|BAD FORTUNE AROUND MEETING THE PRESIDENT
by Kurt G. Schmidt Since my father had threatened Mom with a .22 rifle, life had been reasonably calm for over three years. However, the cat population at our house during this period had risen to twenty-one. Mom and my sisters had become addicted to the cuddly things and allowed feline sex lives to run rampant without any thought to giving them away or getting them spayed. Some of the adult cats became fed up with overcrowding and headed for the woods. And though some died, there always seemed to be pregnant female ready to replenish the supply. One round-bellied cat rejected the towel-lined carton Mom had placed near the warmth of the wood stove and insisted on sleeping at the foot of my bed until, in the dark of the night, she gave birth there to the first of four, carried it to my pillow, and caused me to wake up screaming for Mom because I thought there was a mouse in my ear.
In the summer the cats stayed outside mostly and hung around the barn at feeding time or whenever I returned from fishing with a pile of small sunfish and tossed them to the hoard of growling, hissing competitors. In the winter pregnant females and kittens were allowed inside, although once after a heavy snowfall, a black-and-white, long-haired male named Piachi returned from a two-year absence with a wild demeanor that prevented Mom from coaxing him into the house but allowed her to feed him in the shed for a few days before he disappeared again forever, knowing perhaps that becoming a stud in this house meant a shaky life in which two rabbits had joined the fray and become targets for kittens that jumped off chairs onto their backs.
But the cats were minor problems compared with those that arose during the summer when I was sixteen, when harebrained behavior had nothing to do with rabbits. First, there was my introduction to President Eisenhower. Then, my family’s introduction to Bud Blake, a local stud with a huge belly that jiggled on top of a low-slung belt. Other than both men being bald, and both being infatuated with power, the President and Bud Blake had nothing in common.
That spring began with my selection from the high school’s a cappella choir to be in the All-State Music Festival. I could be excited if it were all-state baseball, but the J.V. baseball coach thinks I’m too small to hit the ball any distance, even after I blasted some scorching line drives. Big disappointment. Being a reserve on the team is killing my dream, and the uniform is too big.
The all-state chorus creates an exciting sound, but my mind is on the whack of the bat hitting a baseball. I hardly have a chance to play though, and then only at second base, not shortstop. I think life is unfair.
In May the town’s American Legion Auxiliary announces they will sponsor me to attend an event called New Hampshire Boys State — one week in June at the University of New Hampshire. The Women’s Club will sponsor my friend Stuart. Organizations like the Lions Club and Rotary Club will sponsor nine other boys from our high school. Theoretically, Boys State is intended to teach New Hampshire boys about state government. But the guys gathered at UNH seem more interested in having fun than learning about government. So I find plenty of tennis action. And John Ineson from Rochester plays his guitar and sings Elvis Presley songs like “Hound Dog” and “Heartbreak Hotel.” On talent night, Pete Wright and I sing “Tell me Why the Stars Do Shine,” but the guy who sings Elvis songs is the star of the show. I think participation in the mock elections is worthwhile as long as I don’t compete with the state’s big wheels for offices like Governor, and so I’m elected Clerk of the Senate and supervisor of the voter checklist. Near the end of the week, administrators pass out a small booklet on state government, saying we’ll be given a little test on the material. I don’t know why such a fun week should be marred by a test, but I stretch out on the campus lawn with Stuart, studying the booklet.
Stuart says, “I heard a big 4-H group just arrived on campus. They’re having a dance tonight. You want to go?”
I know I’d feel awkward being the smallest boy at a dance, so I say, “Nah, I think I’ll stick around and study for the test tomorrow.”
Stuart says, “That government stuff is boring. You’d have more fun at the dance. Just about all the guys I know are going.”
Stuart is right. The dormitory is empty at night. One hundred and seventy-eight guys from Boys State must have gone to the 4-H dance. So I study civic government alone. The material is dry, but I think if I’m using it as an excuse to avoid the dance, I might as well try to do a good job on the test.
