Saturday, June 16, 2012

Doris Day and the Smell of Burning Rope

As I recall, the guy who came to the state-operated boarding school for cripples to lecture us on the evils of drug use was dressed like a clown.

He probably was really dressed more like a state trooper, but I remember a clown because that’s the emotional footprint he left on my teenage brain. (Some people say I still have a teenage brain.) I took him about as seriously as I took the itinerant dental hygienist who came to the cripple school once a year or so. She brought along a comically oversized, ceramic bicuspid with a smiley face painted on the side. She used a comically oversized toothbrush to demonstrate the proper brushing technique.

The dental hygiene presentation scared me straight way more than the don’t-do-drugs presentation. Because I knew that the hygienist would leave behind a shitload of her dreaded scarlet pills and that night, after brushing our teeth, each of the inmates would have to suck on one until it dissolved in our mouths. The point of the pill was to illustrate with stark clarity what a shitty job were doing brushing our teeth. Scarlet dye adhered to the areas that still needed brushing. I brushed and brushed until my gums eroded but, invariably, when I opened my mouth after the pill dissolved, I looked like I ate a case of cherry popsicles. So I brushed and brushed and brushed and brushed again but the dye still stubbornly lingered, it seemed like for a month. I looked like an All-Star dork.

But the don’t-do-drugs guy was so over the top, he just made me laugh. For his dramatic finale, he held a wafer high, like a priest offering communion. He lit the wafer with a cigarette lighter. This smoldering wafer, he said, simulates the smell of someone smoking marijuana. “Notice how it smells like burning rope, “ he said. If we ever smell that smell, he beseeched us, report it to a responsible adult immediately!

Jerry Eubanks couldn’t hold back any longer. He laughed out loud. Jerry Eubanks was my age, African American, rotund, legless. He swore he lost his legs while running from the police. He was running with a stolen television set, his story went. He tried to beat an oncoming train but he tripped and fell and the train ran over his legs. Jerry Eubanks was full of shit.

But he smelled the burning wafer and blurted, “That don’t smell nuthin’ like weed!” And everybody laughed. He was right. Even I had smelled pot before. Everybody who lived on our wing of the cripple school knew what pot smelled like. The houseparent who worked solo on the overnight shift watching over the cripples in our wing was named Doris Day (Smart Ass Cripple alias). She was African American, tiny and stern. On some nights, if any of us were still up when her shift began, she angrily ordered us to go to bed. With us all safely secluded in our rooms, Doris Day went into the Staff Only bathroom and locked the door. Shortly thereafter, the wing reeked of the smell of burning rope.

Someone must’ve eventually reported Doris Day’s pot smoking to a responsible adult. Because before too long she was gone.

The don’t–do-drugs clown/trooper made a common mistake. He underestimated the range of experiences of cripples livng in a boarding school. He should have lived among us for a few days. He might have learned something about drugs.


  1. Great piece! Utterly hilarious. :-)

    I'd forgotten all about those scarlet pills. Once a year, when I was a kid (mid-1960s), they used to send a hygienist into the public schools to lecture us on oral hygiene, and we'd go home with scarlet pills, a new toothbrush, and some dental floss. My dad was a dentist, so the pressure was on. Once a year, I had the cleanest teeth ever.

  2. We had the same dental hygiene demonstration in my (non-cripple) school in the 1970s, and the kids were actually supposed to use the pill in class rather than take it home. I was the only one exempt from taking the pill, because of my diabetes. I have no idea what effect the little red pill would have had on my diabetes control, but I was pleased not to have to use it.

  3. I got extra scarlet pills in my pack so I had to demo them to the entire class. Fortunately I was prepubescent so had no shame.
    Great piece. Love the assumption of innocence among the kids -- so much for that.

  4. The left side of my page is now dental ads lol.

    Why is it that in blank smells like insert arguments they never actually use the insert. I get that it's probably too fun, too dangerous, or too fun and dangerous to use blank.

    But insert is always harmless. Rope, vanilla, almonds, boiled eggs. For all the respect and power given the status quo by the unquestioning, they at least owe us their best BS.

    That is it too, the smell of BS.

  5. Wouldn't some types of rope be made of hemp?

    1. During WW2 due to materials shortage, the government asked Illinois farmers to grow hemp for Navy mooring ropes. The thc was "bred out" somehow of this particular hemp; however, it has worked it's way back into the plant and now grows wild in cornfields, with the fun bred back in.