Author Archives: dsburton

Miss Underwood

Miss Underwood had asked her fifth graders at Abraham Lincoln Elementary School to come to class the next day, ready to explain how to do something. It could be anything. The task and the explanation could be as simple or as complex as the student wanted to make it.

I had not prepared, but I thought I could wing it. The first volunteer explained how to peel a potato, as I recall. There was more to explaining it than I had realized. A girl described how to iron a shirt, something I had watched. That seemed easy. Someone told how to kick a field goal. A snap. Someone else explained how to do something related to fishing; bait a hook, maybe, or tie leader to fishing line. I could do this.

A girl explained how to roll out dough and cut biscuits from it. I think I recall that, though the fifth grade was a long time ago. Again, this was something I had seen done. A boy told how to wash dishes. He was short and got a laugh when he said he had to stand on a box. I had washed dishes, at twenty-five cents per evening meal, to “earn” my Boy Scout uniform.

The idea was to have the student think about and — if necessary — research the topic, so as to be able to explain how to do whatever it was, without leaving anything out. The more complete and understandable the explanation, the better. Preparation obviously counted. I’m sure she told us to practice on someone. The idea, looking back, must have been to get us comfortable speaking before a group. Miss Underwood was good with helpful questions, and she had a wonderful, encouraging smile. I thought she was beautiful, too.

But I had not prepared. I don’t know now whether I had even remembered the assignment. I don’t think I did. When we gathered that morning and other kids talked about what they were going to explain, I worried a little, but not much. I figured I could wing it, like the definitions for spelling words. Eventually, it was my turn. My father was in the automobile business, and I loved cars. So when Miss Underwood asked me what I was going to explain, I told her I was going to explain how to fix a car.

I think I had decided on that topic when I realized that others in the class were excited about what they were going to explain.  I didn’t even have a particular repair in mind. “Ask me anything,” I probably said. My ignorance knew no bounds, but I didn’t know it yet. I had heard a lot of explanations about repairs while hanging around my Dad’s garage, even at age ten. My Dad and Glen Mullins, a gifted mechanic who liked kids, would explain mechanical things clearly when I asked. The service manager and part-owner, Bill Marks, sometimes would too, though he was gruff. I had a good memory, and I loved to talk. What could go wrong?

Miss Underwood was skeptical, I could tell. Her reassuring smile changed and one eyebrow went up. “All right,” I remember her saying. “All right. It so happens that I backed my car into a tree and broke the taillight. The fender may be dented as well, just a little, around the taillight. I need to fix it. What do I do first?”

My confidence had started to evaporate when her smile changed. This was not a hypothetical fix, this was real. She trusted me, and was going to follow my instructions! Oh no!

“You did?” I asked, terrified. I had visions of Miss Underwood’s damaged car, and the mess she was about to make of it, with my help. She was really nice! And lived block and a half from the school, on my street. She was about to make a terrible mistake.

Of course she saw through me and smiled at my terror. That’s the way I remember it now, but at the time, instead of admitting I had forgotten the assignment, I began to dig a deeper hole. She let me dig. I think I told her she needed to take out the broken taillight first. She would need a screwdriver. That much was obvious, even to me, so I prolonged it. Now, um, she would find wires behind the taillight. I knew that much. But I knew nothing else. Auto body repairs take time, and I had only seen works in progress and asked about them. So I asked. Would the dent need paint? She didn’t know. The men who did body repairs used all sorts of hammers and braces to fix dents. I didn’t know their names, or how to use them. Sometimes they had to remove whole panels. I didn’t know how. Often they would crawl underneath. I knew that, but had no idea what they really did once they got there, much less how to explain it. I imagined my sweet teacher getting really dirty, probably cutting herself, and maybe getting a bad shock. I told her this might be very dangerous, very. Perhaps she should get professional help. No, she was going to do it herself, she said. So I told her she needed to be very careful, very careful, with the “D wire,” something I made up on the spot. Perhaps I had heard someone mention such a thing, though in what context I had no clue. I tried to stress the importance of not touching the D wire, and of not trying to do this herself, really, but she pressed on. When she asked how to recognize such a wire, my story completely broke down. “It depends,” I said, or words to that effect. “It’s hard to recognize. It’s red. But not always. Sometimes it’s gray. It depends.”

