On March 23, 1974 I weighed 227 pounds. I was 12 years old. On my school physical report form, “Obese!!” was underlined three times with two exclamation points. Signed, Dr. Irene Plotzie MD. She wasn’t all that slim herself. In fact, when she bent forward I saw the crack of her dupa. And she didn’t wear undergarments. How unhygienic. Yes, I was obese, but at least I didn’t have sprouts of black hairs growing out of my chin like an old goat. It was the 70’s, and I was a liability for other girls to associate with. The courting ritual consisted of boys cruising in cars. For me, all this ever involved was crude remarks shouted out of car windows, “Fat slob, go on a diet, only way you can do her is roll her in some flour and find the….” You know the rest.
I did have one friend. She had a horrible family secret but we were still friends. She had overinvolved parents that put her in every possible activity available. Blessedly they allowed this unparented kid to tag along.
In 1976 we joined the inner city 4H club, which was 40 percent black, 20 percent Asian, 8 percent American Indian, and the rest a mongrel mix of hued faces. 4H in the city? No farms, but these folks were big on field trips.
The first trip was to a working farm. Within 8 minutes I had stepped in a cow pie, barefoot. The house wife, a former nurse named Mrs. Hinkey, said, “Get inside this house, this aint no place for you.” She was tall and strong and smelled of bread. She fed me and fed me. She whispered into my ear, “Nothing wrong with being a little fat, someday it will protect you from a lot of ugly things that you don’t understand now. Here, have another slice. That’s not enough butter, put a little more on, more, more.” Farmwife Hinkey, formerly known as Nurse Triplet, saved me in more ways than one. Unfortunately, many years later she developed Alzheimer’s disease. Her husband took her our out of her misery with a 9 mm. He was a good man.
How in the ever-loving universe a 4H group decided it was a good idea to bring a group of city kids on an 8 hour field trip to Stillwater State prison is still one of life’s mysteries to me. We entered a large open day room. One man looked like Uncle Joe on Petty Coat Junction, and I swear, Barney Fife was moonlighting as a guard. Johnny John Johnston stood in front of us and told his story. At the age of 26, he took his father’s gun. Held up a gas station, got 20 bucks, and got arrested a block away. He spent the last 56 years of his life locked in that place. My fight for the underdog started that day. Injustice infuriates me still to this day. He was funny. He looked at me a lot and smiled. He made me laugh so hard, I farted, and loudly too. Mortified. He asked me If he pulled my finger could I do that again. For the very first time in my life I was not embarrassed by something “bad” I had done in public. I laughed about it until I cried. He did too. I think I fell in love with Johnny John. He walked me to the door when we were leaving. Extending his arms, he asked for a hug. I agreed, and he gave me the warmest, safest hug I had ever felt. I cried. He held me a long time. He whispered, “Never let a man talk down to you, ever. Look at those arms, you’re strong like a bull. You can take care of yourself. Go for this area here. No man can take a hit there. You ever decide to start a fight, never, ever give up, promise me that?” I promised, and have never broken it yet. “You’re a beautiful young girl. Never forget that.” I cried. This was not an over-inflated me-too movement, this was a me- becoming-myself moment. Young woman need more of this. I found his grave in 1998, and I left him a cold beer and a roll of life savers. He loved life savers and liked beer even better. I owed him that much.
The next week 4H decided we needed to appreciate the good fortune of our robust health. Our bus sputtered up Highway 35 to Moose Lake State hospital. I loved old buildings. it was beautiful. They had a zoo there. Monkeys too, until some local hoodlums stoned them to death in the dark of night. Those people were allowed to live on the street, yet these folks were locked up. Injustice again. We filed in. The patients were presented like a window display. My eyes were drawn to a young flame-haired girl laying on her stomach on a flat cart. A bucket underneath her. She called out. “Hey Hammertoe, get over here, NOW”. The nurse removed the lid and the girl urinated. The lid went back on. She screamed at me, “Stop staring, show’s over! You never take a leak, you stupid fat cow?” I felt more shame that I could use the bathroom, than that I was fat. A double door burst open and a girl my own age ran in with a makeshift mailman outfit on. “You got white hair blondie.” She messed her red curly hair in a crazy fashion. “What do I look like?”“A carrot”, I said. “YOU GOT IT!! You win the prize. I’m Shirley Jane. And that crabby B-i-t-c-h over there on the cart is my twin sister, Mamie. Stay away from her. She’s hateful, never gonna be happy. She don’t want to be either. Easier being miserable than nice. That way all your problems are everyone else’s fault. Wallows in self-pity every damn day. Know what, anyone can be mean that’s easy, special people are kind. Kindness takes work. You ain’t lazy. You’re kind, I can tell. Let’s go to my room.” I looked at the Nurse. “Please, please take her to her room so she shuts up for five minutes. That thing talks a mile a minute. ““YOU TALK A LOT TOO YA OLD BATTLE-AXE.” She had everything I didn’t, a record player, records, toys, clothes, games. Her clothes all matched. Even her socks had ruffles. I wanted to be her. I wanted her happiness, her joy, her love of life. I told her so. She said, “You can, but you gotta work at it. It ain’t easy” I decided I was gonna do just that. Neil Diamond blared and we danced like we didn’t care. Truth be told, we didn’t care. Nurse Hammertoe told us to turn it down. Shirley Jane said, “Call the police, hag-a-bag! Music has to go down at 8 pm. Look like 8 pm to you Nursey Poo?” We danced for hours. Every time I hear the song Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show, it either makes me cry or smile. `
In 2004 I went back to Moose lake to look for her. I told them I was her sister. She had died the year after I’d met her. Nurse Hammertoe had had the day off. Shirley told the float nurse that something was wrong. The nurse told her to quit complaining and go to bed. She died that night of a ruptured appendix. The groundkeeper helped me find her grave, #654887, no name.
I bought her a head stone. With her name on it. I had a Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show 45 record embedded in the stone. Because of her, I am happy. And I know I will never not be. It just takes work.
Her sister Mamie is still alive, lives with her older brother. Believe it not, she had a child who lives with her and her brother and whom they care for. So maybe she just decided she was going to do the work too.
Yes this is all true, except I weighed 231 pounds, 227 just sounded more poetic to me.