by Harold Battenfield
“Harold, close the front door,” my mother yelled one winter, fifty years ago. “You’re letting out the heat.” The night before, the problems had included too much running water in the tub and holding the refrigerator door open too long.
“Mary, turn off those lights behind you,” Mary’s mother said, in another part of the same town and at about the same time.
I closed the door and Mary turned off the lights, because our mothers said so, but not because we really understood. Because I didn’t pay the bills, I didn’t understand the relationship between flipping a light switch and paying an unknown person in a distant place.
In a like manner a generation later, my wife Mary and I dutifully harangued our daughters, Lori and Amy, with the same lesson about energy conservation. And then, as Lori’s and Amy’s children grew, I watched my grandchildren ignore the same lesson Mary and I had ignored as children.
Was this a ritual of childhood, I asked myself, where we blindly follow rules we don’t really understand until we leave home, and then discard them, until we begin paying our own utility bills? What action could Mary and I take to bring the lesson home to our grandchildren? Maybe, I thought, just maybe, we could make a difference.
The history of bean night is this:
As grandparents, Mary and I had always looked for excuses to have our grandchildren come to our house. Our obvious goal was to have fun, but the hidden agenda concerned what we could teach the kids as a supplement to school, as in a lesson of day-to-day living. We excluded any project from a toy store, especially if they ran on batteries, or did not offer interaction with the kids.
The evening events did not turn on what we ate, but what we did. Bean Night meals were always quick, easy to prepare, and involved minimal clean up.
Mary selected the age-old, dependable, garden-variety pinto beans. They were good enough for company. She soaked them overnight, picked out any stones, and the next day cooked the beans by bringing the pot a boil. She drained off the water in a colander, poured the beans back into the pot, covered them with water and boiled them down again (to decrease, she claimed, any potential bodily gas the day after). With the heat turned down, she added ham, chopped onion, chili powder, Liquid Smoke, and small amounts of cumin and salt. A lid prevented the water cooking off, and she continued cooking the beans at low heat for several hours. Jiffy Cornbread Mix, with added egg and milk, provided the side dish. As per Mary, every meal also included a leafy green (it was heresy without it)—spinach, lettuce, or cabbage. The specific green did not matter.
For the six grandchildren and their parents, Mary and I ladled the beans into paper bowls and scooped cornbread along the rims. Our conversation during this time included taking turns around the table, each of us telling one good event and one bad event that had happened to them that day. Everyone at the table listened while, one by one, we told about our day.
This particular Friday evening in August, the crickets clicked while the air hung hot and muggy. On such an evening, my butt would stick to the car seat before the air conditioning took effect. The grandkids had returned to their first week of school from their summer vacation.
Decades had passed since my visit to the farm with my own stolid grandparents, Oscar and Eller, and as grandparent myself I was afraid of being boring to my grandchildren. I pledged that I would carve out more time—more quality time—with them, than had been carved out for me.
“Okay, kids, here’s the plan,” I said, as I leaned forward on the table with my elbows, clearing my throat to get their attention. “Wipe your mouths, and then tell Nana thanks for the beans and cornbread. Take your spoons, glasses, and bowls to the sink and come back to the table.”
Stumbling over each other, they returned quickly and sat quietly, staring at me in anticipation. Their silence was scary. With theatrics of a magician, I waved my hand back and forth above my head and reached into a Walmart shopping bag, whereupon I pulled out six sandwich bags, each filled with coins.
“I’m giving each of you six sacred quarters in a bag,” I said. “Don’t lose them.”
“Hey, this is cool,” Sam responded. “A dollar-and-a-half just for eating.”
“Follow me out by the trash cans,” I said, giving him the stink eye to be quiet and listen. “I have something to show you.”
I wanted to move along with the plan; late August in Tulsa discourages anyone from lingering outside. The sun moved toward the west and stole the shade from the electric meter box, as well as the sitting area around it. The humidity magnified the discomfort, exemplified in the daily newspaper reports of death from dehydration and heat. Those who worked for hourly wages did not have the luxury to retreat inside. The best that they could hope for was shade—even intermittent shade. At that time of year, I watched roofers, landscapers, and construction workers toil into the late afternoon, all of them moving in slow motion.
