Centerburg might be your town, but there’s a delightful difference—Homer Price, Dulcy Dooner, Uncle Ulysses, the flustered sheriff, and the pompous judge all live there. And that’s why in Centerburg, along with the routine of small-town life, the most preposterous things keep happening.
A mad scientist grows ragweed taller than fire ladders, a jukebox gone wild sets a whole town dancing, and a slick salesman dupes the citizenry with “Ever So Much More So” magic elixir. But nothing fazes Homer Price! He solves these problems with a good supply of common sense—and ingenuity.
BY ROBERT McCLOSKEY
I. THE HIDE-A-RIDE
IN EVERY town there is a best place to do everything. For playing marbles there is no place in the town of Centerburg as good as the alley behind the barbershop. For playing baseball the best place is the empty lot next to the Enders Products Company. This place is no good for flying kites though, because there are too many wires in the way. The best place to eat doughnuts is in Uncle Ulysses’ lunchroom. The best place for ice-cream cones is Umpfschneider’s Drugstore. There are lots of places where you can go fishing, but the really best place is in Curbstone Creek, just below the railroad bridge. The best place for spinning tops is the cement walk around the G.A.R. monument in the middle of the town square. Of course there are usually a lot of girls getting in the way, because that’s the best place in Centerburg to play jacks and jump rope too. If you are a really expert top spinner you can make your top go hop, hop, hop, spinning right down the monument steps, providing there are no jacks players in the way.
“Homer Price, the next time you spin that top in our jacks game we’ll take your top and keep it!” cried Ginny Lee. “We were here under the soldier first. You boys stay on the other side with the sailor and spin your old tops!”
“It was an accident,” said Homer. “I didn’t mean to spin it in your jacks.”
“Yeah,” said Freddy, “Homer’s top just sort of glanced off the cannonballs and bounced clear around the monument.”
“Homer Price, you glanced that top on purpose!” said Ginny Lee. She stood up and prepared to throw Homer’s top as far as she could throw it.
“Look who’s coming!” said Freddy, pointing across the town square.
“Why, it’s Homer’s Grandfather Hercules!” said Ginny Lee, forgetting to throw the top.
“That’s him all right,” said Homer, recognizing the tall old man walking swiftly in their direction.
“Nobody else around here can walk that fast,” said Freddy.
“He’s pretty fast, considering his age,” Homer agreed. “But he says that he can’t walk near so fast as he could when he was young.”
“How old is Grampa Herc?” asked Freddy. “You can’t tell whether he’s fifty or ninety, to look at him.”
“Grampa Herc says that he stopped counting birthdays at ninety-nine, but you know how he is, it’s hard to tell when he’s telling one of his stories and when he’s telling what is really so.”
“Do you s’pose he would tell us a story today, Homer?” asked Ginny.
“Something always reminds Grampa Herc of a story,” Homer said. “And if nobody interrupts him, I expect he’ll tell one.”
“Wu-a-ll!” exclaimed Grampa Herc as he came gliding up to the monument. “G’mornin’, girls and boys.”
“Good morning, Grampa Herc,” Homer greeted.
“Hello, Grampa Herc,” said Freddy.
“Tell us a story, Grampa Herc,” Ginny pleaded. And almost at once all of the girls and boys were gathered around Grampa Herc, demanding a story.
“Hadn’t no intention of bustin’ in on you young uns ball bouncin’, and rope jumpin’, and top spinnin’,” said the old man as he took a seat on the steps and drew up his long legs. “Where did all these fancy balls and tops come from?”
“They were free,” said Ginny Lee, displaying her ball and jacks.
“For nothing!” added Freddy. “From Whoopsy-Doodles!”
Grampa Hercules cupped his hand behind his good ear to make sure that he had heard right, so Homer explained, “From the Whoopsy-Doodle Breakfast Food Company, Grampa Herc. You mail in the top of a box of Whoopsy-Doodle Breakfast Food with your name written on it, and by return mail they send you a ball and jacks or a top.”
“Oh, I see,” said Grampa Hercules. “You buy these Whoopsy-Doodles at the grocery store to get the box tops?”