I still tried to sound like I knew what I was talking about, but that’s hard to do when you’re a fifth-grader and you know you have nothing to say. By then, my classmates were no longer as impressed with my assertions of automotive prowess.  The smart ones, anyway. Probably all of them. Miss Underwood blessed me with another smile, but it was a smile that showed she knew. She told me to sit down. This time I understood, and was properly embarrassed. My embarrassment did not last long, though. At recess a kind friend said he had heard something about D wires. He was still my friend. That was a relief.

I’m pretty sure Miss Underwood told me afterwards that I needed to be ready to explain how to do something the next day, and not to forget this time. I came clean to my Dad that night. I halfway remember him calling Miss Underwood, smiling as he talked to her. I may be imagining that. I do remember he took me outside, showed me the taillights on his car, and explained how to replace a burned-out bulb. The first question that had to be answered was whether the screws that hold the taillight lens were Phillips-head, with an X, or the regular kind, with a slot. He showed me the difference.  Be sure you don’t lose the screws, he said. Dad said the best idea was to put them back where they go, just not tight. Putting the screws back in and taking them out again is better than losing them, he said.

Once the lens is off, he said, take the bulb out. I think he took the lens out and showed me how the bulb either screws out, counter-clockwise, or has to be pushed in and twisted counter-clockwise, just a little, until it jumps out in your hand. He explained how you could find out by trying each way.  Don’t push or twist too hard or you’ll break the bulb and cut yourself, he said. If the bulb is rusted, he said, or if you break it, you might need pliers. Dad always carried a tiny pair of pliers in his back pocket, with his clean handkerchief. Then he explained that you could take the old bulb to the dealer, or an auto parts store, and get a new one just like it. The parts man would know how to give you the right one for your car, but matching them up, side by side, is always a good idea. You replace the bulb the same way you took it out, only backwards, of course. Same with the lens. Don’t tighten the screws too much, or you might crack the lens and make it leak. Make sure the rubber gasket gets put back where it was too, for the same reason. I recall explaining this to Miss Underwood the next morning, with enthusiasm.

At some point I asked her if she had talked to my Dad about fixing her broken taillight. She said she had. I told her that getting him to fix it would probably be a good idea. Fixing a dent is probably harder than replacing a bulb, I explained. She gave me a wonderful smile.


Fireflies and Fear

And then the lightning bugs showed up.


I don’t remember why I was in the field that evening. I did a lot of wandering by myself in those days. I was still using drugs, but I had stopped enjoying them. I had had some scary encounters on acid, some terrifying encounters. I think this may have been not long before the worst one, the one that scared me back from the abyss. I’m not sure. I was living on the lake then.  That was when the scariest, last acid trip, the big one, happened. Whether this was before or after that, I don’t know.

I do know it was getting dusky and I was alone near where the interstate highway was being built.

Darkness was approaching and I was not sure I could find my way back across a barbed-wire fence and a creek. Not in real darkness. There may have been cows too, which scared me a little at the time, since I am a as much of a city boy as northeast Tennessee could produce at the time. I think the thing that scared me most was the falling light and approaching darkness, and fear itself.

The world was a fearful place to me in those days, full of rough textures and people and creatures that meant me harm. I feared for my soul and my sanity.  I did not have a good grasp on either one.  Being alone in the dark didn’t help.

I think I reviewed my options. I could go to the right, to the raw expanse of red clay where the interstate is now, but that would have involved a long slog through mud. I could go left and head straight for the narrow dirt road, and take my chances with the barbed wire on the bank and the creek. I could go back the way I had come, and hope I blundered into a good place to cross again. Or I could keep going the way I was facing and follow the creek down the valley toward the lake. But that was the unknown. The creek dropped a long way  before it got to the lake. There was a waterfall down there somewhere, and it was getting dark.

It was spring, warm, pleasant, but I was frozen where I was. I looked one way and it looked bad, then another way and it  looked worse. Meanwhile, the sky got darker.