Our girls and their spouses knew my plan, and they watched with curiosity to see how their kids would react to my experiment. The grandkids followed me, their parents trailing along, to the side of our house to a wood fence that camouflaged two trashcans and an air conditioner. I wanted each of them to have a good view of the electric meter. The meter hung on the outside wall of our house, just above and to the side of the fence. The meter had been secured to the wall high enough to be under the shelter of the overhanging roof—low enough for an adult to read, but too high for children to see. In order for the kids to get a good view of the meter, I had arranged an aluminum stepladder and a folding step stool next to the wooden rail surrounding the trashcans. With the smaller kids standing on the top steps and the older ones on the lower steps, all could see the electric meter.
The oldest of the kids, the twins Max and Sam, had characteristics as different as Mary and me. Sam had dark brown hair and blue eyes, while Max had almost blond hair and brown eyes. The twins were the oldest and climbed the ladder first, which screwed up my plans. Sam had stuffed his bag of coins in his pants pocket and Max climbed with one hand, squeezing the coin bag with the other hand.
“Max, you and Sam back off and make room for the smaller ones to climb up and see see,” I scolded.
The twins allowed the younger ones up first, but everyone jostled for a step to get the best view of the electric meter, a low-tech glass bowl with wheels and gears inside. Wires ran out the top and bottom, all disappearing mysteriously into the wall. Keegan climbed the ladder, tripping over his untied shoes, while Max, Jack, and Lauren, the only girl, peered from the ladder. Lauren struggled, turning her head left and right trying to see through hair hanging over her eyes. Her mother, Amy, had tried to get her to cut her hair or pull it back in a pony tail, but Lauren refused because she thought she looked more feminine with her hair hanging long. Jack, bothered by his allergies, needed to blow his nose. Sam held his four-year-old cousin, Grant, on his own hip, while standing on the stool.
Computer games had programmed the kids to take control and interact with any machine, but this simple, silent device baffled them. They did not understand the significance of the turning wheel, especially if the gadget did not have any buttons to push or knobs to twist. This rotating wheel could not compete with Nintendo, Game Boy, or any game downloadable on a computer. Where was the rocker switch to activate this game? I assumed they thought in terms of “let’s get on with crashing a space ship, or beheading a gladiator with a magic sword!” Where were the flashing lights, the icons, or the buttons to be activated? Maybe the six double-A batteries need to be changed. They watched the meter wheel tuning, their heads and eyes rotating in sync.
“What do you think you’re watching?” I asked.
The younger ones deferred to the twins, who were the oldest.
“I think that it’s called an electric meter,” responded Max, following a long pause.
“What’s it do?” I questioned.
“Makes electricity,” blurted Jack, wiping his nose with the back of his hand, and then tapping his finger on the glass.
“That thing’s turning,” said Keegan. He grasped both sides of the bowl, then pulled himself forward and pressed his nose right against the glass, his eyes still in focus up close as only a child can do.
“No, stupid!” snarled Sam, with condescending sibling talk, putting down to his younger brother. “It measures the electricity used.”
“Max,” I said, “count out loud how many times that wheel rotates past the black mark at the top. I’ll look at my watch for one minute and tell you when to stop. Ready? Go.”
“One, two, three, four . . . ”
“Stop,” I said at one minute.
“Thirty-two,” announced Max.
“What does that mean?” I asked, as they continued to watch the wheel rotate.
“How much electricity is being used?” Sam guessed.
“Okay! Now how can we make it spin faster?”
They all shouted more guesses.
“Turn on more lights!” said Sam.
“Turn on the TV!” added Max.
“Turn on the computer!” said Lauren.
“Then let’s go do it,” I said.
The kids bolted from the ladder like their feet were on fire. They exploded into the house, vying to see who could flip the most switches the fastest. I could have held my breath between the time their feet first engaged the ground and when they again resumed their perches to stare at the spinning wheel.
“Sam, it’s your turn to count the revolutions,” I said. “Start now.”
The turning of the wheel quickened.
Sam responded with a faster count. “One, two, three, four . . .”
“Stop,” I announced. “One minute’s up.”
“Wow, did you see that?” bragged Sam. “We did fifty-four turns!”
“Who made this meter spin faster?” I questioned.
“We did,” they proudly proclaimed.
“Then who do you think should pay for this increased electricity?”
Their dismay was just as dramatic. “We should.”
I extended my hand, palm up, to each blank-faced kid. “You owe me seventy-five cents.”
They each understood the purpose of the dollar-and-a-half in a baggie. One would have thought that I was asking to amputate a finger. Disgusted sighs followed, as they reached into their bag to pay me seventy-five cents.
