Wednesday, February 8, 2006

In the good old valentine days

Express Staff Writer

When I was 10, Glenn Mitchell was the meanest kid in class, maybe in the whole school, possibly in all of Omaha. I think he was bypassed for the gene that makes us consider consequences. Because of the mean thing he did on Valentine's Day, I didn't put him in a file with the rest of my early joys and anxieties. It was only a few years ago that I quit checking for his name in Criminal Dispositions—I figured an outlaw of Glenn's caliber wasn't likely to still be on the upside of the turf.

As that Valentine's Day neared, my two sisters and I spent all of our after-school time cutting out and pasting and addressing our valentines. We'd walked the two blocks to Saunder's Drug Store and bought our fixings—big white sheets of paper lace and red construction paper and square red envelopes, enough for everyone in our classes. There weren't Hallmark cookie-cutter cards then; our whole supply probably didn't cost more than the $2 a-pop that Hallmark gets for their perfectly turned out cards.

Pause here pilgrims, I have to ask you to cut me some slack. Even though it's a beguiling tale I have going here, it's possible it reminds you of the dredged-up stuff you get from Auntie or Grannie or Uncle Ben. But be magnanimous. On one day so far away you can't imagine it, you'll find yourself a step or two from the swan-dive edge of the big plank, and then you'll see—then you'll find it impossible not to look over your shoulder and, if you can get someone pinned down, expound on some extraordinarily good stuff.

But back to the script: I had to work within the bounds of Miss Olgivie's two rules for Valentine's Day: No one to be slighted. No comic valentines. I was nervous when I took my scissors and cut into my first piece of lace and it showed; the heart I cut was ragged. And when I pasted it to its red base, I blobbed a bit of flour and water paste in the corner. Throwing it away was too wasteful to consider, and it came to me suddenly, probably just like a mean streak came upon Glenn, that there was wiggle room within the rules. There was room for guile, even if I didn't know guile's name. Clearly, this was the card for Glenn Mitchell. I was immediately cheered.

The next card didn't have anything concrete to mark it as inferior, but it smacked of mediocrity—the perfect card for Miss Goldy Locks—always-smiling, do-no-wrong Alice Bixby. Another card was just right for best friend Shirley, and I saved the best card for Paul Schofield, who was everything Glenn was not. Every card precisely suited a particular classmate that Valentine's Day—it was the year that proved to be my introduction to guile—simple, useful, 101 Guile.

The big day passed agonizingly slow until late afternoon when Miss Olgivie, no surprise, chose Alice Bixby to help distribute the cards. All 23 of us received one, but that wasn't the whole story. Glenn Mitchell had stuffed the Valentine box with comic valentines disguised in the same red envelopes the rest of used to exchange messages of friendship and love. My valentine was a kinky-haired girl with bedspring hair poking up everywhere. He'd nailed me dead. When I looked up, cheeks burning, to see if anyone had seen the dreadful thing, I noticed a general quiet, actually a furtive profound quiet, and I sensed I hadn't been singled out. Furtively, we showed one another Glenn's valentines. He'd nailed Fat Frances and Beanpole Tom and Runny Nose Bill and Poor Dumb Henry too—all of us, every card was dead-on. None of them were signed, of course, but Glenn didn't have a nasty card to show us.

A couple of days ago, I checked Chateau and Jane's for fixings so I could make a special valentine for my granddaughter instead of giving her one of the Hallmark clones. The closest thing to the so-necessary sheets of white lace were six-packs of heart-shaped doilies, doilies thick and sturdy enough to slap beer mugs on, doilies you'd need pruning shears to cut, doilies that offered no creative options. And that's a concern to me. How are kids learning Beginner's Guile now? We don't want them to grow up to be guile professionals—like in Congress or among oil company honchos—but mercy, what a harsh, blunt world it'd be with no guile at all.

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