Mastering the whip, which had seemed so simple in the movie, turned out to be very difficult. The beginner was far more apt to lash his face or ankles than send the strip of rawhide uncoiling toward a target 25 or 30 feet away. Compared with controlling a rawhide whip, dry-fly casting is child's play.
Still, most of us did learn to be at least modestly adept with the whip. Some of us were pretty good, and a few became expert. One of the best features of the whip was that it was easy to hide. The rolled-up rawhide fit into the right-hand hip pocket, with the handle sticking out but invisible to anyone approaching the whipster from the front.
The standard whipster's tactic was to walk a dozen steps past the passerby and then whirl, draw whip from pocket and make an overhand cast. If the victim had gone blithely on his way, the first he would know of the whip would come when a searing pain bit deep into his body right where his corduroy knickers were tightest. To the whipster it was hilarious to hear the target let out a screech and leap a foot into the air, back arched, grabbing frantically at the seat of his trousers. It reached the point where no boy knowingly would turn his back on any other boy. If we wanted the fun of snapping the whip at an unwary friend, we had to crouch behind the corners of school buildings. Make no mistake, those whips were dangerous. It was a miracle that no one lost an eye or sustained other serious injury, but the worst that happened were two-or three-inch-long welts and a little blood when the skin was broken.
It took what seemed like hundreds of hours of practice before I dared adopt the swaggering strut affected by the movie hero and which, by unspoken agreement, we boys allowed only experts with the whip to use. My practice target was the utility pole in front of our house on Elk Street. At first I was content to hit the pole with the tip of the whip, or, in another exercise, wrap six feet of whip around it. The next step was to chalk circles on the pole to hit with the tip or to roll up pieces of paper and stick them in cracks in the wood to be flicked out and brought back to me by skillful whippery.
I became good enough so that I could snatch from the pole a cigarette-sized roll of paper from as far away as my 28-foot whip would reach—the length of my arms, the whip handle and the rawhide, perhaps 31 feet. I never did become as good as Bobby Moyar, who could stick a kitchen match in the pole, retreat 30 feet or so, flick out his whip and light the match. To us that was a greater feat than the one performed by the movie hero, who had used his whip to snuff out a sputtering fuse and forestall an explosion that would have blown up the heroine.
The school year was drawing to a close, and the evenings were long and hot. The college boys were home, and a pop-eyed banjo player was making a nuisance of himself cluttering up our front porch and singing off-key to my sister who swung in the hammock. Arid she, for heaven's sake, encouraged him! He wore a college blazer, a straw hat, a bow tie, white flannel trousers and black patent-leather shoes. He parted his hair in the middle and smoked Fatima cigarettes held in a white holder. He tried to disguise his loathing of me by showing lots of teeth and affecting a hearty joviality in my presence. He made me cringe.
As the school year ended, the WCTU campaign against tobacco reached its climax with a deluge of literature flooding every home. Speaker after speaker hounded schoolchildren to pledge themselves not to smoke or drink—I believe those of us who took the pledge were allowed to wear a white ribbon—and anti-nicotine meetings were scheduled all over town. I regret to say that I took it all in and became as sanctimonious a little pup as there was in Franklin.
I was sitting behind the lilac bushes at the end of the front porch when my sister and the banjo player got back from one of the meetings. I remember thinking that now he wouldn't be poisoning the air with his cigarettes and that he would probably live to a ripe old age, which didn't create any enthusiasm in me, but made me feel very pious and righteous.
A few moments later my smug feeling of forgiveness changed to outrage. The banjo player reached into his blazer and took out a cigarette case. From another pocket he took out his cigarette holder. He took a cigarette from the case, put it in the holder and put the holder in his mouth. From yet another pocket he took a box of safety matches, picked out a match and struck it. He was sitting on the top step of the porch, in profile to me. As match approached cigarette....
The whip fiend struck.