Chapter 4

Don’t Ask,
Don’t Tell

Photo: I’m second from left on second row; Kathy H. is in the plaid jumper. Kilgore Heights Elementary, 1972.

Written by Michael Blankenburg

Published March 18, 2013

A Memoir Project Chapter 4: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

Don’t Ask

It all started with Kathy Higginbotham, my first grade nemesis. Though I’d had issues with waiting too long to go to the bathroom before, Kathy Higginbotham exploited and terrorized my weakness. She sat—more like squirmed—behind me in Mrs. Gray’s class at Kilgore Heights Elementary. Both fists clenched around a stack of crayons, she gritted her big yellow teeth as she ground the pristine varicolored tips into her desk making swirl after swirl of maddening chaotic circles while emitting the sound of swarming bees, ZZZZZzzzzzzzzzzz! Terrified, I sat there feeling the warm wetness envelop my pants.

The rest of the day was spent hiding the big wet spot in my blue corduroys with my oversized brown sweater. By lunchtime it was too hot for coats or sweaters but I didn’t dare make any wardrobe adjustments. I kept to myself in the bus shed during recess until GOTCHA!! Kathy Higginbotham appeared out of nowhere and grabbed me around the waist from behind, letting out hysterical squeaks and squeals mixed in with her maniacal laughter. In my struggle to free myself from her grasp she noticed the still visible dark circle around my crotch. HE PEED! HE PEED! EVERYBODY, MICHAEL PEED!!! And off she went helicoptering around the bus shed and through the playground HE PEED! HE PEED! EVERYBODY, MICHAEL PEED!!! I wanted to hit her.

papaw 2x
Exhibit #1: Me, Pap, and Danny at Nan & Pap’s house. 1972.

But there were other occasions when Kathy Higginbotham wasn’t to blame for my potty perils. During Reading Circle Mrs. Gray had us, one at a time, read aloud a few lines from a story book. “First” and “last” chairs were designated in the circle and you moved up a chair when the other person made a reading mistake. This day I was on a roll. I’d read my way to first chair and hadn’t missed a word in several paragraphs. I sensed the crowd growing restless, waiting for that first hiccup. Then of course the more I read, the more excited I got. And the more excited I got, well, it was inevitable.

Slowly, I inched my sweater down further to cover up the tell-tale sign. At the same moment, Mrs. Gray clapped her hands brightly to signal us back to our desks where it was time for the next activity. In the scattershot return to our seats, the reading circle chairs were left all in a jumble and one in particular was definitely not like the others. UH-OH! Mrs. Gray exclaimed with her hands to her face. Someone’s had an accident! And there in one of the scooped wooden seats—better to accommodate our little behinds—was a small yellow puddle. Another classmate ended up bringing hand towels from the girls’ restroom to help Mrs. Gray clean up the mess. The chair-wetter was never identified.

My go-to playmate in Nanda and Papaw’s neighborhood was chubby, freckle-faced Trisha Tackett. We shared the same proclivity for holding off going to the bathroom until it was too late. Trisha and I would be transfixed in a game or spontaneously get the giggles and one of us would pee in our pants. Shortly thereafter, whether physical or sympathetic, the other would follow. As a way to eradicate any evidence, we’d lie on the blacktop surface of Laura Lee Lane, letting the burning Texas heat dry out our blue jean shorts. I remember the sticky, itchy feeling afterward and wondered if just owning up would have served us better.

Trisha and I also shared an obsession with caterpillars, the thin and fuzzy kind with black and yellow stripes. We’d climb the mimosa trees at Nan and Pap’s and use a long stick to break open their cocooned nests. We even gave them names. Mr. Raspberry was her favorite. Robert Redford was mine. Cruelly, we’d put a handful of caterpillars out in the middle of the road to see who’d escaped after a car had driven through. With our knobby sticks in hand, we poked through the carnage to see if Mr. Raspberry or Robert Redford survived. Even though we couldn’t tell who was who, we’d claim our respective favorites had made it out alive and celebrate by holding hands while jumping up and down. In the middle of such jubilation one of us would pee and the whole cycle started all over again.

I even brought one Thanksgiving to a grinding halt when I peed in the gas wall heater extinguishing the flames, releasing a pungent stench that stopped guests in their tracks. In my defense, I claimed it was closer than the bathroom a few feet away and said that the fire looked dangerous anyway. I was saving lives. Luckily it was warm enough that afternoon to relocate dinner out into the carport where Papaw set up a couple of card tables and kept muttering, Got-dammit! Never seen nuthin’ lahk it in all mah lahf! All mah got-damned lahf! Nanda took my side and kept telling everybody—and me—that it wasn’t my fault. It was an accident.

But my worst episode transpired a couple years later in Mrs. Maloney’s math class. We were assigned word problems in groups, our desks abutting one another in teams of four. Being the anxious type, it took little to work my stomach into knots. Word problems definitely did the trick. Leaning forward with elbows on desk, sitting on my knees in the chair, I felt the first wave. I tried stopping the forward progress and it worked.


