Get a Switch!
By Jeffrey Wesselschmidt
Growing up in the 1930′s in the Bootheel of Missouri was a special experience. There was only one thing to be afraid of in those days, and as a particularly rambunctious rascal, I did it a lot. It was picking your own switch.
Whether it was stealing Miss Darlene’s unmentionables from her clothes line or lighting a squirrel on fire, I thought that I was a little too clever and Granny was a little too hare-brained, because she was a woman, to find out. She always did, though. Then she would send me into the woods all alone to find the weapon of my punishment.
More thought went into picking a switch than it seems. It was not simply selecting a piece of wood. You wanted it to be as thin as possible, so that it wouldn’t smart as much. If it was too thin, though, Granny would go pick one herself. You knew darn well that she was going to choose the thickest one possible, about the size of a whistlin’ jug. I knew that a thickness of one finger was the minimum that would be accepted, so I would zig and zag from tree to tree trying to find a branch as similar to my finger as possible.
I remember one particular whoopin’ especially well. My brother Randall and I had a frequent target for our pranks, Gomer Holmes. He was retarded, but it was fine to abuse them in those days. Our most frequent prank was throwing rocks at him. One day, we thought it would be funny to drive a nail into the bottom of his fetching pail. He trudged all the way to the well and dipped the bucket fro. When he turned to leave, water spurted all over the private area of his britches. It looked like he done pissed hisself. Randall and I doubled over and howled with laughter.
Later that evening, Old Man Holmes rapped on our door and told Granny what we had done. He demanded that we buy a new bucket. My Pa’s job as a grave digger barely paid the bills as it was (and he spent most of it at the tavern), so there was no way they could afford to buy a new pail. Once again, I was in the woods looking for a switch. To add insult to injury, I had to come up with the money myself.
Randall and I went into town and set up the only business we knew how, a shoeshine booth. All was going well, until Grandpa saw us. That side of the family had a quick temper, on account of the generations of “cousin knowing”. It also didn’t help that Gramps had been swigging moonshine since before noon. When he spotted us, he screamed, “No kin of mine is going to do Negro’s work.”
Then he knocked over the makeshift booth and began beating us. I wish he would have used a switch, but he didn’t. He used his closed fists. He bruised my ribs so bad that I couldn’t smoke for a week.
I only saw Grandpa that mad one other time. It was April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson’s first game. Grandpa, a die-hard Cardinals fan until that point, smashed his radio and never listened to another game. I’m sure he’s rolling in his grave right now, with all the interracial marriage. Anyway, we agreed to work on the Holmes’s farm until our debt was paid off.
Now I’m a grandfather myself. Several years ago my oldest grandson broke a lamp in my house. I had repeatedly told him not to shoot his fireworks in the house, so I uttered those words that I used to dread so much, “Get a switch.”
His mother was upset that I whipped him and hasn’t allowed me to see my grandchildren in 3 years. God, I miss the Good Old Days.