I’m not afraid of venomous snakes. I don’t fear bears, wild boars, even mountain lions. Waist-deep in an alligator-infested swamp? No big deal. I’m an outdoorsman. I take most fearsome things in stride.
So what does scare me? Well, it has nothing to do with the outdoors. I fear Valentine’s Day. I shudder to think it’s less than two weeks away.
Halloween, which is supposed to be scary, doesn’t hold a candle to Valentine’s Day. Age has conquered my fear of ghosts and goblins, but the childhood trauma of an arrow-pierced heart haunts me even now.
I was a smitten fifth grader. Her name was … Oh, never mind. The little heartbreaker’s still alive and probably apt to sue me. Just call her Sally.
Sally was a real cutie. In southeast Alabama parlance just “plumb purty.” She was doe-eyed, petite, and enough the tomboy to legitimize grade-school attractiveness. Heck, for a little gal, Sally could boot a kickball a country mile. She wasn’t half bad at marbles and, be still my heart, she liked to fish!
I’d had my cap set for Sally since Christmas assembly, when our teacher Miss Kate caught Cletus Monroe and me misbehaving during “Silent Night” and made me sit with the girls. Sally smiled at me in the middle of “Up on the Housetop” and I was a gone goose.
By February, I’d accumulated enough nickels and dimes to purchase what I considered the ultimate heart winner, a 99-cent heart-shaped box of Nunnally chocolates. Not the 75-cent soft-centers, mind you, but the all-nut variety, the kind you didn’t have to poke with a finger to see if it’s fit to eat. They were imported chocolates, too. All the way from Woolworth’s in Dothan. No way could my countrified rivals for Sally’s affection match that. Nosiree. I had her. She was mine!
Came Valentine’s Day, and with it the traditional card-and-gift exchange. With chaotic exuberance, each student bustled about the classroom dropping Valentine cards into classmates’ personalized, hand-decorated paper bags constructed during “art” period days before. “To Debbie from Kenneth,” “To Michael from Winnie Mae,” read the envelopes. “Be Mine,” “I Love You,” “Kiss Me,” read the card inscriptions, even those “To Ruthie from Laura” and “To Bobby from Cletus.” Everyone, gender notwithstanding, received cards from everyone else. Miss Kate “Valentined” each of us, bless her heart, with a sweetly inscribed card and a tiny pink box of “red hots.”
With conspiratorial sneakiness, I waited for Sally’s bag to fill then sneaked a peek inside. Eureka! Just as I thought. The contents paled mightily in comparison to my confectionery offering. The next best was, of all things, a measly nickel Hershey Bar from the school canteen. I was in, brother! Who says money can’t buy love? Smugly, I dropped my box of candy into the sack and strode haughtily back to my seat.
Then it came, the announcement for which we’d all been waiting.
“Now, boys and girls,” said Miss Kate, “everyone get up and get your bags. Read your cards. Eat your candy if you wish. And sit with your special Valentine if so inclined.”
Inclined? Dadgum right I was inclined. I unceremoniously grabbed my bag and made my way to Sally’s desk.
It was empty.
Hastily, I surveyed the room. Alas, there she was, Sally, my true love, sitting with Philip, the Hershey Bar guy. On the desktop before them, opened, was my box of chocolates, which they were gobbling like Duroc hogs at a feed trough! Distraught, I slunk back to my assigned seat, humiliated and totally devoid of a Valentine, unless one counts Cletus Monroe who, naturally, was far from sympathetic.
Later, when class resumed and Miss Kate vainly attempted to interest us in the finer points of Netherlands geography, Clete interrupted her lecture with a raised hand.
“Yes, Cletus?” she said.
“Miss Kate, is Rotterdam a cuss word?”
“Why, no. Of course not. Why do you ask?”
“Just wonderin’. Bobby just said he hopes that candy Sally ate this mornin’ will Rotterdam teeth out.”
In case you’re curious, corporal punishment was much in vogue in public school back then. That particular Valentine’s Day, Miss Kate promoted it to sergeant.
Ouch! Give me snakes, bears, and alligator-infested swamps anytime.