When We Were Young
Barefootin’ in Newell
from the pen of Marsha L. Burris
Summer arrived for us the first warm day we could shed shoes and socks. No calendar was
consulted. Feeling the lush cool clover under our feet meant school-free days were nigh. Waiting for our bus to arrive on those last few dew-laden and day-dreamy mornings was endured only by striking another day from the imaginary count-down that resided inside every student’s head.
Up, dressed and breakfasted, my sibs and I exited the front door of our 1950s brick rancher at the appointed time like obedient soldiers in an efficient tactical assault to catch our respective buses. Our precision left no room for error and we had no backup plan if we missed the bus. For Rusty, my mother who commanded a tight platoon of four, failure was not an option. She fought the school board to get our rural road included on its bus route because Mom believed walking down a road with no sidewalks and crossing a busy railroad track was hazardous to our health. The elementary, junior high and senior high school buses now stopped in front of our home to pick up my brother and sister and me. Our tax dollars put that bus into active duty. That was our transportation to school. If we were not on that bus each week-day morning, we were welcome to stay home and help Rusty with the chores. Our house occupied three acres on the corner of a large dairy farm run by our godparents. There was no shortage of chores. We made every effort to catch that bus.
My best friend and her family lived a half mile due east of us. The McLaughlins – at least this branch of the clan – had fewer entries on their to-do list than we Burris’ had. And their mother was no drill sergeant.
Jewell and Rusty were good friends. In a personality assessment, they would be as different as any yin-and-yang comparison you would care to make. But in physical attributes, they shared several similarities. Broad open faces with smiles that made you glad to be in their presence. Thick auburn hair, worn nearly to their shoulders – the natural shade of Rusty’s enhanced somewhat by her own hand. Strong bronzed arms, free of unsightly tan lines because they both wore cool, sleeveless pastel seersucker blouses they had ‘run up’ for themselves from scratch using a remnant bought on sale at Cochran’s Fabric Shop. Denim colored short-shorts displayed long, brown shapely legs that made more than a few heads swivel in Newell. And, barefooters. Both of them.
Rusty worked in the yard barefoot. She cooked and washed clothes barefoot. And she once ran out into the snow on our front lawn to chase down a dog barefoot. But when driving to the grocery store or post office or up the road to visit Jewell, Rusty slipped on a dainty pair of Skimmers.
“No reason to tempt Fate,” she quipped, defending her act of barefoot rebellion. “If the car breaks down and I have to walk to get help, the road will blister my feet.”
She needn’t explain her reasoning because we knew blistered feet would be a set-back in chore completion. Any slacking in that department would not be tolerated on Rusty’s watch. She held herself to high standards.
Jewell threw caution to the wind. Fate could just kiss her rear-end.
A close second to her disregard to Fate was the disregard she showed for her tax dollars allocated to keep school buses on the highway. If her girls failed to catch the bus Jewell simply drove them the two miles to the school’s front door.
One warm spring morning near the end of my seventh grade, I approached the top of our driveway only to see the brake lights of the hulking yellow crate-on-wheels blinking dolefully at me as I stared into its grey puffy plumes of exhaust.
Frozen with fear, I made an effort to calculate possible solutions to my dilemma. I could walk to school (but I’d be late and would need a note). I could hide out in the blackberry bushes and hope to not be found (but thoughts of snakes and chiggers quashed that idea). I could claim the bus just never came by on this particular morning (but telling lies was an offense that drew ‘the belt’). Owning up to the truth and suffering the consequences never appeared on my radar as a viable option.
Then a cornflower blue four-year-old Chevrolet Impala swooshed into sight like a… well… an antelope. And stopped. Jewell’s chestnut eyes twinkled at me out of the driver’s side window. “I was driving up to the store to get cigarettes and saw the bus go by. Wanna ride?”
There is a God, I thought.
I ran around the car and climbed into the front seat. No seat belts. Seat belts had yet to be considered a safety feature in 1967. If children were tossed around inside a vehicle like rag dolls after an abrupt stop, it was generally considered their own fault.
“Thank you,” I told her. “You saved my life.”
“I know,” she said with a shrewd wink.
She grabbed the gear shift lever that was attached to the steering wheel column and pressed down to drop it into ‘first’. As she began to depress the clutch, I glanced down at her feet. Bare. Tossing caution to the wind. Gorgeous long toes wrapped themselves around the square rubber pedal leaving no doubt who was in charge.
Jewell 1 Fate 0