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Never slap a man who's chewing tobacco. Never kick a cow chip on a hot day. Never miss a good chance to shut up.

-- Will Rogers

"Summer makes me think of chewin' tobacco," Mama said.

"Just the words all daughters hope their mothers will string together," I replied.

"Well, all's I'm sayin', reminds me of when we'd moved up 'round St. Louis and Cahokia for a couple of years," Mama went on. "Jobs were scarce down here, and Gram and PawPaw moved us up north to find work. I was about 11 or 12 years old, so it had to been about 1957. We lived on Clovis Street, and there were several kids in the neighborhood. The boys would often talk big, saying they sure would like to chew a plug. One day, I was playing with the Fritzie girls when some of the boys came up, talking big like that. I said I knew where we could get us some. Told 'em my stepdad had a pocket full in a pair of britches laying across a chair. Nothin' doin' but I go get it. I strolled through the house and came back out with a wad of tobacco."

"You get caught?" I asked.

"Not yet," she said. "I brought it out, and all the kids were wide-eyed, passing it around. Marilyn Fritzie took a tiny nip off one corner. The boys took a little pinch. Not Brenda. No, I was new to town, and I wanted to impress everyone, especially those boys. Show 'em how it's done. I'd seen folks chew and dip snuff and all. Problem was, I'd never paid close attention to how they did it. So I figured, the bigger the better. I bit off a huge chunk of tobacco and went to chewin', mouth full, cheeks puffed out like a chipmunk. We all stood there in the corner of one kid's backyard, thinkin' we were something else.

"Other thing I didn't remember was that you're supposed to spit the juice. I swallowed every last bit of it. Some of the others did, too, but they had so little in their mouths, it didn't matter much.

"Wasn't long before I turned three shades of green. Gram had been cleaning the house all day and was just finishing up when I came tearin' through to the bathroom. I curled up by the commode and threw up my socks for what seemed an eternity. Didn't take her long to figure out what'd happened, seeing what I was vomiting."

"You get in trouble?" I asked.

"Yep, but none as bad as the punishment I handed myself in that bathroom. Never had any desire to try that again. Well, 'til someone mentioned cigarettes one day."

"What, you'd had e'snuff? Couldn't Copenhagen? Did it make you late for Skoal?" I chided. "Bet that was a fun conversation when PawPaw found out."

She was scared spitless.

NAN Our Town on 05/21/2020

Print Headline: Lesson learned hard way

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