Monday, January 14, 2008

Color Me Green

By Carrillee Collins Burke

When I was a kid living in the hills of West Virginia, the entertainment my friends and I enjoyed came from our Scottish ancestors.

Shivaree, or belling as we called it, was one of those entertainments.

The belling was a loud gathering of good-humored friends who would celebrate a couple’s marriage. In Scotland, the groom was smeared with lampblack and paraded through the streets of his village the night before the wedding. In our hills, the belling took place after the wedding.

We always waited for the couple to settle in before serenading them. The idea was to surprise them with noise, such as beating on pans, drums, ringing cow bells, blowing horns, or anything that could create a clamor. The occasion was more of a party for us than the couple. The racket continued until the newlyweds came outside, acknowledged us, and served refreshments.

There was always the hope we’d catch them off guard without refreshments so we could punish them with a ride-on-the-rail. The rail being a long wide plank, or wooden ladder the couple straddled to be paraded up and down the country road or city street. It was all in fun.

There was always a youngster who felt too big for his or her breeches at one of these loud parties. And, at the age of fourteen, I became that youngster. It was a hot August night when a group of several men, women, and teenagers met at nine o’clock on the main road and started down the dark country lane, lit only by a full moon, to the couples’ house.

If a belling could be color-coded, then on that particular night in 1948 it would be colored chartreuse green.

As I recall, we silently surrounded the small porch and began our serenade. The couple were surprised, but knowing we’d eventually come some night they were prepared with cookies, drinks, and cigars. I stuffed myself on rich chocolate cookies with green icing washed down with glasses of sweet, lime Kool-Aid. Then I helped myself to a cigar meant for the men and boys.
I believed I was a tough little tomboy who could do anything boys could do. And if they were going to huddle and smoke their cigars right then and there. Well I would too!

Jim, my older brother, told me it would make me sick. But I pooh-poohed his advice and accepted the dare to light up. Heck, I certainly could handle a cigar advertised as “sweet, mild and gentle to the tongue,” or something like that. Besides, how sick could I get? So, without hesitation, I followed the boys lead.

Aping them gesture for gesture, I held the cigar gingerly between my first finger and thumb, bit one end off and spit it to the ground. Then I licked the end before putting it in my mouth. The tobacco, still rough and dry, stuck to my lips. I tried again, hacking and sucking until I had enough saliva to wet my lips, and the cigar. My mouth burned from the so-called “mild” smoke.

The boys laughed and one tossed me a box of matches. I scratched a match on the side of the box, cupped my hands against the breeze and touched the flame to the dry end. The flame glowed in the dark as I drew in deeply. I dropped the match and ground it into the dirt with the toe of my shoe.

Shoving my left hand into my jeans pocket I held the cigar with the fingers of my right hand and giggled and took another long, deep draw while the boys watched. Yep, I was one of them now.

Then I started to cough.

“Don’t inhale,” Jim said. “I told you not to inhale,” he repeated as I accidentally swallowed another mouthful of stink that eased down my throat, into my lungs, and filled my head. My eyes wobbled in their sockets as brown stuff floated out my nose and curled about my face giving me a strangling cough. I leaned against the porch railing, swimming in a nauseating, dizzy-like trance, listening to jokes I dared not laugh at for fear of becoming sick. All the while I held onto the cigar and pretended to smoke it in case one of the boys glanced my way.

A little later, Jim had to help me home. The entire mile, he kept his arm around my waist and held me upright on unsteady legs until we reached home. Then he guided me to my bedroom and stood near until my whirling bed slowed enough for me to flop on. I laid facedown on the fuzzy chenille bedspread and tried not to vomit. In the horrible hours that followed, I thought I would surely die. And at times, I wished I could.

The last thing I remembered that night before passing out was my brother’s voice of wisdom somewhere out there in a swirling, chartreuse-colored sea.

“I told you it would make you sick!”

*From the book, Country Girl.