Jules Verne, the Big Dog House And a Girl Named Mitzi

Posted on January 30, 2011

Meeting Mitzi

I discovered Jules Verne in the sixth grade and I joined the last generation of Americans to feed hungrily on dreams of space adventure, and thereby acquire the then horrific title of NERD. The legions of science fiction nerds of today didn’t begin to truly multiply until after the launching of Sputnik in my high school freshman year. By this time I had constructed a model of a proposed satellite I had read about in Popular Science. Then came the Soviet feat. I was more than angry when the Soviets sent their beeping little ball into orbit. America should have been first. After all, we were the good guys. We won the war. Stalin and Khrushchev were beasts. Most of America felt the same way. “Nerd” began to evolve in meaning, and the race for space and respectability for nerds commenced.

Still, Verne was my hero. He spoke to dreamers like me, and I could found nothing else in literature to match his fantastic imagination. He became my Shakespeare, well above Sherlock Holmes. Wading through laborious prose and words ponderous, I devoured everything he wrote, Master of the Universe, From the Earth to the Moon, Journey to the Center of the Earth… all of them.

But my favorite was 20,000 Leagues Beneath the Sea. While it wasn’t a space epic it really seemed like, but even more, I identified with Captain Nemo, a solitary angry genius bent upon destroying the greedy and the wicked of the world, through his glorious submarine, the Nautilus. Nemo was a REAL Superman, because he was a scientist, not some crazy comic book character from another planet who could fly and wore weird looking tights.

In 1954, Disney released this movie of my story, in a special effects blockbuster for its day, and when it opened at the Mars Theater in downtown Lafayette, I begged my mom to let me go. The bus at Greenbush Street and 15 cents got me downtown to movie at 1 p.m. and I could be home at 3:30. It was a good Saturday routine and usually Mom and Dad were happy to get rid of me for a while. I was so excited I had the “crossed-legs-gotta-pee” stigma days before Saturday.

However, there was one  problem with seeing 20,000 Leagues that particular weekend, The release of the film coincided with another major event in my life, my first date to a real dance… a “grown-up” style dance (although without the booze that was ever-present at adult Catholic gatherings). This particular dance, for some major reason (which I was to learn about more fully later) was a very high priority for my Mom.

But dance or not, I HAD to see my Jules Verne movie, and was willing to do whatever it took to go.

My mom always respected my tastes when it came to my reading, but she questioned how a Disney movie was more important than her dance.  I had to really badger her for permission to go to see it. She waffled on this one, and I could tell she had serious misgivings. I knew what she had had invested to get me prepared to go to the dance. And the investment wasn’t just time and money. She had called in a big favor to ensure that I had a date, with a real girl, who happened to be the daughter of her best friend. There would be no backing out because of of a silly thing like a science fiction movie, even if it was my favorite author, starred Kirk Douglas (mom’s favorite) and was a Disney movie.

I (really my mom) had asked this particular girl — through her mom.  It was a BIG favor, involving a fancy dress, a long trip into the town, and an overnight stay.  And, the request was a late one, made because all of my contemporaries, good girls of St. Lawrence Grade School,  had already been asked. With twenty-five boys and twenty-four girls, one boy was going to get “shorted.” Because of my reluctance to step up and ask someone, I was the last boy on the list… thus.. no girls left. And it was a “school only” dance, which meant NO outsiders. Of course the good nuns had counted on chance taking care of the numerical disparity, but it didn’t happen. Boy number 25 (me) had no date.  Knowing this, mom convinced the nuns that I might have a chance to go with a good Catholic girl from a parish in the county north of us, one whose mother was originally from our parish.  No doubt after a conference with Father Gordon, and much prayer, the nuns had granted mom’s request.

There actually had been one girl that I sort of wanted to ask, Patty Moore.   She was the prettiest girl the class. I figured one of the guys in our class would ask her right off. So I just dragged my feet….. shooting for the magic number, 25. But my mom was relentless, insisting that I call someone. To appease her, I finally summoned the courage to call Patty. Ironically (and rather happily) I learned that I was ten minutes too late. The prettiest girl in my class, the one all guys mooned over, to this point had not been asked to the dance at all. Apparently everyone assumed that someone else would asked her. Yet no one had. That is, not until just minutes before I finally did give in to mom’s relentless pressure…. which included “You sit right on the back stoop until you do it….!” (Placing the long corded phone, and a list of numbers next to me). So I called Patty. She told me with what sounded like sadness, that she had just accepted a date from Bill Wilson, and she regretted that I had not called sooner. When she told me who she’d said “yes” to, I believed her. Bill Wilson! He was five times geekier than me…. God’s prototype for geeks. A 12 year old Ichabod Crane, he spoke in monosyllables, never uttered a word in class, and his older brothers were equally weird.  They picked their noses and then stared at what came out, for many minutes after. But Bill was even weirder. He put the finger back in his mouth… and he stared at everyone like they were a dead dog….that he had just killed.

