SOUNDING IT OUT

by Randy Reynolds

In the fall, Champion Bailey Rogers—Old C.B. to his 6th grade students—announced that our class would be the entertainment at the next meeting of the Lee Road PTA.
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Lee Road Consolidated was equipped with that most modern of marvels, the mimeograph machine, and so, in due course, he distributed a page of purple spelling words to a select few students.
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I enjoyed being in Old C.B.’s class and learning about everything except what was in our textbooks. He spent a lot of time on current events—nuclear annihilation, the Civil War (still considered a current event by the Lee Road Rebels), our governor’s recent stint in a mental asylum, the Kennedy-Nixon race—(he hated them both). When he drifted into these areas it was stimulating; mind-boggling. I loved it. If he’d tested us on these subjects, I’d have been a straight-A student, right up there with Mary Alice DuBuisson, Mary Lee Fitzgerald, Marilyn Galloway and Kenny Dutruch. But, Alas! there were no tests for current events so I was not exactly at the top of my class which is why it surprised me when Old C.B. handed me a mimeographed sheet of spelling words and told me I would be in the bee.
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He exhorted us to study hard, learn every word. "Think of how great it would be if nobody missed a word--if we didn't have any losers!"
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Spelling bee sheet in hand, I raided the fridge after school that day. There was nothing in it but a lemon, some lard and something leafy that some people—not me—considered food. I snatched the lemon and went outside to study—away from the four sisters, one brother, two parents and dog.
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Although studying was not a common practice for me, I had some private spots in which to do it—the normal places a boy in a large family would hide out to read library books, as I often did: on top of the add-on room of the parsonage, where the upper roof cast a small shadow on the lower roof; on or under a pew in either the old church next door, or the new church next door to that one; in the tung-oil tree; in the oak tree; or in a neighbor’s barn loft. On this day I chose the cemetery behind the churches. It had a fence around it and that would keep our German Shepherd Rusty from interrupting me. My sisters wouldn’t be playing there, and if my brother Ricky came over and bugged me, all I had to do was beat him up and he’d give me some privacy.
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I pulled some weeds from around my favorite headstone, that of a boy named Alex Jarrell who was beginning to feel more and more like a friend even though he'd been in his grave for three months before we moved to Louisiana. He was 13 and I was two years younger, but now that he wasn't aging any more, I was catching up fast.

I visited his grave often, sometimes to sit with my back against his headstone and read, sometimes just to stand there and think about which of us was the lucky one: him for finally--maybe--knowing the answers to questions I always wondered about, or me for still being able to wonder and speculate. He could have been the one standing there wondering and my body could have been six feet under those clean white rocks except for the fact that he touched a power line climbing onto his grandparents' roof to retrieve an arrow and I did not touch the power line that went into the parsonage a few inches from where I climbed onto and off the roof several times a week. That was the only difference between my circumstances and his. Well, that and the two year age difference, but like I said, I was catching up fast.
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I settled onto the ground beside Alex and ate my lemon, peel and all, while looking over the spelling words.The sheet was hard to read. Some words were blurred, like the ink was too heavy or Old C.B. had some malformed typewriter keys. The very first word was a new one on me: A-U-D-A-O-I-O-U-S.
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"I've never seen that word," I said to Alex. "Maybe it's supposed to be a C instead of an O."

I sounded it out: "AUDA-C-IOUS instead of AUDA-O-IOUS .  The word must be audacious."

.I felt like Alex agreed with me. 
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I studied the spelling words for as long as it took me to eat the lemon, then thought ‘The heck with it,’ went and bridled my one-eyed horse Ranger and rode up the road to Johnny Johnson’s house to play with his monkey.
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As we marched onto the stage at the PTA meeting in the gym, Old C.B. gave a nice little speech about how smart we were, the brightest, hardest-working students from the best sixth grade class in the parish--his.
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Now I don’t know how much time Old C.B. was supposed to kill that night but the rest of the agenda had been extremely brief, and the crowd was primed for some entertainment, so the spelling bee was probably supposed to last awhile. But it didn’t.
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Old C.B. started with the A’s: “Audacious.”
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I smiled. Alex and I had figured correctly.
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One-by-one my classmates tried the word and missed it. Several of them spelled it the way it had appeared on the list: “A-U-D-A-O-I-O-U-S.”
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Each time Old C.B. said “Wrong” or “That’s incorrect” the audience groaned.
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When everyone except me had tried the word, Old C.B. said, “Don't any of y'all sit down yet, because if the last contestant gets it wrong, you're still in the contest. Randy: audacious."
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I spelled it. Old C.B. mumbled that I was correct. My future father-in-law told me many years later that while the audience was applauding he leaned over to my future mother-in-law and said, “You know, that Reynolds boy is going to make something of himself someday.”  (And yes, I have. Several times.)

As we hustled off the stage, Old C.B. offered a little apology: “Heh-heh, our spelling bee didn’t last quite as long as we thought it would.”

The next time I settled in against Alex' headstone to read a library book, I said, "We were right. The word was audacious."

Alex immediately picked up on what I was referring to, almost like he was reading my mind, and said, "I told you so."

"I won," I said.

"Don't get big-headed," he said. "You had help."


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