Willy Hale and the Yellow Dress

Somewhere down south, nestled in the Appalachian foothills, there’s a small town called Old Hundred. Main street consists of a general store, a barber shop, a town hall, and a chapel. It boasts a population of 173 citizens (not including Mrs. Simpson’s upcoming eighth child). They fly the flag proudly, root for the home team, and watch each other’s backs. But the gang of kids in Old Hundred is constantly up to mischief: so grab a sweet tea an’ I’ll give a few examples!


June found the small southern hamlet of Old Hundred waiting with open arms. Every garden in town looked as if summer had spread an evening gown of green gauze and silk over the orange-tinted soil. One could hardly climb a tree without counting half a dozen busy nests. Nearly forty women were whitewashing with gusto, and at the same time were mentally compiling mile-long honey-do lists for their husbands.

At the school-house, however, things were not so bright. It didn’t matter that school ended in a week. It seemed as if the combined third and fourth grade classroom had shrunk over one week and all the children inside were gasping for air. No one could any longer stand tedious numbers and stuffy bookwork. Finally, Miss Luffman was at the end of her rope and felt as out of breath as her students. It was time for drastic measures.

It was the last week of school. Monday morning, Miss Luffman met her students with a beaming face. “Boys and girls,” she announced, “I have exciting news for you. Wednesday we will be holding our first annual ‘History Day.’ All normal lessons will be set aside, while we take a day to learn more about how kids your age lived and learned in the past. You can dress as a famous person in history, or simply wear old-fashioned clothing. You are welcome to bring a home-cooked dish for us all to share at lunch, and if you might have something special your family has, such as a very old book or antique, we can hold a show-and-tell. And remember, you can earn bonus points on your history grade if you’re creative in what you wear or bring.”

The children all grinned at each other, whispering and giggling in anticipation. Jill Wimbledon’s eyes sparkled, because she knew right off a certain surprise she would bring. Kinah Phyler boasted that she already knew what she would wear.

Tuesday passed in a flurry of excitement for the schoolchildren. That evening Miss Luffman looked with pride at the glowing yellow dress (just the color of daffodils) she had set out. She’d been saving up a fraction of her paycheck little by little until she’d been able to buy it. It seemed to light up the room and float on the edge of her chair instead of simply lying there flat. She deemed History Day the perfect occasion to wear it.

Early Wednesday morning, eight-year-old Willy Hale whistled blithely on the dirt track to school. In his arms he carried his mother’s steaming pot of beef stew. The light breeze tussled his blond curls and played with the feather sticking up at the back of his head.

“I’m Chief Sitting Bull,” he announced as he traipsed into the classroom in his canvas moccasins. His jeans peeked out from under a fringed deerskin shirt.

“Wonderful, Willy,” praised Miss Luffman. “And how nice, a beef stew for lunch. It will go nicely with this cornbread one of the others brought.” Willy had hardly taken his seat when Kinah Phyler paraded inside in a cloud of pink. Miss Luffman eyed her, unsure of what to say. “And… uh, what—who are you today, Kinah?”

“A princess!” she declared. She wore a fluffy pink dress covered in tulle and sequins, sported sparkly silver shoes and a tiara spotted with plastic jewels. “And I brought these for lunch.” She thrust the box of miniature cupcakes towards the teacher. Each cupcake was doubled by a mound of frosting and topped by sprinkles.

Miss Luffman blinked. Obviously Kinah had not heard her say “a home-cooked dish” or “old-fashioned clothing” on Monday. “Uh, thank you, Kinah. Why don’t you find your seat?” Kinah walked, or rather, flounced, to her desk, and sat making eyes at Curt Snelling.

The teacher tapped her desk lightly. “Boys and girls, to start off today, we will watch a movie about a family in the 1800’s. They lived in a very small house on the prairie and had lives that were very different from ours.”

Willy Hale sat hypnotized as he intently watched the film unfold. Too soon it was over, and the rest of the morning was spent in show and tell. Just before lunch, Jill walked up holding the hand of a tall, gray-bearded man. It was her grandfather, who seemed to cast a spell over the students as he told tale after tale of his boyhood days on the streets of Chicago.

At lunch, the students formed two lines to fill up on stews, breads, casseroles, watermelon, pie—and of course, Kinah’s cupcakes. After they had cleaned their plates and the trash bag made the rounds, Miss Luffman opened a box and passed out slates and chalk, and they all practiced long multiplication the old-fashioned way. Around two, the teacher reached deeper in the box and brought out rough paper, fountain pens, and bottles of ink.

“Be extremely careful with this ink, kids,” she warned, distributing it among them. “Don’t let your sleeve drag on the wet paper and be sure not to tip the bottle over.” Willy gingerly held the pen, dipped it in the ink and let it suck up some of the thick black liquid. Then he touched it to the paper and ever-so-carefully wrote his name. It worked! Thrilled, Willy wrote the letters of the alphabet, numbers up to thirteen, and drew a few flowers at the bottom. Then he blew on it, turned it over, and did the exact same thing on the other side. He dipped his pen in the ink and was about to turn the paper over again when he realized that there was no more space. He suddenly and desperately wanted to draw his dog.