His younger brother Sam was maybe as weird as Bill. I had flattened Sam’s nose in a fistfight. (He was jealous of my new used bike and kept ramming it with his own). After enough humiliation, I called him out and he dared me, poking out his chin to bust him one. So I hit him. What followed was surreal.  Startled at first, he puffed out his cheeks like Dizzie Gillespie, turned bright red, and just stood there, stonelike… occasionally taking a breath, but continuing with the big cheeks. Maybe more like Louis Armstrong.. or some old tuba player. Snot rolled down his upper lip, down around his chin, and dripped to the ground. He continued to breath heavily … like a dog with distemper. I thought his face was going to blow up. I watched his eyes, then his cheeks, then the spit… but nothing moved, except for the dribble which continued down his cheek, accelerating whenever he exhaled through his nose. No blood, just snot, or drool, or perhaps tears. The moment seemed frozen, and instinct tole me he was about to throw a counter punch, so I lifted my hand to punch him again. His eyes got even wider. Then, he just turned and ran. After about 25 yards he let out a horrifying scream… as if I’d set him on fire. The scream went on for at least half a block, right on home the steps of his back porch. I knew he’d cry to his brothers, I was really scared about what Bill and Joe and Steve and Jack might do to me. I had images of being whisked off to their basement and having my hand clamped in their dad’s vise, while they put giant pipe wrenches to my head.

But they never came after me.

Not then, anyway, or in that way. The way I saw it now, Bill got his revenge for Sam by getting my date with Patty.  There were two years between the two fist-fight and the dance, but I was sure they were connected. It was impossible that he could have known to time his call so perfectly. Bill and Sam had an older brother taking priest lessons at St. Meinrad’s, and my good Catholic logic of the time told me that God must have had something to do with it.

I was devastated. I had really blown it. If I couldn’t go to the dance with Patty, I really didn’t want to go. There were no other acceptable feminine alternatives.

It was then that my Mom had her big idea, the long shot. I listened to her proposal and after some thought, and some heavy coaxing from her (she and dad were REALLY determined that I was not to miss this dance), I agreed to her plan. Shortly thereafter, she disappeared into another room, where I heard her talking softly on the phone. She conversed with whoever it was for a long time, and when she returned, she grinned and said, “It’s all set.”

I felt a huge mass forming in my stomach then, and I realized this particular mass was kind of an antimatter thing. I knew it was there but it felt empty and hollow. I had agreed to go to the dance with a girl I had only met once before. The only real feeling I had for her was a strange admiration and a kind of under-the-skin kinship — in fact, I barely regarded her as a girl; she was much more like one of the gang of kids I ran with. At least, this was the summary judgment I made. She was kind of like a guy in a lot of ways, and even though I had met here just once, I felt very comfortable around her. I wouldn’t have to worry about any “mushy” stuff.

Her name was Mitzi. This was an unusual name for a Midwestern girl, although Mitzi Gaynor was popular around the same time in the movie South Pacific. But if the movie Mitzi was glamorous, the 13 year old Mitzi that I knew was a long way from glamorous.

I had met her the previous spring when my Mom went to visit Mitzi’s parents, Mary and Koonie Flanagan. Koonie Flanagan was an important farmer in Benton County, and he and Mary had double-dated a few times with my mom before WWII. Mary and mom were old childhood chums, and former St. Lawrence grade school classmates.  Of course, this meant she was Catholic, too. Koonie was ostensibly a Catholic, but since he was a farmer, and from another parish, there was ample reason to be suspicious of him.  The Flanagans were true to the Catholic dictum of rapid family enlargement and they were committed to produce as many baby Catholics as possible. This of course coincided with the old farm tradition which required lots of offspring to work the land. And so Mary and Koonie were doubly responsible.

As a result of their efforts, Mitzi represented the oldest of a huge passel of brothers and sisters. There were only eight that I ever counted on the one visit, but it seemed as if there were more. I could not tell who was who, except for Mitzi and Joey, who were closest to me in age. There was at least one set of twins, but they were not identical.

My first meeting with Mitzi followed a long ride up highway 52 to get to her home in Fowler, where the huge Flanagan farm plot burgeoned with corn and beans.

Dad didn’t care much for Koonie. Farmers had been exempt from the draft in WWII. But in spite of his feelings, Dad promised Mom he would stay silent. The war was a memory now – vivid, but a memory nonetheless. For Mom, it was time to move on, a time to rekindle old relationships. For Dad, the war would never really go away, as no war ever does. But Mom was with the rest of her friends in putting it all behind. She wanted to pick up where her life had been interrupted four years before.

Mom hadn’t seen Mary Flanagan since Mary’s wedding well before the war, and when Dad finally bought the family a brand new used Plymouth Plaza, a straight six with “three speeds on the column,” he was itching to drive it somewhere to show it off. Fowler and the Flanagans were just about right for a drive and a visit.

