My cousin Bruce, who is a preacher now, was what modern child psychologists would call a precocious child. My mom said of him more than once “that youngun’ can be as mean as a snake.” But that’s because he was aways into something.
My dad grew bouquet peppers on the front porch bannisters of our old house in West Pratt. You don’t see the peppers much anymore, but these grew in pots and, when matured, they had peppers about the size of a marble and were as colorful as a bag of jellybeans.
They were really more for decoration, but my dad ate them on occasion. Eating one of those peppers was like popping a tiny lump of burning coal into your mouth. Those babies burned going in and coming out, if you know what I mean.
Most of our cousins spent time at our house in the summer, and Bruce almost lived there because he loved my mama’s biscuits, her fried chicken, her butter beans and apple pies — he loved eating her food.
When he was about 10 years old, we had company visiting from up north and they had a little girl about 6. We weren’t allowed to play in the house, so we were all on the front porch.
Bruce got the bright idea to play a little trick on the kid. He picked one of the bouquet peppers and acted like he popped it into his mouth. “Umm,” he told her, “these taste like cherries.”
The kid walked over picked one of the peppers and popped it into her mouth before anyone could warn her.
What came next might have been the loudest, shrillest scream I’ve ever heard in my life.
If we’d had wine glasses in those days, they would all have shattered when her screaming hit the key of B flat.
That screaming brought a house full of adults scurrying to the front porch, and when Bruce heard that screen door slap against the jamb, he knew he’d been busted.
I’m sure he considered bolting off the porch, running to old Dora, hopping a train and heading out west until things cooled down, but he knew my mama wouldn’t forget. He also knew he’d never taste another biscuit until he faced the music.
I’m sure he felt like someone on death row. Will it be the chair, firing squad or simply be beaten to death with a razor strap?
As it turns out, my mama, who was a master at disciplining kids, decided on a simple, more elegant punishment to fit the crime, so to speak.
She stepped over to the pot of bouquet peppers and picked a handful of choice peppers. She sat down on a cane-bottom chair on the porch and called Bruce over.
While the rest of the kids watched with a mixture of horror and amusement, Bruce ate several of the peppers. He never cried, but he groaned, grunted winced and did a great deal of creative dancing before he was through.
At one point, I thought I could see steam coming out both of his ears.
This week as we recalled that story, we both had a much needed laugh. You had to really mess up to force my mama to disciplinary mode, but once you did, the result was usually something you didn’t forget.