My sister, Deane, was four, and I, little Bobby, was barely two in 1934. I often heard the older folks giving her instructions: “Deannie, go see what Bobby is doing, and tell him not to.” I am not sure two-year-old boys pay attention to anybody, – for long. They may all be accidents in progress.
For one whole school year 1934-35, my sister and I lived with our grandparents in their big house in Ottawa while our mother, Gertrude, taught school in Plains, 250 miles away in Southwest Kansas. Our father had flown the coop almost immediately after my birth in 1932.
Being two years old, judging whether the grandparents are careful minders of their charges is simply something two-year olds don’t worry about. It was well known that grandpa was losing his sight, so he may not have seen what-all little Bobby was getting into. Grandma, on the other hand, had great difficulty hearing what was going on. If they both were present at the same time, they could talk with each other and put a picture together. If they ever did this, a two-year-old doesn’t know this either. I am doing this as best I can.
So my sister and I lived with our grandparents for a year while Ma taught school in western Kansas. I was pretty sure that Western Kansas was just like in the movies. It was full of Indians, badgers, and rattlesnakes. I know grandpa had a farm out there, but after ten years they all left and moved back to Ottawa. I just hoped Ma would survive the wild west until the year was over.
Grandma and grandpa were a lot more relaxed than Ma. They pretty much allowed us to do what we wanted to do within reason, of course. The summer before Ma started teaching, the big old house was prepared for our yearlong stay. They hung a swing from one of the trees in the yard. Here we are two years later standing by the swing.
That’s me standing by the tree. Cousin Pat is in the swing. Big brother A.T. is standing on the right, and sister Deane is pushing cousin Pat in the swing. Somebody said I was pouting by the tree cause I wanted to be in the swing. I think I am pouting because I wanted to push the swing, and my sister wouldn’t let me. She wouldn’t let me do anything.
Inside the house they put up all the breakables, assigned us to our designated rooms, collected my two toys and Deane’s many books in a spare room, hung a trapeze from the rafters in the attic, warned us about the open electric sockets all over the house, and told us both to mind our Ps and Qs, and our grandparents. It was several years before I understood exactly what Ps and Qs were, and why we should be careful with them.
One of the first things I recall about grandpa, preacher and all, was his favorite statement about Ps, not Qs. When we were all seated at the dinner table, grandpa would wait for exactly the right occasion. Then without smiling or otherwise indicating that he was behaving in an un-preacher-like manner, he would say,
“Now Bobby, you eat every bean and P on your plate.” I knew exactly what the Reverend I.W. Bailey meant, so I followed his lead very carefully, and replied just as seriously,
“Yes sir, Grandpa.” I was pretty sure he was referring to a different kind of P, but I never did it. I knew what Grandpa meant when he referred to Ps, but I didn’t know about Qs for a long time. I knew that Grandpa was far more interested in Ps than Qs, and he wasn’t concerned about me skipping first grade like my sister.
After Grandpa left for church each day, my sister would follow Ma’s role model. That model is best described as follows:
Sis spent half her time telling me to stop doing things. It was a real pain most of the time, but I knew that the other half of the time she would spend reading. So my standard reply was:
“Why don’t you go find a book to read, and leave me alone.” Being a loving, devoted and conscientious sister, she often took my suggestion and disappeared.
After she disappeared, I did pretty much what I wanted to do. One of the first things I did was to check out the open electric sockets. They appeared to be quite harmless. One socket in particular was especially attractive. It was located on the first landing going up the winding stairs to the second floor.
Just to prove to myself that the warnings were exaggerated, I watched that socket carefully for several days, – and nothing happened. Then one day when nobody was around, I climbed up to the landing and examined the socket up close and personal.
How totally harmless I said to myself as I stuck my finger into the shallow opening.
ZZAAAPPPP it went, and showered my right hand and arm with a cloud of sparks. Then it shoved a thousand pins and needles into my fingers, hand and arm all the way to my elbow. My entire right arm was tingling with a sensation I had never experienced before.
After a minute the tingling and the pins and needles started fading away, and I thought to myself:
“Just where is your big sister when you really need her?”
