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The Dunce Hat Lands
In literature, the “inciting incident” is the event that irrevocably changes the direction of the story character’s life, for better or for worse. I met mine at age four, and it wasn’t for the better.
I felt like shouting as I skipped alongside my four siblings. “Yay, I’m a big boy now! I’m going to school just like you!” I could hardly believe it—my brother Jay was a year and a half older than I was, but I got to start to school with him! He and my two sisters, Joan and Mary, and my older brother Paul were all here. We had to walk on a gravel road for a mile and a half to get to the school, Washington #5 Country School. I did a little spin-around as I all but danced along. What I really felt like doing was running, I was so full of energy, but I needed to stay with my siblings.
The one-story, one-room school building sat on a hillside at a “T” in the road. A coal shed stood next to it, and in back were two toilet sheds, one for the girls and one for the boys. All the buildings gleamed with fresh coats of paint. The fenced-in schoolyard enclosed mature oak and hickory trees, and squirrels scampered about collecting nuts for the winter ahead. The school was its own little world, with no other buildings visible from the location.
We arrived and I proudly entered the schoolroom. I was directed around a potbelly stove in the middle of the room to the front, where the kindergartners sat. Behind me, the other kids, ranked according to grades one through eight, filled jumbled rows of desks. Teacher stood at the front and assigned everyone to a seat. She’d have to teach all of us, and she looked happy about it. I’d heard my parents say she had graduated last spring from high school. Over the summer she had gotten her teacher’s certificate. It made me feel good that, in a way, we were both starting school at the same time.
My desk was right against Teacher’s. How cool was that? I turned around and waved at Paul and my sisters. Who else did I know? I wanted to look at everything, hear everything, be a part of everything. This was a big day. My first day at school! And I was going to learn lots of stuff!
Or was I?
I found it hard to sit still. Hard to concentrate. Hard to complete my work while Teacher was busy with the other grades.
Before a week had gone by, Teacher marched me up front to a corner next to the blackboard. “Face the wall and don’t turn around,” she commanded. I shrank back as a pointed dunce hat landed on my head. Honestly, I was trying to learn my ABCs, but how could I sit still that long? If I even wiggled, Teacher’s eyes shot to me and she shook her head. My chest snuffed in a sharp breath. I thought school was supposed to be fun. That’s why I begged Mom and Dad to send me. I hung my head when I heard my classmates giggle.
Next thing I knew, it wasn’t just wiggles that earned the dunce hat. I got stuck learning the letter E and had to make a big E out of cardboard and tie it around my neck. Everybody was told to call me “E.” I wanted to be called by my name, Don, but, no, they had to call me “E.” I hated that! I wanted to shout, “My name is Don!” But to do that meant I’d get in even more trouble.
Sometimes other boys wore the dunce hat, but for me it was every day, often several times a day. Finally Teacher got desperate. She gathered the kids to stand at my back when I was in the corner and said, “Throw paper wads at him and call him ‘Dummy.’ That will help him. He’ll never learn unless you make fun of him.”
I trembled, shocked by what the “fun school experience” was turning out to be. Sweat covered my body and I clenched my fists as anger punched against my throat. I needed to see who was throwing those wads at me! But just as I started to twist around, Teacher snapped, “Stop!” The pitch of her voice rose and she pointed her finger at me. “Now you have to stay there longer!”
Oh no, when she yelled, it terrified me and I wet my pants. I’d have to be in wet clothes all day and stink of pee. I was horribly embarrassed, but the stupid dunce hat was worse. It was my badge of shame. I wanted to cry, but big boys don’t cry, even if they’re only four years old. I wanted to be big like my siblings. I was trying so hard not to be a baby anymore.
When I misbehaved at home, Dad told me what I’d done wrong and spanked me. Then it was over—I’d paid for what I’d done, and I got a fresh start. I knew Dad corrected me because he loved me. But here at school, I couldn’t understand what I was doing wrong. It didn’t make sense to be punished because I couldn’t learn fast enough. Or because I couldn’t sit still. Those things weren’t wrong!
Teacher never laid a hand on me. She just told the other kids to make fun of me. Mock me because I was stupid. Jeer at me. They loved playing the game of “Helping Don Learn.” I could tell school was fun for them.
