The Dreaded Mammary Word
Anybody out there remember Joyce Kilmer? Not her. Him. You remember--the guy who had that thing for trees. And so potent a thing it was, he penned an immortal ode to them.
And that ode was eventually put to music too, becoming a very popular ballad decades ago, when people sang exaltedly of such things.
You remember it. His poem "Trees" began "I think that I shall never see/ A poem lovely as a tree/ A tree whose hungry mouth is pressed/ Against the earth's sweet flowing breast...” I think Alfalfa even sang it hideously and hilariously in one of those wonderful old “Little Rascal” films of the 1930s—only he screeched “A tree whose hungry mouth is PRAY-yust/ Against the earth’s sweet flowing BRAY-yust/” Way funny.
Those mellifluous words of Kilmer’s immortal poem still fill me with horror, although it's been somewhat blunted after decades of concentrated self-therapy. Today, I can finally look at trees without even a breath of dread. And people with the name of "Joyce," either first or last, man or woman, no longer cause me to bolt.
I should probably explain. It all has to do with that poem. I was l0 years old and in Miss Reynolds' fifth grade English class on Staten Island. The year was 1948. Back in those ancient times, it was believed that the memorization of poetry would enrich the lives of young people. It did. I was so enriched that I can still bore anyone to sobs by reciting great patches of The Ancient Mariner and Gunga Din, if, that is, I can successfully block the exits in time.
But it was "Trees" by Alfred Joyce Kilmer which took Miss Reynolds' fancy that year, and she forced all of us to learn it. Ever true to her cause, Miss R. one day demanded that each of us, seven days hence, stand and recite that poem. Start to finish. No exceptions.
We were collectively horrified. All of us looked at each other, eyes rolling and wide with fear. Recite aloud? In front of everyone? Didn't Miss Reynolds know about that word in there? What could she possibly be thinking?
Mr. Kilmer, however well-intentioned, had slipped us all a poetic mickey. This poem of his contained the most terrible of words, a part of a tree, he'd insisted, upon which snow has lain.
The bosom word. OMG, the embarrassment of it. Mr. Kilmer had opted to use that awful term when he could very well have picked another. How about good old bark, for example? And another thing--how did he know exactly where and what a tree's bosom was anyway? When that snow had lain upon it, could he really be sure it wasn't on the tree's back or side, or backside, or even shoulders or arms? Who gave Kilmer the right to label what that lain snow was clinging to? Could've been anything, but not necessarily its you-know-what, if in fact trees actually indeed have you-know-whats. (To date, I've never seen mammaries on trees anyway. And honestly, I’ve really looked.)
Miss Alice Reynolds was going to force us to say it. The jittery, bleary-eyed (we had not slept the night before) fifth grade gang assembled for English class that day, and I will say proudly that we were a brave lot; not a one of us had tricked our mothers into letting us stay home sick. We were white faced, nervously giggling, the girls not daring to look at the boys, the boys swaggering about like tough guys in the movies and not daring to look at the girls. There was much banging about of desk lids, dropped books, getting drinks from the fountain in the hall, uneasy coughing.
"Settle down," shouted the sadistic Miss R., but how could we? This was the day of reckoning, the day we'd each have to stand before a gathering of our peers and speak what was, at least for us, out-and-out pornography. Oh, how beyond awful it would be. All of us were, by the time Miss R. had taken the role, wretched and shaking, laughing with mounting hysteria.
The bell began its toll.
But not for me! I delightedly watched all of this misery and angst from the sanctity of Mrs. Merrick's classroom, directly across the hall. I'd been sent there to await the arrival of my worried parents.
You see, I'd swallowed this fish bone during lunch period, and it stuck in my throat, and I was choking on it so terribly, I was rendered speechless. I'd frantically mimed to the lunch room teacher that the pain was indescribable, scribbled “Bone stuck in my throte!!” onto her napkin, and was sent to the school nurse. She was perplexed, because lunch that day had been macaroni and cheese, with chocolate pudding for dessert. But when she witnessed my gyrations and frantic choking signals, she understood I was incapable of speech and was in fact suffering devastating agony. That good and dear woman then mercifully told me I would not have to attend afternoon classes, and that I could and most assuredly should go home. Oh the joy. I was very careful to not flush with glee and to keep up my demeanor of agonized choking and pitiful gagging.
When my concerned parents led me gently from Mrs. Merrick's care and past the fifth grade English classroom, my trembling hand pressed melodramatically to my throat, I glanced through the door at my less-clever fifth-grade classmates. I lowered my head and grinned with fiendish satisfaction as I heard the wavering, near-to-sobbing voice of poor Mildred Oyston, the first to be sacrificed for the recitation of Mr. Kilmer's indecent verse. She was stammering "...upon whose...upon whose...oh, how do you pronounce that word Miss Reynolds??"
“BOOZ-um” Miss R. hissed from the side of the room. And then she hissed it again. Poor Mildred Oyston; tears and sobs bursting from her contorted, florid and embarrassed face, she fled from the room, simply unable to say the dreaded word. Oh to go back to those innocent days when having to say a breast’s other name aloud caused both boys and girls to blush and run.
I heard Miss Reynolds call on the next victim as I was led tenderly from the school and driven to the doctor’s office where, huzzah, there was a sudden miraculous cure. The bone had obviously been absorbed, or had slid down from my throat and into my organs where it dissolved, never to be seen again. Was I ashamed of my cowardice and deception? Not a chance, but alas, I have never once in the rest of my 63 years been able to come up with as good and clever a subterfuge when I wanted to sleaze out of doing something distasteful. That was my shining moment, my one and only moment of glory, my greatest triumph. My punishment from the Heavens for deceiving my gentle, kind teachers with the bone story so I would not have to utter the B word in front of the other hapless kids, was that I have never been able to be that quick-witted since.