I’ve told this story years back, but every year around Valentine’s Day, those memories from sixty-five years back flood my thoughts.
I returned to elementary school in Wheeler, Texas in the middle of the third grade, having spent the first couple years following Dad around the country wherever the U.S. Navy sent him. In 1943, they shipped him out to South America, and we returned to Wheeler.
Having left Wheeler when I was about four or five, I knew very few of the kids in school. I’ll never forget that first year for it was the one that I didn’t receive any cards on Valentine’s Day.
Looking back, the problem was more mine than anyone else’s. A new kid coming in during the middle of the year had a tough time fitting in. He was usually an outsider until someone felt sorry for him and invited him into their little exclusive set of playmates.
I was always a little belligerent, I suppose, for instead of trying to fit in, I ignored them, going my own way and pretending I was content with my own company. I let no slight pass, which meant, I usually stayed busy at recess giving and taking punches from first one hard-headed little boy, and then, at the next recess, another. Sometimes I won, sometimes I lost.
I’ll tell you, working on the farm made some of those old country boys mean and tough.
As a result of my propensity for fighting, I saw a lot more of the principal and his hardwood paddle than I wanted. And when I got home that evening, Mom was waiting with a hickory switch.
Consequently, I became quite the connoisseur of switches from the whippy willows that wrapped around your leg three or four times to the almost unbreakable hickory branches that left indelible imprints on your behind.
Now, even at that age, I had vague idea of Valentine’s. I knew that the month of February was somehow connected to girls and romance. I was sort of puzzled why it was observed at school, but when I learned that cake and punch accompanied the Valentine cards, I figured it was a great idea.
You see, the way it worked was that the teacher decorated a box about a week ahead of time into which each student would drop Valentines for others in his class. Each day, different classmates would sidle up to the box and with an embarrassed giggle or sly wink, drop in a card.
All I cared about was the cake and punch. They could have their cards.
A couple days before Valentine’s is when I took part in ‘The Big Fight.’
She whipped me.
That’s right. She whipped me.
Back then, third grade girls could be mighty snippy. Dela Fay was snippy personified. When she told me at recess I was mean and ugly, I responded, ‘Oh yeah. You’re uglier.”
That’s when she slapped me.
Now if she’d been a boy, the war would have been on, but she was girl. Confused as to my next step, I just stared at her. Kids gathered around, giggling at me. My ears burned. I had to do something, so I pushed her shoulder, and she slapped me again. The kids giggled louder. I shoved, and she slapped.
Fortunately after several more exchanges, the teacher stopped us. I went to the principal, got paddled, went home. Mom switched me. Dad came home and took his belt to me.
And the next day was Valentine’s.
I didn’t have a single one. Kids were staring at me and whispering.
Mrs. Fields must have seen what was going on for she fumbled in her desk, then hurried to the box and looked inside. She held up a card. “Here’s yours, Kent. I must have overlooked it.”
Never in my life have I been so grateful to anyone.
I had learned my lesson.
The next year was different. I had more cards than anyone.
Well, my best friend, Jerry, accused me of putting them in the box myself. Naturally, I denied it. I would never do such a dastardly thing. Ha, ha.
But, I had more than anyone.