The next day the late-night guys and I take the test in a big hall. Most questions are true and false and seem fairly easy. I leave the hall with the satisfaction of having done my best.
The following day at the final ceremonies I sit with Stuart and the contingent from our school. Boys State administrators announce awards and certificates, while everyone whispers that John-the-Elvis-man is a sure thing to be one of the two chosen to go to Washington, D.C., for Boys Nation. You have to send a guy who can play guitar and sing “Hound Dog.” So when they announce John Ineson’s name, no one is surprised as John-the-Elvis-man walks up front.
They announce the second name, and I think it must be someone whose name sounds like mine. I don’t move. My friends poke me and say congratulations. As I walk to the front, I hear someone say, “He got the highest mark on the test.”
By some strange miracle, I’m going to Washington. It is the first time I feel special, as if the asterisk next to my name says something good instead of too small.
Newspaper articles over the next few days make it sound as if I am special, as if going to this Boys Nation thing, as if being the first boy ever chosen from my school, is a big deal. When my parents drive me to the nearby YMCA camp where I’ve been spending part of my summer each year, the camp director speaks to them for the first time. He has smiles and congratulations that he usually reserves for the affluent families. Somehow my good luck has elevated my family. I still doubt this change of fortune until I leave camp and my parents drive me to Boston and I’m on the train with John Ineson to Washington. Mom says if I meet President Eisenhower, I can tell him that he and Grandpa played cards in the same poker group when Ike was president of Columbia University.
John and I and some huge guys from states like Texas and Nevada are housed in the dormitories of the University of Maryland. The huge guys are kind to me and do not razz me when I challenge one of them to some Indian wrestling. I place my right foot against the right foot of a muscular guy from Nevada and grasp his right hand. I ram our clasped hands down and drive his arm behind his leg. He loses his balance, moves his back foot. He wants to try again. Same result. Others want to try. Same result. I am recognized as the Indian-wrestling champ. Low center of gravity has some advantages.
I am glad for this small recognition because the other boys are so mature and dynamic when it comes to campaigning for Boys Nation president and other governing positions. Particularly impressive are the southern boys, who talk like preachers about God and country and their view on whether to pass our mock Senate bill to abolish the electoral college system. John Lee Frye from Huntington, West Virginia, is the best, winning our election with ease. When we proceed through a reception line at the Capitol to shake hands with Vice President Nixon, John Lee Frye is out front with the American Legion chaperones, making that important first contact.
John Ineson and I meet New Hampshire senators Styles Bridges and Norris Cotton at the Capitol. They treat us to lunch and ask what we intend to do after high school. I can’t tell them I need a college that provides a free education because my family can’t afford a flush toilet. But Mom has suggested one of the service academies because they don’t cost anything if you get in, so I say I’d like to go to Annapolis. I could say West Point, Air Force Academy, or the Coast Guard Academy too but want to appear decisive. Senator Bridges says to contact him if I remain interested in an appointment to Annapolis.
I am sixteen and only five foot two when I meet President Eisenhower. On the day of our White House tour, the American Legion chaperones for our Boys Nation group say we will not meet him. Big disappointment. The President is still recuperating from abdominal surgery. The tour ends, and someone tells us to wait on the White House lawn. Someone says Ike is coming out. The group forms a semicircle. I can’t see over everyone. A chaperone notices my problem and leads me to the front on the far left-hand edge. Ike comes out smiling and says how we represent the best in the country. He moves forward to the center of the semicircle and shakes hands with John Lee Frye. Then Ike steps back and scans the front row until his eyes lock on mine. He walks directly to me, sticks out his hand, and says, “You’re a small fellow. Where are you from?”
I shake his hand and say, “New Hampshire, sir.”
Ike says, “I’ve been to New Hampshire a few times.”
I know Ike likes to fish, so I say, “You should bring your fishing rod next time you come. I caught a five-pound smallmouth bass once.”
Ike says, “Sounds like you’re a good fisherman.”
