As much fun as we had in the dens and forts that we kids built ourselves, the best of all places to play was the teepee Dad made with dried cornstalks from his garden. It was marvelous. Little kids we had never met walked down the street just to sit in our cornstalk teepee and ask, “Can we play Indians wif you guys?”
One crisp fall day, six of us crowded inside the structure with our legs crossed. Mom’s clean towels hugged our shoulders like blankets, and chicken feathers were stuck in our hair. We were ready to play Indians. My nine-year-old brother announced in his fake Indian voice, “We smoke peace pipe now.” Instead of a pipe, he held a dry, hollow stem between his fingers like a cigarette. In his other hand was a cigarette lighter that I knew he had swiped from a strictly off-limits place.
“Bob,” I asked, “where did you get that?”
“From Dad’s top dresser drawer.”
“You’re gonna get it.”
The whole thing gave me a nervous feeling because I knew our father would not want Bob to start smoking at such a young age. As head Indian woman, it was my duty to report my brother to the chief (also known as Dad). So I let the blanket fall from my shoulders, uncrossed my legs, and stood up. “Me be right back. I … um … hafta make water inside house.”
Bob said, “Sister squat behind bush like Indian woman.” The neighbor kids fell all over each other, laughing their feathers off as though they’d heard a dirty joke for the first time. I ignored them, walking as fast as I could to reach my dad to make my report.
The minute I spotted him, I blurted out my news. “Dad! Dad! Bob has your lighter and is gonna smoke a stick in the teepee.” I’d hoped to get a reaction, just not the one I got. Dad almost knocked me over getting out the back door. He ran across the field and dived headfirst into the teepee. When our father emerged seconds later, he held the cigarette lighter in one hand and Bob by his overall straps in the other. “You coulda been cremated!” he screamed.
Bob was so scared that he started crying in front of his new friends, and he cried even harder when Dad spanked him. Fearful they might be next, the rest of the Indians escaped back down the street to the white man’s village. Dad was so upset that he dismantled the teepee immediately, explaining that all of us could have been burned alive. I shuddered at the thought.
Bob was a pitiful mess, and I felt so sorry for tattling that I was extra nice to him for a whole week. It didn’t last. When he accidentally hammered his thumb while we were building our next fort and said, “Dammit,” I had no choice but to report him again.
illustration by Betty Auchard