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I Remember Sand Burs

I remember sand burs.

People searching for small talk topics often ask, “What is your earliest memory?”

I always answer, “I remember sand burs.”

While this might seem unusual, they were a painful, bothersome, ever-present part of my young childhood and for this reason, I think they obscured the more worthy milestones of my limited memory.

Dulworth Elementary School crowned the subdivision where my parents bought their first house. I’m not sure which came first; the school or the subdivision. They seemed to more or less appear on the map at the same time.

We lived on Murray Street, named for the third son of the man who used to farm the land upon which the subdivision was built. As a girl of nine, I yearned to live on Barbara Street. She had been Murray’s eldest and most beautiful sister, thus her street was highly coveted among my friends. When someone asked where I lived and I replied “Murray…” there was a barely perceptible frown of disapproval.

Barbara Street had more pools per capita than Murray. My mother reminded my father of this on a regular basis. During my tenth summer, my mother had picked up some milk and eggs from the corner grocery. Its door had a jalousie window for ventilation and the panel nearest the handle had been broken off. Mother’s hand grazed the broken panel and this resulted in 99 stitches over a three-layer depth on the back of her left hand. It also resulted in an insurance settlement that subsidized the down payment on the first pool on Murray Street—ours. The balance was subtracted each month from Mother’s grocery allowance; so in a sense, we all paid the price.

Back to the sand burs… a bane upon anyone who wandered onto the recess playground in anything less than leather boots and thickly padded gloves. They seemed to lie low and inconspicuously until you were launched from a slide or the top of the teeter-totter. This is when they rose up to meet you; sensing an opportunity to secure their clinging, penetrating spurs into your most tender skin. They were particularly adept at attaching to your socks, layering the knit into tangles that made your fingers bleed when you sought to detach them. The pernicious little buggers did not grow on the fifth and sixth grader playground; leaving me with the distinct suspicion that they had been planted as a sort of hazing necessary to reach the big kids’ side.

With the school so close by, my earliest memories of Murray Street were peppered with playground outings and the cursed sand burs. Then there were the well-loved catalpa trees. I remember these as rather graceful trees that produced seedpods similar to those of large peas. Once you were freed of burs, you could lean against one of these shady nurturers and contentedly open the pods, removing the peas and shooting them at one another. The catalpas formed crossroads of a series of wide sidewalks that were our motoring streets; ideal for riding bicycles two-abreast. This was our city and each sidewalk led to a different imaginary destination; the movie theatre, a grocery or perhaps a house we had built in our minds.

The overwhelming value of the school highway was that adults never ventured there. The pecking order was determined by who had the greatest agility on their bike, the size of their bike, the number of marbles in their pocket and the biggest mouth to proclaim they were “boss of the city.”

It was here that I learned the value of the more important things in life. For example…those marbles. There was a definite hierarchy with marbles. The lowest on the status pole were the cat’s eye or opaque marbles. These were similar to your ante at a casino poker table. It was required that you have a few of these in order to get into any respectable game. The next up the ladder was the steelie; smallest and ultimately the big ones. These had a currency value many times those of the cat’s eyes and therefore, when one of these were gambled, they were the center of attention. It took a certain amount of guts to play a steelie; not only were they worth more, and therefore a greater loss, but they were heavier and could make your middle finger throb when you launched it. They were not for sissies. It was expected that you kept your marbles in a pouch, an old rusted tin or a coffee can. The really tough kids kept theirs in coffee cans because the hand-crank can openers left a ragged edge and this presented a hazard to the weak of heart.

I had earned some renown on the marble echelon. I had an afternoon job at my parents’ newspaper that gave me a bit more spending money than most. What I didn’t win, I bought. This kept me in steelie wealth.  I had my favorite cat’s eyes as well; red and green were particularly prized. I seldom removed these from my coffee can when a blue or yellow would suffice. You had to be quick when setting up the game. If you were late, someone would have already called yellow or blue and then you were forced to play your red or green to be differentiated on the marble course. I was very careful to always be the first on the field.