“Gloating is a temptation to avoid,” Mama said

Published 10:27 am Thursday, August 17, 2023

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Don’t gloat.

I can still hear my Mama’s admonition to me, given in a tone that carried not an ounce of threat but rather a teaching moment sound. It was as if she were saying, without really saying it, “We’re not that kinda people.”

Mama was big on the kind of people we were supposed to be, even when it was difficult to be them.

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We lived in a ramshackle farm house on the banks of the St. Francis River in Northeast Arkansas, a sharecropper’s hard life on riverbottom land. Our neighbors were people in the same financial crack that we were. Everybody worked to pay their bills. Robbing or stealing was unheard of.

I was about 10 years old when Elliot Phillips, who would have been about 13, arrived on the scene. He was much larger physically, loud and had an air of danger and daring about him. When he smirked, which was often, his lip curled and he lifted his right eyebrow. A perfect new friend, even if he was the other kind of people.

`Simply put, Elliot lied and cheated as if his Mama had never told him about just how hot the fires of hell were going to be. He routinely defied his parents, sassed the owner of Buck Wood’s small country store, and carried a switchblade knife in his jeans pocket just in case there was any trouble, of which there was none to be found.  

Elliot broke every rule I followed but never seemed to get his comeuppance. I wondered if older boys avoided him because they were afraid of him.

I was captivated by his swagger and thought how he must have had some special ability that I did not have but doubtless needed.

And so, when he dared me, I accepted without really weighing the consequences of my actions because I thought he was fearless in the face of rules.

That is how we arrived at the point of making hand grenades.

Elliot found an open box of dynamite used by farmers, the adults, to blast tree stumps out of the ground on land that had been cleared for farming. His idea was that if we put some of the powder from a stick of dynamite into a jar, punched a hole in the lid with a nail, inserted a strand of hay string through the hole and lit it, KABOOM!

He was right.

But then one day I made the mistake of entrusting him with a bit of information that should have been kept secret. I knew that my Uncle Joe had bought a lot of firecrackers and given them to my Daddy to entertain us kids at Christmas.

Elliott said we should start a fire in the burn barrel and toss a few firecrackers into the barrel. Just to see what would happen, he said. We had unraveled a half dozen tiny firecrackers and tossed them into the barrel, with me thinking what harm could this be when Elliott took the brown paper bag filled with firecrackers and tossed them all into the barrel at once.

I was mortified. My short little life flashed before my eyes as I thought about what my parents would do to me. When the popping ceased, all I could hear was Elliott screaming. I turned and he was writhing on the ground in pain. A piece of hot plastic had been blown out of the barrel and landed on his arm, sticking to it and burning his skin.

He ran home. I walked down to the river’s edge and contemplated the end of my life until Mama came and told me Elliott had somehow gotten a serious burn. I fessed up and said I never wanted to see him again and that I hoped the burn left a scar.

“Don’t gloat,” she said. “He’s paying the price.”

Larry McDermott is a local retired farmer/journalist. Reach him at hardscrabblehollow@gmail.com