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James R. Stout

The Great Clipper Caper

            I’ve talked about it before and I suppose it’s one of those things that I will just keep coming back to. The subject is perspective. Our perspective on a given event or issue quite often changes with time. I’d like to tell you about one such event in my life. I call it “The Great Clipper Caper”. First, let me set this up a bit for you. The year was 1964. The time was August. We were living in Bryan, Texas at the time. One of the most fun things that our family would do in those days was go to a drive-in movie on a summer night or sometimes on Friday nights during the school year. We had a blast. Yes, there were mosquitos to be fought and of course the Texas heat in the summer. But those things just didn’t seem to bother us back then. You haven’t lived until you and your family all pile into the car and go to the drive-in together. Ahh, the smell of the mosquito coils that had dubious effect, but we learned to be positive about it. The sometimes-tinny sound of the movie coming out of the odd-looking speakers that would extend out and fit onto a window (usually my father’s) may not compare with the surround sound and digital soundtracks of today, but we thought they were cool at the time.

            In those days, it didn’t cost much to take a family to a movie at the drive-in theater. Mom, Dad and my oldest sister Barbara’s tickets were $2 each. Ages 5-12 got in for 50 cents each. Under 5 kiddos were free. So, for $7 we all got in to see not one, but two movies. There was the new “feature presentation” and then usually a movie that was a couple of months old and now relegated to the “second feature”. The truth is they were almost always ALL good movies. An example might be the feature presentation would be the newest John Wayne movie such as “In Harm’s Way” and the second feature might be “Donovan’s Reef” from two years before. Both movies were fantastic. We didn’t go to Elvis Presley movies (Mom and Dad were not Elvis fans), but no doubt you could see two of his movies in such a scenario. In fact, much later in 1968 I remember going with a friend to an Elvis double-feature which included “Speedway” and “Spinout”.

            We didn’t have much money and these little outings were a big treat. One way that Mom saved us money was she would pop popcorn at home and bring a big bag of it with us. She also would have a 2-quart cooler filled with ice and some kind of soft drink along with some plastic cups. But one thing we all learned early on was that Mom had a sweet tooth. About the time they announced, “The snack bar will be closing in 10 minutes”, Mom would say she was going to go buy a candy bar for each us. Yee-haw! I always volunteered to “help” her, but my services were generally not needed. Back then you could buy a candy bar for a dime. So, add another 50 cents to the cost.

            I’ve set this up for you pretty well now. Here’s what happened on this particular summer day. Mom had told us that we would be going to the drive-in that night. The deal was there were chores to be completed in order for that to happen. We kids had to clean our rooms thoroughly. For me that meant putting all the army men that were hiding under the bed in their place in an old peach bushel basket kept in my closet for all manner of toys. I had to make my bed, sweep the hardwood floor, dust the chest of drawers, and generally straighten my room. Clothes were to be hung properly, shoes put away in the closet, etc. I have no idea what my sisters had to do to their room, but I have no doubt there were icky things like hair curlers, make-up, and nail polish remover to be put in their places. The only thing in their room that I envied was they had a radio. Totally unfair! At least they listened to the kind of music I liked. Well, except for some slow songs like “Today” by The New Christy Minstrels. To this day I have that silly song stuck in my head wrong. Instead of singing the words, “I’ll taste your strawberries and drink your sweet wine”, I somehow got it backwards and would sing it “I’ll drink your strawberries and taste your sweet wine”. So, now I sing it wrong every time and usually in my best goofy voice.

            Mom’s big chore for that day was to mow the yard. Now we’re getting to the important part of this story. We didn’t have a fancy schmancy mower or anything. Just a power mower that you had to push yourself instead of the self-propelled kind. Mom had already done the edging of the front sidewalk and was ready to mow. She pulled that string on the mower about 20 times and the darned thing wouldn’t start. She tried adjusting this and that and nothing worked. Dad was gone to work for the day and was therefore not around to help. Well, my mother was darned near a saint, but that day her halo hung a little crooked. She would never cuss, and I mean never. But she mumbled a lot and then finally after about the 20th time of pulling on the string thing she bounced the mower across the driveway with verve. She was red in the face and I think it was both anger and the muggy August heat that was the cause. Well, to say she was upset was putting it mildly. That’s when she made the proclamation that shook the neighborhood and in particular me and my sisters to the core.

