Life in a Skinner Box: A Memoir [Chapter 1.5]

Grandma escorted me into my house and sat down at the kitchen table to drink some coffee with Mom. Dad was downstairs feeding the Burrhuses. He heard me coming and met me on the stairs.

“Hi! Did you have fun at Grandma’s?”

“Yes! We went to the lake and to church. Did you and Mom have fun?”

“Yes. It was a long drive though.”

“Did you see B.F. Skinner?”

“Yes! I rode in the elevator with him, too. He was talking to Nathan Azrin about schedules of reinforcement. I sat with some students from the University of Western Michigan. When they found out I wasn’t a student or a professor, they asked me why I was there.”

“What did you say?”

“I told them that my behavior was under the stimulus control of B.F. Skinner’s ideas, that his words were reinforcement to me. They thought that was funny, I guess.”

“Why?”

“Well, maybe they don’t find him as interesting as I do. Anyway, would you like to go for a walk in the cemetery?”

“Sure! Can we bring my bike?” I was almost out of training wheels.

I sat on the yellow and orange banana seat while Dad pushed me across the street by my handlebars. Once we were in the cemetery, I could peddle myself on the smooth pavement.

“I think I’m ready for you to take the wheels off, Dad.”

“Show me how you pick up speed. Let me see if you can keep the bike straight with the training wheels first.”

I did—four times up and back.

“Okay. You’re ready.” He took off the training wheels.

He helped me pick up speed this time, and when he thought I had it, he let go.

“I’m doing it!” I coasted for a few seconds, afraid to peddle. Then I started to feel something pulling me to the left toward the grass.

“Sit up! Sit up! Keep the handlebars straight!” I heard Dad calling from behind. But I wobbled slowly over onto the grass and fell sideways.

“Great try, Michelle! Wanna go again?”

After a few more tries, we called it quits and decided we deserved a treat from White’s. White’s was an old-fashioned drug store with a soda shop in the back. Ms. Jones was working the counter. Her face looked older than Grandma Trailer’s, but her hair was jet black, and she wore red lipstick, pink blusher, and blue eye shadow. Because she was only about my height, she stepped onto a stool and leaned across the counter toward us.

“Hellooo there,” she said with a big smile. “What’s it going to be today, the usual?”

I ordered for us both, saying I’d like a small vanilla coke with little ice and Dad wanted a medium chocolate coke with lots of ice.

She pulled two bags of BBQ potato chips off the chip board. Dad got his peppermint patty and I chose a pink and orange Lolly from the Lolly bouquet.

Ms. Jones commented on the warmer weather and how busy it had been lately, and then rang us up on the old-fashioned cash register. Dad let me count out the right amount in coins from his pocket then we got into Tina with our treats.

“Daddy, can we take the long way home?”

“Sure. What song do you want to sing?”

“‘Working on the Railroad’…in a Huckleberry accent!”

That got us several blocks.

“Okay. Now, ‘Never-ending Love’… in a British accent!”

“I’ve got a never-ending love for you

From now on that’s all I want to do

From the first time we met I knew,

I’d have a never-ending love for you…”

That got us to the entrance of the Catholic cemetery, which sat on a hill on the outskirts of town. If our cemetery was scary, this one was downright terrifying. It was much older and smaller than ours and many of the tombstones were toppled over, crumbled, and covered with greenish-black mold.

“I want to see the eyes,” I said, feeling much braver in the daytime.

Dad wound Tina up to the top of the hill where along the back perimeter sat a small gray electrical box wrapped in vines with two red round lights on the front. He stopped when I was right next to it. I leaned out my window and took a good look. It didn’t look scary at all in the daytime. After dark, it looked like a werewolf. I flipped the night view and day view back and forth in my head a few times, convincing myself that the next time I came at night, I would NOT let myself be tricked into being afraid.

“Okay. Now go to the wall,” I said. The eight-by-eight-foot wooden wall was painted brick red and was tall enough to hide some unsightly rusting gas tanks. Dad pulled up beside it.

“Tell me the story again.” I’d overheard Mom talking to a friend about a missing girl that was found behind that wall.

“Well, a high school girl was kidnapped a few years ago and taken to that wall.”

“Who took her?”

“A man passing through town, I think.”

“Why did he take her?”

“He might have wanted to hurt her. That’s why you should never talk to strangers or get in a car with anyone.”

“Is the girl okay now?” I already knew the answer to this, but I held out hope that it had changed.

“Um. No.”

I envisioned a life-sized Barbie being drug back behind that wall by a man that I imagined looked like Sammy Terry, the host of “Nightmare Theater.” I shuddered.

“How old was she?”

“Seventeen, I think. Now, are you ready to jump the hill?” Dad said, changing the subject.

“Yes!” I said, happy to get away from the thoughts in my head. Dad turned the corner and waited for a moment. I looked at the stretch of gravel road in front of us. It looked like there was room for about six cars before the road disappeared.

“Hang on to your Coke!” Dad said, stepping down hard on the gas pedal.

“Weeeeee!” In three more seconds the fall had yanked the breath up and out of me.

I opened my eyes and we were at the bottom of the hill. Dad was braking a little—but not too much—so we could whip around the corner and feel Tina’s tail spin in the gravel. There was one more little hill to take on the straightaway. “Oooh-uuhh.” I finally relaxed when we headed up the hill to exit the cemetery.

We had time for one more song on the way home. Dad was teaching me the song Paul Newman sang in Cool Hand Luke. I almost had it. We started the song slow and then picked up the pace as we went.

I don’t care if it rains or freezes

Long as I got my plastic Jesus

Sitting on the dashboard of my car

Comes in colors, pink and pleasant

Glows in the dark because it’s iridescent

Take it with you when you travel far

Get yourself a sweet Madonna

Dressed in rhinestone, sitting on a pedestal of abalone shells

Going ninety, I ain’t scary

Cuz I got the Virgin Mary

Assuring me that I won’t go to Hell

Get yourself a sweet Madonna

Dressed in rhinestone, sitting on a pedestal of abalone shells

Going ninety, I ain’t scary

Cuz I got the Virgin Mary

Assuring me that I won’t go to Hell

 

When we got home, Mom was cooking dinner. “We’re having pork chops. You two didn’t ruin your appetites, did you?” she said.

“Nope,” we said at the same time, exchanging winks.

Mom seemed happy. She said the owner of the roller skating rink saw some of her artwork and called to see if she would paint life-sized roller-skating Looney Tunes characters on the walls around the rink. They also wanted her to paint a huge pair of roller skates on the outside of the building. They were going to pay her $2,000, and they wanted her to start in two weeks. She said I could learn to skate. I asked if my cousin Mindy could come to learn with me. Mindy, less than a year older than me, was my favorite cousin. Her mom was my dad’s sister. Mom said “sure” and that she would need to borrow my Bugs Bunny coloring books and records. I ran into my room to get them for her.

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