Painting by the numbers

Published 11:00 pm Friday, October 5, 2012

Whether I had the measles, the mumps or the chicken pox the day Preston came wading through the field of red clover with a stack of funny books to swap, I’m not sure.

Don’t think it was the measles because I remember knowing for sure that I was dying when I had the big red measles. I had fever, chills, sweats and all over me hurt. It even hurt to breathe and I wanted to stop but Mama said I couldn’t.

When I was sick, Daddy always bought me funny books. He kept holding up a Bugs Bunny funny book for me to look at and I was so sick I began a hatred of that “wabbit”’that has lasted until this very day.

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And, I don’t think it was the mumps, either.

When I had the mumps I laid in bed as stiff as a poker for about two weeks. I’d heard Mama and “Miz” Cross talking in whispers about John having the mumps.

“Lawd, I’m so scared the mumps are gonna go down on him,” Miz Cross said. ‘And if they do ….”

Her voice trailed off and Mama said “Just try to keep him as still as you can.”

Well, I stayed still even though Mama didn’t say a whole lot about it. I didn’t want the mumps to go down on me. I didn’t know where they would go or what they would do when they got there but I didn’t want to take a chance.

So, it had to have been the isolation of chicken pox that got me budding as an artist.

Back then, swapping funny books was a great pastime for young’uns. We’d save our funny books in a box in the closet and, on cold winter days and rainy summer ones, we’d swap them.

My favorites were Donald Duck, Uncle Scrooge, The Little People, Heckle and Jeckle, and Casper the Friendly Ghost. Favorites were “no swaps.”

You could always get two or three funny books without fronts (that’s what we called the covers) for one with a front.

And a brand new funny book might even coax away a favorite from a friend. Daddy had bought me a bunch of new funny books because I was sick so I was primed for swapping. With brand new fronts I might get some of Preston’s no swaps that I really wanted.

He came out of the clover and stood outside my window and held up what he had to swap. I sat on the bed and held up what I had to swap. When we got through swapping, we made the “trade” at the back door.

The chicken pox lasted longer than the funny books so I had to find something to do besides be sick. In most all of the funny books, there was an advertisement with a picture of the man wearing what we called a toboggan on his head. “Draw Me!”

If you could draw the man real good, you might have the “potential” to be an artist. I practiced and got real good. I wrote my name and address in the “mail this” box, folded my drawing and asked Daddy to mail it.

“I’m writing off to be an artist.”

Daddy said they would write back asking for money for art instructions. It was a trick to get your money.

When I primped up to cry, he said he would mail it.

The next day, he came home with a paint-by-number set for me. The picture was already drawn and I could tell it was a farmer and a barn even though it was a confusion of little shapes with a number in each one.

You matched the number with the color. It took me about two days but, when I finished, it was about the best painted picture I’d ever seen. Mama and Daddy said so, too.

I never heard from those “Draw Me” folks so it was a good thing Daddy bought me that paint set or I would have never known that I was an artist.

Some time later, Daddy got him a paint-by-number paint set with two pictures of bird dogs. Daddy liked to hunt and he had bird dogs, all named Jake or Ben.

When Daddy finished his paintings he put them in frames and Mama hung them over the fireplace. Daddy didn’t put mine in a frame so Mama couldn’t hang it. But it was on the bookshelf where everybody could see it. I was proud.

We were artists, Daddy and me.

Some years later, some of Mama’s friends from Henry County where she was born and raised came to visit. They made a whole lot over Daddy’s paintings. I guess they didn’t see mine.

“Who on earth painted these?” they asked.

Daddy said he did.

One of the ladies wrote Mama a note thanking her for the nice visit.

She said they’d told everybody that her husband was an artist.

“They’ve gone and told that all over Headland,” Mama said to Daddy. “You should have told them you painted by numbers.”

“They just asked who painted them and I said I did,” Daddy said. “Hell, they didn’t ask how I painted them.”

Well, that made me realize that maybe Daddy wasn’t a real artist and maybe I wasn’t either.