I stood stock-still next to my desk and knew I was in trouble. I couldn’t sit down for fear of squashing IT. I couldn’t ask to go to the bathroom (I’d used all my “potty passes” for the week). My only recourse was to dislodge IT from my pants somehow. Thankfully they were baggy enough to manipulate the situation. While the groups were busy using the brightly colored manipulatives for problem-solving, I had my own problem to work out. Discreetly, I started with the seat of my britches. I was able to jiggle IT over the next several minutes, finally working IT out of my underwear and shaking till IT rolled down my pant leg and under the desk. I scooted IT further away with my tennis shoe toward the chrome-legged intersection of the four desks. Instantly my classmates started complaining of a smell that I too said was “Nasssssssssty!” Old Ms. Maloney started sniffing around the classroom and the hunt was underway for the malodorous source. Zeroing in on our table, Ms. Maloney asked us to pull our desks back and lo and behold, there IT sat. In all ITs little round horror. The class went berserk with shrieks and wild hysteria.

Like the incident in Mrs. Gray’s class, another student was summoned to get paper towels from the restroom and help with the clean up. I just shook my head in disgust before raising my hand to ask Mrs. Maloney if our group had solved the word problem correctly.

Don’t Tell

Inside the house she wore a purple caftan and spooky, dark green tinted glasses. Photographs from the 60s show her donning stylish cat eye frames with sparkly rhinestone trim. Over the years they morphed into large round discs with lenses of various gradients of green and a few pairs a brownish-maroon. She claimed she was allergic to light. Anyway, it was just one of the props that made her larger than life. The other being a cigarette lodged in the side of her mouth with a two-inch long ash that dangled precariously over her voluminous bust. Nanda would carry on a conversation at length as I stared at the grey worm, entranced. Its inevitable break would cause it to roll down the front of her gown and she’d flail her hands and swat at the embers. But she never loosened her indefatigable clench on that cigarette.

Smoke hung in thick layers throughout the house along with the odor of stale potato chips and a hint of pee. But my grandparents had no pets. I’d always suspected that under that caftan of hers, Nanda had chosen to go commando. And one late-night pass through her bedroom (which was the living room couch, for she and Papaw chose separate sleeping quarters long before I was born) I caught a glimpse of confirmation. I saw her fast asleep with mouth agape, green glasses askew and that notorious caftan shifted just above her thigh. It was like stumbling upon the scene of a horrific crime. But without the yellow caution tape.

As soon as I had my learner’s permit our goodbyes entailed a new ritual. Nanda would give me a big hug, slip her warm hand in mine and I’d feel the crisp folds of a twenty dollar bill. Tugging my arm she’d whisper, “Carton of Kent 100s and a six-pack of Budweiser.” Shouting for the benefit of the lone audience member, Papaw, by whom her vices were held in check, it was “OKAY BABY, YOU BE GOOD NOW, YA HEAR?”patting my dollared fist for emphasis. Then her final conspiratorial aside, “Keep the change!” Of course Papaw knew she drank and smoked. But he wasn’t about to pay for these indulgences. And if it wasn’t coming directly out of his pocket, it softened the annoyance. He too was in on the conspiracy.

Years earlier my brother had made these covert beer and cigarette runs on his green Huffy bike, steering masterfully with a brown paper bag on his lap and one hand on the handlebars. That is, until he lost control on a return trip, wiping out in a ditch and chipping his front tooth.

And then it was my turn. The bit went like this: I, the A student and almost total square, would head for Mike’s Grocery out on Dudley Road where Nanda had a long-standing arrangement with the owner, Mike. He not only knew her “usual” but had a tacit agreement not to mention these transactions to Papaw. This didn’t pose much of a problem. Papaw preferred discount stores and supermarket prices over smaller establishments that were a “got-damned rip-off” like Mike’s.

The store looked like an old-timey western saloon with its dropped covered porch, raw wood columns and my favorite, swinging saloon doors that rustled and rocked back and forth with each entering patron. The store smelled of wet cardboard and spearmint gum and the uneven wood floors creaked with every step. At the counter Mike flashed his Andy Griffith smile and ran his meaty hands through his Andy Griffith hair that was a curious grayish yellow. Just before he rang up the total, I’d toss in a few Marathon bars and some grape Bubble Yum.

“How’s that grandmother of yours?” he asked.

“Thirsty,” I said under my breath.

nanda 2x
Nanda in her well-established habitat. 1973.

Returning to the last house on the left down Laura Lee Lane, I dimmed the headlights and kept the engine running. I snuck like a criminal through the carport into the laundry room and placed the contraband in the dryer under faded pink bath towels and a bathmat. Three short taps on her screen door signaled the delivery. Then the silent tip-toe back to the car.

Easing out of driveway, I felt the thrill of mission accomplished. It was our little secret, our little game. And it was one we’d continue to play even knowing Pap had caught on long ago. As I turned out of their drive, my headlights caught Nanda’s ample silhouette sailing out of the house. I watched as she scuttled barefoot toward the laundry room and its hidden treasure, tugging at her billowy caftan all the while.