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Monday, April 28, 2014

Cell Phones and Children, Part 2

One day, driving back from a zoo in rural Oklahoma, I spotted what looked like three small children sitting on the edge of a state highway. It was a two lane road, on a long flat stretch way out in the country--semitrailers were roaring by at 80 miles an hour. I glanced back and didn't see a car, or any sign of an adult. I looked again in the rearview mirror and finally pulled over, hundreds of yards past where the kids were huddled together--three of them, their  heads bent, staring at their feet. I backed up in the breakdown lane as carefully as I could while my boys were freaking out, yelling MOM WHAT ARE YOU DOING MOM WHAT ARE YOU DOING WHAT ARE YOU DOING???

After pulling as far from the road as I could, I got out of the car and approached the three children. The oldest, I swear, was no more than five years old. The other two looked about two and three. They stared at me with big eyes, terrified.

The oldest boy was gripping a cell phone in his hand.

"Hi, " I said, keeling down. "I'm a mom --I have my kids in the car--they are about your age. We just went to the zoo." I pointed to my boys, who were hanging their heads out the window staring. The kids said nothing.

"You guys should not be out here by yourself," I said, as another tractor-trailer whizzed by just a few feet away. "Where do you live?" (teaching public school had taught me not to ask "Where's your mom" without getting more information.)

"Down there," said the oldest boy, gesturing toward a deep ditch and an impenetrable hedge of vines and barbed wire. I couldn't see where they had gotten through, or any houses.

The little boy held up his cell phone.

"Our dad said he won't come get us. He said if we got lost, we can find our own way back."

"Well, can you call him again? You can't stay here."

The little boy dialed again. I could hear a voice barking on the other end.

"He's not coming," the boy said again. His little brother and sister looked utterly dejected. I peered again at the hedge. Not too far down the road, I could see a road that curved back toward this way--maybe it would lead to their house.

We waited. More trucks went by and the ground shook. Most were going so fast they didn't even notice our odd little group. I looked at the little boy clutching his phone, his tiny brother and sister each gripping an arm.

"You can't stay here," I said again. "It's too dangerous. It's dangerous for my kids to be sitting in my car up there. If I drove you, could you show me where you house is?"

At this the poor kids looked absolutely petrified. At least someone had told them not to ride with strangers--but what a joke--they maybe weighed 50 lbs all together! I could have wrestled them all into my car--but only at the risk of frightening them to death, getting bitten, or by the looks of these poor kids, getting arrested for kidnapping at the request of some seriously scary-ass redneck dad when I did get them home.  As for that cell phone keeping them safe--all I would have had to do was take it out of the little guy's hand.

We waited. After maybe fifteen minutes, I had finally decided to call the police to come get them when I heard a man shouting from other side of the ditch. One massive red forearm punched through the bramble hedge, pushing down a strand of barbed wire. A face appeared under a tattered baseball cap. There were teeth missing, and tattoos. It was the dad. He yelled something incomprehensible at the kids. I gave him the nastiest look I could. Then I bent down and to the oldest boy.

"Listen, " I said, "You can't ever come back here. Don't ever come near this road again--okay? Next time, it might not be a mom who stops--anyone could have picked you up. Do you understand?" He stared at me and nodded seriously.

His dad, trapped in the hedge, yelled something that sounded like "Frickin dagnabbit y'all!"  I stood up. The three kids scampered for the opening in the hedge. I watched them climb over the barbed wire and disappear. The dad didn't give me a backward glance.

I thought, You're welcome! You total disgrace to Oklahoma fatherhood! 

Letting three preschoolers go free range with a cell phone!

I got back in my car. My boys were silent. I did not normally pull off the highway and confront abandoned children. All I could say the whole ride home was "Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God."

Palmer finally said, "Mom! Why do you keep saying that?"

I tried to explain. They glazed over at "Parents really should never...."

I promised myself I would try to teach my kids sense instead of cell phone skills. Whether or not I have succeeded-- the jury is still out. If anyone sees my kids on the side of a highway, please let me know.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

If Farmer Boy Had a Cell Phone

One day--several years ago, in another state--I was standing at my kitchen sink, looking out the window, when a kid from the neighborhood, "Billy," rode by on his bike. He was riding in typical 10-year-old-on-a-perfectly-flat-street style: he was pedaling standing up and pumping as hard as humanly possibly, so that his bike jerked madly from side to side.

Then, wham, he hit something (maybe a tumbleweed, or a dead armadillo, or a tarantula) and wiped out. He flew off his bike and lay stunned in the street. He seemed perfectly fine, other than being surprised.  I watched him, thinking: Heavens to Murgatroyde, kid, get out of the street! But instead of a) pushing his bike off of himself, or b) getting out of the street, Billy fumbled in his sweatshirt for his phone. He then appeared to call several different numbers before finally reaching his mom.

All this while he was sprawled in the street, with his bike still lying on top of him.

