Coast to Coast

I See London


The summer when I was 6 years old, I spent hours hanging from the big oak tree behind the garage. Between me and the oak branch were two ropes, each tied to a suspended 16-inch ring. If I hung onto those rings with my hands for a few minutes I could get my legs up through them and hang upside-down from the tree until the backs of my knees were rough from friction with the rings.

At my rural school was a second-grader named Walter who hated me. Dirt was thick under his fingernails, and I didn’t ever let him touch me. While suspended from the oak tree behind the garage I thought about the mean things Dirty-Fingernails-Walter had said to me: “You’re dumb.” “You’re a girl and can’t do things like a boy.” “I wish you were dead.”

One day when I was in first grade, I showed Dirty-Fingernails-Walter what I could do. I hung from the rings on the playground at school, then slipped my legs through the rings and proudly hung upside down. Dirty-Fingernails-Walter started the chant: “I see London. I see France. I see Phyllis’ underpants.” All the other kids, even my friend Edna, joined in and didn’t stop until our teacher intervened. After that day, even though they didn’t say the words, someone was constantly humming the rhyme.

What was wrong with my underpants? Mine had embroidered flowers under the names of the days of the week. I got the days right — “Monday” underpants on Monday; “Tuesday” underpants on Tuesday, and so on. I just knew during that summer when I was 6 that I needed to hang upside down with the skirt of my dress floating over my face, somehow proving I was smarter and stronger than the boys.

My mom fussed about panties. Alongside our house on the Iowa farm, three long wire clotheslines were strung between the farmyard and the road. On Mondays when my mom washed clothes, she washed all the underwear at one time, then clothes-pinned them halfway between the farmyard and the gravel road on the middle line, with sheets hiding them on one side and towels on the other. So, it wasn’t just my underwear that was to be hidden. Was underwear evil? Ugly?

When I was in third grade my sister took me with her to the local high school. I don’t know why this was the custom, but young siblings sometimes joined their older brothers and sisters at high school. While my sister attended classes, I sat in the back of the room with a book. At noon my sister and I and her friends took our paper-sack lunches to the city park across the street from the school.

After we finished our sandwiches and cookies, the big girls talked, and I wandered over to the playground area to check out the greatest swing I ever hoped to see. The swing at my country school had ropes about ten feet long holding the seat. The swing I found in the park had what looked like 20-foot chain supports to hold a bright blue wooden seat.

After twirling the seat around a few times, I sat down and slowly moved back and forth, dragging my feet in the dust. After a bit I pumped a few times and swung higher, feeling like a bird taking flight. My hair streamed behind me when I swung forward, while the full skirt of my dress flew up behind me like the tail of a spectacular bird.

Higher and higher I went, until I felt the pull of gravity so strongly that I feared I would slip off the swing and fly forward to crash on the picnic table. When I swung forward it seemed I was in the clouds. I could see the tops of a few short trees and bushes. Defying gravity, with my hair whirling around my face and the skirt of my dress ballooning behind me, I felt beautiful and smart and strong.

Then as the swing reached as low as it would go, the chains were grabbed by my sister and she dragged me to a lurching stop, dumping me onto the dust beneath the swings. Shocked and bewildered, I was about to ask her why she grabbed the swing and spoiled my ride, when she scolded, “Everyone could see your underpants.”\I didn’t let anyone see my tears, but once again in my imagination I could hear Dirty-Fingernailed-Walter chanting, “I see London. I see France.”

Award-winning columnist Phyllis Henry lives in Gig Harbor.