How he became King of the Crawl

He was still in his jammies wolfing down breakfast cereal when he announced it was going to be a good day.

“Why is that?” I asked.

“Because Grandpa said he would take me into the crawl space.”

This was news to me. And to Grandpa.

Grandpa had no memory of saying he would take the boy into the crawl, but the man blithely agrees to a lot of requests out of sheer need for expediency.

Requests come rapid fire when a lot of kids are here: “Can you build a fire in the fireplace? Is it still too early to go outside? Can we build a tree house? Can I have a screwdriver? How about some scissors? Can we play hide and seek upstairs? Do you have more tape? Are you out of Hershey’s syrup? Did you know the baby is on the table? Can I go into the crawl space?”

You can see how a request to go into the crawl space could easily slip into the myriad of other requests.

The crawl space is a hollow area below the first floor of our home. It is about four-feet deep and you access it by, well, crawling. You step into the window well, remove the metal panel to the crawl, then back in feet first into the dark. A few shafts of daylight spill into the first few feet of the crawl space, but for the most part it is as dark as a moonless night, creepy and crawly.

There are also neat things down there—concrete blocks that provide the foundation to the house, wooden beams that support the floors, insulated wiring, and pipes that run the length of the house, turning and connecting with other pipes.

What 6-year-old boy in his right mind wouldn’t want to go down into the crawl space?

Grandpa said it was below freezing outside, which was too cold to go into the crawl.

Grandma kindly reminded him that once they got into the crawl it could be more like the temperature of a cave, which is cool, but not miserable.

The boy put on his sad face and Grandpa relented.

They bundled up, lumbered outside into the cold and removed the door to the crawl. A small crowd gathered to watch as they disappeared into a pit of darkness. A little one whimpered softly; others wondered aloud if it would be the last we saw of them.

As for me, I returned to the warm kitchen and poured more coffee.

We could hear them bumping around down there, tapping on the kitchen subfloor, knocking into pipes, probing the mechanics of the plumbing and duct work for air conditioning and heat.

When the boy returned, siblings and cousins mobbed him to ask what it was like and what he saw. He had disappeared into the dark a mere 6-year-old and emerged a celebrity. He is the only one among them who has ever ventured into that dark hollow.

He may be young and small, but he now stands tall, King of the Crawl.

When the children’s book group goes bad

If you can overlook the motion sickness, our first online book group went well.

I came across a list of must-read children’s classics and noted “The Wind in the Willows” on the list. I started reading the book years ago and found it to be an effective sleep aid.

Now, with a long winter looming, what better time to take another run at the children’s classic, as well as a chance to socialize online with any grands who wanted to read it as well.

Their eagerness to start a Zoom book group was stunning. But then, I suppose the prolonged isolation of a pandemic does that to people. After a year of near nothingness, someone yells, “Hey! Want to watch me pick lint from the dryer vent?” and it’s an invitation to party.

That said, the book did have a toad, mole, rat and badger going for it.

As host, I assumed I would ask questions about plot and characters, but that was not the case. Instead, I did a lot of, “Hey! Can you kids keep that laptop steady? All that rocking and rolling and bouncing around is making me queasy!”

I suggested they set it on a table, but it is called a laptop and it turns out they are of the literal interpretation bent.

I also heard myself frequently saying, “C’mon people, get her bum away from the camera! We want to see your faces, not her diaper.”

Several pre-readers had joined, the youngest physically diving into the crowd of siblings seated on the floor with the tipsy laptop. It’s always good to see enthusiasm for reading at an early age.

I asked who would put the book on their Forever Bookshelf and nobody said a word. Nobody moved. Even the laptop held still.

I asked everyone what their favorite part of the book was, and the chatter began.

SPOILER ALERT!

“When Toad fooled his friend and escaped from the house making a rope out of bedsheets!”

“When Toad wrecked the stolen car!”

“When Toad went to prison for stealing cars!”

“When Toad escaped from prison dressed as a washer woman!”

There I was, leading a book discussion for the juvenile delinquents of tomorrow. Concerned this might come back on me one day, I stressed that climbing out windows by tying sheets together is wrong, stealing cars is wrong, wrecking stolen cars is wrong and escaping from prison is wrong.

I could only imagine how the report on the book group with Grandma went with their parents.

“We talked about stealing cars and escaping from prison.”

“Yeah, and how Toad lowered himself from a bedroom window by tying bedsheets together.”

We also discussed lovely passages about drifting down the river, watching nightfall and hunting for a missing otter. We also agreed that Rat was the most admirable character, a true friend and giver of good advice, but who knows if they remembered any of that.

If not, the first book group may have been the last.