“Nope,” answered Homer. “Uncle Ulysses bought a large supply of Whoopsy-Doodles for his lunchroom and there were just enough box tops for everybody.”
“I remember,” said Grampa Hercules, “as how one time I saved up enough plugs from chewing tobacco to send in and get a music box. Played awfully pretty music,” he said, stroking his chin thoughtfully.
All the children were watching Grampa Herc closely, and they knew when he stroked his chin, in just that way, he was thinking of a story.
“Does the music box remind you of a story?” asked Ginny Lee impatiently.
“Can’t say as it does,” said Grampa Herc.
“Mebbe chewing tobacco plugs?” suggested Freddy hopefully.
“Nope.” said Grampa Herc. “But all this bouncin’ and spinnin’ reminds me of something.” The old man continued to stroke his wrinkled chin thoughtfully while the children seated themselves on the steps to listen.
“It was back in the days—oh, about the time Ohio was admitted to the Union or thereabouts. I was a young fella, ’bout the age of Homer here, and was just comin’ to settle in the new state with my father and my uncle and a few cousins. We’d left the womenfolk back near Philadelphia until we could get ourselves settled and a few acres of land cleared. On account of how most of our new neighbors were going to be Indians, we kinda thought it would be a good idea to get acquainted before we brought the women. We come over the mountains on foot and then built ourselves a raft of logs, thinking we’d make our way down a creek and pick out a nice spot to settle somewhere along the bank. We drifted along downstream for a day or so, and then one morning our raft stopped plumb still. Thought right away we’d fetched up on a rock or a snag, but after we’d poked around with the poles we found it wasn’t that. Come to find out, there was a bump in the creek, runnin’ clear across and about the height of one of these steps here. Our raft was fetched up against it, and the current was pushing it so hard we couldn’t budge it. Well, we all got out and took buckets and commenced to dip water from the top of the bump and slosh it upstream to the low side, and I guess we must have put in a whole day dipping and a-sloshing and trying to level off that bump in the creek. ’Twasn’t no use though, ’cause the water kept runnin’ right back downstream and making the bump just as high as ever. There didn’t seem to be a thing that we could do to get the raft up and over that there bump. My cousins went downstream a piece, on the other side of the bump, and built another raft. They decided that they would drift on down toward the Ohio River, but my father decided as how this place was prob’bly as good as any other, so we stayed right here.
“We built ourselves a little cabin at the top of the hill—you prob’bly all seen the spot, right there where the old canal branches out of Curbstone Creek. They built that canal a few years later, just to get boats around that bump. O’ course you can’t see the bump today, after all these years, unless the water is high; and even then you can scarcely notice it if the light isn’t just right and reflecting off the edge. The last big flood ’bout twenty years ago, the water washed out almost all trace of that bump.”
Grampa Hercules paused and stroked his whiskers thoughtfully and then repeated, “Washed out almost all trace o’ that bump!”
“How about the spinning and bouncing?” asked Freddy.
“Oh yes,” said Grampa Hercules, slapping his long leg, “I’m coming to that.” He pointed a long finger at Freddy and said, “Now don’t you go interrupting me, young fella.”
“Freddy was just reminding you, Grampa Herc,” said Homer. “He wasn’t trying to interrupt.”
“Let’s see now,” said Grampa Herc, stroking his chin. “Oh, yes, spinning. Wu-a-ll,” he began, “the land hereabouts turned out to be pretty good, and it got settled pretty fast, in spite o’ trouble with the Indians. ’Twasn’t long afore there were a lot o’ little backwoods farms all up and down the creek. Most of the settlers sent their pork and wheat and maple syrup down the creek to the Ohio River and on to New Orleans to sell. Seeing as how all the flatboats for New Orleans had to start on the other side of the bump in Curbstone Creek, our little place on the hill next to the bump got to be sort of a loading and shipping center for these parts.