After talking to his mom for  about two seconds, Billy sprang up and dragged his bike out of the street (obviously her first question was "Are you still lying in the road?"). After hauling his bike to the curb, Billy called his mom back to see what he should do next. (He was all of two blocks from home!) Apparently, Mom wisely instructed him to just get back on his bike and keep going, which he did,  after carefully zipping his cell phone back into his pocket.

Farmer Boy's dad would have walked away in disgust and left Billy to get run over by a minivan.

When Farmer Boy was eight--eight!--he had to learn to haul logs with his own little bobsled, driving the two oxen he had trained himself over many long winter hours in the barn. His dad's method of teaching him to haul wood was sending him out with the the bobsled, the oxen, and two French kids  for a whole day to figure it out.

Pierre and Louis rolled the log an inch, then Almanzo stuck his pole under it and held it, while Pierre and Louis rolled it again. They got the log high up on the steep skids. 

Almanzo was holding it with all his might. His legs were braced and his teeth were clenched and his neck strained and his eyes felt bulging out, when suddenly the whole log slipped. 

The pole jerked out of his hands and hit his head. The log was falling on him. He tried to get away, but it smashed him down into the snow. Pierre and Louis screamed and kept screaming. Almanzo couldn't get up. The log was on top of him. Father and John lifted it, and Almamzo crawled out. He managed to get up on his feet. 

"Hurt, son?" Father asked him. 

Almanzo was afraid he was going to be sick at his stomach. He managed to say, "No, Father...."

"Accidents will happen, son," Father said, "Take more care next time. Men must look out for themselves in the timber." 

Billy would have whipped out his phone, called his mom and said "I'm under a log!" before he was slowly crushed to death. Father Wilder would have probably just shaken his head and said, "Guess he wasn't meant to be."

Next week: Cell phones, part 2: the time I found three children under 5 and a cell phone on the side of a state highway. 

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Farmer Boy Meets Wrath of Khan

Several years ago, my family watched “Star Trek, Wrath of Khan”—the one where the evil Khan puts carnivorous leeches in the ears of his prisoners, and they crawl in and eat the prisoner’s brains! This was possibly a little too scary for my kids, because the next day in school, my older son, age 10, announced that he was going to make a new weapon out of snails and jello, and was planning to bring it to school the next day, in a baggie. 

pastedGraphic.pngMy poor kid. He was thinking about brain eating alien leeches wielded by Ricardo Montalban in a leather thong, and the schools are dealing with assault weapons. Thus, five minutes later,  he was suspended for  using the word  "weapon."  It is really sad that our teachers and administrators are no longer permitted to use their own common sense, such as teaching kids to identify things that are an actual threat to their safety, and things that are, in all likelihood, not. Snails and jello together in a baggie—unless I am just hopelessly behind the times!—fall into this category.

Farmer Boy was faced with a very real threat at school, and the way the adults coped with it was something he remembered  for the rest of his life: 

Five big boys were scuffling in the snow by the the path. Almanzo was frightened when he saw them…They were the big boys from Hardscrabble Settlement, and everybody was afraid of them. These big boys were sixteen and seventeen years old, and they came to school only in the middle of the winter term. The came to thrash the teacher and break up school. They boasted that no teacher could finish winter term in that school, and no teacher ever had….Almanzo felt sick when he thought about how to big boys would beat Mr. Corse. 

After school, Mr. Corse comes home with Almanzo and his brother and sisters to take his turn boarding at the Wilder’s . Almanzo’s father tells Mr. Corse that the previous winter, the teacher, Jonas Lane, had later died as a result of the beating he received from the five boys from Hardscrabble Settlement. Mr. Corse says, “I know. Jonas Lane was my friend.” 

The next day at school, the big boys make their move on  Mr. Corse:

The door banged pen, and Big Bill Ritchie swaggered in. The other big boys were behind him. 

“Come on, boys!” He rushed up the aisle. Almanzo felt sick inside; he didn’t want to watch, but he couldn’t help it….Mr Corse stepped away from his desk. His hand came from behind the desk lid, and a long, thin, black streak hissed through the air. It was a blacksnake ox-whip, fifteen feet long. Mr Corse held the short handle, loaded with iron, that could kill an ox. The thin, long lash coiled around Bill’s legs, and Mr. Corse jerked. Bill lurched and almost fell. Quick as black lightning the lash jerked and circled and struck and coiled again, and again Mr. Corse jerked…Bill’s trousers were cut through, his shirt was slashed, and his arms were bleeding from the bite of the lash. He began to bawl like a calf. He blubbered and begged. ….The other big boys had got the window open. One, two, three, they jumped out into the deep snow and floundered away. 

That night at supper, Almanzo’s father says:

“The boys didn’t throw you out, Royal tells me,” 
“No,” said Mr. Corse, “Thanks to your blacksnake whip.”

Almanzo stopped eating. He sat and looked at Father. Father had known, all the time. Almamzo was sure that father was the smartest man in the world, as well as the biggest and strongest. 

I don’t really wish my kids were going to school in the 1880’s—pre anti-biotics, vaccines, and child labor laws. But I do wish they could witness a little more common sense.