Joey Maynard was gone on Monday. We looked everywhere for him, but he was not to be found. He had vanished. I was only seven years old at the time, and that was a long time ago, but I’ll never forget Joey’s disappearance and the impact it had on us all.
We had played Rope-and-Brand-’Um the day before, and Joey had been the one who suggested that we burn Ethel Mae at the stake. “That’s what the Indians always did with white women,” he’d said. I don’t know where he got his information (probably from one of the Saturday matinees I somehow missed), but he spoke with a tone of authority. Not that knowing what he was talking about was important. Burning Ethel Mae at the stake would have been a good idea whether the Indians did things like that or not.
I expect that each of us had thought of burning Ethel Mae at the stake at one time or another. We’d never come right out and said it because Ethel Mae might have gotten wind of it and struck first. The only thing that enabled Joey to voice his idea was that we had Ethel Mae roped, tied, and on the ground—a state to which she had peacefully submitted, as part of the requirements of the game we were playing. He could take a chance with her in that condition.
You may think it was harsh and unkind of us to consider burning Ethel Mae at the stake. Actually, it was rather light treatment compared to some of the things she had done to us over the years. And if we had managed to carry out the plan, she would have gotten off easier than she deserved. But the way she treated us was not Ethel Mae’s greatest sin.
I suppose we could have forgiven her for the mean tricks she pulled on us; for stealing our baseball bats; and hiding our roller skates; and covering our football with grape jelly. However, the thing that got us; the thing that grated upon our nerves and trampled upon our pride; the thing for which we could not forgive Ethel Mae ever, was that she was better at being a boy than we were.
She could throw a baseball harder than we could and hit one farther. She could shoot a BB gun straighter and load one faster. She could dig more worms and catch more fish. She could run faster, and climb trees faster, and eat supper faster. She could eat more ice cream, and tell better lies. It was a shameful thing to be a boy with Ethel Mae around. And we spent a considerable amount of time trying to figure out how to make her not-around. Burning her at the stake seemed to be the perfect solution.
We didn’t have a stake, but we decided that one of Joey’s clothesline poles would do. When Ethel Mae saw what we had in mind, she stopped cooperating, and we had a time of it getting her hauled over and tied to the clothesline pole in what we thought would be a proper position to be burned.
The rope ran out before we got to her feet, and she kept kicking away the sticks we gathered and tried to stack around her. She also kicked Marty Freeman in the mouth, putting him out of commission, and leaving us somewhat short-handed and demoralized. We may have stopped the procedure right there, except for the fact that Ethel Mae was describing graphically and in great detail all of the things that were going to happen when she got un-tied and at us. Having come this far, we knew we had to complete the task or suffer the burden of our failure to do so.
And we might have completed it if Joey’s mother hadn’t come out of the back door to call him inside. She saw what we were doing and told us to “stop-it-right-now-this-instant-I-said-stopit!” We knew we were in for it, and dashed to our respective homes. I looked over my shoulder and saw Mrs. Maynard and Joey untying Ethel Mae. It was the last time I ever saw him. The next morning he was gone for good.
At first we blamed it on Ethel Mae, but she seemed to be as genuinely troubled by his disappearance as any of us were. No one had any answers. And the adults weren’t talking. His mother would only say, “Joey’s gone”; or “Joey doesn’t live here any more.”
Our mothers were even less helpful. They would just shrug and change the subject. Or say they “didn’t know,” in a tone of voice that said, “I’m not saying a word, and the less you say, the better.”
What happened to Joey Maynard? The question burned in the souls of us all. And, no one would answer it for us. Later in life, I found that Joey’s folks had divorced, and he had left that Sunday night to go live with his father in Memphis, Tennessee. But in Itta Bena, Mississippi, in 1952, the big people didn’t talk to the little people about divorce (or about where babies come from; or about what Uncle Buck kept in the brown bag under his bed). In Itta Bena, Mississippi, in 1952, they didn’t tell little kids the truth straight out.