I had never been to a real farm before. I had never smelled pig shit, or climbed into a hay mow. My first impression of the farm was of heat and dust and mud and lots and lots of animal  poop.  Well, even more than animals because they had a big outhouse too. I had seen outhouses before, but never a “three-holer.” Koonie bragged about it, since, as he said, things get so busy in the morning before school with “all these damned kids,” he needed extra crappers so he could have one to himself. And of course, there were bugs everywhere, and farm animals looked at me behind eyes which revealed an intelligence that I didn’t understand. As I returned their stares, I did not believe that they were simply “dumb” like my friends said. They knew things.

Nothing on the farm smelled right (like the city did). Air-Wick was a natural smell. Halo shampoo was a natural smell. But the Flanagan farm smells, which included all nature’s finest odors, these were truly alien. My trip past Koonie’s hog lot, which bordered the lane to their house, was an aromatic descent into major nose trauma. Sinuses, too. Consciousness was almost a forfeit in order to get past the lot.

The water at Mitzi’s smelled like Mom’s sulphur matches, and the hog lot like my dad and his brothers after a big sauerkraut day, but worse. What amazed me was how these people, especially Mitzi, could live with these odors like they weren’t even there. I didn’t hold this against her. She was a kid and couldn’t be held responsible for strange indignities cast upon her by adults. And she WAS different. For one thing she was a “Tomboy.” I don’t know where this word comes from, but she was one — my mom said so, warned me, even. Mitzi could out jump, out throw, out spit, outrun, out-yell and outdo me in just about every way. And as I was to discover, my visit with her meant participating in the farm version of the decathlon, or the country Olympics.

We left for Fowler after nine o’clock mass. We got there just after lunch, as Mary and her girls put away the Sunday dishes. The grownups gathered around the kitchen table to drink coffee and talk, and they hustled all the kids except for the babies outside.  Mitzi’s brother Joey couldn’t wait to get me outdoors. Mitzi stood by him, looking at me, sizing me up, not speaking. I was bombarded with all kinds of questions like where I went to school, and was I smart because their Mom had told them I was really smart, and could I show them something that was really smart, like saying the Gettysburg address, which I could do, but wouldn’t do for them, because I was, after all, not a circus performer on call for their pleasure.

Joey was loved making dares. “I bet you can’t tackle me — I bet I can throw a rock farther than you can — I bet you can’t milk a cow — I bet you don’t know what a heifer is…” He was as annoying as the aroma of his home, although I realized I was beginning to get used to it… which troubled me… had it burned out my sense of smell?

But we did have in common one magic word in our vocabulary — “Chicken.” We both knew what it meant. Of course, on the farm they had first hand experience with literal chicken behavior, but they also fully understood the figurative meaning of the word, and it didn’t take Joey five minutes to find a dare he could issue to me knowing that he’d have the opportunity to use the word if I refused him. I knew it, too.

There was also the matter of pride, too. Since I was city and they were country, I figured they thought I was probably pretty stupid. Of course, I felt the same way about them, but my attitude was justified because everyone I knew, including my dad, agreed with me.

Of course it was true that I did NOT know which end of a cow milk came from, and might not have drunk it at all had I known, but I didn’t really care, so it didn’t matter.

But I was IN the country now, playing on their field in their game. And even if I did not know everything about the country, I was not about to be judged stupid by anyone, especially these kids, these rough little rubes. Dad used the word “hayseed.”

Mitzi was older and tougher than my cousins were. Like me, she had been born right at the war’s beginning, but unlike me, she had been immediately followed by a number of younger predators, who made sure that her life was not one of leisure and daintiness.

They had clearly challenged her from the time they could walk, and she had obviously responded. Not even the three largest of them could take her down, and they treated her with a lot of respect.

When I came into their territory, they sized me up and immediately decided that their big sister could probably kick my butt in any direction she wanted.  Good entertainment was hard to come by for all of us, so we either figured out how to entertain ourselves or you sit and stare at each other. I was inclined to do the latter for I had forebodings of evil things to come. I was new prey.  Mitzi’s brothers immediately began exploring all of the possible ways their big sister could humiliate me.

The problem with a farm, I discovered, even a big one, is that there are no alleys to run up, or neighbor’s garages to duck into. I had no way out, except through Mitzi and her brothers, and even though they smiled when the issued their challenges, there was evil in their eyes. This smartassed kid from the city was NO match for their sister.

Mitzi was incredibly strong. I learned this immediately when we arm wrestled. She pinned my arm to the ground before I even had time to get my elbow dirty. And then we really wrestled, thrashing about through the grass, straining and pulling, clutching for a hold, a grip, a way to pin the other to the earth. I didn’t know a lot about the other gender then, so wrestling with a girl was just that — wrestling. I only gave her a match the first time, while I had a little energy. After that, she pinned me so many times I lost count.

I was abashed. I was really glad we were so far from Lafayette, because there was no way that anyone there would find out about what a humiliating experience I was having. And I was tired, and hot, and sweaty, and I just wanted to go somewhere and find a cool spot and a book, and get away from the noise.

Next: Mitzi kicks a city boy’s butt…..

Posted in: My Strange Humor