“There got to be a big demand for barrels to ship salt pork in, and so my father and me, we started makin’ barrels. We built up a good business in barrels there on top of the hill. Then one morning—I fergit now whether it was at the time of the Great Elixer Indian Uprising or just after the Curbstone Creek Uprising—we were goin’ about our business, cuttin’ staves and bendin’ barrel hoops, when I just by accident happened to glance up at one of the barrels we had finished the day before. I noticed the tip of a feather sticking up from the inside! It sent a chill down my spine, because I figgered there was an Indian on the other end of that feather, waiting in that barrel to add a few scalps to his belt. I motioned to my father, and he quick as a wink slammed a top on the barrel and sat on it while I nailed it down tight. We had ourselves a barreled Indian, a-thumpin’ and yellin’ fit to kill!”
Grampa Herc paused to chuckle and stroke his chin, then he went on, “We decided we’d send him off to New Orleans on the next flatboat, and we went back to our work of making barrels. I kept thinking to myself how surprised somebody was going to be when he opened that barrel and found that he had himself an Indian instead of a side o’ pork. That Indian was thumpin’ around and rockin’ the barrel while we got along with our work. We laughed an didn’t pay much attention, until there was an extra loud thump! We looked up just in time to see the barrel tip over on its side and start rollin’ down the hill! Wu-a-ll! I tell you, that barrel o’ Indian went a-spinnin’ and bouncin’ and jumpin’ down that hill like a bolt o’ lightning. It smacked up agin that old sycamore tree right on the bank of the creek, and the barrel—it was a strong barrel too—smashed all to kindling. I declare, some o’ the pieces wasn’t any bigger’n a splinter.
“Heh, heh!” Grampa Herc paused to giggle and then continued, “And that there Indian bounced right into Curbstone Creek! We laughed and laughed, just couldn’t help ourselves, even though we were sorta worried for fear that this might touch off another mess of trouble with the Indians. That was the saddest-looking Indian I ever did see, came a-sputterin’ and drippin’ out of the creek, and lit off into the woods.
“Wu-a-ll! We thought sure we were in for it the next morning! There were two feathers, stickin’ out o’ two barrels, but, by gorry, we worked the same stunt on ’em and nailed ’em up tight, jist like the first Indian, and durned if they didn’t manage to tip the barrels and go spinning down the hill and smack up agin the old sycamore on the bank. Both Indians bounced into Curbstone Creek, same’s before. Wu-a-ll! Do you know, it got so every morning we had to nail up a couple of these fellas and roll ’em down the hill before we could commence work? Come to find out, that first Indian had gone back to the tribe and bragged about spinning around in that barrel, and how dizzy it made him feel. O’ course all the other braves had to try it too, and it got to be sort of a distinction in the tribe. Got so it was hard for us to get on with our work, with these Redskins hanging around, begging to be rolled down the hill in a barrel. It finally got to where we couldn’t even make enough barrels to fill the need for rolling Indians! The pile o’ broken barrels around the old sycamore was getting higher and higher, and so my father finally hit on an idea. We built this extra-strong barrel and rigged it up on an axle; then we took some rawhide belts and hooked the thing onto our windmill. I declare, it was the gosh-awfullest-looking contraption I ever did see, but, by gorry, it worked! When the wind blew and my father threw in the clutch, that barrel commenced to spin just as pretty as a top. Wu-a-ll! We started charging the Indians a buffalo hide for a spin in this contraption, and it got to be known as the Hide-a-Ride. Of course we’d accept any kind of skins or pelts—fox, beaver, skunk, and mink. ’Twasn’t long before we were sendin’ bales of skins out of here. On a calm day sometimes there’d be as many as five, six hundred Indians standing in line, waiting and praying for the wind to blow, and blow hard, so’s they could get good and dizzy inside that Hide-a-Ride.
“O’ course we added a few improvements, like dousing the customer with a bucket of water when he stepped out of the machine—just to take the place of ducking in Curbstone Creek, you see—because the Indians felt they wasn’t gettin’ their hide’s worth if they didn’t get good and wet besides being dizzy.