Then I added, still thinking to myself:
“I may not skip first grade, – but I discovered there were some things you shouldn’t do twice.” Whatever was in those sockets was able to jump out as far as your elbow, so I kept a safe distance from all open sockets from then on. I never told anybody about this thing I had learned all by myself. They were already watching me like a hawk.
Then one day it really happened! Grandpa had gone to church leaving me alone with the women-folks. It seemed like a good time to check out the trapeze in the attic. Since the attic was a little spooky, I asked Sis if she would go up with me. We both went up the narrow stairs into the attic on the third floor.
The trapeze was hung from the rafters in the highest part of the roof right next to the chimney. In order to get onto the trapeze bar, which was quite a ways off the floor, they had built a wooden box that could be moved to wherever it was needed. Sis crawled up onto the box and took her turn on the trapeze first. She was pretty good and could swing from her hands and arms, and knees. Then she got tired of swinging, and decided to let me have a turn.
I crawled up onto the box and took a swing or two. I had a lot of trouble swinging far enough to get back onto the box behind me. I was just too little to do it easily. I guess there was some advantage to being a little bigger.
Standing on the box, I discovered that if I started swinging from the back edge of the box, I could almost always get back to the box on the first swing. If I missed it the first swing or two, I just had to wait for the swing to slow down, then drop to the floor like a cat. Then I would crawl back up onto the box and try it again.
Being curious and all, I also examined the trapeze bar, and the double hooks used to fasten each end of the bar. It was pretty neat with one hook coming down from each direction. I guessed that way the bar would not come off by accident. I played with the double hooks, detached the bar from the hooks at one end, and examined the metal hooks real carefully.
They were shiny and new, and clean enough to put in your mouth, I thought to myself. So I put one of the double metal hooks in my mouth, just like every two-year old would do.
At this point I decided it was time to fly. I lost my balance standing on the edge of the box, and fell toward the floor, with the trapeze hook still in my mouth. With the jerk from the fall, the hook end came up through my left cheek an inch from my mouth, and I found myself swinging back and forth on the rope like a dead chicken.
I don’t remember much pain, but there must have been some. What a pickle I was in, I thought. I couldn’t get back up on the box. It was too far away. I couldn’t reach the floor, cause it was too far down. When you are hanging from your cheek, it is pretty hard to holler for help. I had no idea where Sis had gone. Grandma was two floors down, and was hard of hearing. Even if I could holler, she wouldn’t hear me.
So there I was, suspended, – hung by the chimney with care, with hopes that St. Nicholas, or anybody, soon would be there.
The mind keeps going, I discovered, even after the swinging stops. I heard that my great grandpa died from falling off a horse. I had fallen into a horse tank on the farm earlier in the year, but I managed to crawl out OK. I stuck my finger into the wall socket just a few days earlier, and didn’t die. I didn’t drown, wasn’t electrocuted. Maybe I am indestructible, Super Kid, I thought. I wondered if you can die from hanging by your left cheek?
The longer I hung there, the more I worried. I could already see the article in the Ottawa Herald the following day:
Little Bobby Barnard, three-year-old grandson of the Rev. I. W. Bailey, was discovered hanging from a trapeze hook in the attic of the Bailey residence on South Cedar Street yesterday afternoon. He was apparently playing with the trapeze when he decided to swing with the hook in his mouth. He didn’t swing very long.
His grandmother, Flora, discovered his little body swinging very gently back and forth. After some deliberation she lifted him back onto the box, and removed the hook from his mouth, very much like unhooking a large-mouth bass.
By the time the doctor arrived at the Bailey home, the hole in his cheek was swollen shut, there was little sign of bleeding, and he did not require any stitches.
Sources indicate little Bobby was practicing surviving dangerous events that would kill an average person. So far this year, he has survived drowning in a horse tank, electrocution using regular house current, and now hanging in the attic. He is planning to survive Indians and rattlesnakes in Western Kansas in the near future.
Shortly after the doctor left, Bobby was busy looking for things he should do only one time. He can do a lot of things his big sister never thought of, but he never skipped first grade.