“When I was a little bitty baby I was pale as a ghost” Granddaddy laughed at the thought of his younger self. “My hair was white and my skin was light, but Mammy said that my cheeks were pink as rosebuds and that was why she wasn’t spooked of me.” I laughed at the thought of anybody being afraid of my cute Granddaddy, especially his own Momma.
“Most folks” Granddaddy continued his reminiscing, “most folks, in these parts were some shade of brown or red including my two older sisters, two older brothers, and two brothers that were twins born just ten months after me. Then there was my baby sister, Laura Beth. She was fair like me, and I loved her best… except for my big sister Claire, who I worshipped. I was Claire’s doll baby and she spoiled me rotten. But she didn’t treat me gently, she was harsh sometimes, and that was a good thing because if I hadn’t had her swatting my legs when I was bad, I would have really turned out awful. She didn’t kill my spirit though, she just directed it. She never criticized me, she just corrected me… and there is a big difference in the two. And Claire was my biggest helpmate. When I got into school, she saved me from being a first-grade drop-out. Often times it was her and me against the world, or at least it seemed that way.”
Even if my Granddaddy didn’t stand out in a crowd because of his light hair and eyes, he had a way about him that made him seem like he was up to something, even if he wasn’t. He had a smile that was a product of him enjoying himself and his life that some people might misconstrue for chronic mischief. While he was the prime suspect in a few infamous ventures of folly, he was usually too busy plowing or planting or harvesting or tending to the hogs and other livestock to get into too much trouble. There was an exception to this, however… and exception by the name of Mister Able Tucker.
“We had a plan… we wanted to teach Mr. Tucker several lessons. Of course Mr. Tucker’s humiliation of me and my subsequent wetting myself was on the list, but as the year went on, and Mr. Tucker continued to be our teacher, more and more items were added to our “teaching points” list. Claire and I knew that we had to be careful. We had to make our plans perfect to ensure that we didn’t get caught, and we had to spread out the time we performed our private lessons so that there was no way to predict when or where the next one would happen. Sometimes Claire and I would enlist the aid of my big brothers when we needed some extra manpower, and they were only too happy to assist whenever asked.
“Our very first lesson had to wait until Christmas time. Mr. Tucker at this point in the school year didn’t realize that a mutiny was about to take place, and that before long he was going to need an extra eye in the back of his head to keep watch for all of the “goodies” that were about to befall him. He had no idea that anything had changed, so he continued to be his horrible self. Every year that he had been the teacher at Creek Side, Mr. Tucker had been the recipient of quite a lot of Christmas gifts. Families took time and effort to nicely wrap and ribbon a holiday gift for the teacher. The children knew that Mr. Tucker was undeserving, but giving a gift to your teacher was tradition, and no parents would even consider not presenting a nice gift. Mr. Tucker got banana bread and sugar cookies, jam cake and chocolate pie. He got knitted hats and scarves and mittens. He got enough jars of jellies and jams and apple butter and marmalade and chow-chow to last him until the next Christmas or even beyond. He also got nuts and oranges and some of the wealthier families gave him pens and journals or nicely bound books… sometimes even a belt or a nice pair of shoes.
“The reason that we chose Christmas to be our first lesson we taught was because Mr. Tucker had always made it a point to open up all of his gifts on the last day of school in front of everyone. This might not seem like such a bad thing to do if his intentions were to thank each individual gift-giver and make a fuss over how nice and thoughtful the presents all were. I can only speculate, but I reckon that part of his reasoning for opening up all of his gifts in front of us all was his desire to make us envious of what he got. Some of the children in our school wouldn’t have anything more than a couple of pecans and walnuts and if they were lucky an orange or a pair of socks in their stocking. Some of the students knew that their momma’s had used precious sugar and cinnamon to make the cookies that Mr. Tucker had buried underneath his other gifts… and that those cookies would be no more than crumbs and probably thrown out without ever even being tasted by the end of the day.