Teacher was always sad when she punished me. That was my clue that I was the one in the wrong. She never smiled doing it, so I knew it wasn’t because she was just mean and enjoyed tormenting me. That made me angry with myself. Why couldn’t I control my body and sit still? Why had God made me so dumb and squirmy? It seemed He’d made everybody good but me. Why couldn’t I just understand what I’d done wrong and be spanked? Then I could pay for it and start over like with Dad. But no! I had to carry this guilt, and it kept piling up on me. More and more I hated myself. I felt like I was going to explode.
For five years I wore the dunce hat. I was the Dunce Hat King. It changed me.
On the front wall above the blackboard, just beyond Teacher’s desk, was an unfinished portrait of George Washington. Teacher told us the artist didn’t want to finish it because it was his best work and he’d never be able to do as well again. I was drawn to the picture. I looked at it a lot. I wished that someday I might get to be finished.
Available in digital and paperback on Amazon: https://www.amzn.com/B08ZJT33DN
The Last of the Trilogy: 3 Reviews of Targeted: A Novel
“I was excited when I discovered that the third novel in this series had been published. The fate of Jake and Eve was in question but now many blanks have been filled in with ‘Targeted.’ I believe this is the best yet as the Prichards continued their great storytelling, weaving intrigue, passion and suspense into a definite can’t-put-it-down novel.”
“I really loved the first two books in this trilogy, Stranded and Forgotten, and the third book, Targeted, is the perfect ending to a well-written and riveting series! It completes the story of Eve and Jake as they struggle to bear the painful circumstances they find themselves in, fleeing from danger and trying to make wise decisions. To be able to finally be the family that they believe God desires them to be. There are two story lines: a suspenseful and dangerous mystery that crosses continents, rich with character development, and good research but also a spiritual story line, their commitment to their faith and belief in Jesus tested and found true. The authors did a great job weaving both together into a wonderful tale. I wholeheartedly recommend this book and the trilogy as a whole!”
“Best one of the three. Suspense, intrigue, romance, and most of all the grace and love of God. Loved how man protected the good guys, but in the end it was God who kept them safe. Great read Don & Steph!!”
Available in digital and paper: https://www.amzn.com/B082H4HFNX
If you haven’t read Targeted, what’s your best guess?
Eve has to decide between Jailbird Jake and her career as a judge, and she chooses …
Emilio’s father takes revenge on Jake by …
Eve’s father sabotages the romance and forces Jake to promise to …
Oh c’mon, they get married without a hitch! Suuuuuuure!
Targeted: A Novel https://www.amzn.com/B082H4HFNX
Yum! Here are three Amazon reader reviews of Forgotten: A Novel to salt your appetite:
“Awesome story, fabulous read! Thank you!!! My husband bought me the 1st book, ‘Stranded’ and I couldn’t put it down … sacrificed sleep to keep reading with no problem at all … and then I was blessed at the end with the name of this sequel … oh wow!!! I bugged my husband while filling him in on the story until he found it for me. It only took me a day to read it … even though I sacrificed more sleep … (again, no problem at all)!!! I loved the suspense, the different settings throughout both books and most of all I loved the characters!!! This was my first time reading the Prichard’s novels and they have been elevated to the top on my favorites list. So again I say … Thank you and keep them coming!!!!!”
“Finally! The saga of Jake, Eve, Betty, and Crystal continues. “Forgotten” held my attention from start to finish. I often thought I knew what was coming next but was invariably wrong.
In addition to enjoying a novel jam-packed with suspense, I was challenged by the overarching message about injustice and the proper response to it. Repeatedly I was pulled emotionally into the injustices, both great and small, suffered by Jake, Eve, Betty, and Crystal. Unlike Jake whose thoughts usually turned to the Lord whose throne is in heaven and who is righteous & loves justice, my thoughts reflexively turned to the unfairness of it all and the need for revenge. Then I would be reminded, usually by Jake, of the scriptural admonition and promise, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay says the Lord.”
“This story has everything I am lucky to get in one book. A great plot, strong female characters, sensitive alpha males, passion, pulls the heartstrings of love and sexual tension. I got hooked on the 1st page, thought of the characters when I wasn’t reading, couldn’t wait to get back to reading and didn’t want the story to end. I definitely recommend.”
Available in digital and paperback.
You’ve read Stranded. Have you followed Jake, Eve, Betty, and Crystal off the island to what happens next? Read about it in Forgotten: A Novel.