I smile. Ike says good luck and begins shaking hands with guys next to me. I level my camera for two close-ups of him. It’s hard to believe the President picked me out because I was the smallest kid. I think maybe he did it because he is only a few inches taller than me. When I saw him on TV, he seemed tall. But Ike has empathy for small boys, and now something good has come from this handicap. Only a few more guys in the front row get to shake his hand before Ike waves and retreats into the White House.
I have the feeling my luck in life is getting better. If I achieve good grades my senior year, if I score high on the College Boards, Senator Bridges might appoint me to Annapolis. If I grow two more inches, I can meet the minimum height requirement for Annapolis. This trip to Washington, which never would have happened if I’d gone to the 4-H dance, has opened up exciting possibilities for my future.
A professional photographer captures the Boys Nation events, and I come home with an 8 x 10 glossy of Ike and our group, showing me clearly in the front row. I have another 8 x 10 of John Ineson and me with our New Hampshire senators. Mom tells me to bring my photos to Bud and Joan Blake’s house, where we’ve been invited to socialize. She says Bud and Joan would be interested in my trip. I think my meeting the President might impress the Blake’s attractive older daughters.
I can tell that Joan and Bud Blake are not interested in my trip to Washington. This situation is different from other homes we’ve visited, where the adults and the kids gather around the TV. The Blake’s teenage daughters are missing, and it is only my sisters and me in front of the TV. From my vantage point, I can see Bud is flirting with Mom, and Joan is flirting with Dad. They are drinking beer together, but each couple’s conversation is separate from the other. I feel as though something strange is going on.
When we arrive home, Dad wastes no time snapping at Mom. He says he knows what Joan was suggesting. “If you think I’m going to sleep with Joan just so you can fuck Bud, you’d better have your head examined.”
Mom says, “You know how to ruin every social situation with your perverted imagination.”
“If I catch you with Bud, I’ll kill you both. I’ll kill the kids too.”
I hear a scuffle in the kitchen, and my fear returns to the shooting incident three years ago. Threatening to kill us kids is a way to control Mom, but I’m afraid he’ll actually do it next time.
A couple weeks later Mom comes home from work with two brand new fishing rods. She says a friend at work gave them to her, and I should use them. It’s mid-August, a good time to cast lures off Teddy Olsen’s dock and try for a big bass. I’m walking down the road to the lake with the new fishing rods when Bud Blake stops his truck. His windows are open, and for a moment he just chews on his cigar butt and stares at me.
Finally, he says, “Where’d you get those fishing rods?”
I say, “From my mother.”
People like Bud Blake squint sometimes when they’re pissed off. Bud is squinting and talking slow and soft. He says, “I gave those rods to your mother.”
“She said I could use them.”
“Maybe. But I gave them to her.”
“You gonna take her fishing?”
Bud keeps squinting and chewing the cigar. He thinks I’m too young and stupid to know what he’s up to. I just want to kick that fat bastard in the balls and tell him to leave my mother alone. He doesn’t give a damn about our family. The fat bald bastard with the soggy cigar thinks he’s a handsome stud, entitled to whatever action he can find.
Finally Bud Blake drives away. I spit in the direction of his truck. I continue to Olsen’s dock and try fishing, but I can’t enjoy it. There are too many bad thoughts pounding in my head. I think Mom is poking the dragon again.
I walk home and remove the .22 rifle and the 12-gauge shotgun from the depths of the large storage closet in my bedroom. I dismantle each gun and wrap the pieces in newspaper. I hide each piece deep again in my closet in various locations. I feel safer now, but at night I have the same dream I have so often. A man with a gun is shooting at me, and I’m running to escape. I wake up sweating and gulping for air. About the Author:Kurt Schmidt’s essays and memoirs have appeared in Bacopa Literary Review, The Ravens Perch, Grown and Flown, The Good Men Project, Eclectica, Snapdragon, and as a “best essay” in the 2017 Adelaide Literary Awards Anthology. He also authored the novel Annapolis Misfit (Crown), won awards in technical writing, and had a coming-of-age memoir as a finalist in a Bread Loaf creative nonfiction competition. You can view Kurt’s work at www.kurtgschmidt.com.