Editor’s Note: I shared this story as part of the sermon at last night’s Thanksgiving service. Several people have suggested that I post it here so others could enjoy it. So, here it is, with every good wish for a happy Thanksgiving. –Jim
I lived in Wise County, Virginia, from 1961 to 1966. I was just a kid at the time. My dad was a Presbyterian minister, the pastor of Gladeville Presbyterian Church in Wise. But then he accepted a call to a special ministry among the poor in Boone County, West Virginia—one of the poorest counties in the country—and took what amounted to a vow of poverty to do it. I don’t remember him ever asking my permission. If he had I probably would have said no. But that’s how I ended up in Boone County, West Virginia and that’s where this story takes place.
My family was living in Bloomingrose, one of the most inappropriately named towns in America. There was nothing about it that suggested a rose in bloom. I was enrolled at Comfort Elementary School a few miles down the river—one of the most inappropriately named schools in America. There was nothing about it to suggest comfort. I was in the fourth grade, trying to adapt to the culture of a new school. Very quickly I learned that one of the worst things anybody could say about you was to say that you were “a Dotson.”
The Dotson clan lived a couple of miles up Joe’s Creek from where the elementary school stood. Howard Dotson, the patriarch, was one generation removed from living under a rock cliff. With a lot of hard work and perseverance he had been able to move into a tumbledown shack near the creek where he and his wife Susan had brought five or six children into the world. All of these children shared the same characteristic: a head full of stiff, blonde hair that stuck out in every direction. Howard Junior, Ricky, Stoney, Vicky, Dorothy (there might have been one or two more), all had this same, wild hair. I don’t think it would have stayed down if they had tried to comb it, but I’m not sure they ever had.
Dorothy was in my class at school. I used to glance at her in the next row over, clutching a pencil in her grubby fist and trying to write in her notebook. I saw that her knuckles were skinned up, probably from hitting boys, and probably the boys she hit deserved it. Because the worst thing you could say to anybody at Comfort Elementary School is to say that they liked Dorothy. You would hear it on the playground from time to time: some boy pointing at another boy and jeering, “You like Dor-thy!” To which the only appropriate response was categorical denial, and maybe a punch in the nose.
So you can imagine how excited I was when my dad told us that we were going to be having Thanksgiving dinner at the Dotson’s house. It seems the ladies at the Methodist church had given them a huge turkey and they wanted to share it with us. I tried to talk Dad out of it, tried to explain to him that if I went to Dorothy Dotson’s house for Thanksgiving I could never show my face at Comfort Elementary School again. But Dad said we had to go, that it would be rude not to, and although I didn’t say so I was thinking being rude to the Dotsons wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. Going to their house for Thanksgiving might be.
But we went anyway. We pulled into that wide spot by the road where they parked and then went down the creek bank, across a rickety, homemade bridge, and up the other side into their front yard, which was mostly dirt. They had a wide front porch on their house, with a ratty-looking sofa and a recliner on it. A washing machine. Off to one side of the house were three old cars in various states of repair. One of them had a tripod over it where Junior was pulling out a bad engine. Another had a small tree growing up through the place where the engine used to be. There were black, plastic garbage bags full of trash in the back yard, some that had been ripped open by dogs. I took a deep breath before going inside.
But inside the house smelled wonderful. Susan was putting the finishing touches on the turkey and I saw that she had borrowed some chairs to put around the table. When we all sat down we were shoulder to shoulder and my shoulder was right next to…Dorothy’s. She had dressed up for the occasion, put on a pale blue dress and some shockingly red lipstick. It looked like she had even tried to comb her hair down, although without much success. It was her mother who put her there beside me, thinking that since we were in the same class we would have a lot to talk about. We didn’t. I dug into my dinner and tried to finish as quickly as possible so I could excuse myself and go outside.
We had turkey, canned green beans, slices of white bread, and RC Cola. That was it. And when I was finished I pushed my chair back and asked if I could be excused. That’s when Dorothy asked me if I wanted to play horseshoes and, because I couldn’t think of a good reason not to, I said yes. She put on a coat and some rubber boots and we went out to the front yard where they had a horseshoe pit. She looked kind of funny, wearing that old coat over her pale blue dress, with those shocking red lips and that wild blonde hair, but when it came to pitching horseshoes she was all business. She beat me three games in a row and then I think she let me win one out of pity. We played most of the rest of the afternoon and even talked a little bit.
On the way home I sat in the back seat of the station wagon, reflecting on the experience. At some point I caught my dad looking at me in the rearview mirror. He had that look on his face, you know? The one that says, “See? That wasn’t so bad.” It really wasn’t, but it left me wondering what I would say if anyone at Comfort Elementary School ever accused me of liking Dorothy. In a way I did like her. She wasn’t so bad…
…for a girl.