The danger of the parsonage: blue sparks and melting metal smells

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In the 1950’s, unless you had older children or a housekeeper to babysit, mothers had to take their young children with them when they went out during the day.

My mother didn’t have either one, so she hauled me along.

I went on every trip to Ramírez Red & White Grocery, to Josephine’s Beauty Salon on Juárez just down from the old Mercy Hospital, to Women’s Missionary Union meetings, to Richter’s, to the library, to drop off the dry cleaning at Buford’s Cleaners or washed cotton shirts for pressing at the “Iron Lady’s” house over in the Rincón del Diablo, to Thursday morning reading sessions for blind, bedridden Mrs. Trout at her house in the shade of the trees on Matamoros Street down from St. Peter’s Plaza, …everywhere.

Those routines with my mom were my childhood. They weren’t annoying until my seventh birthday or so.

No older siblings, so there were never any hired teenage babysitters in my home.

If Mom and Dad went to the movies, I went, too. To church, me too. To basketball games at Martin High in the glory days of Coach Batey’s Tigers. Lucky me, I got to go, too.

Two memorable times though, I was dropped off for babysitting at the parsonage of First Baptist Church, and they were both disasters.

In those days, the church was still located in the large, white building on Houston and Main now owned by LISD. The pastor was Rev. James F. Stanley, a nice guy just slightly older than my parents, who had served as a Chaplain in WWII and Korea. He and his wife had three children, two girls older than me, Carol and Sherry, and a son just younger than me, Jimmy.

The Stanleys lived in the two-story church parsonage a couple of blocks down toward the train depot on Victoria St. The house had been built in the early days of Laredo’s sudden urban growth in the 1910’s, like the officers’ quarters at Fort Macintosh and other houses in that part of El Cuatro. There was no air conditioning, so to keep things cooler, the ceilings were 12 feet high with enormous sash windows and screened porches.

One evening, for some reason, Mom and Dad altered their usual routine. They dropped me off at the parsonage with 14-year old Sherry in charge and went out somewhere tame with the Stanley’s.

Jimmy and I amused ourselves for a while, but without television or video games to glue us down, idle minds did what they do.

It may have been Jimmy, or maybe I was the one, who had the brilliant idea of sticking metal coat hangers in the wall outlets. When you did, they made the most brilliant blue sparks and melting metal smells.

The problem was that we had to go from room to room for the electrical displays as we blew the circuits’ fuses in each room. By the time we got to the room where Sherry was reading a comic book, there were only a couple of rooms with any lights.

The adults returned, shocked to find us in darkness except for the one room in the back of the house.

Rev. Stanley, or “Brother James” as the church membership called him, asked Sherry in exasperation what was going on.

“I don’t know, Dad, but I can’t get the lights to turn back on.”

Jimmy and I had no idea how to get the lights on, either.

So, to change the subject from the mounting tensions of the light problem, I told the four grown-ups, “Come here. Look. Watch this,” and led them to the last room with electricity, shoved the coat hanger with the melted ends into the socket, sparks flew magnificently around my hands with a puff of smoke, and the lights went out.

My mother had to be picked up off the floor in a swoon of maternal protective anxiety.

The evening drop-off at the Stanley’s was never repeated.

But there was another visit once, for reasons also long forgotten.

This time it was a summer afternoon, and again, Sherry/Cinderella was in charge of me and Jimmy. No adults were on the premises.

When Pete Walker dropped in, anyone could have forseen trouble.

Sherry decided to make herself a lime Coke in the kitchen.

As she was cutting the lime into wedges, the paring knife slipped in her right hand and carved a pretty good slice in the fingers of her left. Lime juice dripped into the wounds. The citric acid caused excruciating stinging. Sherry did what anyone not in charge of cleanup would do, flailing her bloody fingers up and down, screaming, “Oooh, ow, ow, owie!”

Blood was everywhere, including the 12-foot ceilings. The kitchen could have been a grisly crime scene.

Of course, the three of us boys had no intention of doing any cleaning.

We just went outside to see what was going on outside in the afternoon sun.

Unfortunately, someone had neglected to put away a glass jar full of the white gas used to run the early-model lawn mower. There it was on the front porch, and it really did look just like a bottle of water.

It was hot. We were thirsty. With the slaughterhouse gore in the kitchen, we hadn’t been able to get anything to drink.

Jimmy grabbed the bottle and took a big slug.

Fortunately, Jimmy’s instinct for self-preservation kicked in just in time, and he spewed out the petroleum product that probably would have killed him had he swallowed. And also fortunate: there were no open flames nearby.

There was still enough gas in his mouth for vapors to get in his throat, and he was gasping for breath.

Choking spasms. Violent waves of heaving breaking over his shoulders. I thought he might die.

There was no 911.

Pete and I pounded on poor Jimmy’s back as our first and last resorts, and he finally managed to catch his breath.

About that time, Florine Stanley and my mom returned to confront the spectacle of a red-faced son prostrate at the front door and a battlefield hospital tent horror in the kitchen.

None of it was Pete’s fault or mine. But trouble always did follow Pete around like a pet dog.

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