And You Wonder Why We Get Called the Weird Watsons. It was one of those
super-duper-cold Saturdays. One of those days that when you breathed out
your breath kind of hung frozen in the air like a hunk of smoke and you
could walk along and look exactly like a train blowing out big, fat,
white puffs of smoke.
It was so cold that if you were stupid enough to go outside your eyes
would automatically blink a thousand times all by themselves, probably
so the juice inside of them wouldn't freeze up. It was so cold that if
you spit, the slob would be an ice cube before it hit the ground. It was
about a zillion degrees below zero.
It was even cold inside our house. We put sweaters and hats and scarves
and three pairs of socks on and still were cold. The thermostat was
turned all the way up and the furnace was banging and sounding like it
was about to blow up but it still felt like Jack Frost had moved in with
All of my family sat real close together on the couch under a blanket.
Dad said this would generate a little heat but he didn't have to tell us
this, it seemed like the cold automatically made us want to get together
and huddle up. My little sister, Joetta, sat in the middle and all you
could see were her eyes because she had a scarf wrapped around her head.
I was next to her and on the outside was my mother.
Momma was the only one who wasn't born in Flint so the cold was coldest
to her. All you could see were her eyes too, and they were shooting bad
looks at Dad. She always blamed him for bringing her all the way from
Alabama to Michigan, a state she called a giant icebox. Dad was bundled
next to Joey, trying to look at anything but Momma. Next to Dad, sitting
with a little space between them, was my older brother, Byron.
Byron had just turned thirteen so he was officially a teenage juvenile
delinquent and didn't think it was "cool" to touch anybody or
let anybody touch him, even if it meant he froze to death. Byron had
tucked the blanket between him and Dad down into the cushion of the
couch to make sure he couldn't be touched.
Dad turned on the TV to try to make us forget how cold we were but all
that did was get him in trouble. There was a special news report on
Channel 12 telling how bad the weather was and Dad groaned when the guy
said, "If you think it's cold now, wait until tonight, the
temperature is expected to drop into record-low territory, possibly
reaching the negative twenties! In fact, we won't be seeing anything
above zero for the next four to five days!" He was smiling when he
said this but none of the Watson family thought it was funny. We all
looked over at Dad. He just shook his head and pulled the blanket over
Then the guy on the TV said, "Here's a little something we can use
to brighten our spirits and give us some hope for the future: The
temperature in Atlanta, Georgia is forecast to reach . . ." Dad
coughed real loud and jumped off the couch to turn the TV off but we all
heard the weatherman say, ". . . the mid-seventies!" The guy
might as well have tied Dad to a tree and said, "Ready, aim,
"Atlanta!" Momma said. "That's a hundred and fifty miles
"Wilona . . . ," Dad said.
"I knew it," Momma said. "I knew I should have listened
to Moses Henderson!"
"Who?" I asked.
Dad said, "Oh Lord, not that sorry story. You've got to let me tell
about what happened with him."
Momma said, "There's not a whole lot to tell, just a story about a
young girl who made a bad choice. But if you do tell it, make sure you
get all the facts right."
We all huddled as close as we could get because we knew Dad was going to
try to make us forget about being cold by cutting up. Me and Joey
started smiling right away, and Byron tried to look cool and bored.
"Kids," Dad said, "I almost wasn't your father. You guys
came real close to having a clown for a daddy named Hambone Henderson. .
"Daniel Watson, you stop right there. You're the one who started
that 'Hambone' nonsense. Before you started that everyone called him his
Christian name, Moses. And he was a respectable boy too, he wasn't a
clown at all."
"But the name stuck didn't it? Hambone Henderson. Me and your
granddaddy called him that because the boy had a head shaped like a
hambone, had more knots and bumps on his head than a dinosaur. So as you
guys sit here giving me these dirty looks because it's a little chilly
outside ask yourselves if you'd rather be a little cold or go through
life being known as the Hambonettes."
Me and Joey cracked up, Byron kind of chuckled and Momma put her hand
over her mouth. She did this whenever she was going to give a smile
because she had a great big gap between her front teeth. If Momma
thought something was funny, first you'd see her trying to keep her lips
together to hide the gap, then, if the smile got to be too strong, you'd
see the gap for a hot second before Momma's hand would come up to cover
it, then she'd crack up too.
Laughing only encouraged Dad to cut up more, so when he saw the whole
family thinking he was funny he really started putting on a show.
He stood up in front of the TV. "Yup, Hambone Henderson proposed to
your mother around the same time I did. Fought dirty too, told your
momma a pack of lies about me and when she didn't believe them he told
her a pack of lies about Flint."
Dad started talking Southern-style, imitating this Hambone guy.
"Wilona, I heard tell about the weather up that far north in Flint,
Mitch-again, heard it's colder than inside an icebox. Seen a movie about
it, think it was made in Flint. Movie called Nanook of the North.
Yup, do believe for sure it was made in Flint. Uh-huh, Flint,
"Folks there live in these things called igloos. According to what
I seen in this here movie most folks in Flint is Chinese. Don't believe
I seem nan one colored person in the whole dang city. You a 'Bama gal,
don't believe you'd be too happy living in no igloo. Ain't got nothing
against 'em, but don't believe you'd be too happy living 'mongst a whole
slew of Chinese folks. Don't believe you'd like the food. Only thing
them Chinese folks in that movie et was whales and seals. Don't believe
you'd like no whale meat. Don't taste a lick like chicken. Don't taste
like pork at all."
Momma pulled her hand away from her mouth. "Daniel Watson, you are
one lying man! Only thing you said that was true was that being in Flint
is like living in an igloo. I knew I should have listened to Moses.
Maybe these babies mighta been born with lumpy heads but at least
they'da had warm lumpy heads!