“So Mr. Tucker would open each gift up slowly and show everyone what he had gotten, ‘Well, look at this’ he would announce in this high-pitched whiny voice, ‘it looks like the Shelton’s have given me a ham…again’. All of the children, including us Shelton’s would just sit there amazed that Mr. Tucker could act like the gift of the best meat in the county was nothing. ‘And the Bibb family has given me a bag of chestnuts. Did you gather those up on your own property or did you sneak over to your neighbors?’
“If Mr. Tucker made any comment about a gift it was likely to cause the giver a great deal of mortification. And he would drag it out. Bless the children whose families couldn’t afford more than a trinket. One year Mr. Tucker got a pretty shiny button that had been beautifully sewed onto a ribbon. ‘And what do we have here?’ Mr. Tucker snarled. ‘It’s a bookmark that my momma sewed just for you,’ a timid little voice spoke up. ‘So that’s what it is?’ and Abel Tucker stood up dramatically, took a couple of swaggering steps toward the trash bin, and threw it away! Just like that, he tossed it in the trash. Later that day when Mr. Tucker stepped out for a second my big brother Wayne went right up and dug that shiny button out of the trash. I don’t know what might have happened if Mr. Tucker had walked in and seen him do it… but by the look on Wayne’s face it wouldn’t have mattered. Wayne was a big boy and as strong as an ox. Just so you know, the little girl who’s Momma made that bookmark is your great-aunt Janie. I think she fell in love with Wayne that very day. She worships the ground that he walks on… and he adores her too.”
That was all fine and good, but we weren‘t interested in Great Uncle Wayne and Aunt Janie‘s budding romance right then. “Granddaddy! What was the first lesson! What did you and Claire do?”
“Yes, yes. Well, we had enough of seeing Mr. Tucker not appreciate all of the thought and hard-work that went into his gifts, and we were sick of hearing him criticize when he should have been grateful. So that first year Claire and I decided to give him a special gift. All five of us Shelton’s in school saved our fingernail and toenail clipping in a box. Four months worth of clippings adds up.
When we didn’t have anything else to do Chester, Wayne, Claire, Carrie and I would all sit around and practice looking stone faced …and disgusted… and shocked. We couldn’t let on in the least that we knew what was inside of the box. We couldn’t look excited, or anxious or guilty or giddy. We wanted to make certain that our reactions were fitting for what was about to occur. We wanted to make sure that our faces and reaction didn’t give us away.
“Claire had taken great care to make sure that the little box was wrapped with beautiful foil paper and velvet ribbon that she had found behind a gift store down town. She also gave our big brother Chester explicit directions to put the ham closest to Mr. Tucker to open first, and to put the little box in the way back so that it wouldn’t be seen until the very last. Chester had to be sneaky. We all entered the classroom after almost everyone else had already entered. The other gifts had been placed down by Mr. Tucker’s desk. When we entered Chester had both gifts, with the small wrapped box carefully hidden between himself and the ham. Claire had ingeniously planned to have Wayne trip and make a loud racket while going to his seat on the other side of the room to distract everyone’s gaze. He was to time this at just the exact time that Chester made it to Mr. Tucker’s desk with our “gift.” It worked brilliantly and Wayne’ s commotion afforded Chester just enough time to set the gifts in the exact perfect spots just as planned. On any other day Wayne would have probably gotten a lashing for his carelessness… but on this day in particular, Mr. Tucker was smugly pleased with anticipation. He wasn’t pleased from his excitement at the gifts themselves… but his excitement at how awful he was able to make everyone feel… and at Christmas time. When Charles Dickens wrote about Ebenezer Scrooge, he must have been thinking about Mr. Tucker before he got scared by the ghosts! But if you remember… he had called me a ghost on that first day! Ha! I never thought about that!”
“GRANDADDY, PLEASE GET ON WITH THE STORY!”
“All right. All right.” And he slowly started to regain focus. By now even Grandma had a grin on her face.
