I was praying for salvation as the class suffered along with Luther Simpson through a page of Jane and Fluff the Kitten. The second-graders pretended to work on their sums across the aisle. in our shared classroom in 1935 in East Texas. Little Ruth Elaine Lawson, a girl I’d had always found dull, dropped her head to her desk and snuffled quietly, before bursting into great, heart-wrenching, snotty sobs. Startled at this display in a child normally so quiet, Miss Billie knelt at her side, trying to console Ruth Elaine and ascertain the problem. “My baby brother’s dead!!! Baby Willie got cut in two by lightning in his bed last night!!! Ooh!!! Hoo!!! Hoo!! Hoo!!! Hoo!! Hoo!!” A collective gasp swept the classroom. True enough, there had been a terrible storm, lightning and thunder, bad enough to keep children and adults awake, but news of this terrible tragedy hadn’t gotten around yet. Shocked, Miss Billie embraced the poor child and pitied the heart-broken mother who had been too undone by grief to keep this small one at her side today. The class buzzed, shocked at the news of Baby Willie’s death. Miss Billie silenced them with a fierce look, told them she’d be right back, and led the weeping child from the room, leaving Lessie Perkins to take names of evil-doers.
The class erupted, energized by this thrilling break in their day. While Leonard Pope sparked a riot as an exploding baby, inspiring a room full of exploding babies, little girls feverishly held a conclave, trying to get the details of Willie’s catastrophe straight, thoroughly understanding the link between social status and sensational gossip. Jack Parker illustrated the explosion on the blackboard. Self-righteous, Lessie Perkins listened at the door as Miss Billie spoke to her husband, the principal, Mr. Kinnebrew. Questioning Ruth Elaine, they learned that none of the family had been notified of the tragedy. It was decided he’d get someone to take his class and notify them. As he headed to his office with Ruth Elaine, Lessie alerted the class that Miss Billie was headed back in. Everyone raced for their desks, papers flying in their wake, Lessie feverishly working to get all the names, despite the fact that she’d had as much fun as anyone. Studiously oblivious to the thunderous noises preceding her reentry into the room without Ruth Elaine, Miss Billy didn’t even look up as she took the list Lessie waved imperiously. Unperturbed, she picked up where the lesson had left off.
The real tragedy resumed as Luther stumbled on through his page. Following along just enough to keep myself out of trouble should I be called upon to read next, I immersed myself in delightfully gory images of pudgy Baby Willie, lacerated by lightning from the right shoulder angling to the left hip, a smoking mess of blood and guts covering his snowy bed linens and blasted to the walls and ceiling beyond. Repulsive stalactites of stomach contents and clotted blood dangled from the charred ceiling dripping bloody patterns on the pine floor. Little Willie’s spirit was sure to haunt to the house where he met his gruesome death, forcing his bereaved family to flee and fall into greater and greater misfortune as time went on. Little Willie’s spirit would linger, intent on torturing all those foolish enough to venture near on a dark stormy night. …….Oh the story went on and on. I deeply regretted not befriending colorless little Ruth Elaine earlier in order to be nearer to the tragedy, but resolved to remedy that mistake as soon as
possible, nevermore to miss a precious dramatic tidbit. The ghost of Little Willie might even pay a visit to his grieving family while I was there comforting my dear friend, Ruth Elaine, making me a central character of some future thrilling story…..I schemed carefully, leaving out no possible benefit to myself.
Desperate to be the bearer of bad tidings, I plotted to race home at recess instead of waiting for lunch, but suspected John might have the same idea. Fortunately, I was first out when the bell rang, a full two hundred feet ahead of John, and raced ahead up the kitchen steps, flushed by victory, to spew the thrilling news, only to be deflated as I interrupted Mama and Daddy discussing who Mama would catch a ride with to take food out to the Lawson’s. Turning from the woodstove where she was putting on a pan of cornbread, Mama scolded “You know you don’t have time to come home at recess. Now get a biscuit and get back to school.” I didn’t get to tell anybody. The news had already spread like wildfire.