"You know Birmingham is a good place, and I don't mean the weather
either. The life is slower, the people are friendlier"
"Oh yeah," Dad interrupted, "they're a laugh a minute
down there. Let's see, where was that 'Coloreds Only' bathroom
"Daniel, you know what I mean, things aren't perfect but people are
more honest about the way they feel"she took her mean eyes
off Dad and put them on Byron"and folks there do know how to
respect their parents."
Byron rolled his eyes like he didn't care. All he did was tuck the
blanket farther into the couch's cushion.
Dad didn't like the direction the conversation was going so he called
the landlord for the hundredth time. The phone was still busy.
"That snake in the grass has got his phone off the hook. Well, it's
going to be too cold to stay here tonight, let me call Cydney. She just
had that new furnace put in, maybe we can spend the night there."
Aunt Cydney was kind of mean but her house was always warm so we kept
our fingers crossed that she was home.
Everyone, even Byron, cheered when Dad got Aunt Cydney and she told us
to hurry over before we froze to death.
Dad went out to try and get the Brown Bomber started. That was what we
called our car. It was a 1948 Plymouth that was dull brown and real big,
Byron said it was turd brown. Uncle Bud gave it to Dad when it was
thirteen years old and we'd had it for two years. Me and Dad took real
good care of it but some of the time it didn't like to start up in the
After five minutes Dad came back in huffing and puffing and slapping his
arms across his chest.
"Well, it was touch and go for a while, but the Great Brown One
pulled through again!" Everyone cheered, but me and Byron quit
cheering and started frowning right away. By the way Dad smiled at us we
knew what was coming next. Dad pulled two ice scrapers out of his pocket
and said, "O.K., boys, let's get out there and knock those windows
We moaned and groaned and put some more coats on and went outside to
scrape the car's windows. I could tell by the way he was pouting that
Byron was going to try and get out of doing his share of he work.
"I'm not going to do your part, Byron, you'd better do it and I'm
not playing either."
"Shut up, punk."
I went over to the Brown Bomber's passenger side and started hacking
away at the scab of ice that was all over the windows. I finished
Momma's window and took a break. Scraping ice off of windows when it's
that cold can kill you!
I didn't hear any sound coming from the other side of the car so I
yelled out, "I'm serious, Byron, I'm not doing that side too, and
I'm only going to do half the windshield, I don't care what you do to
me." The windshield on the Bomber wasn't like the new 1963 cars, it
had a big bar running down the middle of it, dividing it in half.
"Shut your stupid mouth, I got something more important to do right
I peeked around the back of the car to see what By was up to. The only
thing he'd scraped off was the outside mirror and he was bending down to
look at himself in it. He saw me and said, "You know what, square?
I must be adopted, there just ain't no way two folks as ugly as your
momma and daddy coulda give birth to someone as sharp as me!"
He was running his hands over his head like he was brushing his hair.
I said, "Forget you," and went back over to the other side of
the car to finish the back window. I had half of the ice off when I had
to stop again and catch my breath. I heard Byron mumble my name.
I said, "You think I'm stupid? It's not going to work this
time." He mumbled my name again. It sounded like his mouth was full
of something. I knew this was a trick, I knew this was going to be How
to Survive a Blizzard, Part Two.
How to Survive a Blizzard, Part One had been last night when I was
outside playing in the snow and Byron and his running buddy, Buphead,
came walking by. Buphead has officially been a juvenile delinquent even
longer than Byron.
"Say, kid," By had said, "you wanna learn somethin' that
might save your stupid life one day?"
I should have known better, but I was bored and I think maybe the cold
weather was making my brain slow, so I said, "What's that?"
"We gonna teach you how to survive a blizzard."
Byron put his hands in front of his face and said "This is the most
important thing to remember, O.K.?"
"Well, first we gotta show you what it feels like to be trapped in
a blizzard. You ready?" He whispered something to Buphead and they
I should have known that the only reason Buphead and By would want to
play with me was to do something mean.
"O.K.," By said, "first thing you gotta worry about is
Byron and Buphead each grabbed one of my arms and one of my legs and
swung me between them going, "Woo, blizzard warnings!
Blizzard warnings! Wooo! Take cover!"
Buphead counted to three and on the third swing they let me go in the
air. I landed headfirst in a snowbank.
But that was O.K. because I had on three coats, two sweaters, a T-shirt,
three pairs of pants and four socks along with a scarf, a hat and a
hood. These guys couldn't have hurt me if they'd thrown me off the
Empire State Building!'
After I climbed out of the snowbank they started laughing and so did I.
"Cool, Baby Bruh," By said, "you passed that part of the
test with a B-plus, what you think, Buphead?"
Buphead said, "Yeah, I'd give the little punk a A."
They whispered some more and started laughing again.
"O.K.," By said, "second thing you gotta learn is how to
keep your balance in a high wind. You gotta be good at this so you don't
get blowed into no polar bear dens."
They put me in between them and started making me spin round and round,
it seemed like they spun me for about half an hour. When slob started
flying out of my mouth they let me stop and I wobbled around for a while
before they pushed me back in the same snow-bank.
When everything stopped going in circles I got up and we all laughed
They whispered some more and then By said, "What you think,
Buphead? He kept his balance a good long time, I'm gonna give him a
"I ain't as hard a grader as you, I'ma give the little punk a
"O.K., Kenny now the last part of Surviving a Blizzard, you
"You passed the wind test and did real good on the balance test but
now we gotta see if you ready to graduate. You remember what we told you
was the most important part about survivin'?"
"O.K., here we go. Buphead, tell him 'bout the final exam."
Excerpted from "The Watsons Go to Birmingham--1963" by Christopher Paul Curtis. Copyright © 2000 by Christopher Paul Curtis. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.