Why Valentine’s Day was the scariest day of the year

Valentine’s Day was the scariest day of the year when I was a kid.

It was before the Mandatory Valentine Edict went into effect—the rule that requires every kid to give every other kid in the class a valentine whether you like them or not.

Liking everybody else was not compulsory years ago. Oh sure, it was strongly suggested by your teacher and by your mother, but even so, the day of love could be a day of suspense and apprehension. You might get a valentine from every kid in class, or you might not.

Adding to the pressure were the valentine boxes themselves. Everybody brought a shoebox they had decorated from home. Almost everybody. There were always some boys who brought unadorned shoeboxes, plopped them on their desks and shot a glare that said, “I dare anyone to put a valentine in here.” They were unofficial nonparticipants in the day of love.

I put my all into the shoebox—all the aluminum foil I could find to wrap the box and all the glue I could find for all the lopsided hearts cut from red construction paper. I dreamed of creating a box so stunning it would draw a crowd of gushing admirers around my desk, but the crowd was always at someone’s else desk. Someone who had paper doilies, silver glitter and pink pipe cleaners.

Counting the valentines you received was an exercise in both mathematics and deduction. First you ran the numbers to see what your return was, then you tried to deduce who didn’t give you one.

In those days, I walked to school with a neighbor boy named Big Bruce. He was big up-and-down and from side-to-side. Sometimes on our walk to school, a boy from my class named Mike would chase me.

I carried my lunch money in a small coin purse, which I would entrust to Big Bruce while I outran Mike. I don’t recall ever giving Big Bruce a valentine and I should have. A big box of candy, too. He was a fine bodyguard.

My mother said Mike was sweet on me and I suppose he wasn’t an unattractive boy, but still.

I thought I’d had a good Valentine’s Day at school. I took my box home and found close to a 90 percent return from my classmates.

I opened the valentines one after another—cute puppy dogs wearing red bows, cupids shooting arrows into hearts—then I saw it. A signed valentine. From Mike.

How could my archenemy, my nemesis, give me a valentine? I was sure he didn’t like me and now he had all but declared his love from the rooftops and proposed. What a mess. Second grade was ruined.

I was only 7 years old and a boy was already messing with my head. I’ve forgiven Mike for the signed valentine, but it remains the scariest Valentine’s Day ever.

We’re neighbors if popcorn is your state snack

Readers often assume I live in the city where they read my column. This is not a bad thing. As a matter of fact, it may be proof that even in the Age of Contention, the spirit of neighborliness still lives.

A woman in California once invited me for lunch at a Monterey country club and said she would reserve a parking space for me out front. I thanked her for the gesture but told her not to hold the parking space, as it would be a good three-day drive.

A few weeks ago, a reader acknowledged my appreciation for the outdoors and welcomed me to walk their farmland and woods anytime. They live in Alabama. I’d need an overnight bag and two days to get there and back.

After a speaking engagement, a woman once told me she was happy to know we lived in the same city. When I said I didn’t live in her city, she said, “Well, that’s not what I heard.” She was so adamant that I checked my driver’s license on my way back to the car just to make sure I was right. Whew!

The amazing thing about all this is that even though people think our family lives in the vicinity of their family, they don’t immediately stick a “For Sale” sign in the front yard.

By way of disclosure, our home has been in Indianapolis, Indiana for 30-plus years. Neither my husband nor I were born here, but we attend the State Fair almost every year, which officially makes us Hoosiers.

I only mention where we live because we Hoosiers are on the verge of making national news and I fear it may spur controversy.

State Senator Ron Grooms introduced a bill naming popcorn the official State Snack. That’s right, you heard it here first.

The potential controversy is that upon introducing the bill the senator said, “I want Indiana to be known for more than basketball.”

The man inadvertently drew a line in the sand—and on the basketball court and in every popcorn farmer’s field. It’s probably just a matter of time before popcorn people declare popcorn more noble than basketball, and basketball people start bouncing balls against the homes of popcorn people late at night. In turn, popcorn people will become hardened and refuse melted butter and salt to family and friends.

Just when you thought things couldn’t get any uglier.

Here’s hoping push does not come to more pushing, shoving and flagrant fouls.

That said, the senator also struck a lovely note of humility, acknowledging that Indiana is number two in the nation for popcorn production (behind Nebraska, the No. 1 popcorn producer.)

How many states boast that they are in second place? The ability to be humble is a fine quality – on the court, off the court, in the field, in the home and in your community. Humility says something good about a place and its people.

So, no matter what you’ve heard, I live in Indiana, the state that separates Michigan from Kentucky, humbly acknowledges that we are No. 2, and has officially named popcorn the state snack.