I’m sure they thought they were doing us a favor; protecting us from life; saving us from a lot of pain and worry. What they didn’t realize is that in the absence of truth, imagination reigns. And imagined pain and worry is infinitely worse than the real thing. We had to know what happened to Joey Maynard. If they wouldn’t tell us, we would figure it out for ourselves.
It was David Gillespie who led us to the light. He had been reading a comic book in the same room where his parents were talking in low tones (so as not to wake the baby) about the Wright brothers having invented the airplane at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. They were planning their family vacation, and North Carolina was one of the places they were considering.
David didn’t hear anything about vacations; or about the Wright brothers; or about airplanes. All he heard was Kiddie Hawk, and the fact that they lived in North Carolina. It was a revelation to us all.
Everything fell into place as he recounted his parents’ conversation. We were terrified and undone. And we finally understood what happened to Joey Maynard. Of course, we had never seen a Kiddie Hawk—but we had seen a chicken hawk.
We had watched one make off with one of Mr. Ed Randal’s prize pullets about three weeks before. The poor hen had no chance in the clutches of the hungry hawk; and we could imagine the helpless horror Joey (and all the other kids) must have felt, dangling from the talons of a Kiddie Hawk.
“I wonder if he took him all the way back to North Carolina before he ate him,” said Ethel Mae. We all grimaced at the very thought, and our lives changed dramatically.
Suddenly we understood why our parents warned us about going out after dark, and why they told us to be careful whenever we went outside to play. Now we knew why they didn’t want us climbing the tall oak tree down on the lake bank or playing on the railroad trestle over Roebuck Lake—high up in the branches, or out there on the rails, we would have been perfect targets for a soaring Kiddie Hawk. We left the tree and the trestle alone, and were very careful whenever we were outside.
We went everywhere huddled together in packs of three or more. One of us would always watch the sky, trusting the others to be careful guides, and hoping that we would never see what we watched for with rapt concentration. Of course, we all promised that if a Kiddie Hawk attacked one of us, the rest of us would be quick to the rescue. We knew it was a lie, but it made us feel better to have the pact, and we reminded each other of it often.
One afternoon we were at baseball practice when a crop duster cruised over with the engine off. As the plane’s shadow glided easily over the ball field, we shrieked, and scattered, and headed for cover.
Coach Stanley couldn’t imagine what we were doing inside and under his car and it took a lot of prodding to get it out of us. When we explained what was going on, he walked around bent over, laughing for a long time. Between wheezes and gasps, he pointed out the airplane to us and said there were no such things as Kiddie Hawks. By the next day, everyone in town was laughing and saying the same thing.
But, that was Itta Bena, Mississippi in 1952, and they didn’t tell little kids the truth, straight out. They said there were no such things as Kiddie Hawks, but they didn’t tell us there were things as bad as, or worse than, Kiddie Hawks in our future, and what we might do to deal with them.
Ethel Mae developed leukemia and died in her teens. David Gillespie’s twin sons wandered into a farm pond and drowned when they were four. Marty Freeman was killed in an airplane crash in his twenties. There are things waiting in the lives of all of us that we cannot bear alone.
We all need a place—the right kind of place with the right kind of people—where we can find what we need to face what lies tucked away in our lives—where we can go to process the day, and say who we are and how it is with us. Where we can talk about the impact of living, and how we are dealing with it, and what we might do to deal better with it.
We need the presence of the right kind of company. We need to spend time with those who can listen to us without preaching to us; without trying to fix us, or correct us, or convert us, or straighten us out, or advise us, or change us.
We need those with us who can offer the right kind of help in the right way—who can be, in the words of Shel Silvertstein, “the kind of help that help is all about.” Itta Bena, Mississippi didn’t have nearly enough of those people in 1952. There were plenty of people who laughed at the idea of Kiddie Hawks but did nothing to help us handle a truth they couldn’t handle themselves—and that is no laughing matter!