Was I afraid of barbed wire? Tearing my clothes or my skin? Not if push came to shove, I don’t think, and I wasn’t afraid of getting my feet wet either. I probably was wearing half-boots with lugged soles, dressy for what they were, but they would have protected my feet. I was afraid of snakes, still am, but I had not seen any. I think I was mostly just letting my fear — fear of the devil, fear of the unknown, fear of darkness or my own weakness, fear of being aware that I could not take care of myself — or all of the above— run away with me. Fear ran me then. Controlled me.

I can’t remember if I prayed. I was running from God then and had been for a while, trying to deny reality, trying to pretend, trying to build a worldview on snippets from songs. “Who’s trying to say that he’s just in-between, the night isn’t black if you know that it’s green” was one slack lifeline I borrowed from Buffalo Springfield. “He’s courageous enough to be skeered, but he’s too humble to win,” sang Judee Sill. I could go on. When you’re drowning, you grasp at straws. I was and I did. Sometimes they kept me afloat for a bit.

I don’t think I prayed though. I wasn’t ready for that. When I finally did pray, in the middle of the worst acid experience of my life, I was so drugged out  it took me a long time to realize I had prayed a three-word, desperate prayer. This event and that one were close to the same time, I think, but I think the big one was a bit later. Or not. I’m not sure. My head was bad. This time, I think God just tapped me on the shoulder to remind me he was there.

He did it by arranging for the field to be filled with lightning bugs. I had not noticed.  I did not realize the lightning bugs were there, each of them a small miracle, until they all—simultaneously—lit up. When it happened, the light almost knocked me to my knees. I mean literally. The burst of lightning bug light just about knocked me down.

That mass flash was the only one. From then on it was just firefly business as usual. One here, one there, many there and there and everywhere, seemingly at random.

They kept blinking just enough for me to remember they were there. Because the burst of light had banished my fear. Had taken the weight off of my chest. Had let me know I was not alone. If God had said, “Relax, I’ve got this,” in an audible voice, I don’t know if it would have had more effect than the lightning bugs.


The Speedster and the Skunk

1912 Model-T Ford Speedster

Buy Speedster and the Skunk

When I started writing  I thought this would be a short story. When I was a boy my dad told me what I thought was a really interesting, funny, embarrassing true story. I asked to hear it until I’m sure he got tired of me asking. In a nutshell, when he was in high school in 1929 or ’30 he traded his pony for a 1912 Model T Ford touring car. With help from friends he converted it into an early hot rod called a Speedster. Before it was finished (no windshield, no top, no body really) he drove it to a dance. On the way home he tried to bluff a skunk and paid the price. Last fall I thought I should get it down on paper. My friend John Lingo, who has restored old Fords to showroom condition, read an early draft and helped make it more accurate. It grew. By the time it was done it was a novella, fifty-some pages long. It cried out for art. Jim Caswell, one of the best car artists I know, liked the idea and drew a cover and four more pen-and-ink illustrations. They still knock me out. Laura Ann Sorrell helped Jim with the people, and my old friend Earl Carter stitched the machines and people together in Photoshop.

It’s available on for Kindle readers (or iPad or iPhone) for $3.25. As soon as I can, I want to offer a print version too. Here’s the first chapter:

What Exactly Happened?

“Hey Tom Bragg! I hear you’re sleeping in the barn.” Bea stopped in the shade, swung her tennis racquet at the air and waited.

He laughed, but still felt sheepish as he crossed the street. “Not any more,” he said. “Bad news gets around, huh?”

Bea was one of the prettiest, nicest girls in his class, and a friend. A month ago he would have walked right up and offered to carry her books, or whatever. Now he stopped ten feet back. His sisters still said he had to stand back from people until further notice. Bea smiled. “You’re the talk of the town. How long has it been? More than a week.”

“Almost two,” he groaned. “I’m back on the upstairs porch though. Not the sleeping porch, the regular porch. On a cot.”

“Your poor mother.”

He hung his head. “I know. She’s been great, considering that she and Hattie and the girls had to start spring cleaning all over again. She still shakes her head, but she can smile now.”

