, for damn sure in Yankee territory .
I remember very little of the trip up to Illinois, probably because I spent the entire trip with my nose in a book, but when we arrived on the outskirts of Springfield, Illinois I was fascinated. This was a real city, and for a country boy, there were amazing sights. We stayed in a motel, with a pool. And I had never seen so many cars and stores and people. Best of all, right across the street from the motel was an ice cream stand!
Now, I knew all about ice cream, and I had bought it before, but I don’t think I had ever seen a small store whose sole business was to sell ice cream. My father gave me a dollar and let me go get two cones for myself and my brother. When I went to the corner, I found another modern marvel of urban life. There was a sign there that said, “Walk” and “Don’t Walk”.
I’d seen traffic lights, but a lit sign that would help you cross the street was simply amazing. This must be what they meant by city conveniences. I waited until the sign said I was safe, crossed the street and bought two ice cream cones (chocolate) and then stood on the sidewalk and waited until the sign said it was safe to cross. I stepped off the curb….and got promptly rammed by a Chevy. I got knocked a dozen feet and the damn ice cream cones went flying.
I was killed. No, wait, that’s not right, but it felt about like that. Frankly, it hurt, my whole left side felt like it was being eaten by ants. I just lay there in the street trying to get my breath back. The driver, a worried woman, hovered over me and started asking questions about 20% faster than I could hear. Ever notice this about Yankees?
Before I could get my eyes uncrossed, a policeman and a rather large crowd had gathered around me, everyone was talking at once and asking me questions. The policeman helped me over to the curb and I just sat there scared out of my wits. This was more people than I had ever seen in one spot outside of church and rodeo.
“Are you hurt?”
“What’s your name? Where do you live?”
“Are you okay?”
“Where does your father work?”
Obviously, my uncle had been right about Yankees. They have lying signs, they ruin your ice cream, they hit you with cars, and then they want to know every blasted thing about you. And as sure as shooting, Dad wasn’t going to give me another dollar for ice cream.
Well, I was only about 10 years old, but even a kid knows you don’t lead the enemy back home. I wasn’t about to tell them where my family was, these Yankees would probably line the whole family up and hit 'em with cars one at a time. So I stood up and started walking, and not towards the motel across the street.
And, of course, the whole crowd, including the policeman, started following me. Looking back, it’s easy to see what these good natured folks wanted, they wanted to make sure I was okay; they wanted to tell my folks what had happened to me. And, no doubt, they wanted to go through my pockets and get the rest of that dollar: fifty years ago two ice creams cones only cost twenty cents. Damn Yankees.
Well, there I was leading the enemy away from my family, sacrificing myself to spare them…except I wasn’t. I got once around the block, ended up right about where I had started and simply had to sit down because my side hurt. The policeman promptly walked up to me and put his hand on my shoulder; I knew I wasn’t going anywhere.
It was about this time that my father came looking for the idiot child who took half an hour to walk across the street and back. He found me as soon as he came out of the motel room, I was not exactly hard to find as I had a rather impressive, and slightly official, entourage. Dad always said later that he wasn’t exactly surprised to see that crowd around me and that the policeman’s hand on my shoulder looked sort of natural.
I saw my father and tried to motion him off while trying to send the mental message, “Run! Save yourself!” It was no use, before long, the enemy had surrounded my father, too.
Everything quickly got better. I got a ride to the hospital and x-rays showed no fractures. I had a world class bruise, and eventually, even got the ice cream.
Two weeks later, I told my uncle the whole story. Predictably, he thought the tale was hilarious and equally predictably, he provided the story its moral.
“Boy, don’t watch them lights, watch the cars,” he cackled. “Them lights ain’t never kilt nobody.”