“Okay,” I said. “Let’s see if we can make the wheel turn faster.”
They stumbled over each other to race inside. The second foraging trip in the house exposed previously overlooked gadgets that sucked electricity. They turned on the electric stove, as well as the hair dryer, clothes dryer, closet lights, and bathroom heater, an apparent unlimited store of electrical switches. This time they required about four minutes to do the damage.
They returned outside, scrambled up the ladder and stood as if their eyeballs were being sucked into the turning wheel.
“Lauren’s turn to count,” I announced.
“One, two, three, four. . .”
Again, the wheel’s pace quickened.
“Hey, hey, sixty-seven!” she yelled.
“That will be another seventy-five five cents from each of you,” I said, holding out my hand. Now their bags were empty and I had all the money.
“That’s no fun!” said Lauren with a pouting lower lip.
As they milled about, I gave them time to digest the events. Then I broke the silence. “I’ll make a deal with you,” I said. “If you can slow that meter below thirty-two revolutions, like it was when we started, I’ll give fifty cents back to each of you.”
Their first reactions had been glacier slow compared to their response to this new challenge. All six of them clogged the back door. They shoved, shouted, and accused, until the body jam broke and spilled across the floor. The hyper-charged gang spread through the house and flipped off the familiar switches: table lamps, wall switches, and nightlights.
I followed them inside, looking for more change in Mary’s and my coin dish, but I had trouble distinguishing the coins because of the darkness. Sam witnessed me turning on a lamp. “Papa, turn out that light!” he said. “You’re burning up my money.”
The kids became more concerned that their siblings and cousins might beat them back to the ladder than they were at locating more switches. Promptly, they resumed their positions on the ladder, all eyes fixated on the meter wheel.
“Jack’s turn to count,” I said.
“One, two, three, four . . .”
This time the slower rotations were obvious.
“Eighteen,” shouted Jack. “You owe us fifty cents.”
I paid, hiding my grin.
“There is another fifty cents in it if you can lower the number below fifteen,” I said.
They knew the routine and spread through the house with military precision, searching for new targets, looking behind chairs, tables, and beds.
“Can we include the garage?” asked Max. “I saw a battery charger for your drill and that little thing that sucks up dust from your workbench.”
“Sure,” I said. “That’s part of the house.”
They claimed their prior positions at the ladder. No one waited for a turn to count. They counted in unison: “One, two, three, four . . .”
“Papa, do you see that?” announced Sam. “Ten! You owe us fifty cents!”
“Yeah, you owe us fifty cents!” Lauren repeated.
Now, each had all but fifty cents of their original money returned. I was satisfied, but I just couldn’t leave the process alone. I decided to push forward.
“If you can get the revolutions under ten,” I announced with self-imposed authority, “I’ll give you the remaining fifty cents.”
Silently in my cockiness, I congratulated myself. I was sure it couldn’t be done.
The kids searched the house again. I watched through the window as they held a conference amongst themselves, and sent Lauren out.
“Can we turn off the air conditioner?” she asked.
Mary and I huddled on that question. We looked at each other and shrugged our shoulders. We concluded that we couldn’t ask them to decrease electrical use by tying their hands. Mary and I broke out the lawns chairs in the shade for the adults, while waiting for the kids to return and scramble up to the meter.
One last time, the kids swept the house like FBI agents looking for any lights, however small Confusion reigned when they returned and stared together, six pairs of children’s eyes, to see whether or not the wheel had stopped. We adults became caught up in the drama of the exercise and surrounded the kids, straining on our toes to see the results.
“What’s it say?” Amy asked, trying to see over the kids.
“Yeah, what’s it say?” said Lori.
A breathless moment passed, and then Max softly announced, “Two.”
“Two?” whispered Mary. “I didn’t think it was possible.”
I dispensed the final fifty cents in silence. The kids scurried off, satisfied with their victory.
They listened, I learned, if the project was fun. If they were actively involved, and if I didn’t repeat myself, which was the most difficult point for me to remember.
Two weeks later, Lori called me. “Hi, Daddy,” she said. “I thought you’d like to know that I saw Jack explaining our electric meter to a neighbor friend.”
Now, I am drawn to glance at the speed of our meter as I pass, and if at a friend’s home I may sneak a peak at the speed of their wheel.
I suppose I learned the most when my mama wasn’t even there.