This is a story my cousin Tiffany recalled during a recent family gathering when my mom asked us what we remembered from the summer my parents were away a lot, leaving me and my brother and cousins to fend for ourselves. As soon as she mentioned the dust, I remembered that picnic too, and we were able to reconstruct the story. I decided it’s entertaining enough to tell in public.
Twenty-seven years ago this month, I was 16, my brother Ben and cousin Tiffany were 13, and Tiffany’s brother Mark was 10–and our grandmother (Janmother) was hospitalized suddenly. My dad, Ben, and I rushed to Oklahoma City, where she lived (a 3-hour drive from our home), to be with her while she awaited the test results that showed her cancer had recurred. She would spend the rest of that summer in the hospital having treatment.
Meanwhile, Tiffany and Mark, who lived in Tennessee, had non-refundable plane tickets to visit us–arriving just a few days after Janmother went to the hospital! We drove from Oklahoma City to the Tulsa airport to get them and took them right back to Oklahoma City at first.
Then we began the pattern that defined the rest of the summer: My dad, who couldn’t take much time off from his job, spent weekends in Oklahoma City. My mom, whose work was mostly during the school year, spent weekdays there. Every Sunday night and Friday night, they switched places. This meant that one of them was always on hand to supervise Janmother’s care–which proved frighteningly necessary in that hospital! In order to overlap so that they could update each other on Janmother’s condition and the state of things at home (and have a little time together, for gosh sakes!), they left us home alone for 7 or more hours each time. We also were alone every weekday while my dad was at work.
We were responsible teenagers! We didn’t have any wild parties, burn down the house, or get seriously injured. We just got a bit more silly than we might have been with supervision.
During one of these self-supervised times while Tiffany and Mark were with us, we decided to walk to the park, about a mile and a half away, to swim in the pool and have a picnic. It was a typical July day in Oklahoma, about 100 degrees and very sunny, but that didn’t deter us–we’d been walking around town all week, and unlike many other routes we took (cutting through parking lots and poison-ivy patches, walking on the shoulder of the highway, climbing concrete embankments, etc.), the way to the park was a pleasant one, along residential streets and then on a municipal path through the woods. We packed up a nice dinner of sandwiches and apple slices in sandwich bags, the kind you fold over at the top, and put the food into my dad’s trusty old green nylon backpack.
Mark was excited to carry the backpack. He hopped merrily along, amusing us with his crazy antics. I guess that backpack must’ve been slung into the boys’ locker at the pool. And then we went over to a picnic table and unpacked our food.
Well, the sandwiches were fine, but the apple slices had come out of their bag and were all over the bottom of the backpack. I said we’d just rinse them in the drinking fountain and eat them anyway–we couldn’t waste that much food! But when we took them out into the light, we saw that the apple slices were rather thoroughly coated in a strangely gray and gritty dust.
After a moment, Ben remembered that Dad’s backpack recently had been used for fossil hunting. That was fossil dust, dating from the era when Oklahoma was at the bottom of the ocean! He wasn’t going to eat that! Mark agreed and began making loud, dramatic noises of disgust. Tiffany was kind of grossed-out, too, but loyally took my side as I insisted that we had to eat the apples. Walking to the drinking fountain over by the playground, Ben and I argued about whether or not the fossil dust could contain germs that could harm species from another era.
Tiffany and I carefully rinsed each apple slice while the boys played on the playground and intermittently yelled over at us that they would not be eating any million-year-old dust. People were staring at us. I was very certain that the apples were now clean enough to eat. I ate my slices while Mark freaked out. Sure enough, there was not a bit of grit. Okay, kids, time to eat your apples!
I got Ben and Tiffany to choke them down without further argument. Mark had to be physically restrained and have apple forced into his mouth–but he also was laughing a lot, which is probably what kept bystanders from calling the authorities.
At least two other notable events occurred on our way home from the park.
That municipal path through the woods took a sharp bend, at which there was a gate leading to a residential street. The gate was standing open as we walked toward it, and we could see a boy about 7 years old hanging around aimlessly in his yard. Ben was inspired to yell, with his newly deep and impressive voice, “We know what you did! You look guilty!” By the time we walked up to the gate, the boy had come through to the path, looking very angry and defensive. He burst out, “I didn’t do nothing! And my name ain’t Cody!” We tried to explain that nobody said anything about Cody and that we were just joking, but he wasn’t buying it! Being much bigger kids, though, we were able to just walk away from him as he glared suspiciously after us. About every thirty seconds, one of us would look back and report that he was still there, and that brought on a fresh wave of laughter.
The route home from the park has a general uphill trend. The slopes are so gentle you’d barely notice them in a car, but when it’s still about 97 degrees at sunset and you’ve spent the past several hours walking, swimming, and force-feeding your cousin, that last long hill is an ordeal. We were toiling up it, wondering why people don’t plant more trees in their front yards, when Tiffany said something about squirrels and I happened to notice two girls about her age hanging out in a driveway across the street, and on sudden impulse I said loudly, “What’d you say about those girls?”
Well, those girls flounced right over and blocked our path! They were furious! Tiffany tried to explain that she hadn’t actually said anything about them, but they were even more defensive than The Boy Who Ain’t Cody! We didn’t know what they’d done, but they sure acted guilty! They demanded to know which middle school Tiffany attended, refused to believe she was from Tennessee, and snarled, “We’ll see you at Madison, and we’ll get all our friends, and we’ll get you!” Then they stomped off to their side of the street but continued looking daggers at us as we trudged along. They were just scary enough that this one wasn’t funny, although we tried to laugh about it. (We can laugh about it now.)
For years afterward, the boys occasionally grumbled at me about making them eat million-year-old dust. But even as a teenager, I was all about avoiding food waste! And none of us got sick! So I can say that eating million-year-old dust worked for me!
P.S. Rest in peace, Mark. He died in 2002 of complications from diabetes. I miss his chortling laugh.