When I was in 3rd Grade I rode my bike to school with Jeff McMahon. In Texas we pronounced it “Mack-Mu-Hon.” I was a middle class kid and Jeff’s family was pretty redneck but we didn’t know it meant anything that one of us lived in a house and the other of us lived in a trailer, and we were friends because we were both in Mrs. Opal Smith’s class and took the same route to school.
Whether you were a middle class kid or a redneck, in those days every boy in Texas had a handkerchief. A handkerchief, along with a pocket knife, was one of the earliest symbols of manhood. You don’t hardly see it anymore, but older men, especially in the country, would make a big deal out of blowing their noses. It was as manly as scratching your nuts, only manlier, because you could only scratch your nuts with other guys whereas you could blow your nose anywhere, and you did.
There was a whole ritual to it that fascinated every southern boy who ever lived. You’d be sitting in the middle of dinner and Ol’ Grandpa would reach into his back pocket and pull out a big colored handkerchief the size of a bedsheet, turn his head a little to the side, and blow his nose.
You could tell by the length and the force of the blow, as well as by the sounds of mucous as it issued forth, whether it was “a good ‘un” or not. Then Ol’ Grandpa would take the wadded up hankie, which was now filled with so much snot and boogers that if he’d blown anything else his head would have caved it, and unfold the hankie like he was reading the newspaper to take a brief look at his creation.
If you were sitting next to Ol’ Grandpa you’d try to sneak a glance to see if it was “a good ‘un,” and if you were lucky you’d get a glimpse of some big old green clump of snot just before he’d fold up the hankie and stick it back into his pocket. No one thought it was nasty beyond belief or abnormal in the least. Just stick that ol’ snot-filled pillowcase back into your pants and sit on it for a while until you needed another big blow.
I still remember when I got my first set of hankies. Granny picked up a set of three at the Ben Franklin Five and Dime, a blue set for me and a brown set for my brother. We tore open the packages and blew our noses on the soft cotton until our noses hurt, but since we didn’t smoke or have a cold, our mucous was always clear and white, and when we’d do the unfold-and-check it was always disappointing to see that we hadn’t been able to blast out one of those green monsters.
One morning Jeff and I were riding to school and he took out his hankie and blew his nose. “I got a danged cold,” he said, making a big deal out of his blow.
“Yeah, me too,” I said, and counter-blew. By this time I was using white hankies because they showed up the results better. We both checked our results, riding no-hands of course, and then stuffed the hankies back in our pockets.
The bell rang and we went into class. Mrs. Smith was a stickler for politeness and proper language, which was a source of endless frustration because of all the little rednecks in her class. She also forbade talking unless you raised your hand. Jeff, who was the nicest little Baptist redneck you ever saw, never cussed or caused trouble. He was one of those shy kids who wanted to blend in, and he did.
Mrs. Smith had her back to the class and was writing something on the blackboard, when Jeff took out his hankie and gave it a little blow. Mrs. Smith heard the noise and spun around. “Did you say something, Jeff?” she snapped.
“Why, no ma’am,” he said.
“Well I heard you say something. What did you say?”
“Oh, I didn’t say nothin’ Miz Smith. That was just m’snot rag.”
“Your what?” her face froze. “What did you say?”
Jeff, who had probably never heard the word “handkerchief” before, calmly repeated himself. “I said it was m’snot rag, Miz Smith.”
All hell broke loose as every boy broke out into hysterical laughter and the girls shrieked and giggled and he almost got sent to the principal. It was only towards the end of Mrs. Smith’s excoriation that he even realized that “snot rag” wasn’t something he was supposed to say. Then his ears turned bright red and he hung his head in shame. We all thought he was going to cry, but he didn’t.
On the way home he turned to me. “If I cain’t say snot rag, what’m I sposed to call the dang thing?” he asked.
“I dunno,” I said. “We always call it a handkerchief at our house. Or a hankie.”
“A hankie? Sounds like a durned girl.”
From that day on, Jeff stopped carrying a snot rag. I did, too.
For $2.99 per month you can subscribe to this blog, which will really make me happy, and a professional. Click here and select the “subscribe” link in the upper right-hand corner. Thank you!