It’s frightening to lose your memory. Even scarier is to forget what’s at stake.
Federal prosecutor Eve Eriksson disappears under mysterious circumstances and shows up a year later in a coma. What happened, and where has she been? She can’t remember, and her life is in jeopardy. Four people are hunting her down. Three claim to have been stranded on an island with her. The fourth is her old nemesis, Chicago drug lord Danny Romero, who still wants her dead.
Jake Chalmers is shocked to discover his fiancé is a federal prosecutor. Why did she hide this from him on the island, and who is going to such great lengths to prevent their reunion? If she doesn’t regain her memory, he’ll be thrown into prison for murder.
Don’s memoir is now available in both digital and paperback. Laugh and cry with him as he grows up, an Iowa farm boy educated in a one-room schoolhouse with a frustrated teacher. Don started out totally miserable, and ended up making sure his teachers were totally miserable–until finally he was sent home for good his eighth grade year. Uh-oh! Now what?
Yep, I did it. Walked smack dab into a men’s restroom. I was in such a hurry I raced straight to a stall and was in and out before I stopped short at what was supposed to be the sink but instead turned out to be a row of urinals. Oh my heart! I honestly believe I died in that one microsecond of horrid comprehension.
My next brain-conscious moment was the realization that at least I was alone. Follow that with a mad dash for the door to get out before anyone saw me.
Only, the door was locked.
There wasn’t even a handle to pull. The door was supposed to stand open, and I must have jarred it shut.
I sucked in a lungful of oxygen. Slow down, Steph. Breathe. Take stock of the situation. Think.
It was Election Day, and I was the precinct chairman overseeing the voting procedure for my sector. The poll was located at one of our local high schools, and I’d been there guzzling coffee all day to keep me on my toes against rogue voters and invading high schoolers. When I went out for lunch I’d taken a restroom break, and my bladder had been signaling for the past half hour that I was due for another. Thus my brisk pace into the, ulp, facilities for the other gender.
School was over for the day, which explained the absence of needy users other than (blush) me. Now, instead of dreading discovery, I faced the stomach-acid-blazing fear that I wouldn’t be. I could end up here, locked overnight, with a hard tile floor for my bed and my stiff leather purse for a pillow. What would my poll workers think when I didn’t return to tally the day’s votes with them? Would my husband send for the police when I didn’t show up at home and he found my car all by itself in the school parking lot? Would they think to enter the school and look in … men’s restrooms?
Did I mention I didn’t have a cell phone on me? Uh-huh, live and learn.
I began pounding the door. Yelling. Screaming. Please, somebody had to hear me!
But wait! Had the janitors cleaned the restroom yet? Desperate, I dared a hefty sniff. The odor of industrialized cleansers eradicated any lingering bacteria in my nostrils. My hope for rescue faded. I would have to find my own way out.
The only other escape route was the windows. They were a slight four-foot stretch above my head. All I needed was a little boost and I could climb up and crawl out. I scanned the room for something not bolted to the floor. Something like a bucket I could turn over and stand on. Something that, hey, might be in that closet over there.
Of course, chances were it was locked. I held my breath, gripped the door’s handle, and pulled.
Into the school hallway.
I stood, stunned.The truth trickled painfully over my numb gray cells. You know, Steph, where there’s an In door, there’s usually an Out door. I remember that incident now whenever I face a trial designed by God for my good. First Corinthians 10:13 tells us that “God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape.” Don’t trap yourself in the emotion of your trials. Look for God’s way out. It’s handier than you think.
My stomach was tight with excitement at going to the Fourth of July celebration in Bridgewater, but at the sight of the bright yellow Piper Cub zipping across the green pasture south of town and lifting into the air, my stomach did flip-flops. Oh boy, did I ever want to be inside that airplane! I wanted to soar into the sky and coast on the clouds and look down at tiny houses and cars and squares of farmland. I’d be just like a bird!
“Dad, look—the sign says we can buy rides,” I shouted. My four siblings sandwiched in the back seat of the car with me joined in a chorus of pleas.
“It’s part of the fair this year,” my dad said. “Don’t even think about it. I’m not spending money on plane rides.” Even at age five, I knew money was tight. I swallowed back tears as my excitement did a nosedive. But someday, I consoled myself, I’d fly. In fact, why not be the pilot?