Bea shook her head too, but she also almost smiled. It was a sympathetic smile.

“I learned one thing, at least,” he said. “If a skunk gets you, don’t go in the house. Sit on the curb and cry.”

Bea giggled. “I’ll try to remember. I really don’t smell anything.” She leaned forward with her racquet behind her back and sniffed the air. She was still an arms length away. “I really don’t. Somebody not very nice said you smelled like tomato juice poured on a dead skunk. You don’t though.”

“I did at first. It’s a whole bunch better. Plus I just took a shower.”  She looked sympathetic. Without moving away she took a backhand swing, leaned forward and sniffed again.


He beamed. “And how! I’ve used almost a whole bottle in two weeks. Daddy says it’s an improvement.”

“It smells nice.”

Tom Bragg stood up a little straighter.  “Really? You’re the first person to say that. Do you mean it?”

She nodded. “I like Old Spice. My Daddy uses it.”

He smiled. “I get to work at the drugstore Saturday. Dr. Westmoreland thinks I’ll be okay.”

“You’ll be fine. The drugstore smells like disinfectant anyway, and perfume. And vanilla. You’ll be behind the counter. It’ll be fine.”

“I hope so. I need money so I can get another radiator. I can’t get the smell out.”

“I’m sorry. I heard your cute car was wrecked.”

“I heard that too, but it’s not true. Ruined maybe, until the smell wears off, but not wrecked. I didn’t hit the skunk, or anything else.”

“What did happen?”

“It’s embarrassing. You don’t want to know.”

“Yes I do.” She smiled.

“How much time do you have?” Tom Bragg didn’t have much time himself, but couldn’t remember why just now. You can’t think when girls smile like that.

“Just enough.” Bea was exactly his height, and really pretty when she smiled.  Her eyes sparkled. “Start at the beginning.”

Darn Impressive for a Boy

Tom Bragg wanted to drive his speedster to the dance. He wanted to show it off, and be seen in it. The speedster was still rough around the edges. It needed a few things, but it ran great and looked sharp.

At least it looked sharp to him, and to most of his friends. Rich boys had nicer cars, sure, but they had not built those cars themselves. Tom Bragg had built the speedster, with help from his friends. He snatched time after school, between band practice, gymnastics, his job at the drugstore, chores, studying, sleeping and eating. It had taken months, but it was a darn good car. Especially to have been built by a boy in high school. Even Daddy said so.

Of course, he hadn’t built it from nothing. It been manufactured on Henry Ford’s famous assembly line in 1913, right after Tom Bragg was born Dec. 7, 1912. Most seventeen-year-old cars are not as stylish as most seventeen-year-old-boys would like, but this one was as up-to-date as he and his friends—and his budget—had been able to make it. People who knew what they were looking at were impressed that a high school boy could accomplish so much. Even people who were not all that interested in cars noticed it. But in 1930, most everyone was at least a little excited about automobiles. Automobiles, aeroplanes, radios, Kodak cameras, talking pictures. New things, modern things.

Until Tom Bragg got hold of it, the speedster-in-waiting had spent most of its seventeen years looking like a grandmother’s car. It had rolled off the assembly line padded like a comfortable buggy, with a tall, brass-framed windshield and a cloth top that made it look a bit like a covered wagon about to cross the prairie.

Tom Bragg removed the big touring car body right away, and hauled most of it to the foundry. The scrap metal brought just enough money for a few key parts. Even better, the buggy-like body wasn’t sitting in the back yard looking tacky. Mother and Daddy were tolerant when Tom Bragg re-built that biplane back there, but this was just parts of an old car. When the body came off, the front fenders stayed, and he started looking for two more just like them. He wanted to mount them backwards, over the back wheels. Plenty of speedsters had bookend fenders like that, and it looked sharp. For now, the speedster-in-progress stood naked on its original twelve-spoke wheels and tires, pretty good ones, and it still had the original brass radiator. It still had the original black folding hood too, and the tiny black cowl and firewall that the Ford Motor Company had given it. But so did most speedsters.

Want to read more? Here’s the link. I’m still learning, so you may have to paste this into your address line.