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How I Learned To Read
by David Norris

In 1958, I played football a lot over in the Fridleys’ yard beside their home. Ricky’s mom and dad hadn’t built the new side onto their house yet, so their yard still ran directly up to the hedge that divided the two yards. Often, one of us would get tackled, and we’d fall right into that hedge. It was scratchy but a lot softer than the ground. It didn’t do much for the appearance of the hedge though, and we got fussed at a lot.

Wayne Gordon, who was five years older and a lot bigger than anyone else, used to wear combat boots just to play football. I was nine, and Wayne gave me a lot of headaches with those boots. But the funny part was, we could bring him down easier than anyone else because those big old boots made him clumsy and slow. He couldn’t lift his knees high like the rest of us who wore tennis shoes.

I found my first four-leaf clover in 1958. I got tackled and came up with one in my mouth, even though I had been trying to find one for several weeks. Jerry Meadows, who could find one as easily as looking down at his own feet, had been coaching me, but I didn’t find one until it found its way between my teeth. Ever since then I’ve been able to find them too. Sometimes I think the only luck that comes with a four-leaf clover is being able to find more of them.

Pop and Bud were still alive. Bud was 58 and Pop was 79. They would sit under the pear tree up near the road, and during the summer, in the afternoon around 3 or 4, the Dairy Queen ice cream truck would come by, a 3-wheeler, white with red writing on the side. Pop always bought a Dilly, a chocolate-covered ice cream bar shaped like a moon pie with a stick on the bottom. He had made a pet out of one of my Easter chicks, and now all grown up, that adult chicken would sit on his shoulder and take pecks out of that ice cream, right along with him.

Bud, on the other hand, was erratic in his ice-cream buying. He didn’t get a retirement check like Pop did; he was still painting houses here and there even though his legs had already started to go. Years later, when he was living off the $88 a month disability check, he made himself a cane out of a cue stick. He put a little rubber cushion from the leg of a kitchen chair on the bottom and a water faucet handle on the top. It made a pretty good cane. Bud never had a new car the whole time that I knew him; he seemed philosophically opposed to it, and he’d take whatever paint he had lying around after his most recent job, mix it all together, and paint his car. They always turned out to be some shade of brown. I used to think those cars were ugly because I could see the tiny brush lines running through the paint, but I think of them as works of beauty now. Bud used to take Pop and me on rides through the mountains on the narrow winding roads. We’d go up Pott’s Creek and past Walton’s Dairy.

Old Man Walton only had one truck, and he drove it himself. He drove real slow, and he would come by after the Peerless Creamery truck had already gone. He never got out of the truck himself; he had two sons that rode with him who would crawl out of the sides of his milk truck and leave the bottles on our porches. Milk came in bottles then. There was a little red and silver foil seal on the top of his bottles, and about an inch of cream floated between the milk and the seal. You’d have to shake the bottle to mix it all up together. When I peeled off the seal, thick cream always stuck to its bottom, and I’d lick the cream off the bottom of the seal and my fingers both.

The Fridleys were real country; they got their milk from Mr. and Mrs. Bush, who lived up on the side of the hill. Joe Bush raised cows and horses both, and even kept a bull in the family’s pasture. We got our milk from the Waltons, and Ricky’s parents got their milk from Peerless. Peerless was the last company to go out of business and the first one to use paper milk cartons in place of the glass bottles.

In 1958, I was going to the Edgemont Elementary School. I was eight years old when the third grade started and nine when it finished. I was nine when the fourth grade started and ten when it finished. Momma told me I had lost a year in my schooling because I was born in January. I never could understand it. It seemed like that for a while I was the right age and keeping up with everybody else, and then suddenly I was a year behind them. She always told me I was a year behind; afterwards, Bud would tell me I wasn’t.

I failed the first grade because I couldn’t read. No one had taught me the alphabet or given me books to read before my first day of school. One morning Pop woke me up and took me to school, about a three-mile walk, first around the ridge and then down the mountainside a ways and then up again and around a bend to the left and then to the right. He and my dog Whitey and I walked there on that first day. He left and went on back home. I had a big lunch that day for only 35 cents; the lunches are what I remember the most. Anyone who ever went to Edgemont will tell you they had the best lunches in the world. Bar-B-Q’s on homemade rolls with homemade slaw, homemade cherry cobbler, and brown beans and cornbread.

