I was playing one of the Three Wise Men the night I broke my nose. It was the evening of the Christmas pageant and potluck supper at our one-room elementary schoolhouse. The place was thronged. Every student in the school had a part, all seventeen or so of us. I was the myrrh guy. Not a bad part for first grade. The costume my mother created was built on the foundation of my robe, a heavy felt material in seasonably appropriate hues of dark reds, forest greens, flecked with white. It was in a zig-zaggy pattern of an American Indian blanket. This bothered me, because I knew the story took place in a desert land, overseas and their clothes wouldn’t have looked like my bathrobe. But, then I figured, well, the wise guys were foreigners and Indians were foreigners so it was OK. Neither was I entirely pleased with her choice of my backless bedroom slippers for footwear, though I understood they were more credible than my Buster Brown’s. Throughout my career as an actor, theatrical makeup had always helped me get into character. (It would the following summer at our town’s talent show when I impersonated Elvis Presley on the improvised stage of a flat bed truck; the sideburns mother drew on my cheeks with her eyebrow pencil put me over. I won an honorable mention.) For the distinguished gentleman traveling afar, the same eyebrow pencil shaded a full, Babylonian beard, which hurt like hell when she rubbed it off.
The pièce de résistance was the turban. Mother - until marrying a handsome pilot, one time lawyer, would be rancher and moving to rural Kansas – had been in charge of her family’s department store on the West Coast. She packed some fancy clothes in her trousseau. Evening turbans had been in style at some point in her salad days because, using one of her diaphanous silk scarves with peacock colors, she easily fashioned an authentic headdress. I felt like the Sheik of Araby.
All went off without a hitch and through the magic of quick change I reappeared after the show from the boy’s cloakroom in my nice trousers, white shirt and clip-on tie. (Beneath my robe the whole time, leaving me flushed.) After the play, the holiday feast was coming to life in the basement. It held a full kitchen and an open area where we ate our lunches from sacks and pails during cold or rainy days and did sloppy projects. Tin foil was being pulled and folded for leftovers, pots stirred, and meats sliced. This was farmland food, and every mother wanted to contribute her best dishes. It was the one shindig of the year, outside of our town’s fair (where I lip-sank to “I Wanna Be Your Teddy Bear), that everyone set aside their petty feuds, forgot their big problems and gathered in community spirit. Long tables were choked with ham, roasts, a turkey, fried chicken, casseroles of all kinds, mounds of potatoes and yucky yams, overcooked green beans larded with bacon, and Jell-O things. More than we all could eat, more than we had seen at one time, more than many could afford to share. Best of all, and where the Midwest farm wife had no equal, were the desserts. Latticed and two-crusted fruit pies, creams, custards, chiffons, hatbox-sized frosted cakes, Angel and Devil, German Chocolate, ginger, orange, and lemons, shinny drizzled Bundt’s, stood like a squad, visible beyond the pass-through kitchen counter, along with platters of cookies, cupcakes, and brownies.
I had to take a shit. (Or, in our family euphemism, “have a session.”) I had been so excited I’d held it in all that day. I dashed out the door of the schoolhouse, leapt down the eight front steps, around the flag pole, and sprinted toward the outhouses. We’ve all seen port-a-potties. An outhouse is a permanent, generally, larger version. At Howard School, they were well constructed and maintained, not the kind you see pictured in jokey postcards of a falling down, weather beaten shack with a quarter moon cutout in the door, and captions like, “The new addition to the family manse!” Ours were crispy white clapboard two-seaters, with L shaped entrances; you’d loop around two corners to enter the open doorway of the commode. There were separate toilets for the boys and the girls, set forty yards behind the schoolhouse, for obvious reasons. The repositories, nice as they may be, sat over an open cesspool, and in hot weather, with the wind in the right direction, you wanted some distance from the student population.
Running, I realized it was dark, black dark. There was a single bulb on a tall telephone pole to illuminate the front of the building, but the toilets were away from that, behind the school. The windows, only along one wall, shed no light onto the large open field I had to cross. I became disoriented, at full tilt. I couldn’t see anything at all, but I knew I must be close. I hit hard and fell back onto the grass. To my left I saw the shape of the outhouse. I had run between the boy’s and the girl’s, just past, tripped over a low stone wall, my face going into the barbed wire fence that separated the school yard from the neighboring property.
I still had to crap. I didn’t take the time to go into the toilet. I just took down my pants, crapped on the grass, pulled them up and ran back to the school. It was easy to see my way because there were lights in that direction. Most of the parents were still upstairs. I pushed into the middle of the pack, like a Dickensian pick pocket. Everyone I moved by stopped talking and stared down at me, creating a wake of quiet. I thought it best to start crying in case I was in trouble. By luck or homing instinct I ended up near my mother. She took my face in her hands. I looked down at my shirt, the front covered with blood. I hadn’t remembered to zip up and my shirt tail was sticking out of my fly. The school had no running water, but there was a hand pump over a sink in the kitchen, and that’s where she took me, down to the basement, to clean me up as best she could and tuck me back together. I gave my folks a blubbery account of what happened, but dad wasn’t even mad, so we stayed for the meal. The next day mother took me to our local clinic in a nearby town. I cut my lip on the barbed wire and had to have a tetanus shot. The wooden fence post broke my nose. Doctor Ruble stuffed long, pencil thin strands of cotton up both nostrils and taped it over. I couldn’t breathe out of my nose.
The morning I was to go and have the cotton removed, I sneezed, and the strips shot from my nose like those gag boxes where a spring loaded snake flies out. This thing went clear across my room. It had been in my nose for six weeks. Mother had to pick it up. She had one of those “last straw” looks on her face. I have a funny nostril now, more like a slit as a friend once said, and a scar at the corner of my mouth.
I presume I was the first Elvis impersonator.