The Great New Year’s Dirt Clod War
By Jim Dodson
This was the year my father’s cousins, a horde of aunts and uncles plus a Bible-quoting grandmother and three girl cousins from the heart of the country came to our house for a New Year’s visit.
I barely knew them. I was almost 13, my brother, Dick, was 14. We were informed by our mother in no uncertain terms that we had to be good hosts and proper young gentlemen for the duration of their visit. She had that look in her eye that indicated she meant business.
Imagine three girl cousins in one house during an otherwise unblemished holiday week. Frankly, I couldn’t. It amounted to a serious challenge to the mental stability and character formation of any 12-year-old boy.
My brother at least had a Life Scout project to work on, which took him out of the house most of the week. I wasn’t so lucky.
It was 1965. America was still buzzing about the Beatles. I was smitten with George Harrison and taking Wednesday afternoon guitar lessons at Harvey West Music downtown.
Upon their noisy arrival, I attempted to hide out in my bedroom, playing along with Rubber Soul, but one of the girl cousins kept coming into my bedroom without knocking and sitting cross-legged on the floor just to stare unnervingly at me. My mother said, “She really likes you, it won’t kill you to be nice to her,” which was clearly untrue.
Her name was Cindy. She was one year younger than me, the oldest girl cousin who scarcely said a word. She just sat there, staring at me with huge puppy eyes as I fumbled my way through “In My Life.” At one point she asked me if could play “Downtown” by Petula Clark, and I gave her a firm “No” hoping she would just leave me alone. But she didn’t.
Her younger sisters, meanwhile, occupied my tree house and turned it into a tea house for their dolls. They played board games and poured imaginary tea. I came home from my Wednesday afternoon guitar lesson and found them pretending my tree house was Buckingham Palace and that they were visiting the Queen. I wondered how I could possibly survive the weekend.
New Year’s Eve fell on Friday that week. The country cousins were supposed to go home after a big New Year’s lunch on Saturday. My favorite Friday night TV shows were “The Wild Wild West”, “Hogan’s Heroes” and “The Smothers Brothers”, but we only had one TV set and the girls cousins insisted on watching some stupid holiday special that involved talking reindeer and an elf.
On Saturday morning, as I was heading out the door with my baseball glove and bat to play roll-the-bat with my buddies, secretly hoping Della Jane Hockaday might also be in the park, my mother — already in lunch-making mode — stopped me.
“I have a great idea, honey. Why don’t you take the girls to the park with you? They’re a little bored. They might like to play baseball with you boys.”
It was a horrifying thought. Had my mother lost her mind?
She clearly wanted the girl cousins out from underfoot while she prepared the big lunch before they all headed for home.
“Come on, sweetie,” she said. “Do this and I’ll make you a chocolate pie and you can stay up and watch all of ‘Bonanza’ tomorrow night.” Sunday night was a school night and her chocolate pie was the ultimate bribe. I reluctantly cut a deal.
And so, with visible reluctance, I led the girl cousins and their dolls to the park that morning, hoping with every ounce of my being that Della Jane Hockaday wouldn’t show up to witness my complete humiliation.
The park was across the creek from a new housing development where the earth had been churned up into fresh mounds of angry red clay. Some other kids from another part of the neighborhood were over there messing around one of the new houses. I recognized Randy Fulp, spawn of the devil, the meanest kid at my junior high school.
That was some achievement in a public school that was full of scrappy white mill kids and a large number of black kids. This was years before public schools of North Carolina officially desegregated. You learned to survive by keeping your mouth shut and avoiding trouble. Fortunately, I played on the football team that year and earned enough street cred so that Randy Fulp wouldn’t mess with me, aware that I had a couple black friends on the team who would happily have pounded him into the red clay of South Greensboro.
Speaking of clay, not long after the girl cousins found spots on the hill to watch us play roll-the-bat, a large red dirt clod landed at my feet as I was preparing to hit a ball.
Across the creek, Randy Fulp was grinning like a jackass.
As any kid from this part of the world knows, there is almost nothing as deadly as a dirt clod made from authentic sticky red clay earth from the upper Piedmont region of North Carolina. It can blind, maim or simply scar its victim for life.
Naturally, I picked up the dirt clod and threw it back at Randy Fulp. I missed. He laughed like the spawn of Satan.
That’s when all hell broke loose.
Suddenly dirt clods were raining down on us and we were throwing them back.
As our side advanced into the creek for shelter and fresh clay ammunition, I heard the girl cousins shriek and watched them bolt with their dolls. That’s when I took a dirt clod to the back of the head that knocked me over. Man, does a dirt clod to the back of the head really hurt. I saw stars.
That’s when I witnessed a kind of miracle.
The person standing next to me making perfect clods from the soft goo and winging them back at the enemy with surprising accuracy was none other than my silent country cousin, Cindy. She grinned and let go a throw that struck the windshield of the bulldozer where our opponents were hiding. They scattered like frightened birds.
Cindy had an unbelievable arm, it turned out, far more accurate than any of the boys on our side. Her finest moment came when she caught Randy Fulp with a fireball to his throwing arm and he let out a yelp, turned and led the retreat around the corner of the unfinished house.
By the time we climbed out of the creek, both of us were soaking wet and streaked with red clay mud.
We walked home together. I was pleased to learn she played softball on her junior high school softball team back home in Seagrove. She was also her class president.
My mother was not happy by the sight of us. She made me strip down to my orange-red underwear before she would let me back into the house. Cindy’s dress was equally filthy but she got to go inside and change.
The Great New Year’s Dirt Clod War was the topic of lunch that day. My grandmother was particularly amused, finding some relevant verse from Corinthians to justify such earthy violence.
Cindy and I sat together and, afterwards, watched the Rose Bowl on TV. I almost hated to see the country girl cousins — one at least — go home.
More than a decade passed before I saw Cindy again. We met at the last family reunion I attended before heading off to college. Cindy was playing softball on an all-star team that summer, already being recruited by several colleges in the state.
She had a boyfriend and was much prettier than I remembered. Not quite Della Jane Hockaday, mind you, but pretty close.
At one point she asked if I remembered the New Year’s Day we beat some kids across the creek in a dirt clod fight.
“Yes I do,” I replied. “My head is still ringing.”
She laughed. “At least we kicked their butts.”
I heard from Cindy a few years back. She was a new grandmother living in Indiana and had just finished reading a book I’d written about taking my young daughter and our elderly golden retriever on a 6,000-mile cross-country fly fishing and camping trip one summer. The book had just been made into a film. She asked me to autograph her copy of Faithful Travelers and mentioned that it was her favorite book.
I happily signed her book and sent it back, thanking her for saving my skin during the Great New Year’s Dirt Clod War.