            She said, rather loudly I might add, “We are not going to a movie tonight if we can’t get this mower to start.”

            Say it isn’t so! Call the sheriff’s office and report this heinous crime in the offing! Well, no amount of pleading from her three angels (a-hem) could change Mama’s mind. No mowed yard? No movie! My sister Debbie and I sat on the front porch stoop dejected and ready to sing “Doom, Despair, and Misery on Me” except it wasn’t written for another 5 years. Then Thomas Edison visited us right there on the front porch. Well, not actually Mr. Edison, but one of his greatest inventions. A great-ole big lightbulb appeared out of thin air above our heads and suddenly bloomed with light. We devised a way to get the lawn mown. There were two sets of hand clippers for cutting weeds sitting inside the little shed behind the carport. We could cut the grass with those! Genius, pure genius. We got those clippers and set about “mowing” the yard with them. About two hours later we had a 5-foot square area done. Perhaps this wasn’t as brilliant of an idea as first believed. At some point in time Mom came outside to see what we were doing, and I figure she was filled with mixed emotions. How stupid are my kids after all? How sweet of them to try to help. I’ll have to tell them this won’t do. But first, how stupid are my kids after all? Finally, Mom spoke and said, “Y’all stop doing that now. You’re only cutting the grass uneven and we’re not going to the movie tonight no matter what.

            Well, dejected, rejected, and bluer than blue we put away the clippers. I hate to admit it, but there were some negative words exchanged between me and Debbie regarding Mom. What’s the big deal with the mower not working and why would that make any difference on going to a movie tonight? Later that afternoon Dad got home, and we heard Mom telling him about the mower. Given he was a dragon-slayer we figured he’d have that mower running and Mom would relent. No such luck. Dad tugged on the string thing several times, took out the air filter and cleaned it, adjusted the little carburetor, and several other things with no luck. The dragon would not be slayed. Now, Dad probably loved going to the movies as much if not more than we children did. We figured he might be able to dissuade Mom’s stony proclamation. Wrong. When Mama made up her mind there was just no way to change it. Like crawling on a ledge on a mountain and coming face to face with a bear. You just couldn’t ignore the situation. Therefore, there would be no movie on that hot August Texas night. Tears, wailing, moaning, renting of clothes, and gnashing of teeth were only a few of the sounds pouring forth from our house that night.

            I told you in the beginning this was about perspective. You’ve just been told about the perspective that I had at the ripe old age of 8 years and 11 months. I’ve lived a little since then and my perspective has done a 180 degree turn. I understand something now that I just didn’t understand then. Money was tight in those days. Sure, I knew that to some degree back then, but not really. The hard truth was Mom knew that if the mower had to go to the repair shop it was going to cost money. We likely just couldn’t afford to pay for an outing to the drive-in, which would cost about $10 including the homemade popcorn and the brought from home soft drinks, and to have the mover repaired. Mom had no way of knowing at that point what it would cost to be repaired. It could be something simple, but it could have been something that cost $25 or $30. A lot of money at the time to my parents. So, the smart and reasonable thing to do was to not spend any extra money until whatever was wrong with the mower could be determined. I just didn’t have the ability to figure that out at 8 years old. I would go through some similar kinds of dilemmas when I was a young father. Perspective evolves over time. That’s just the way it is.

            Now, for those who might be curious I’ll tell you what the end result of “The Great Clipper Caper” was. Dad took the ailing mower to a friend’s filling station in town. The friend had a mechanic who also knew his way around small engine repairs. It turned out to be a $2 part and $2 tip to the mechanic. What was the problem? The spark plug was bad. It didn’t take the guy 10 minutes to figure out and fix it. The little mower ran like a champ after that. In celebration of the return of the mower to working status we ended up going to the drive-in movie the next week. What did we see? The “Feature Presentation” was “The Patsy” starring Jerry Lewis. The “Second Feature” was from a few months earlier called “The Incredible Mr. Limpet” starring Don Knotts. A great time was had by all!

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