“Those Redskins would rather have gone for a spin in the Hide-a-Ride than eat,” said Grampa Hercules, stretching his long legs and getting to his feet. “And mentioning sumpthin to eat, let’s all of us get on over to Ulysses’ lunchroom, and I’ll buy everybody a doughnut.”
Grampa Hercules strode off toward the lunchroom at a good fast pace, with all the children tagging along, almost having to run to keep up.
“Wu-a-ll!” cried Grampa Hercules, flinging open the door of the lunchroom with a flick of his long arm. “Howdee-doo, Ulysses. G’d afternoon, Sheriff. Put aside that old checkers game and come and wait on these customers,” he demanded, indicating the noisy group of boys and girls pouring through the door.
“Howdy, Grampa Herc,” said Uncle Ulysses. “Betcha you been tellin’ some of those tall tales of yours.”
“Hercules,” said the sheriff, “don’t you ever get tired of tellin’ those stories?”
“O’ course not,” said Grampa Hercules. “Why, I remember, Sheriff, when you and Ulysses both were little minnows, scarce big enough to fry, sittin’ on the monument steps, listenin’ to my stories. Pass around the doughnuts, Ulysses,” said Grampa Herc, thumping on the counter. “I declare, you’re getting slower every day. Not enough exercise, I reckon, because of all these fancy doodads to do the work for you.” Grampa Hercules took a handful of doughnuts off the plate that Uncle Ulysses was passing around and said, “Much obliged, Ulysses,” and then he turned to the children and said, “Step right up and help yourselves, young uns.”
“Wouldn’t you children all like a nice big bowl of Whoopsy-Doodles to eat with your doughnuts?” Uncle Ulysses offered.
There was a loud chorus of “No!” from the boys, and a few of the girls remembered to say, “No, thank you.”
Uncle Ulysses wagged his head sadly. “What will I ever do with six dozen boxes of Whoopsy-Doodles? Seventy-two boxes without tops, gettin’ staler every day, and not one of my customers likes ’em, even when they’re fresh!”
“Tell you what, Ulysses,” said Grampa Herc. “My chickens are not finicky about what they have for breakfast, so I’ll feed your six dozen boxes of stale Whoopsy-Doodles to the hens, and bring you a dozen eggs in exchange.”
“It’s a deal,” said Uncle Ulysses. “Last year I had to throw out seventy-two boxes of Wheatsy-Beatsys.”
“I remember,” growled the sheriff. “And all of you young uns was shootin’ up the town with yer Wheatsy-Beatsy Ray Guns! Every time I turned around, an Eastsy-Wheatsy Gay Run anged off in my beer—I mean ear!”
“Aren’t you ashamed,” Grampa Herc asked the children with a grin, “frightenin’ the law like that?”
“Now, Hercules!” shouted the sheriff, “I—”
“I was thinkin’ of you just yesterday, Grampa Hercules,” said Uncle Ulysses, quickly changing the subject to avoid a quarrel. “I was looking at one of those old magazines over in the barbershop, and run across a picture of a man carrying a full-grown bull on his back.”
“Wu-a-ll,” said Grampa Hercules, “that’s an old, old stunt of mine. All of us old-timers used to do it all the time! You start a-liftin’ the critter when he’s just a calf, and keep on liftin’ him every day. The critter keeps growin’ an gettin’ bigger an heavier every day, and first thing you know, yer liftin’ a mighty big hunk of animal, and it don’t seem like nothing at all!
“Ulysses, ’re you keepin’ count of how many doughnuts we’re eatin’?” he asked. Then he turned to the children. “Now don’t be bashful, young uns, help yourselves. Lifting a horse,” he continued, “wu-a-ll, a horse is a sure enough hard thing to lift. ’Tisn’t that he’s so heavy, but the critter’s feet keep getting in the way. It takes a mighty tall man to walk up to a horse and pick ’im up off the ground. In the early days I was the only fellow in this corner of the state tall enough to turn the trick. There were plenty o’ men around in those days who could stand on a stump and get a horse up across their shoulders, but I was the only one who could do it with my feet on the ground. That brings to mind the winter that Jeb Enders and me were hauling salt down to Cincinnati.