Thirteen years later, as a freshman at Drake University, I carried that resolve with me and signed up for the USMC commissioning program. My eyes tested at a solid 20/15, so I felt certain I was on my way to becoming a Marine Corps pilot. After four years of hitting the books, however, my distance vision deteriorated. I didn’t need glasses, but I could no longer qualify for the vision standards of the flight program. I comforted myself with the thought that working with men would be better than working with machines, anyway.
That contrast was highlighted in 1971 when I was the Commanding Officer of the Marine Corps reserve unit in Des Moines. We were on the East Coast for two weeks of training that included observing a reinforced Marine battalion with close air support storm the beach in a landing. The occasion promised to be quite a show, and the bleachers were overflowing with spectators. I was among a group of four visiting COs given the privilege of a flyover before the event. The crew chief of the double-rotor Chinook helicopter we rode in kept the rear hatch open during the flight to improve visibility.
Our pilot was a student in training. By mistake, he flew us over the beach into the path of a low-flying A4 Skyhawk fighter strafing the beach. The profile of an A4 streaking directly at you at 600 mph has the appearance of little more than a bug in the sky. Fortunately, our experienced copilot saw it and immediately grabbed the stick out of the student’s hand. The emergency jerk on the stick sent our Chinook cartwheeling through the air. With a deafening roar, the A4 flashed past our craft, barely missing us. The turbulence threw us into yet another direction. Through the open rear hatch, I glimpsed a whirling exchange of water and sky. The ocean rushed closer with each rotation.
Somehow in that blur of events, the pilot halted our descent. The rotors were fifteen feet above the water when we stabilized. Ocean spray spewed onto us as the chopper clawed its way back into the sky. We parted the hair of ducking spectators screaming in panic as we flew over them to land behind the bleachers.
As the chopper set down, a senior officer ran over to our craft. He was intent on identifying the pilots to ensure they never flew for the Marine Corps again. Our lives had been saved, but in our zero tolerance military, the pilots had allowed the near-deadly situation to occur. I was relieved for our safety, but also felt bad for our pilots with their careers now ruined.
That wasn’t my only harrowing experience with flying. A few years later, I was the project manager of the US Army Mobilization Design series for the largest architectural/engineering firm in Indiana. My team and I were flying back to Indianapolis in the company plane when we received a warning that a number of tornados had been sighted along our flight path. The word was that we were moving into violent “unsettled air.”
We came upon the turbulence suddenly and were thrown around like a lose marble in a clothes dryer. I was concerned that the wings would be torn off our aircraft. Gripping my seat, I shouted at the pilot, “What level of stress is this craft rated for?”
His reply was calm. “Don’t worry about it. You’ll pass out from the G-forces long before we reach the point of structural failure.”
I considered the matter and realized I wasn’t even close to passing out. I shrugged and decided to treat the situation like I was on a roller coaster and simply enjoy the ride. We landed in Indianapolis an hour later and emerged from the aircraft with our knees only slightly wobbly and our stomachs only slightly more so.
My third thrilling ride occurred a few years later in an aging military aircraft. Returning from a West Coast Marine Corps exercise, the flight was uneventful until we arrived at St. Louis’s commercial airport and the landing gear indicator light failed to come on. The tower reported the gear was down, but the pilot didn’t know if it was locked in place. Therefore, they diverted us to a small military airport an hour’s flight away.
Okay, I understood that if we splattered on the runway in St. Louis, it would be a big mess to clean up and an inconvenience to commercial travelers. But when you’re the bug about to be squashed, you look at it differently. We flew to the military airfield with our hearts pounding and all kinds of dreadful thoughts assaulting our imaginations. As the plane descended to the airstrip, we clenched out jaws and braced ourselves for a crash landing.
I’m happy to report the landing was smooth as melted chocolate. Turned out the problem was only a warning-light malfunction and nothing was wrong with the landing gear. We were bussed back to St. Louis and then driven five hours from there to Indianapolis. We arrived just in time to go to work Monday morning. I was grateful to be alive, but by the time I dragged my buns home that evening, the stress and exhaustion of that plane ride made it the worst I’d survived.
Stats say the annual risk for the average American of being killed in a plane crash is about 1 in 11 million. As I’d anticipated as a kid, flying is indeed a marvel. Then again, as I’ve discovered as an adult, so is having your feet firmly planted on terra firma.