My Friend, Shirt

ON FRIED EGGS, HAZELNUTS,

AND BEING RELATED TO THE KING

Remembering the summer I was ten

Backus, Minnesota, Population: 350

By Sharon Sheppard

 

My best friend Shirt and I (her real name was Shirley) shared a lot of adventures whenever we were lucky enough to sneak away from her little sister and my little brother, which didn’t happen nearly as often as we would’ve liked. If we could get away without the little kids’ noticing, our moms said, we could have our freedom.  But if they found us, we’d be responsible for seeing that they didn’t drown or get run over.  As if there was ever enough traffic in our small town to be a problem.

If we went someplace predictable like Pine Mountain Lake to fish for perch off Rocky Dock, either Judy or Carl was sure to show up almost before we got started.  But if we sneaked off to the hazelnut patch, we could sometimes hide in the brush long enough to keep from being discovered.  At the grain elevator where my dad worked, we could sometimes duck in and out of crannies fast enough to escape kid-sitting duties.

On one of the hottest days of the summer, somebody on Main Street said it was so hot you could fry an egg on the sidewalk.  Shirt and I decided to check it out.  The trick was to sneak back to our chicken coop and snatch an egg without getting caught, because if either Carl or Judy saw us, they’d be sure to whine to our parents.  The kids were at that awkward age where they were too little to have fun with but not too little to tattle on us.

As it turned out, we did manage to smuggle an egg.  We made kind of a mess on the sidewalk, but sure enough, the transparent part of our easy-over egg turned a little milky, proving that “hot enough to fry an egg” wasn’t just an expression.  But we already had a pretty good idea of the temperature that day because our bare feet stung from contact with the hot tar road and the sun-baked cement sidewalk.

The day Shirt learned to sing alto was a red-letter day in our books.  She discovered that if she just sang a couple of notches lower than I did, we could harmonize.  We whipped through all the hymns and choruses we could think of, trying out our new sound, then we begged to be allowed to sing a duet in church.

Our mothers sewed us matching feed sack skirts and peasant blouses, and our debut number was The Spelling Song, a perky little jingle condemning some of the shocking worldly sins of the flesh.  The parts I remember went like this:

 

Some folks jump up and down all night at a D-A-N-C-E,

While others go to church to show off their brand new H-A-T.

They smear their faces with great daubs of P-A-I-N-T,

And then they laugh at us because we’re S-A-V-E-D.

Chorus:

I’m H-A-P-P-Y to know that I’m S-A-V-E-D.

’Tis G-L-O-R-Y to know that I’m F-R- double E…

 

You get the idea.  It was fun to see how fast we could sing it the second and third time around.

But our singing career came to an unexpected halt the day the doctor told my parents and me that I had rheumatic fever.  Not that there had been a lot of call for a couple of ten-year-olds in matching outfits speed-singing The Spelling Song after we’d done it once.  But now with my sore throat and fever, singing was no longer an option.

Things were pretty quiet in our old Model A the day we drove home from the clinic in Pine River.  There would have been more heavy-duty crying from the back seat if I’d known I would be spending the whole next year of my life in bed.

My legs had ached for weeks—growing pains, everybody guessed—but I was more tired than a ten-year-old oughta be.  Frankly, I was glad that the doctor’s diagnosis of a heart murmur finally gave me permission to rest.  Little did I realize that I’d miss out on my whole fifth-grade year of school.

At any rate, during many of those long, boring, pre-penicillin days when I was laid up, Shirley sat on the edge of my bed and kept me company.  Sometimes as we cut out clothes for our paper dolls or assembled toy-town villages from cereal boxes, Shirt and I were so quiet my mom didn’t even remember that I had company.

Nobody had heard of home school education in those days, so a year later, when the following school term rolled around, and I was finally up on my feet, I realized I’d had a growth spurt.  There I was—the tallest kid in fifth grade—except for one kid, who had flunked a grade or two.  Not only was I taller, but I felt more mature.  Who were these short, silly kids?  I belonged with the friends I’d grown up with who were now in sixth grade.  The only good thing about it was that I was now in the same grade with Shirt, who was a year and a day younger than me.

If I had known that the railroad would soon transfer Shirt’s dad to Guthrie, I’d have been really sick all over again.  But that’s a whole other story.

After Shirt moved away, life was pretty dull.  I spent more time with my older cousin Marilie, and she shared my love for music, but life was never the same.

My dad’s brother and family lived on a farm, and they went to the same church as we did.  After Sunday services were over, we’d potluck with them.  Later, when we’d polished off Aunt Emma’s roast beef, mashed potatoes, and gravy, along with my mother’s exquisite coconut cream pie, Marilie and I excused ourselves from the table and raided the hen house for real eggs to use in our mud pies.

They had a mean old bull with horns, and he was penned into the pasture by what seemed like a flimsy barbed-wire fence.  I was terrified of the ferocious bull, and it seemed like a dumb thing for them to keep him at all, especially when he didn’t even give milk.  But when I asked why they kept him, my older boy cousins just snickered like I was a dummy.

Later in the afternoon, their whole family would take out musical instruments—banjo, accordion, mandolin, and guitars, and sometimes a harmonica, and along with my tall, gentle uncle on the violin—they made wonderful music together.  For me, it was the best part of the whole day.  They played everything from old hymns to “Turkey in the Straw,” and not a one of them could read a note.

After Uncle Alfred died, an old friend sent condolences to my dad.  In the letter he wrote, “I will never forget the last time I heard Alfred play the violin.  It was on a Sunday evening in church.  When he played “I’m a Child of the King,” I had never heard anything more beautiful!  It seemed like the angels touched the strings that night.”

Many years later, after my cousin Marilie died, her husband gave me my Uncle Alfred’s violin.  It will never sound very good under my fingers and bow—I could use some help from the angels.  But I can still hear the echo of the music made by my ear-playing Norwegian uncle, the one who was the son of a King.