When I got out later that day, Whitey was waiting for me, and we walked home together. It was three miles on a small, just-inside-the-city-limits country-town road, and I was only six years old, but we walked the whole way by ourselves and didn’t have a bit of trouble. Whitey was a good old dog. She died when Bud, in his last year, backed his car over her while she was sleeping in its shade. He cried over that and never forgave himself.

I didn’t understand reading; I didn’t see that it was good for anything. The only thing Pop and Bud read were the newspapers, and that didn’t interest me. It seemed like Pop only read the obituaries. He would lean back in his chair and say, “Well, Old Man Drucker died,” or tell us the name of another friend who had passed along. Bud and I both fussed at him for that, but the entire year after Pop died, Bud read the obituaries himself every day. And now I even do it. I guess all of us get around to watching to see who outlives who.

When the year was over, I couldn’t read. Flash cards had not done me a bit of good. The teacher had placed the alphabet on the wall over the blackboard, so I hadn’t bothered to learn my letters. Lunch and kickball and the swing set were all I seemed to care about. I didn’t even know I had failed until the school year was almost over.

Pop went over to school with me that last week of the first year, and he had a long talk with my teacher, Mrs. Craft. I don’t know what he and she talked about; he never told me, and I didn’t learn what had happened until years later, but I went on to the second grade. In those days, the class was divided in half at reading time. On one side of the room the slow readers plodded along, and on the other side of the room the fast readers zipped through the pages of their books.

Bud is the one who taught me to read. He sat me on his lap and read Bugs Bunny and Donald Duck comic books to me. Pop bought them, and Bud read them to me. I remember one story where that trickster Bugs had gotten his thieving paws on some wormwood and it was supposed to be worth a lot of money. That was the first time I ever heard of wormwood. And it seemed like Donald and his nephews were always traveling around the world on some adventure that Uncle Scrooge had sent them on. The first time I ever heard of the ancient mariner or the Flying Dutchman was in the pages of those comic books. And I was amazed that the richest creature on the planet earth, Scrooge McDuck, would take half of his money and use it to build a money bin in which to put the other half so no one could have any of it! He used to dive off his board and into a pool of money and swim around in it. That’s where I first understood fully the concept of greed, and I’m pretty sure that my wanderlust started in those pages.

Then one day Bud stopped reading to me. I begged and pestered him. I even cried, but it didn’t do any good. He said he was “too busy” to read to me. Finally, I started thumbing through the books and looking at the pictures while trying to follow the story line.

Pop and I went to town on Saturdays, and he gave me money to go to the matinee while he sat on the bank portico and talked to the other old men. Sometimes Old Charley was there. Pop sometimes called him “The Watch Man” in jest. They talked for hours, and when I came back from the movies around 3:30, we would go down to Paul the Greek’s restaurant and have a fish sandwich and a Coke, or a hot dog with chili and slaw, or a hamburger with mustard and onions. He always drank the short bottles and finished them in two drinks. Usually I got a slice of cherry or blackberry pie, but he always got apple, and the only flavor of ice cream he ate was vanilla.

Then we walked on up to Rusty Fridley’s newsstand and waited for the bus. Rusty was a small man with a huge and kind heart, a soft voice and a hump on his back. He never married and lived with his mother until she died. Rusty let me read every comic book on the turning stand while he and the other men shot the bull.

I learned to read at Rusty’s newsstand.


WRITER’S BIO: David Norris has lived in Asia since 1985. He resides in Korea but is currently on short term assignment to Japan. He lectures in writing and literature for the University of Maryland University College Asia. His work has appeared in The Chariton Review, Taproot Literary Review, Poetry San Francisco, and The Dan River Anthology. David was born in the small town of Covington, Virginia, way up in the Alleghany Mountains. He left when he was 20 and has been traveling ever since.


Want to read more of David’s writing at USADEEPSOUTH? Click these links:
The Ants
Sometimes We Just Have To Let Them Go
55 Minutes Past the Hour
Harlan Martin’s 7 Turkeys
Cherry Blossoms and Our Lives
An Antiquated Sense of Social Protocol
A Double Jack With A Sidecar

David has more great stories listed in our USADS Articles pages.

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