Willy thrust his smudged hand in the air, waving it vigorously. Miss Luffman seemed not to notice. She had her back turned, trying to show Kinah how to let the pen suck up the ink and how to hold it. As if it would make her see him faster, Willy waved his hand harder. Then he thought perhaps his paper might have some extra room he had missed. Glancing down but waving his hand just in case, he checked. No room. At the last moment, he sensed the teacher standing over him. All at once the room was stifled with silence. Miss Luffman’s sharp voice sliced through it.

“Look what you have done!” she said.

An unmistakable line of ink splatters ran straight down the front of Miss Luffman’s beautiful yellow dress. With horror, Willy realized too late that he still held his delicate fountain pen. Ink dripped down his hand and wrist and spurted at the slightest movement.

Miss Luffman was close to tears. The ink was already drying on the bright yellow cloth. The dress could never be salvaged. She felt like smashing Willy up against the whiteboard and yelling at him. It had taken months to save up for such a dress! And in one minute, an eight-year-old had trashed it.

Willy dropped the pen and scrambled up, his Indian headdress falling askew. “Oh teacher, I didn’t mean it! Oh, teacher! I’m so sorry, teacher!” His long eyelashes were dark and misty. He clasped his inky hands and stared fearfully up at Miss Luffman.

Miss Luffman gazed down into Willy’s honest blue eyes. Now she wanted to smile comfortingly down at the scared little boy, but when she remembered the splotches of ugly black on her dress, she tightened her lips into a thin line. “You may sit down, Willy. We’ll talk later.”

Willy sat. All through the last hour he huddled miserably on his chair. The last few activities of the day passed by him unnoticed as he let his mind run wild with the possible consequences.

When class was dismissed he meekly filed out with the other children, hoping the teacher wouldn’t notice. But her voice stopped him. “Here,” she said, handing him the stew pot and a folded piece of paper. “Take this to your mother.” She did not dare to smile, but kept her expression stony.

His eyes wide and afraid, Willy grabbed both and darted outside. On the dirt track home, he contemplated throwing the paper away, but then there were the stains on his hand he would explain. Perhaps he could skip the part of the yellow dress? But another Willy, yammering in the back of his head, persuaded him otherwise.

Willy bit his lip as his mother unfolded the note. To his surprise, she started chuckling. “’Only a childhood malfunction,’” she murmured. “Indeed.” She turned to her son. “Willy, how do you manage to get in such pickles? Perhaps you could learn to be more aware?” She shook her head and smiled. “Oh, dear. Well then, let’s get these stains off your hand and shirt.” And that was all.

Mother did not say anything more about it until the next evening, when she took curious Willy to the general store on Main. In the cloth area, she stood back, comparing two shades of yellow. When she had finally made her purchase and walked out with a package under her arm. “What’s that for, Mama?” asked Willy.

“We are going to make your teacher a new dress, better than before,” she answered him, watching his blue eyes fly wide open.

“We?” he squeaked.

“We,” she said firmly. “Every man should know how to thread a needle, and sew a button, and cut out a pattern. You are going to help me make this dress.”

First, they contacted Miss Luffman’s sister, who lived with her, to find a way to nab the spoilt dress. After they had it in the sewing room and set it up for a pattern, Willy snipped away under his mother’s watchful eye. Then the sewing machine hummed, and Willy squinted at the tiny loop holding the small button at the neck. Mrs. Hale then bent to work over the puffy yellow material, and in two days’ time they turned out the prettiest, most dainty yellow dress in Old Hundred.

The next morning Miss Luffman opened her door and beheld Mrs. Hale and a bright-eyed, beaming Willy. The little boy carefully held a package.

“What’s all this?” asked the teacher.

“Willy and I decided that your old dress didn’t quite cut it,” Mrs. Hale coyly smiled.

“Being ink-spattered and all,” Willy piped up. Miss Luffman winced.

“So we put together a much better dress,” continued his mother, “Similar to it, but much nicer quality and with a few extra touches.”

“I stuck myself with a needle, though,” added Willy, presenting a doctored finger.

“So, without any more fuss, here is your new dress.”

Willy stepped forward and held out the package. “It’s just the color of daffy-dils, teacher,” he whispered.

This time, as Miss Luffman met his frank smile, she didn’t hold back her own. Sweeping the package away, she tightly hugged startled Willy and clasped a hand with Mrs. Hale. “You are the dearest people I know,” she exclaimed. “How can I ever thank you?”

“I know, teacher!” said Willy, brightening. He craned his face up while still hugging Miss Luffman’s waist. “There’s a dance over at Mr. McGuffey’s on Saturday. Wear it then so we can see it on you!”

With a wavering laugh, Miss Luffman rumpled his yellow curls, swiping back a tear.


P.S. “Adventures in a Small Town Down South” is a series of short stories I will be posting periodically on my blog. The majority of these tales are based off many of the boyhood adventures of my grandfather that he related to my family and later published in a collection of adventures. These accounts are so full of my grandpa’s humor and lovable quirks that they fit perfectly with a quaint town I had swirling around in my head. So, the plots for most of these stories are not my own, but are my grandpa’s. I have supplied the characters and fluff n’ stuff. Enjoy!

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