The Acorn Assassin
When I was eleven, I almost killed all of the children in my neighborhood. My flirtation with potential mass murder began innocently enough. It was late in the summer of 1977. Long sweaty days of playing Red Rover and Charlie’s Angels blended into nights spent waiting for the ice cream truck to come jangling down Old Farm Road to the base of our cul-de-sac where we’d shell out 75¢ of hard-earned allowance for orange push-ups, fudge bars and ice cream sandwiches. We’d sit on the curb licking drips off our wrists as the lightening bugs began their magical dance. I loved my friends. I didn’t set out to kill them.
But the Indian Village was my idea. We were bored and needed to come up with a way to make more money to support our Ice Cream Truck and Little Sue’s Mini-Mart Wacky Packs habit. Remember those? Sticker packs of popular products with colorful, goofy graphics and punny names like Unlucky Charms cereal, Cup of Poodles, Durahell batteries? They were addictive. We had to have more and more to cover our Slam Books and school folders.
Dad built us a teepee with long branches from the sweet gum tree and a few two-by-fours left over from constructing his shed. We covered it in my brother’s old red and blue plaid bedspread and inside, our girl’s club met in a circle on the grass with a Tupperware bowl full of Chex mix to plot our money-making scheme.
We decided to host the Indian Village – we didn’t call them Native Americans back then, regularly playing "Cowboys and Indians" using cap guns and sling-shots. If someone were lucky enough to find an arrowhead, they’d turn it into an arrow. Chances were, if they had good aim, you might get hit. Yes, mom was right, we could have poked someone’s eye out, but the warnings never stopped us from shooting at random, or with intention, and no one ever got badly injured. Metal trashcan lid shields worked well, even if they weren’t authentic to the time period we were portraying.
At our village we planned to sell the kind of things I’d seen at the Oconaluftee Village in Cherokee, NC. We’d offer war paint for a nickel using the mini tubes from our mother’s Avon lipstick samples. We set out to make a dozen clay pots out of the bountiful mud under the back porch where dad stored his army green metal fishing boat.
The musky red clay felt cool and smooth in my hands, as we shaped it into bowls the size of baseballs and let them dry in the sun on the driveway after we’d pressed beads and seashells into them as surely the Indians would have done.
We spent a week weaving potholders and making other items to sell in our village. My mom had gotten into macramé several years before, so we dug through her long-since- abandoned supplies and finished off a dozen beaded bracelets. We encouraged our parents to serve corn on the cob and then used the husks to make corn husk dolls with raffia belts, corn silk hair and sharpie smiles. We collected a basket of acorns and used the tops as hats and bowls for our doll display.
That’s when I had the bright idea to make authentic Indian food. Surely, as hunters and gatherers and a people who wouldn’t let anything they had go to waste, the Indians of the Southern Piedmont – the Lumbee, Catawba or Cherokee – would have made use of the great pile of acorns minus their cupule caps lying in the crabgrass in my front yard. So I cracked them open and pulled out piles of the creamy yellow flesh and proceeded to mash them into a gooey paste. It tasted sour and acidic. I added a quarter cup of sugar and a half-cup of milk and created a grits-like mixture that wasn’t too terrible. We made a sign, selling Dixie cups of “Real Indian Food” for 10¢.
We created flyers featuring crayon drawings of our teepee to advertise the grand opening of our Indian Village. A Girl’s Club member was stationed at the end of the driveway in a lawn chair with our shoebox cash register on a TV tray ready to accept the nickel admission price. We went cheap with the admission charge in hope that people would be more inclined to spring for the 50¢ to $1 we were asking for the clay pots, potholders, bracelets and corn husk dolls. Our mothers purchased most of them out of sympathy, guilt or perhaps appreciation for our efforts. I’m pretty sure a couple moms made two-for-one bargains. But when it became clear that none of the lipstick-war-paint-covered boys in the neighborhood were going to spring for any of our wares, we were ready to deal or barter for Kool-Aid or homemade Rice Krispie treats.
It wasn’t until the mothers left that I realized I’d forgotten my piece de resistance and went in the house to get the tray of single serving size acorn mush cups. The kids lined up to try it and we easily made a whole dollar. Girls’ Club members didn’t have to pay so we had about 15 kids standing in my yard daring one another to eat the authentic Indian food, when Mrs. Lucas came over to purchase another potholder. She asked what we were doing and got all concerned. She rushed to my front door and told my mother, a registered nurse, who got on the phone with Mrs. Kenney, also a nurse, who rushed over with a small bottle of syrup of ipecac as they hurriedly pulled old nursing school books and A encyclopedias off the shelves in the den while Mrs. Lucas called poison control.
Us kids stood in the grass by the teepee, trying to determine if the nausea we might have been feeling was due to being poisoned or if it was psychosomatic. My brother was moaning and clutching his stomach, turning in circles in a mock death dance designed to make me feel as guilty as possible. Was it me or did Audra look ashen?
Apparently large amounts of ingested acorns CAN induce severe illness and the tannic and gallic acids can cause damage to the gastrointestinal system and kidneys. That was the information gleaned from a medical book, but Mrs. Lucas was still on the line with poison control. I could see her stretching the phone cord toward the bay window as she assessed our condition. Mrs. Kenney was standing by with the ipecac and a spoon.
In the dappled light coming through the Sycamore tree, Beth definitely had taken on a yellow glow. Kidney failure lead to jaundice and jaundice made a person look yellow. I knew that from mom’s stories of my birth. My brother let out a melodramatic moan and Paul Kenney joined in, collapsing to the grass and writhing. Mrs. Kenney rushed toward him with her spoon just as Mrs. Lucas came out of the house, the screen door slamming behind her, and she assured us that we’d all live, recommending that applesauce should calm any troubled tummies. Mom gave each of her friends a big jar of Mott's from the pantry, apologizing profusely for my over-zealous behavior. Over-zealous. She used that word often to describe me.
Ahh, but my zeal returned as I remembered our cash box and I got excited over the thought of counting our earnings, hoping we’d not be asked to return the acorn mush money. But when I looked at the card table, the box was gone. We were soon engrossed in our old stand by game of Charlie’s Angels, during which it was deduced that the neighborhood bully, Ritchie Brown, had been skulking near the end of the driveway during the poison control commotion. No one would risk joining me in knocking on his door and demanding what was rightfully ours, and I didn’t dare go alone. Ritchie’s dad was known for sitting on his front porch and yelling at neighbors, often with his shotgun by his side. For weeks I dreamed up Indian raids on the Brown’s house. And when the ice cream truck stopped down the street where Ritchie lived, it pained me to imagine him converting our hard-earned corn husk cash into a free-to-him Fudgecicle.
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As shared at Story Salon on October 25, 2018, in Once Upon Another Time, February 22, 2020 and on the podcast So Sez Rick on July 16, 2021 - which you can listen to on Spotify or any podcast app!