Granddaddy continued with his story… much to our delight, “ So just like all of the other Christmas-gift-opening days at school, Mr. Tucker relished the unwrapping, the haranguing and the snide commenting more than anything else he did all year-long. Finally, though it was the very end of the pile of ‘pooh-poohed’ presents. There was only one medium-sized gift left. Mr. Tucker picked it up, unwrapped it and found his third scarf of the day inside. ‘Well, I‘ll be. Will you just look at the pile of yarn I have accumulated today? I believe I will open up my own ugly knitted-goods store where I will sale only tacky winter outerwear made with hideously rough yarn.’ But then the last beautifully wrapped gift caught his eye. By design it had been half-hidden behind the farthest away gift and the corner of Mr. Tucker’s desk at the place farthest from his chair. ‘Well, then, what is this? He held it up and noticed that it was light. It didn’t make any sound because we had lined the box with felt.
“Slowly Mr. Tucker unwrapped his gift, but he didn’t ask who it was from, so nobody claimed it, although of course the givers never would have anyway! Slowly he took off the expensive, pretty paper and the ribbon. Mr. Tucker kept glancing toward the only girl in our school that could be considered truly wealthy… and she squirmed and averted her eyes. Everyone else was watching the unveiling with rapt fascination…everybody’s eyes were big… a lot like you children’s!” And Granddaddy stopped his story to look bug-eyed back at each one of us and laugh before he continued on.
“Cleverly though, Claire had used wax to make all of the sides but one stick together so that the box would have to be pried open carefully. And just as Mr. Tucker got his thumbs under the lid to split off the top, the bottom fell away and our months and months worth of toenail and fingernail clippings fell out all over Mr. Tucker’s lap.”
Granddaddy stopped to laugh at the memory, and we all laughed at Granddaddy’s hysteria just as much as the thought of the Mr. Tucker covered in somebody else’s dirty toenails.
After what seemed like forever Granddaddy got control of himself. He wiped his eyes and took a few deep breaths, and he continued on. “That was just the first anonymous Christmas gift Mr. Tucker got.”
“What happened when he opened the box of nails?”
“That sounds like almost a normal gift… I’m glad no body had given him a hammer to go with his “box of nails” or somebody probably would have died that day. I have never seen anybody so fit to be tied! Mr. Tucker flew into a rabid rage.” Granddaddy started laughing and crying and wiping his eyes all over again.
“Thomas…please. Surely he wouldn’t have really hurt anybody. It was almost Christmas! And you’ll were just children… and it was just a joke.” Grandma looked upset at the thought of Mr. Tucker wielding a hammer in anger. It was a scary image.
“Well, I don’t know Rose… but nobody got hit by a hammer. All I know is that the clippings fell out everywhere, and children thought that it was a box full of dried up maggots so everyone jumped up screaming and ran out the front, back and side doors. It was the end of the day any how and it was already way past time to go. Mr. Tucker had dragged out his humiliation even longer than usual. But I must say, it was worth the wait! Mr. Tucker was in such a state of shock, that he didn’t even notice that he hadn’t dismissed us. It would be a couple of weeks before we had go back to school, and over the holiday there was a lot of gossip and misinformation spread around. Nobody took responsibility, and all of us Shelton’s denied having anything to do with it just as vehemently as the rest. The common belief was that there had been some food or candy in the box that had been wrapped a while back and that it had just gone bad. By the time that school started back, that was what everyone had decided… but Mr. Tucker knew the truth. He knew that it hadn’t been an accident, and that it wasn’t a good gift gone bad. Mr. Tucker knew that the gift had been a prank… he knew that it hadn’t been a box of dead and dried maggots but something equally as repulsive.
“Mr. Tucker’s Christmas gift unwrapping session had been sabotaged and he made it his number one priority to get to the bottom of it. If nothing else, my and Claire’s first lesson caused Mr. Tucker to be on high alert and exert his energies into observing and tracking down the culprit or culprits. His usual focus on abusing his students was now diverted. Claire and I realized that Mr. Tucker was obsessed…but everyone was benefiting from his distraction, so we figured that we would keep up the good work.”