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childhood

Getting Even

Back before all this global warming took off into high gear, we used to have real winters, not just the extended fall that we now have in Oklahoma. Every year, right around Halloween, the temperature would drop to less than forty degrees and stay there til March. It would definitely snow by December, too, and not some little dab of windblown dust-snow that melted into mud by noon. It would really snow, covering every flat surface, thick and heavy. This kind of snow made squeaking noises when you tracked through it because it was cold and dry. It was deep, too, too deep to go to school but not too deep to play in!

This is what we did as soon as we woke up. Little sister was the first to notice. She ran through the house like the town crier, shouting “It snowed! Come look at it! It’s beautiful and sparkly! And I’m going to be the first one to play in it!”

The whole house shook with the slamming of the door behind her. The younger of us raced to get dressed and join her. My older two brothers and sister were a little less enthusiastic, but they were coming. Outside in the freezing cold, the dog ran in gleeful circles around us. We ornery boys scooped and flung snow at each other that was too cold and dry to pack into real snowballs. The spray of powder melted on our laughing faces. We tricked our younger siblings into standing beneath snow-laden boughs, then kicked the tree so it would unload on their heads, just as our older brothers had done to us. Then they ran off to find someone whom they could trick this way. We played hide and seek. We tracked each other through the neighborhood. The girls made snow angels and snow ice cream while we boys chased and wrestled with each other and the dog. When we got too cold, we’d slog inside to stand around or sit on top of a big black iron stove that our dad had hooked up to the natural gas line in the back.

This stove was huge! Two or more of us could sit on it at once, and it would knock the chill off of us fast, so we could run back outside and play again. It was during one of these recesses that Tony, my older brother and I came in at the same time to warm up. As we plopped down on top of this stove, he happened to mention what a sissie I must be for having to come in and warm up twice as often as he. I took offense.

“Maybe you can stay out there twice as long,” I told him, “but that’s only because you’re bigger! I’m tougher than you when it comes to sitting on the heater!”

“No you’re not,” he scoffed. “I can sit here much longer than you can!”

“Then we’ll see who’s king of the heater and you’ll see that it’s me!”

Challenge taken! The game was on! I’d probably never beaten Tony at anything because he was at least four years older than me. But how hard could this be? It only involved a little discomfort, maybe a little pain. I didn’t have to be stronger, bigger or quicker; I just had to be more determined. I was very determined. He had put snow down the back of my neck, and I hadn’t got him back for it, but I hadn’t forgotten. Since he was too big, fast and smart for me to ever get any snow down his neck, this is how I would get even!

We sat there, side by side. Paul, even older than Tony, waited and watched, smiling. Maybe he wanted me to win. Tony certainly didn’t want to lose to me in front of him. My sisters stayed too, one older, two younger. My little brothers wanted me to win. They’d gotten snow down their necks too. We laughed and told stories or played with the dog while warming up. Tony and I got warm much faster than they did as we hogged the heater. The warm waves surrounded us as they wafted to the ceiling. We took our coats off together. My legs were getting hot. I had only begun worrying about them, and my rump, for a few long minutes when Tony suddenly slid forward like he was getting off. I was glad that he was giving up, but not so glad that I couldn’t boast.

“See? I win! I’m king of the heater!”

“No, you’re not!” he corrected me. “I’m still sitting on it!”

He still did have the corners of both cheeks on the top of the furnace. If I’d been skilled at arguing, I would have declared victory by default. Instead, I only hastened to get my own legs out of the blasting heat from the grate. I took an equivalent position, balanced on the lip with just the minimum few square inches of bottom still in contact with the hot metal. It didn’t even occur to me that he had suddenly changed the rules. Big brothers can do this. We see them do this to us every day, and we just let them because it seems right and we, in our ignorance, know no better. We are smaller, our vote doesn’t count and it would require a concerted effort by many of us to make him get right one time. In the end, big brother knows that we will never get it together and that we are helpless against him.

In my mind, I had already beaten him, but no one else seemed to have caught the violation. Certainly no one mentioned it. I would just have to beat him again under the new rule of “lip only” sitting. And I would have to do it at a slight disadvantage, since I had cooked a bit longer and more fully, being momentarily incredulous before remembering to adjust my posterior to the new “cool legs” rule. Good as it felt to get my hams off the sizzling steel grate, my two cheeks kept up their urgent signaling to “Get off! Get off!” While they burned and charred, Tony told me something that I hadn’t thought of before making this foolhardy challenge.

He said: “You know, if you roast your butt, you’ll walk with a limp for the rest of your life. Once it cooks, it never heals. A skinny little butt like yours is probably already done.”

Since I was only in fifth grade, I didn’t know anything about psychological warfare, not even the concept. But I did listen in science class. It didn’t seem possible that you could cook your butt on something that didn’t even come close to frying pan hot. But, big brother would know better than I, since he’d been through a lot more school. They had just taught us the scientific method of reasoning things out. I used it to try and find the answer – was big brother mistaken? Or can my butt really be cooking at less than 140 degrees? While thinking hard on all the aspects of this problem, I got sidetracked and found the answer to a more practical and urgent problem. Or, at least a partial solution that would – should – allow me to either win or see if Tony’s butt would cook, leaving him with a permanent double limp. The solution was simple, so simple that Tony must be using it. How else could he stand this pain? But maybe he wasn’t. Maybe he hadn’t thought of it yet. Maybe he couldn’t use this method because his butt wasn’t skinny enough! This is what I wondered about to myself after I immediately employed this secret method that I had just thought of. Now that I knew that he could suddenly change the rules without consultation, it seemed just as fair that I could do the same. I would get even with big brother’s rule-change by initiating one of my own. I would go one better, now that I knew how things worked. I would change the rules. I would not ask permission. I would not even let my opponent know that I had changed the rules!

Surreptitiously, I raised my right butt cheek off the hot metal. This tiny little bit of clearance made a LOT of difference very quickly. My cheek cooled off so soon that in less than a minute it felt good enough to face the burner again to give left cheek a break. None of my audience seemed to notice my furtive movement or odd posture. I cycled each of my cheeks off the hot metal several times. While I did this, Tony kept telling me all about the bad things that had to be happening to a skinny little butt like mine: permanent injury, scars for life, even crutches or a wheelchair and paralysis from the waist down. He told me these things faster and louder. He got to sounding angry when I replied that none of these things were happening to me. I began to worry about them happening to him, because by now, it was pretty obvious that he hadn’t been using my method of airing out his butt cheeks one at a time. I told him, out of genuine concern, “You better get off before you hurt yourself!”

This remark made him very angry. I guessed later that it was probably because he thought that I was mocking him. In reply, he suddenly pushed me off the heater, then jumped off himself. He quickly declared himself the winner and ran outside, presumably to sit in the snow. The seat of his pants looked like it had been ironed so hard and thoroughly that it had toasted into a permanent curve of the lip of that heater. His pants had been polyester, where mine were cotton jeans. It looked like I had gotten a little more than just “even.”